I’ve lived most of my life on an island within sight or sound of the ocean and so it is that continents fascinate me. Land as far as the eye can see, mountains higher than any crashing wave the Pacific can throw at us, rivers that cut throught the earth, and people who have never heard the roar of the ocean and maybe won’t—they all make me appreciate our planet. Despite all the armchair travel programmes on the tele and the best of travelogues on paper and on-line it’s very difficult to imagine all this until you’ve seen it for yourself.
It’s hardly surprising then, that when we had the choice between wandering through the Inca ruins above Ollantaytambo or hiring a guide and driving up into the Andes to view the Amazonian basin from the great divide, there was only one option for me.
At the top it’s isolated. It’s desolate. It’s elevated. Life is difficult up there. Llamas thrive, cattle don’t, and neither do coast dwellers.The llamas think they have dominion over the road. In addition to managing their herds of llamas the local Quechua farmers grow crops, mostly potatoes. They prepare the land with hand ploughs. Yes, you read that correctly.
This farmer made it look easy.John gave it go, under the watchful eye of our guide and our friendly farmer’s son. It wasn’t easy, three turns of that plough and he was puffing. Me? I was satisfied with breathing. At 4600 metres (that’s more than 15,000 feet!) the divide was the highest elevation of any point on our trip. Breathing for this island dweller was challenging. We were in the clouds! We couldn’t see into Amazonia at the top of the pass but our guide and driver were obliging and drove us a little further along the road, over the crest of the Andes until we came to the small village of Yanamayo.
From there I caught my glimpse of Amazonia, far in the distance.The government has built a primary school in the village and is building modern cottages. Our guide explained to us that the majority of cottages are occupied only some of the time as the farmers move about with their stock in their search for fresh pasture. The road is new. So is electricity. And, as is the case everywhere in the world, these two things bring change—good and bad. The young people want the life they can now see others have. Who can blame them—life here is challenging. And that road leading down from the mountains is so very tantalising.
Most of the local people don’t have cars. They rely on passing traffic, which is scarce in the extreme, flagging down anyone who is prepared to give them a lift.
These farmers were desperate to get their produce to market in Ollantaytambo and we were happy to help.
The red ponchos are practical; they’re not only warm but they make it easy for the farmers to see each other on the mountains.
Although our journey back to town was cramped (um, that’s possibly quite an understatement) and sometimes the car bottomed out on the road, there was time for a little condor watching in the dusk, some chitchat thanks to our guide’s interpreting skills, and the satisfaction of having lent a hand to our companions.