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Magical travels in Peru

I was sitting in the middle of a field of lettuce, looking up at the most breathtaking starlit sky I've ever seen. Opposite me, across a candlelit table, was the spitting image of Al Pacino in Scarface. Fireflies danced about his head while he talked about a successful scheme to release giant guinea pigs into the surrounding area. Above us were the foothills of the Andes, eerie and beautiful, their presence as much felt as seen. Behind the opposite slope of the valley, there was a permanent glow with the quality of luminous paint - evidence of a huge copper mine, the only place in the area to retain electricity after someone helped themselves to the cable that powers an entire town.

The only other light came from the stream of lorries winding along the valley floor. This, according to one local, was drugs traffic - cocaine couriers going out from the jungle to God knows where. It too, was beautiful in its way.

I was staying at the Konchucos Tambo lodge, next to the Huascaran national park, near Chavín. Sitting here on its veranda, I was beginning to see where all those Latin American magical realists get their inspiration from: they don't need to make anything up, they just write down what's around them.

The eco-farm, a 480km drive from Lima, was set up four years ago after the local mining company decided it no longer wanted the buildings for its executives. It provides basic, comfortable accommodation for travellers exploring the Callejón de Conchucos valleys of the Ancash region. There are 18 rooms, including family suites, decorated with Andean folk art, and curtains, bedding and furniture made by locals.

People come here to hike the peaks, to mountain bike on goat trails or to stop off on the northern circuit of pre-Inca monuments, of which the local Chavín de Huántar is the most spectacular.

The farm is ideal for those seeking to put something back into the place they visit. Profits help run a programme developing high-altitude versions of common crops like lettuce, apples and alfalfa. When the new strains are perfected, they are given to local farmers to help them produce a more diverse range of crops than their staple of hops. It also offers courses in handicrafts for the villagers, and all of the furniture in the lodge is produced in the nearby town of San Marcos. But its most notable success has been the breeding of bigger and hardier guinea pigs, which Peruvians love to eat.

It is claimed that the easiest way to get here is to fly into Huaraz - the biggest town in a region, dominated by the terrifyingly beautiful Huascaran, Peru's biggest peak - and then take the road across the Cordillera Blanca mountains. If that's the easy way, I'd like to see the hard one. The road is awful: pot-holed and rutted, littered with smashed bridges and huge rocks that have fallen from the hills. My tough Toyota taxi bore the scars of frequent journeys. Along the way we got one flat tyre and dislodged the bumper.

In a way, the road between Huaraz and the lodge is a metaphor for Peruvian politics. It used to be in good repair, and in some places still is. The problem is that it was built by the former president, Alberto Fujimori, who has been controversially imprisoned for human rights violations. His successors had no interest in maintaining it because it was his project, his glory. Also, Peruvian law prevents any one contractor from building an entire highway. So some sections are well built with solid foundations, while others look like they were thrown down in 10 minutes.

Then there is the question of the bridges. At one point we cross a dangerous fast-flowing river - you really couldn't call the passing place a ford. Next to it is a broken wooden bridge. A brief chat with some locals revealed that the local bigwigs have enough money to build a stone bridge, but prefer it wooden. That way it breaks and they cream off money from contractors bidding to do the repairs. On the way back, though, we went a different route and saw a stone bridge that had been smashed by the power of the river.

This does nothing to take away from the awesome scenery, which is like north Wales on steroids. The wet season was approaching and the mountains cloaked in cloud. Periodically it lifted, and their sheer size was intimidating.

Konchucos Tambo offers tours and treks into the area. On my first morning we visited Chavín de Huántar, a Unesco world heritage site about 5km from the lodge. Built between 800 and 500 BC by the Chavín people - the so-called mother culture of the Andes - the complex is 2,000 years older than Machu Picchu. It might by comparison lack the drama (as well as the crowds and commercialism), but it's still a stunning construction, combining a massive plaza, ruined pyramids and a huge main temple, stacked up on a hill. Archaeologists believe this was the political and religious centre of an entire civilization - the location for ceremonies with music and hallucinogenic cacti.

There were no English-speaking guides but luckily, Miguel, the Pacino lookalike, spoke excellent English and has worked there for years. The temple is constructed in layers of thick and thin rock, interspersed with smaller stones, he explained. It allows the building to receive the shock of frequent avalanches, to compress and expand back out again when rubble is cleared.

The Chavín built part of the temple complex on an artificial island that altered the course of the Mosna river. There are seven layers of subterranean passageways for it to flow through, one theory being that, at the height of the ceremony, sluices would be opened, allowing water to flow under the temple and plaza. The result would be a huge rumble felt through the floor, easily enough to convince drug-addled celebrants that the god of the temple was roaring.

The highlight was the temple's underground inner sanctum, which holds the Lanzón, a 5m-tall statue of a hermaphroditic god, part human and part animal, who was last year's runner-up in Peru's Got Talent. Sorry, our little magical realism joke. I'm someone resolutely unmoved by claims of "atmospheres" and "psychic auras" but I felt something quite profound looking into the statue's many eyes and imagining the oracle-seeking priests drinking the hallucinogenic brew poured over it from a channel in the ceiling.

Another day we walked a circuit of the hills through dusty adobe villages, passing women in their traditional hats and shawls. From the lookout point above Shushumia we saw huge black hills spiking from dusty brown slopes and brilliant blue skies streaked with cloud that sometimes parted to reveal white-tipped mountains. On cloudy days the Andes are only occasionally visible, but in early summer, Miguel says, you see them most of the time. Then we watched a local drunk with a wheelbarrow facing down a 4X4, much to the amusement of the ladies in hats.

Back at the lodge it was time for relaxation - something the lodge does extremely well. Its food is good - there's no choice , although whinging vegetarians like myself are catered for with various bean stews - and the view from the veranda is amazing.

I know I was a world away from New Zealand, but the glow of the massive copper mine reminded me of a scene from The Lord of the Rings - Mordor seen from Minas Tirith. It brings mixed benefits if you're a local - schools, roads and communications, but also a despoiled landscape, fear of pollution and the occasional noise - but for a visitor it seems just another marvel in a marvellous country. If it wasn't for the light, you wouldn't know it was there.

On my last night, the power was still down. I ended up back on the terrace, talking to an affable Dutchman.

"I can't believe all that is cocaine traffic," I said, pointing to the twinkling headlights on the road below.

"My guide told me the lorries are full of fruit," said the Dutchman.

Perhaps things aren't as surreal in Peru as they first seemed, I thought. But then my companion changed the subject. "I've undergone a spiritual awakening since I've been here," he said. "Last week I helped a shaman by pulling a heavy, dark, female presence from inside him."

And, no, he hadn't been at the trippy cactus. In this country, you don't need to.

Source: Mark Barrowcliffe - The Guardian

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