I've known the writer and explorer Benedict Allen for some years, but never travelled with him. Now the BBC has commissioned us to undertake an adventurous journey together: slipping off the side of the Andes towards the Amazon to see Espíritu Pampa, the very last city of the Incas, which they built at the lowest level of the cloud forest, down almost in the jungle. It is still one of the last ruins left in Peru best reached by mule.
We picked Washington almost immediately as our personal mule. The other mules were less attentive, less engaged somehow with their surroundings. Washington, we decided, had a quiet focus, with his ears pricked – and an attractive colouring, a lighter, more variegated brown than the others.
Andrés, our newly contracted muleteer, had loaded up some two dozen eggs in a cardboard pack, which balanced precariously on top of one of the mules. This was a “canary in the mine” technique – if the eggs survived then presumably nothing else would have been crushed – but was worth it for the prospect of an egg at breakfast.
Many years ago, I fell in love with the Peruvian cloud forest and it is an affair that has grown more passionate over the years. People often forget Machu Picchu is a Unesco World Heritage site, both for culture and for natural history, one of the few places in the world to have both designations. The cloud forest – what the Peruvians, in a lovely phrase, call la ceja de selva, “the eyebrow of the jungle” – is much lighter in coverage than the rain forest below, allowing orchids and wild flowers to grow more freely. The light-grey Spanish moss that hangs everywhere veils the light and makes it translucent – and allows the bright red bromeliads to stand out from the trees as sharply as carnations in a buttonhole.
This time, I was not only drinking in the visual spectacle of the cloud forest – I was hearing it with fresh ears. Making a radio programme completely transforms the way you listen to the world because background noise is so amplified, particularly if at certain frequencies, the noise of the streams that we pass as they approach is ramped up: the fresh sound of running water was intoxicating in the heat as it swung towards me.
I could also hear Washington's whinnying and small murmurs of distress or approval more clearly. He was a vocal mule, given to making his feelings felt. It fast became apparent that he was not impressed by the traces of Inca roads we come across, preferring the mud alongside. A hearty eater who often stopped for wayside snacks, his digestion was far from perfect and travelling downwind could be problematic. I suspected the sound editor would have to remove a great many background mule farts.
That night, once we set up the tents and over the fine combination of soup washed down with vodka, the conversation flowed.
“I did try camel once,” Benedict mused, as we sat by the light of our head torches. “It was tough. Very tough.”
We had been talking about the great American explorer Hiram Bingham and how he had equipped his expeditions with a hamper worthy of Fortnum & Mason: each unit food box contained sliced bacon, tinned corned beef, roast beef, chicken, crushed oats, milk, cheese, salmon, coffee, sausages and kippers. Modern expeditions pride themselves, like Benedict, on a lean regime of more available resources.
It was Bingham who had travelled down this way first in 1911 when looking for Espíritu Pampa, having already found Machu Picchu. While he discovered part of the ruins, he failed to identify them properly, for complicated reasons. So it fell to the American explorer Gene Savoy to make a fuller disclosure of the site in 1964, and, more lately, my friend Vincent Lee, an architect by training, who had made immaculate maps of even more of the place.
What constantly surprised me was how recently this had all happened. If you looked to other parts of the world with great early civilisations – ancient Egypt, China, even the Maya in Mesoamerica – most of their ruins had been identified by the 19th century. It was only in Peru, perhaps because it was so distant from archaeologists in their universities, that so many discoveries had been made in the 20th century and were still continuing now.
“It's one of the reasons I wanted to come here with you,” said Benedict. “What I find so fascinating about this part of the world – your part of the world really, Hugh – is that it's like living in the 19th century as an explorer. Which is what makes it such an exciting place. I mean, I've obviously been to the Arctic with my dog team, crossed the Gobi desert, crossed the Amazon basin, but in all those places you sort of get the feeling that exploration is coming to an end, or for that matter has come to an end. Here, you're in this amazing position where you can still find cities or at least ruins.”
What has helped – or rather hindered – such late exploration is the sheer extent of the dense cloud forest, extending for hundreds of miles through the mountainous terrain of what was once the Inca empire. You can see how easy it is for ruins to get lost. The next great breakthrough will come as satellite and lidar techniques increase to the point where large-scale aerial surveillance becomes practical…
Next morning I went to see Washington on my own to have a private chat. He was in a little bog that he clearly liked and was looking particularly sweet, with his ears twitching, happy after a good night of grazing. I felt protective towards him, given that Benedict the previous night had talked of eating camel – and was well-known for having been forced to eat his dog on his first expedition through the Amazon.
I leant in close so I could whisper. “Washington, I just want to say that whatever happens, and however low supplies get from landslides or anything else, I won't let Benedict eat you.”
There was a pause as Washington contemplated this. I was reassured – and touched – by his quiet, thoughtful response. I felt he was telling me that whatever happened, he wouldn't let Benedict eat me either.
I found Benedict fussing over the coffee in the field tent. Along with making sure we had enough sugar, one of Benedict's constant preoccupations was making the coffee as good as it could possibly be. He had even brought out ground coffee from England.
We needed a good breakfast. Two days of hard slog lay ahead to get down the Pampaconas River, skirting any landslides that might have left problems. I was a little concerned about how I would perform. I had taken this route before and knew that if there was mud and landslides to contend with, it could be hard work. My sons had spoken harshly to me before I left. “Ah yes, Benedict Allen. A real explorer.” They had met him when he had talked at the Royal Geographical Society and reminded me this was a man who had been pursued down the Amazon on a canoe by natives with poisoned arrows; who had crossed the Gobi Desert and undergone torturous initiation ceremonies in Papua New Guinea; who was, clearly, hard.
Whereas, while I might have taken expeditions to a lot of places, I always needed a hot bath afterwards. Benedict probably just took a cold shower. Would I, they wondered loyally, he able to keep up with Benedict as he strode across Peru?
I reminded them that I could always ride the mule. “Perhaps,” said one of them. “But what if the mule doesn't want to be ridden?”
I had learned early on during this trip that Benedict was a great worrier – the preoccupation with sugar supplies had been one of many – and as he now reminisced about past journeys, I realised that had become one of his strategies for survival. When you are crossing the Gobi desert, a happy-go-lucky attitude could lead to disaster. Far better to be constantly anxious about whether you are doing enough miles with your camels and will get out of the place before winter sets in and the temperature plummets.
Andrés, our muleteer, had a shaggy mongrel dog called el Loco, “the mad one” – useful to protect us from the attentions of the aggressive dogs we came across, as rabies is endemic across the Andes. Benedict recalled he was often nicknamed Benedicto el Loco by the Indians he met in the Amazon, so felt affinity for the dog – as he did with many animals.
At one point he started to tell me why he sometimes felt like a camel. “I've got long legs, knobbly knees and I've got the stride of a camel.” He demonstrated. Washington looked unimpressed. I nodded.
After two days of walking, we reached the small settlement of Concevidayoc. It was surrounded by coffee plants, just as when Bingham arrived 100 years ago – although the locals told me that, like so many others in Peru, they had been hit by the roya amarilla or “yellow blight”, which covers the leaves in blotches and lowers production, unless you can afford expensive copper fungicides to control it.
We arrived on Saturday and the next morning, Sunday, some teachers arrived to start opening up the primary school for the week ahead. They challenged us to a football match. There was much joking about Benedict's height – “¡El Peter Crouchie!” one said, as the Premier League is well followed in Peru – but sadly Benedict had never played, so I soon realised that much would fall on me. I was wearing heavy walking boots. The teachers in their trainers whisked round us with enviable silky Brazilian skills – one wore a Brazil strip to emphasize the point – so England, in an all too familiar story, were soon trailing to the opposition…
Washington watched despondently from the sidelines. Like many a travelling fan, his only reward after a long journey was to see his team get beaten: Peru 8 – England 6.
A mile or so beyond the hamlet, we came to a piedra cansada, as they were sometimes called: a “tired stone”, a boulder that had been carved for Espíritu Pampa but never quite made it, so had been abandoned on the path. “I feel a bit like that myself,” said Benedict, although any fatigue (and to be fair, I had been riding while he walked) fell away from him as we entered the plaza of the ruins we had come so far to see.
When I first came here, the ruins of Espíritu Pampa were almost completely overgrown; but the Peruvian government has instigated an ambitious programme of restoration, not so much for visitors – there were only 20 names for the previous year in the guardian's book – but as a political statement. For this, proclaimed a proud billboard near the entrance, was La Ultima Bastión De La Resistencia Incaica, “The Last Bastion Of Inca Resistance”.
It was a good moment. The sun was shining and, while normally this made little difference when we walked under trees, it meant we emerged from the dense shade into a plaza lit up by equatorial sun, as if under the arc lights of a football stadium.
Only the central area of the city had been restored (puesto en valor, “put into value”) and staircases led off into the jungle to other parts of the large complex, which were still overgrown and concealed. This was almost certainly due to the cost of clearance, but I liked it anyway when a site was not too cleaned up and Disneyfied.
Quite often I found a melancholy descending on me, and indeed anger, when I visited these great Inca monuments: for while, of course, they were testimony to their extraordinary ability to build so elegantly out of the most savage of landscapes, there was also an elegiac quality. I found it impossible to forget that the Inca civilisation had been snuffed out in just a few years at the height of its powers. They had just a century to create some of the grandest architecture of the Americas. What would they have created if they had been left in peace for the natural lifetime of a civilisation?
And this particular site had a further melancholy attached. When the Spaniards found the city abandoned, they burned it, as we know from contemporary chroniclers and from archaeologists who have found the charred layers of ash. The Inca emperor, Tupac Amaru, decided to escape even further into the jungle and seek refuge with his allies among the Indian tribes, thinking that surely the Spanish would never dare to penetrate so far into the Amazon.
He reckoned without the young captain, Martín de Loyola. While most of the colonial forces from Cusco did indeed rest on their laurels and booty from Espíritu Pampa, Loyola pressed on into the jungle with a few hand-picked men, travelling by raft and by foot.
They were helped by the fact that the emperor's young wife was pregnant and so the couple's progress was slow. Although not so slow as it might seem: they managed to travel some 150 miles, a distance Benedict thought extraordinary given the terrain. The story goes that when the two came to a difficult river, she asked to camp and rest the night before crossing and so the Spaniards caught up.
Martín de Loyola was at first courteous to the emperor. He offered him safe passage back to Cusco, and that, if Tupac Amaru agreed to live in peace under the Spanish crown, he could live on an old family estate in the Sacred Valley. And the emperor believed him.
A few days later, we were back in the old capital, Cusco. The central square was full of dancers preparing for the forthcoming Andean festival of Qoyllurit'i, which Benedict and I planned to attend. Although the square was full of music and high spirits, it was hard, given our recent experiences, not to recall an earlier date in 1572 when Tupac Amaru was brought into the square on an old mule. Despite the earlier promises made to him, he was executed on the orders of the Spanish viceroy, Viscount Toledo, in front of a despairing crowd who gave a great sigh at the moment of his death.
It was a cruel and brutal betrayal, which appalled the more liberal Spanish churchmen of the day. But if the viceroy thought that by doing so he had forever snuffed out the embers of Inca rebellion, he was wrong.
Like seeds dispersed in the forest, which may germinate many generations later, in the late 18th century a descendant of the last Inca emperors raised their banner again. His name was José Gabriel Condorcanqui and he had been working as a prosperous muleteer near Cusco, a job that meant that he travelled widely enough to see the hardships his people were enduring.
Taking the name Tupac Amaru II in honour of his forebear, he soon had the Peruvian highlands in uproar. The rebellion spread like wildfire. Even though it was crushed by the Spaniards with extreme brutality, and he too was executed in this same Cusco square, by the 19th century the wave of the independence movement was impossible to suppress and Peru, the centre of Spanish operations in South America and the seat of the viceroy, became a sovereign nation once more.
Now Peru proudly defines itself by its pre-Columbian past. Presidents are inaugurated at Machu Picchu. The statues of Pizarro and other conquistadors have been removed from town squares. Quechua is taught in primary schools. The destruction of Espíritu Pampa and execution of Tupac Amaru may have signalled the end of the historical Inca Empire, but in many ways the Quechua nation has risen again. µ
The final episode of 'Two Men and a Mule' is this Friday at 11am on BBC Radio 4
Hugh Thomson's whole account of the journey is available as a Kindle Single book, “Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas” (£1.99)
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