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The Caverns of Quiocta

25 November 2010

AMAZONES, PERU–It was Thanksgiving Day, our first Thanksgiving together, and our last day in Chachapoyas. We had half-jokingly planned to celebrate the date with a feast of roast guinea pig and pisco sours but if we were going to see more Chachapoyan archeological sites we had to maximize our time. We needed to begin moving west, out of the Andes and into the Sechura Desert, on our way to visit Bogart at the end of the road in the isolated pirate town of Paita.

I wanted to see the Sarcophogi of Karajia and so we joined a group going there along with some other site. I don’t remember what we thought the other site was but were surprised when we stopped in a small town to pre-order our lunches and were told to pick out gum boots in our size for the upcoming trip into a sacred cave.

“Cave?” I asked Kristina, “Did you know anything about a cave?”

“No,” she replied with a bemused shrug, “I thought we were going to a museum or something, but a cave sounds interesting…”

Getting my Hiram Bingham on at the entrance to the Caverns of Quiocta.

We were off to a destination neither of us had expected. I wasn’t surprised that I was confused but in this case neither of us had picked up on any spelunking in our futures. Kristina speaks little Spanish but, nonetheless, often pays better attention than I do. We had worked out an informal agreement as to mission duties. It worked well. Roughly speaking, I handled the cash, the translation and the tactical movement from place to place, haggling with cabbies and shepherding us and our baggage from transport to transport. Kristina, for the most part, dealt with any bureaucracy, with airplane tickets and websites, credit cards, maps and most of the overall strategic plan.

Stalagmite deep inside the Cavern of Quiocta.

So caving it would be. After descending from Chachapoyas to the valley floor we had been climbing continually over a series of mountain roads. These happened in stages, so I almost forgot the early ones. We would climb one set of typically narrow, shoulderless switchbacks until we were in some fold or plateau, passing through or stopping briefly in the village tucked therein. Then would be another track, climbing higher and ever higher. Finally we reached the ultimate plateau. We parked and got out. The land stretched for miles in every direction, low undulating hills gave way to valleys and plains, farm fields and villages: an entire landscape with its own geography and population, thousands of feet above the valley floor and miles from the next mountaintop. I began to understand more fully how things were still being discovered in Peru. Who knows how many villages there are with local ruins tucked away behind farmer’s fields? The Andes are so massive, so difficult and time-consuming to travel, filled with so many inaccessible canyons, cliffs and remote settlements that it is certain that many significant archeological treasures still await discovery.

We pulled on our boots and hiked a short ways over a field and down a hillside to the entrance to the cave. The guide pulled a jury-rigged lamp out of his backpack, a heavy affair of a large light and even larger battery that he proceeded to begin rewiring. He got it to come to life but he was, as the guide, always in front and perhaps a little extra solicitous of the cute and coquettish girl on vacation from Lima. Regardless, I was glad I and Kristina both had small but powerful flashlights–one a AA Maglight and the other an LED dive-light of about the same size. Thus we brought up the rear. On all travel, and particularly in Latin America, a flashlight or three is essential equipment. You simply never know when the lights are going to go out.

Ancient skull and bones resting on the cavern's floor.

The cave itself was fairly simple, a large chamber extending deep into the mountain but with no real side passages. Fabulous stalactites hung from the ceiling and walls like fangs from the dark gods of ancient mythology and stalagmites, some twenty feet high rose like diseased phalluses from the gummy mud of the cavern floor. Human bones filled niches here and there or were simply piled on rocks. If one were not scared here and now in this rational age, one could almost feel the stifling terror of some ancient Inca or Chachapoyan warrior entering this mouth to the underworld, the womb of mother earth herself, dark and stifling with nothing but a flaming, smoking torch to illuminate the utter blackness.

We continued to the end, where the highest, most massive stalagmite of all stood, as if in a sepulcher designed for its worship. At several points in the cavern were other, lower “stalagmites” of bat guano and the air was filled with their high squeals, an almost inaudible nightmare soundtrack. It is not hard to understand why ancient caves can be breeding grounds for hideous plagues like the cavern in Africa to which ebola was likely traced. You think of millennia of bat feces, the life and death of other animals, human sacrifices and burials, each adding their own little bit of filth to the evolution of a toxic stew.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? --Plato

Caverns, I suppose, lead to such reveries but I was glad when the blackness became tinged with sunlight and the entrance became visible. Leaving a cave there is always a feeling of escape and it isn’t hard to imagine why they were seen as both places of death and of birth and rebirth. Exiting the still and humid depths into the sunlight and mountain wind felt enough like being reborn to me. I was glad to be in the light again. We had lunch waiting for us a bit back down the mountain and we needed the nourishment, because there was more ancient death to see that day.

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