Following Ghosts in Northern Peru

Part One
The Moyobamba Route

Unedited excerpts from the first draft of the historical travelogue about northern Peru that I am writing. See the main page for background on the book.


This is the longest way, but it offers an evident advantage in being the one of greatest traffic ... It will favor the vast zone over which it will pass. This road is the oldest of those existing between the coast and the navigable rivers, a great part of it having been opened to traffic at the early part of the colonial period ... In fact, it was the only one in use until a few years ago.

From Interoceanic Communication Across the Peruvian Andes, the Amazon River, and its Great Navigable Affluents, an official Peruvian government study published in 1900 comparing eight possible routes for a railroad to link the Pacific coast to the Amazon basin.

The English lieutenant had brought an interesting propostion. The new government in Lima knew almost nothing about many parts of its own country. The Spanish colonial rulers had understood the power of information. Few foreigners had been allowed into their colonies ... La Condamine and Humboldt were rare exceptions. Even information produced by their own people was carefully guarded lest it fall into foreign hands.

Francisco Javier Mariátegui had been Minister of Foreign Relations for just a few months, since June of 1827. His job was to forge relationships with foreign powers to bring security and progress to Peru ... something the Spanish never would have thought of ... and especially not with their age-old enemies, the British. But now the British were the best friends the newly independent republics of South America had. Thousands of them had fought in Bolívar's armies. William Miller's calvary had been crucial at the battles of Junín and Ayacucho in the liberation of Peru. Of course, the British were pursuing their own interests. But those interests coincided with Peru's.

The conquistadores had begun establishing towns in the northern interior not long after the conquest. The priests had done their part, too. But the region's towns .... Moyobamba, Chachapoyas, Yurimagas, Tarapoto ... were remote and unknown here in Lima. Some trade ... aguardiente, cotton cloth ... made it's way to the coast. But the region was rumored to be much richer. If only Lima knew what was there. Even the borders were uncertain. Gran Colombia to the north had claims on the area. And there were always the Brazilians gradually creeping up the Amazon from the east. If Lima didn't establish dominance then someone else would.

During colonial times all trade with the viceroyalty had to pass through the port of Lima to allow the crown to collect its taxes. Aside from a few exploratory voyages now and then, there had been no connection with the Amazon in Portuguese territory. But the new Brazilian government was willing to open the river for trade by foreign vessels. A trade route linking Peru's Pacific coast to the Amazon would bring development and make it easier for the government in Lima to assert authority in the territory. There had been negotiations with the British to launch a joint expedition to the region. But expeditions take time and money to arrange. The plans had fallen through.

But now Lieutenant Henry Lister Maw, Royal Navy, was proposing to make the journey on his own. No doubt the man was brave. He had been cited for his bravery in fighting the Burmese a few years before. The man spoke only a few words of Spanish. But the risks were known and if Maw disappeared in the wilds it would be of no consequence. Minister Mariátegui would give permission for the journey and prepare the necessary letters of introduction for local officials in the towns along the way. Just maybe this Maw could identify a trade route through Moyobamba to link Peru's Pacific coast to the Atlantic.

It had been almost a year since Baron Henri de Büren and his servant, Auguste, had left Switzerland in June 1852. He had traveled through the United States from Boston to New Orleans, sailed to Spanish Cuba, and ridden across Mexico to the Pacific. After a stop in Colombia's province of Panama he was now in Lima, Peru. The final adventure was to have been traveling over the Andes through Bolivia and on to Buenos Aires before journeying home. However, Bolivia and Peru were on the brink of war and Bolivia was said to be even more chaotic than usual. It would not be safe to go in that direction.

But now de Büren had met the most interesting two men. Manuel Ijurra had spent two years in the north of his country and written a book on his travels in the region. More recently he had accompanied the American Lieutenant Herndon on his official trip through central and southern Peru and then down the Huallaga River. Could there be a better expert on this South American republic?

Ijurra had formed a partnership with Count Damian Schütz to bring 13,000 German or other European colonists to the eastern Amazon region over the next six years. The Peruvian government would pay them 30 soles for each immigrant successfully settled, with an advance of 10,000 soles per year for the first three years. Ijurra had even been appointed as the new governor of the vast province of Loreto. The first settlement would be at Caballococha, on the banks of the Amazon down river from Iquitos.

The initial group of immigrants were in Lima now and would sail soon to Trujillo. There were ninety of them, mostly Germans, but a few Frenchmen, Italians, Americans, and others. From Trujillo the party would take the trade road – the Moyobamba route – over the mountains to Yurimaguas and then a river steamer to their new home. De Büren would not be settling in some retched jungle settlement. He was a baron with a valuable estate in Switzerland, after all. But he had been invited to travel with the party. And once in Iquitos he could engage a berth down the Amazon to Para and then back to Europe.

President Pardo stared out the window at the plaza below. This American priest was crazy. Oh, the priest had done the usual things that visitors do. He had seen the magnificient churches of Lima as would be expected of any man of his vocation and he had gone south to pay his homages in the old Inca capital. But the priest's next plans ...

Any other foreign priest would not have concerned him this way. But then just any other visiting foreign priest would not have been invited to his office at the Palacio del Gobierno. Father John Zahm ... Doctor Zahm ... had held numerous prominent posts in the Church in the United States. His writings on the Church and science had been recognized by the Pope himself, who had personally bestowed Zahm's doctorate. And this priest was friends with the norteamericano president, Teddy Roosevelt.

Father Zahm planned to travel from Lima to the Amazon by the Moyobamba route. In 1908! Once the Moyobamba route had been important for trade ... and the best way to journey from Lima to Iquitos. The alternative in those days was a lengthy burro ride east from Lima over the mountains .... over 5000 meters at one pass ... before descending to the jungle and some seedy river port along the Huallaga or Ucayali. After that there was a dangerous journey down river by canoe ... more than a few lives had been lost on the rapids ... through country inhabited by hostile Indians.

Those days were gone. Now the mule trails of the Moyobamba route were mostly used by barefoot peons with burros to haul platanos and aguardiente between villages. Not that he would say that in front of the Chachapoyanos or Moyobambinos in the Senate.

Steam launches had been traveling up and down the Ucayali for over half a century. Then the engineer Henry Meiggs began building his railroad over the the Andes, placing rails where the llamas walked. It had finally crested the high pass and reached La Oroya a few years ago. Father Zahm could be in Iquitos in less than two weeks and in far more comfort and safety. A two day train ride – in a private car, no less – to La Oroya. Then a four or five day journey by horseback to Puerto Bermudez to board a river steamer. Two new launches had just arrived in Iquitos from Europe and were making their maiden voyage upriver to Puerto Bermudez now. He had offered the priest exclusive use of one for his voyage down the Ucayali to Iquitos.

But no. The headstrong priest will do as he wishes. But he won't go alone as he has spoken of doing. No, I'll provide a military escort from Trujillo to Iquitos. Should anything happen to him it will not be because the government of Peru hasn't done all it could to make his journey both comfortable and safe.

Excerpt from Chapter on Molinopampa

We cross the bridge to the main paved road and turn east. After about a hundred yards Mario pulls off in front of a campo house and turns off the engine. It's pitch black except for a few dim lights coming from the house. Mario leaves the headlights on so that we can see our way down the narrow path. There is nothing fancy about the house although it is bigger than most rural houses. There is a walled adobe compound mostly covered by plastic roofing panels. On one side is the kitchen and a few other rooms. The bedrooms are above those. Mario introduces me and then heads back to his truck. He'll be back for me in an hour.

I was expecting to meet a grizzled old man but Pedro Pineda Sopla is in his mid-30s. He is married and has four children ranging in age from around two to thirteen years old. He invites me to sit at a wooden table under a bare lightbulb. His wife brings us hot barley beverage, bread, and white homemade cheese.

Pedro used to guide backpackers in the mountains here. Sometimes they would take the old Moyobamba route from Molinopampa to Rioja. Other times they would hike the mountains north of town. The last time he did it was seven years ago for an Austrian couple. They were going to Rioja but once they got up on the mountain it was much colder than he had ever experienced and began raining very heavy. He didn't think they should go on but the Austrians were used to hiking in weather like that and didn't see a problem. A few hours later they were blocked by a flooded stream where they should have had an easy crossing. The three hikers turned north and then west towards the village of Jumbilla, which is connected to the Rio Mayo valley by a rough dirt road. At a high point in the mountains the Austrians managed to get a signal on their cellphone and arranged for a taxi to come from Rioja to pick them up in Jumbilla. Pedro walked back to Molinopampa.

Pedro remembers all the old landmarks on this stretch of the old trail. At Cedro Uscho, not far from where the old telegraph office was, there is a big old cedar tree with huge roots and a massive overhanging canopy. It could shelter twenty people and no rain would get in. Then there was Ventanilla, Ramos Huayca, and Bagazan. Pucatambo is now named Vista Alegre. Sometimes he would take backpackers to Lake Cochaconga, the high mountain lake near Piscahuanuma, the so-called place where the birds die. His eyes brighten as he reminisces about his favorite place, the Punta de la Ventana. There you are walking up a not-too-steep slope and suddenly you are at the top and it's like all of San Martin department is laid out in front of you.

Pedro says that it's possible to walk from Molinopampa to Rioja in two days, with just one night on the mountain, if you don't stop to do things like bird-watching. I express surprise; the old arrieros needed around five days. He laughs. Mules will just slow you down. That makes sense, but I think he is only partly right. People today are better-fed and healthier than they were a century ago and so may need fewer rest stops. Also, 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.

Pedro smiles. It's very peaceful walking the old trails over the mountains to Rioja. He always enjoyed going there but he has no reason to do so now. No backpackers have come through since the Austrians. Pedro supports his family working whatever jobs he can find, usually either in agriculture or construction. He also has a little land. Life here is tranquil and he is an incredibly happy man.

Excerpts from Chapter on Celendín

(George Dyott was a famous early British aviator and officer in the Royal Air Force during World War I. In 1918 he traveled from Trujillo to Yurimaguas and then back to the coast via a more northerly route. He was on assignment from the British and Peruvian governments to locate sites for future airstrips.)

"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 was ready to leave Cajamarca at six but the arriero and his mules were nowhere to be seen. The teenager 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 uneventufl day they arrived at Polloc, a few miles before Encañada, and found lodging with a Señor Laredo. As to the neighboring town's reputation, Laredo confirmed that the town was full of thieves and murderers. But, Dyott with his rifle had nothing to worry about; 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."

The stories sounded very much exagerrated to Dyott, but clearly frightened his teenage guide. Overnight the boy quietly started back to Cajamarca with his mule . . . and a few of Dyott's belongings. Dyott thought he would need to return to Cajamarca but Señor Laredo knew a peasant who was going to Celendín that day and would serve as a guide for a few soles.

The twelve hour trip was made in quiet as his guide couldn't talk. The man's face was swollen and wrapped in rags. Cold wind and rain made the trip 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.

Just after dark they arrived in Celendín 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 give his mules a full day of rest and spend two days in the town, but he wrote little about Celendín other than that he found the people to be clean and intelligent. And, as there was no town full of bandits on the next stretch of road, he quickly found several arrieros willing to take him on to Chachapoyas. It was simply a matter of choosing one and settling on a price for the trip.

The next morning I go looking for where the cars leave for the nearby town of Sucre. The day before I had gone to the municipal building in hopes that someone might know something about Celenín's history. All I got was a recommendation to visit a little private museum in Sucre. I didn't know about the museum but I already had plans to visit the nearby town. The modern highway goes to the north and bypasses Sucre and neighboring Jose Galvez, but the Moyobamba route passed through them. Here was another place where I could travel part of the original route.

After some questioning and round-about directions I finally locate where cars leave for Sucre. The next in line is a battered Toyota station wagon. The windshield has several cracks and a chunk of the dashboard is missing. Later I saw that the speedometer didn't work but the gas gauge appeared to. There is a large bundle of alfalfa in the back.

A middle-aged man who appears to be, well, at least not a peasant is sitting in the front seat. I talk to him a few minutes and tell him 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. I sit on one side of the back seat. An ancient peasant is on the other. His hands are as wrinkled and knarled as is his face and he smells lightly of urine. I hope to stay on the opposite side, but I'm not so lucky. A campesino couple come and the driver has them both get in my side and push me up against the ancient one. 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.

With a carload of paying passengers, the driver turns the key and the old Toyota grudgingly comes to life. We wind our way through the narrow streets to the paved Cajamarca highway that I had come in on the day before for a few minutes until the driver turns off onto a dirt road just outside of town. For a mile or two the lane runs through the countryside with 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.

Excerpt from Chapter on Moyobamba

(Joseph Beal Steere was a professor at the University of Michigan who traveled up the Amazon and over the Moyobamba Route in 1872-73.)

Joseph Steere spent three weeks in Moyobamba in 1872 and came away with insights on everything from hat-making to the role of women to barefeet.

Of the hats, he found that ordinary ones took four or five days to make and sold for about one dollar while the finest brought very high prices. "The braiding is done by both sexes, and in the morning and evening one can see persons seated at almost any door, on the ground or on low stools, engaged in it." Finished hats were sold to hat traders at a nightly market and once or twice a week a train of Indian cargueros headed east towards Balsapuerto carrying huge stacks of hats on their backs. From Balsapuerto the hats were taken to Yurimaguas by canoe and then down the Amazon by steamer.

Moyobamba was a major trading center and over a dozen Frenchmen, Germans, and Italians were living in town. Steere found a room with one of the Italians, Señor Da Sousá, who one evening took him to a dance that had started the previous day. Some guests were already sleeping in the corner.

The mouldy smell of the room promised anything but a pleasant time, but with plenty of chicha and aguardiente, they made the best of it and the band, composed of a fiddle and banjo, and a large dry goods box, struck up, while the woman sang in a high shrill key some love song, and two barefooted couples made the dust fly. . . . As in all the dancing I have seen in Peru, the handkerchief is a most necessary article with both parties, and upon its proper use depends much of the grace of the dancer. With it the young man beckons on his partner and now floats it around her head as they whirl about each other and now stoops as if he would sweep the dust from her bare feet, she sometimes using her handkerchief as a shield to keep off his advances, and sometimes urging him on to greater endeavors. . . . After withstanding several most pressing invitations from some of the young ladies present to dance we made our way into the fresh air, leaving them at their dusty sport.

The young ladies didn't just ask the shy visiting gringo to dance; they considered it "their right and duty to choose their partners for the dance from the young men assembled." The women of Moyobamba were not wallflowers demurely protecting their purity. Marriage wasn't common and fathers had no legal responsibility to support their children. Thus the men could often get away with doing little and the women worked the hardest. "I often saw women carrying heavy loads of plantains upon their heads . . . and heavy jars of water from the river, nearly a mile off. Woman's life is none of the happiest even in Moyobamba where free love is as settled a fact as the most enthusiastic could wish."

The barefoot dancers were undoubtedly poor, but not just the poor went shoeless according to Steere. "There are no boot stores nor shoemakers in Moyobamba. Women with silk dresses and gold ornaments go to church and shopping about the streets barefooted, and young men with smart broadcloth jackets and pants, and often with a cane, strut about in the same primitive style." Just six years before the Count de Gabriac had written that in this town of hat makers the mayor was a cobbler. Maybe the one man just couldn't meet the demand for shoes?

Like many who came after him, Steere saw the beauty and the bounty of Moyobamba and the surrounding Rio Mayo valley.

It would likely be difficult to find a better climate in the world; there are no extremes in heat or cold; the heavy rains of the Amazon are moderated, and much lessened in their passage of the mountains; the lands are rich and wherever trees are planted they are loaded with the finest of oranges and lemons and plantains. A little cultivation furnishes sufficient food and what now and then pays for the necessary clothing, the rest of the time being given up to enjoyment.

The region was so lush that Steere expected that most of the foreigners he had met would stay there until they died. In his view, Moyobamba would be a perfect place to live if only it were connected to the coast and to Yurimaguas by railroad. Isolation was the region's weakness.

But with all, there is little that would lead a thinking man to stop here unless to make money to spend elsewhere. It is months either way before news of the world reaches it. A newspaper is almost unknown and there is not likely a library of a hundred books in the whole place. . . . It is the paradise of those who know no better food than yucas and plantains, and no better drink than chicha and aquardiente, and whose greatest pleasure is in dancing all night to the music made by drumming on a dry-goods box, but for those of more refined taste everything must be imported at enormous cost.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
- Walt Whitman