But in the morning we set out for Huancabamba. As the Lonely Planet Guide describes it:
“For the daring adventurer, Huancabamba, deep in the eastern mountains, is well worth the rough 10-hour journey from Piura. This region is famed in Peru for the powerful brujos and curanderos (healers) that live and work at the nearby lakes of Huaringas. Peruvians from all over the country flock to partake in these ancient healing techniques . . . few gringos visit the area . . . The mystical town of Huancabamba is surrounded by mountains shrouded in mist . . .”
In the distance, mist hugs the tops of mountains. They look high. I keep shooting worthless shots with the mountains in the background, thinking, “We’re going up into those mountains.” Then, hours of difficult dirt road later, we’re looking down from up in those mountains. Alongside or above the clouds – but with higher peaks ahead of us.
We stop in Rio Seco, where the woman who sells us cokes and snacks may never have spoken to an actual foreigner before – and I see something I haven’t seen before.
A horse stands in the middle of the street. Leather patches cover both eyes, as if he were trying to get some sleep on an airplane. I’ve heard of blinders on race-horses, but why does this horse have his eyes completely covered? I ask. The answer makes perfect sense: unable to see, the horse is kept where he is as effectively as if he were tied to a rail.
Just beyond, we discover that Rio Seco is not entirely seco. We pause to watch a woman herd goats across the stretch of road we just passed, while a herd of horses climbs out of the river and crosses in front of us. Meanwhile a man with some sort of machine stands in the middle of the river doing something; and in the distance we can see the mountains into which we are headed, although their peaks are shrouded in clouds.
When we approach the water and start to consider where best to cross it, a man comes running and leads us to the best crossing spot. It was the one I was picking on my own, but it’s reassuring – and he considers a small propina for the service well worth his effort.
As the road roughens, and climbs along hairpin turns, with little or nothing in the way of villages, it’s amazing to see buses. The road is so narrow that sometimes when we meet a bus coming the other way I have to back down a ways to a sufficiently wide spot.
Arriving in Huancabamba late in the afternoon, we immediately attract a following of young men and boys interested in helping us find a hotel and/or a restaurant. They must expect a propina, but do not ask for one. We know the hotels on the plaza, and stay in one, the Danubio. The room is large, with three beds. It is not terribly clean [in fact, there’s probably even more fuzz and dust under the beds than there was under mine in college], and the private bathroom has only cold water, although a hot shower is available down the hall.
Later we seek something to eat. When the restaurants we see don’t appeal to Ragna, we ask a moto-taxi-driver for a recommendation, and he takes us several blocks away, to a lively restaurant called “El Tiburon” [The Shark]. Music is playing, others are eating and drinking here, and even dancing.
We eat and drink too. Pisco sours. At some point I go over to ask the owner something. Very quickly we are talking about brujos. Shamans.
The topic arises quickly – either because it is a major topic here or because it’s what tourists mostly come here for. Or because the restaurant owner has an angle.
We had heard in Pacasmayo an account of the ceremonies here. Conducted at a lake an hour or so from town, they involve some sort of psychedelics or other interesting drinks, and initiates are said to be able to swim in the extremely cold lake without noticing the cold.
Ragna has an interest in this subject. Healers, anyway – she strongly disapproves of drugs. Iceland generally is a place where a large percentage of the residents have had some experience with aspects of life that many or most people would deny exist: ghosts, trolls, “little people,” and the like, as well as, occasionally, surprising assistance from animals. [A raven once knocked on her mother’s door and led her mother to a bog in which some cows were trapped.] Too, we had a very powerful encounter with a healing woman near the Temple of the Moon in Mexico a year ago. Ragna has expressed interest in watching the ceremonies here. So have I. Earlier experiencea with psychedelics have given me a sufficiently healthy respect for them that I’m unlikely to take a casual swig of some healer’s brew up here.
The restaurant owner joins us. There ensues an intense conversation in which Ragna relates a few stories of events others might call “supernatural,” the restaurant owner talks about what they do here, and I try, through a haze of weariness and Pisco and inadequate language skills, to translate.
He tells us he has a friend who is a shaman. Are we interested in arranging a ceremony? Perhaps. How much does it cost? He has paid S./ 300-400. The ceremony is very powerful.
We go around the corner with him to his friend’s place. It is an unappealing place with a dirt floor, little furniture, and a lot of bones and such in one corner. (And, Ragna tells me, a dead chicken hanging on the wall. I hadn’t seen it.) The shaman himself is a little pin-headed guy who doesn’t impress me particularly.
So do we want to go up for a ceremony the next morning? We’ve had a little to drink and we’re standing there with these folks, so we look at each other and each thinks the other wants to do it, so I give the guy a deposit on a S./ 400 ceremony. The S./ 100 deposit is to cover stuff he supposedly has to buy, and seems to me to be a good deal more than he’s likely to be spending for anything, but I fork it over and we arrange to meet at 7 the following morning.
Ragna and I walk back to the restaurant with the Shark, who drives us back to the hotel.
Lodging in Huancamba is mostly toward the simple end. We stay at the Hotel Danubio, in a three-bed room overlooking the plaza, with a private cold-water bathroom but a shared hot-water shower.
Food also tends toward the simple. El Tiburon was as good as anywhere, as far as I could tell.
The drive to Huancabamba is long and beautiful. It is not for the casual traveler who wants everything just so. (There are buses.) The road would have been passable even without a four-wheel-drive car. If you drive it, start early in the day.