Following Ghosts in Northern Peru is the story of the long-forgotten Moyobamba Route, once the main connection between Peru's Pacific coast and the Amazon River. Among the adventurers who rode the old mule trails in the 19th and early 20th century were a Royal Navy lieutenant, a Swiss nobleman, a French reporter, an American professor, and a famous early British aviator. This volume weaves together stories from these and other historic travelers, characters from Peruvian history, and my own adventures as I journeyed in the travelers' ghostly footsteps across northern Peru in 2017.
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A Few Excerpts
From The Mountain Village
We cross the bridge to the main road and turn east for about a hundred yards until Mario pulls off to park in front of a campo house. I can barely see as I step down from the truck. Everything is pitch black except for a few lights coming from the house. We walk down a dirt path and pass through a doorway into the walled adobe compound. The house is no different than most rural houses, other than maybe being a bit bigger than usual. Most of the compound is covered by plastic roofing panels and the living quarters are along one side. There is a kitchen and a few other rooms on the first floor and, I assume, bedrooms above those.
I was expecting to meet a grizzled old man who would tell me about the trail in his long ago youth, but Pedro Pineda Sopla is in his mid-30s. He is married and has four children ranging from around two to about thirteen years old. Pedro invites me to sit at a wooden table under a bare light bulb and a few minutes later his wife brings us hot barley beverage, bread, and white homemade cheese.
Pedro tells me that he used to guide backpackers in the mountains here. Sometimes they would take the old Moyobamba Route to Rioja and other times they would hike the mountains north of Molinopampa. The last time he did it was for an Austrian couple seven years ago. They set out on the old trail towards Rioja but once they got up on the mountain, it was much colder than Pedro had ever experienced there and began raining very heavily. He didn't think they should go on, but the Austrians were used to hiking in weather like this and didn't see why there was a problem. Then a few hours later they came to a usually tiny stream that was too swollen to cross. They first turned north and then west, away from the trail, until they finally came to the village of Jumbilla, which is connected by a rough dirt road to the Mayo valley. The Austrians managed to get a weak cell phone signal at a high spot on the mountainside and arranged for a car to come from Rioja to get them. Pedro walked back to Molinopampa.
Pedro knows all the old landmarks of the route. Sometimes he would take backpackers to Lake Cochaconga, the high mountain lake near Piscahuanuma. Uscho is now known as Cedro Uscho after a tree that has grown up over the years. Its huge roots and massive overhanging canopy could shelter twenty people and no rain would get in. Then there was Ventilla, Ramos Huayca, and Bagazán. The little village that Pucatambo became is now named Vista Alegre. Beyond that was his favorite place, Punta de la Ventana. He looks off wistfully. There you are, walking up a not-too-steep slope and suddenly you come to the top and it's like all of San Martín department is laid out in front of you.
If you don't stop to do things like bird-watching, Pedro says, it's possible to walk from Molinopampa to Rioja in two days, with just one night on the mountain. I express surprise; the old arrieros needed around five days. He laughs. Mules will just slow you down. That makes sense, but I think there are other things involved, too. People today are better-fed, healthier, and taller. Pedro is almost as tall as I am, which would have been very tall in this region a century ago. Taller people have longer strides and can travel the same distance more quickly.
That distant look comes to Pedro's eyes again as he reflects that it was always very peaceful walking the old trail over the mountain to Rioja. He always loved doing it, but he has no reason to do so on his own and no backpackers have come through since the Austrians. Today he supports his family doing whatever jobs he can find, usually either in agriculture or construction. He also has a little land. His one other interest is cock-fighting and he proudly shows me a cage of roosters he is raising in the back of the compound. He goes to fights about once a month. Overall, life here is tranquil and Pedro is an incredibly happy man.
From The Bishop's Town
On looking back, I often wonder how it was I did not murder, out of sheer desperation at their stupidity, every arriero or muchacho that accompanied me in my travels. - George Dyott
George Dyott was ready to leave Cajamarca at six but the teenage arriero and his mules were nowhere to be seen. The youngster arrived three hours later and, without apology, explained that his mother had thought he needed more sleep before starting such a long journey. After an uneventful day they arrived at Polloc and found lodging with the hacienda owner, a Señor Laredo. Like Father Zahm, George Dyott had been warned about the village of Encañada, which lay a short ways north of the trail they would travel the next day. When asked about it, Laredo confirmed that the town was full of thieves and murderers but that Dyott would have nothing to worry about as long as he carried his rifle in plain view. The thieves preferred to stop "defenceless pedestrians rather than armed men on horseback. [Laredo] added that he had personally killed several, and always carried a rifle across his saddle-bow for fear of attack."
Dyott still thought that the stories about Encañada sounded very exaggerated, but they clearly frightened his teenage guide. Overnight the boy snuck away, taking his mule and a few of Dyott's belongings with him back to Cajamarca. Discovering what had happened the next morning, the Englishman thought he would have to return to Cajamarca to find another arriero, but Señor Laredo knew a peasant who was going to Celendín that day. The peasant would served as a guide for a few soles.
The man was able to serve as a guide but not as a companion as his face was swollen and wrapped in rags so that he couldn't talk. Cold wind and rain made the silent trip even more unpleasant. "Much has been written about the atmosphere of loneliness and despair which broods over these deserted Andean uplands, but words can never describe the true feeling of utter desolation which prevails." The only brightness was in the hundreds of low-to-the-ground daisy-like flowers along a few stretches of the trail.
It was just after dark when they arrived in Celendín twelve hours later and found their way to the house of Señor Díaz Bourga, whom Dyott had a letter of introduction for. (This was probably Tomás Díaz Burga, who had served as a deputy in Congress from Celendín in the 1890s.) Dyott decided to spend two days in Celendín so as to give his mules a full day of rest, but he wrote little about the town other than to say that he found the people to be clean and intelligent. And, as there wasn't a village full of bandits on the next stretch of road, he quickly found several arrieros willing to take him on to Chachapoyas. It was simply of choosing one and settling on a price for the trip.
From The Bishop's Town
The next morning when I get to the vacant lot where colectivos leave for Sucre, the next car in line is a battered Toyota station wagon. The seats are torn, the windshield has several cracks, and a chunk of the dashboard is missing. Later I see that the speedometer doesn't work although the gas gauge appears to. There is a large bundle of alfalfa in the back compartment.
A middle-aged man who appears to be, well, at least not a peasant, is sitting in the front seat, so I take a place in the back. Opposite me is an ancient peasant whose hands are as wrinkled and gnarled as his face. He smells slightly of urine. I strike up a conversation with the man in front and tell him that I'm planning to visit the museum. He is from Sucre and knows of it. He tells me that Celendín is growing because of money from the mine but none of it goes to places like Sucre. Meanwhile a campesino couple fill up the rest of the back compartment with more alfalfa. I had hoped to stay by the window opposite from the pee-stained peasant, but the driver directs the couple to get in my side and push me up against the old man. It's a tight squeeze but fortunately everyone here is thin. A teenager gets in the front seat, pushing the non-peasant to the middle. The rules of first-come best-seats apparently don't apply here.
With a carload of paying passengers, the driver turns the key and the old Toyota grudgingly comes to life. He meanders through the narrow streets and then onto the paved highway for a few minutes before turning off at a dirt road just outside of town. The old mule trail has been widened enough so that when two cars meet they can move over onto the berm and pass one another, but this is the original Moyobamba Route. We drive through a countryside of houses scattered here and there amidst fields with cows, lots of cows. The road is rough and unpaved but the driver pushes the car, which is probably why it is so battered.
From The Quiet Place
Following the same path as Maw and de Büren, the priest and his escort rode up the right bank of the river for a short distance and then turned to follow a small stream up the mountain. Twelve hours after leaving Balsas they arrived at Tambo Viejo, which "is nothing more than a shed where travelers may find shelter from the rain. There is not a single human habitation within miles of it where provisions can be procured." There may not have been anyone living nearby but a large party that included women and children had been traveling not far behind and soon the little clearing was filled with the sounds of children playing and the aromas of foods being prepared over open fires.
It was interesting that evening to watch the cooks while engaged in preparing the evening repast for the various parties that were congregated in this spot. Most of them were satisfied with a dish of chupe and some fruit. The piece de resistance of my dinner was a rasher of Chicago bacon, garnished with fried potatoes. This, with some of the good things still left in Señora L---'s hamper, made a feast fit for a king.
There may not have been anywhere nearby to procure provisions, but the priest had been well provided for.
Dinner over, the young private in the priest's escort climbed a nearby high rock overlooking the tambo and pulled out his quena. For the next hour his flute filled the moonlit clearing with melancholy music as everyone prepared for their night's rest. Father Zahm invited the captain of his escort to share his tent for the night. The other men of both parties would be sleeping under the stars as there was only enough room in the tambo for the women and children. Fortunately for the men on the open ground it did not rain although the temperature dipped to not much above freezing. Father Zahm remarked "It was then that I learned the value of the snug sleeping bag that belonged to my camping outfit, for I was as comfortable as if I had been in a German feather bed."