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Cajamarca by David Kellner | Nourish International

July 17, 2011 | Posted in 2011, Peru, Yale | By

Last week, the group broke the work routine to take a four day trip to Cajamarca  – our first experience of the Peruvian highlands.  On Thursday, a seven hour bus ride sped us northeast through the coastal desert and into the mountains, where we rapidly climbed in elevation, up to a height of 2,750 meters! The final descent into Cajamarca was stunning, as the bus afforded a panoramic view of the massive green valley in which the city is nestled.  All of the sudden, a large cluster of red roofs came into view at the side of the valley – our first sight of Cajamarca.

After setting foot in the heart of the city, we realized that we were seeing a totally new side of Peru – the Andean highlands are a world away from the coast.  We looked up to see an unprecedented, piercing blue sky, and the clouds hung tangibly overhead, making it evident that we were in a different part of the atmosphere.  Most noticeable, though, was the lack of oxygen in the air. An uphill walk left most panting for several minutes, and every inhalation felt thin. If I didn’t know better, I would claim that I was several thousand miles from Huanchaco, in a different continent, not several hundred miles away in the same country.

Knowing some of Cajamarca’s history added a startling amount of depth to the trip – one would hardly guess that this peaceful, isolated hamlet was the epicenter of events that would shake South American history. Originally called Caxamarca in Quechua, the town was home to pre-Incan civilizations dating back to at least 1,000 BC.  No better way to get a sense of this than to visit Cumbe Mayo (a derivative of Kumpi Mayo, meaning “Fine River” in Quechua) – an ancient irrigation canal about an hour’s drive up from the valley’s basin. The perfectly straight, needle-thin canal, turning at right angles and accompanied by mysterious rock carvings, is located in a forest of peculiar, tall rock formations (known as the Bosque de Piedras, or “Forest of Rocks”). Add to this the vast rolling green and tan fields, the blindingly bright sky, the sound of miles of grass rustling in the wind, and you have a site that must rival the much-better known ruins of Machu Picchu.

I chose to walk back from Kumpe Mayo to Cajamarca; it was fun to explore the land a bit, and to see the highlands from outside a car window. Far from Cajamarca, the only indicators of human existence were small paths in the grass, as well as the occasional grazing cow. Closer to Cajamarca, I began to pass campesinos with their donkeys and horses, every one of them polite, although a bit puzzled by the sight of a  lone gringo walking through the countryside.  The dogs there are not as kind as the ones in Huanchaco – most of the ones I passed would snarl, and three or four chased me down the road!  I guess they are trained to defend their households against intruders. Other than the dogs, there was nothing to worry about on the walk – as long as I continued downhill, I would inevitably make it to Cajamarca.

While the area’s pre-Inca history is prominent, Cajamarca is best known for its role in the Spanish conquest of  Peru. In 1532,  Pizarro and his men met the supreme Inca Atahualpa, who had just returned victorious from the northern campaigns of a bloody civil war. The supreme Inca, surrounded by 80,000 troops encamped on the hillside, must have been confident in his ability to defeat 100 or so weary Spanish adventurers.  However (perhaps because of his overconfidence) he was ambushed and captured in the main square by Pizarro’s men, who frightened the Indians with gunfire, charging horses, full steel armor, and swords. The Spaniards rode out into the fields surrounding Cajamarca, massacring over 7,000 Indians in just two hours.

I was reminded of Cajamarca’s tumultuous history when I visited the Cuarto Del Rescate, or Ransom Room. The last surviving piece of Inca architecture in the city, the room is where Pizarro kept Atahualpa prisoner. It was here that Atahualpa said he would fill the room once with gold and twice with silver in return for his release, and there is a line demarcating the height to which the Inca reached his arm when indicating how much gold would fill the room. The Cuarto, although missing its roof and isolated from any other structure, is clearly part of a great Incan complex, There are fine, angled lines between the stones, reminders that the Incas did not use mortar but rather shaped stones so well that they would fit perfectly together without adhesive. There is also a row of trapezoidal windows, characteristic of Inca design. It is a shame that the rest of the Incan buildings were destroyed and used for scrap material by the Spaniards.

That is not to say that the Spaniards did not contribute to the splendor of Cajamarca. The Plaza de Armas, the most beautiful I have seen so far, is buttressed by two admirably ornate colonial churches. There is also a quaint church on the hill overlooking the entire city, which affords some amazing views and a good perspective of Cajamarca’s size. Also on the hill is the “Inca Chair,”  a strange seat-like carving on a large stone – it may have been a royal or sacred spot from which the leader of a pre-Columbian society overlooked his village.

Another link between the old and new in Cajamarca is the hot springs (“Banos del Inca”) – Atahualpa bathed in the steaming, mineral laden water as he made camp in the sixteenth century, and we followed suit. There is a bathing complex that takes full advantage of the baths’ tourist potential, charging a minimal fee for plenty of time in the hot water.

With its colonial architecture, cobbled streets, and mountainous borders, it is easy to think that Cajamarca has no connection with the rest of the world.  However, soccer showed us otherwise. On Saturday night, hundreds of Cajamarquinos flocked to the Plaza de Armas,  where the Peru-Mexico match (part of the Copa America) was displayed on a big screen.  Peru had several extremely close offensive opportunities against Mexico, and every near-goal was followed by a burst of excitement in the crowd. When Peru finally scored for the win, everyone danced in the plaza – it was quite an experience.  Murat was the only person rooting for Mexico, and we were both glad Mexico didn’t score, because he probably would have been lynched by the Peruvian mob if he had shouted “Goal!”

Cajamarca was full of brand new experiences – from whiny, begging children (“SenorITA, un proponITO!!!!!”) to kind campesinos and jubilant crowds; from bustling markets to quiet stone forests, it was more than I could have expected or imagined. It was also a fine introduction to Peru’s astonishing ecological diversity, or “verticality” – dozens of ecosystems and ways of life, nearly stacked on top of each other due to the country’s rapid incline from coast to cordillera.

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