There’s nothing like waking up to the sunlight. With the foggy weather of Lima, it had been months, but this morning we woke in a humble little hotel in Huancayo called “Grandma’s House.” It was cheap, clean, and cheap, my three requisites.
Lucho, our guide, met us out front, and within minutes of the ride to our first stop, we could tell that Huancayo was nothing like our corner of Lima. It felt more rural, more…normal. The tiny museum was in the corner of a tiny suburb, and a group of kids, well dressed from mass, were gathered in the town square, which might have been a hundred feet across. We were quickly the main attraction.
As we were greeted with staccato choruses of “good morning,” Lucho explained that they learned some basic English in school, but didn’t understand much. Once they realized that we spoke Spanish, they were a bit quieter, but a few talked with us like kids do.
After a five-minute tour of the museum, which was just one room, we walked down some stone steps to a set of ruins about the size of a basketball court. A few hundred years ago, the Catholics had covered the ruins with dirt, in an effort to bury the religious beliefs of several millennia. Surprise, the Peruvians have shovels.
Walls several feet thick surrounded a central courtyard filled with thick green clover and two ancient, twisted trees. Shallow pits walled with stone graced the center courtyard, where we saw three men quietly meditating near one of them. An older one was talking quietly to the other two, who were about our age. We stepped quietly passed them, not seeking to disturb, and kept to other parts of the sacred place.
Our respectful gesture may have impressed the old man, because he spoke to Lucho, and we were invited to sit next to them in the circle under one of the twisted 500-year old trees. In the center, a small bundle of candles burned with black smoke, and a cloth with various objects sat near. The objects, as Lucho explained, represented various aspects of life, like the sea, or Mother Earth. There was also a small bowl of coca leaves and cheap cigarettes near the candles.
The old chief offered each of us a handful of coca leaves from a small bag, we were to sort them and pick out the best three (the number three representing the heaven, the earth, and the underworld) and place those back into the bowl, a gesture of recognizing the gods for what we had been given.
The rest of the leaves we quietly chewed while we made small talk with the old man. The old man then offered a pinch of ashes to go along with the coca – apparently the lye in the ash serves to “unlock” the spiritual properties of the leaf. I’m pretty sure it’s just chemistry. I did as our guide did, wetting the leaf in my mouth and blotting in onto the ash, then placing it in my cheek.
I don’t remember anything after that.
I’m kidding. A person would need several pounds of coca leaves to feel any significant effect, and even then, the leaves are unprocessed, not like the concentrated, alkaline substance produced by the ton a few dozen miles further into the jungle. The raw leaves are either chewed or brewed into a tea, which is stimulating, but not as much as caffeine. It also fixes nausea and a host of other things.
I didn’t see any little pink elephants (elephants are in Africa anyway) but my mouth got a little tingly, and the altitude headache I had been coping with most of the morning disappeared.
Any euphoria I felt was caused by a quiet minute to sit down, without the noise of the city, and just talk quietly with people with whom we shared little in common, other than simply being human. We all felt incredibly lucky that they had shared this intimate and important part of their lives with us.
After a few minutes we stood up, thanked them, and moved quietly elsewhere. We spent a few minutes hunting four-leaf clovers in the old courtyard, which Lucho said were lucky even in the pre-Inca culture.
“The odds of a four-leaf clover are about one in ten-thousand, and a five-leaf is a one-in-a-million chance, and although sometimes certain patches have lots of them, that’s not normal.”
He looked at me skeptically, like he didn’t trust my facts. It is true that 72% of all statistics are made up on the spot.
I told him about hunting them with my Grandparents when I was a kid, not being any good at it, and that I had found a 5-leaf only once in my life.
Five seconds later I plucked a five leaf, and held it out to him.
“Remember these things, children do. Yours will remember this, too.”
Lucho may be a long-haired hippie looking, Yoda-talking, Inca tour-guide dude, but he’s a pretty smart guy.
Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us. They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, even hikes through the jungle, depending on what you would like to see in or around Huancayo. Ask for Lucho.