On the Backs of Beasts

The landscape surrounding the ancient city consisted of rugged, granite mountains buttressed with scree piled down to two winding river bottoms. We were introduced to these steep slopes rather directly when we took up an offer of a worldly looking guy named Willy who worked at our hotel. He explained he was employed in the kitchen half days but his real passion was being a trail guide to visitors who wished to enjoy the many impressive local ruins. The catch for us was that these day trips were done on horseback. We, the inhabitants of the urban lands on the shores of lake Ontario, occasionally see horses but usually only when in the competent care of an equestrian professional. Cowboy, wrangler or circus performer, not civil servant or befuddled high school teacher. The last time I had sat atop a domestic animal of a similar size was on a three day camel safari in the desert of Rajasthan some 20 years earlier. It hadn’t all gone well for me. I had memories of a surly dromedary with a gleam of smouldering resentment in his eyes. Further remembering how the ungainly gait of the fiend had abused my backside to the point of crouched bowleggedness hours after disembarking from the humped steed did not make me feel optimistic about a sojourn atop a much faster but potentially equally strong minded beast.

Nonetheless, the next day we met up with a happy looking Willy who was sporting a long ponytail, a small backpack and a welcoming smile. He explained to us that the type of horses we were going to ride were gentle trail experts, diminutive relative to the types associated with rodeos or racing. He further elaborated the horses were highly accustomed to the loud vehicle traffic that sometimes shared parts of the the trails and that they were so accustomed to the route that they required very little direction from their human cargo. I was glad to receive this news as my horse handling skills were just now a wee bit rusty as they had been honed some thirty five years earlier at summer camp during an hour long circuit around a barnyard.

We arrived at the take off point, at the edge of town where Willy’s associates had assembled our five mounts. After an introduction to essential riding tips such as “hold on tight and don’t worry the horses know where they are going” off we clomped down the cobbled road. So far so good. We were all atop of our trusty steeds feeling good about swaying and progressing out of town in the bright sunshine.

Horses have their own personalities, wants and desires. This we found out while setting a leisurely pace down a trail beside the sluggish Patekancha river toward a rising trail mid valley. Willy was out front, leading our small train of novice riders. Our horses knew this was their chance to test their freedom and the resolve of their timid passengers. They began to prodigiously munch at the surrounding vegetation. Every few meters they would stop, graze and pretend we didn’t exist. Willy would eventually spot their rebellious shenanigans and shout out an inspiring command in Spanish that would immediately spur them to motion. During all this we attempted to reason with their mule like tendencies. I found myself muttering things such as “excuse me my fine, powerful friend, would you mind moving along so I don’t become abandoned in this unknown part of the world?” This measured response quickly escalated to “get going flea bag!” and then, a poke in the ribs with heels and a terse “vamos!”. Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle…the damn thing actually responded. Alas, some control…the day wouldn’t be a series of micro battles with a vegetarian renegade after all. What the day turned out to be was actually much more alarming.

We began to realize things were changing after we started ascending the slopes on relatively gentle switch backed gravel roadways. The fun really began when these engineered stretches were left in favour of narrow foot paths. As we rose in elevation the width and quality of the trail decreased. Thankfully before any real panic set in we arrived at our destination about 1200m up from the valley bottom to the wonderfully empty and unmanaged pre-Inkan ruins of Pumamarka. We left the horses to graze near by and sat down in a terraced meadow to enjoy a packed lunch. Liking the feeling of having two feet on the ground, Gabe struck up a quick round of hacky-sac with Willie who had a knack for this mini game of keep-ups. After our modest sustenance we walked up in a misty rain to the 800 year old site. The view was splendid and it was immensely enjoyable to wander the small ruins giving consideration to how life might have been for the people who worked the volcanic stone into storage rooms, temple circles and tall residences. Willie showed us the sacred area of the site, an arc of hip high stones set in precise order, orientated to the setting sun. He produced small samples of sweetly perfumed sandalwood for each of us and invited us to express a small gesture of appreciation for our place in the natural order of things. We rotated to each of the cardinal directions and took some moments to wonder at the largeness of the world and the splendour of all wild things within it. On our way down from the ruins he suggested we place our small wooden tokens in chinks of the stonework as a marker of our visit and appreciation of the site. The feeling this gesture evoked was peaceful contentment.

The ride back down the mountain quickly dissipated this at-one-with-the-world sentiment replacing it with “this trail is trying to kill me”. Having never been aboard a large descending mammal on a track no wider than its swaying hips, littered with small boulders and shifty looking gravel, I was surprised at the how viscerally my adrenal system responded to the very real possibility of free falling hundreds of meters into the gorge below. Ok not really surprised but dear me it was a genuinely unpleasant sensation! Relying on the sound footing of an animal that earlier in the day had expressed, at best apathy and at times disdain for me, was immensely disempowering and highly unnerving. There were times in the trail where I was forced to peer down the body of my steeply inclined horse, past its long neck and see the tiny trail ahead darting around a quick bend with only the vastness of the open valley visually laid out ahead. Dropping off these narrowest of ledges and into the yonder void seemed an inglorious way to exit this world though I am sure the fall would have afforded a splendid view of the jagged rocks below just before my skull reached them. We had to work at pushing these thoughts aside to avoid sheer panic and tried to become more serene and appreciative of how wonderful the scenery in all directions actually was. Lovey, terraced slopes, a circuitous water course below, new and varied vegetation clinging to rocky ledges and outcroppings provided a luxurious menu of visual delights. That all worked until Carolyn’s horse decided it really didn’t like crossing creeks and became somewhat unhinged by the site of a cardboard box. She discovered the animal’s dislike for the flapping litter the hard way. The very hard way. Her horse had just been energetically encouraged by Willy to step across a small stream which the beast had refused to navigate for some unknown fear, when in its peripheral vision it caught site of a menacing box flap. Clearly thinking the item was intent on mayhem the horse did the logical thing by rearing and pivoting back to the formerly intimidating stream only to apply hoved brakes for fear of the serpentine water. The damned thing threw her off. The four of us watched helplessly as she unceremoniously arrived to the earth with an unpleasant sounding thud. With a bruised backside, a thumping heart and unwarranted embarrassment, she decided it might be better to lead her horse down the last, steep part of the slope. The horse had broken the cardinal rule of riding….don’t betray trust. The thought of the thing freaking out at the appearance of some new arbitrary item such as an aggressive looking snail or cooing dove got the better of her and she wisely did not wait for the horse to toss her off a cliff.

With a quickly setting sun on distant peaks we raggedly made the short jaunt back to town feeling exhilarated and proud about our outing. We had survived to tell our tale and with mixed feelings relinquished the reigns of our animal companions and again marvelled at how beautiful the Peruvian landscapes were and how good it felt to bear witness to its splendour. Plus our butts ached and we all needed a bracing beverage.

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