Journey To Italaque, Bolivia | Part II


An Andean Adventure in Four Parts
By Henry Kuntz
Part Two: El Condor Pasa

(Synopsis: With the goal of attending a festival of panpipe ensembles in the remote but musically renowned village of Italaque, Bolivia, on May 3, 1986, my travel companions Josh, Patrick and I rode the back of a truck for a day high up the far side of huge Lake Titicaca. By evening, we had arrived in Puerto Acosta, the last outpost before the Peruvian border. From there, we were told we could reach the village. We discovered, however, that there was no road and no transport, only a “muy directo” path. Italaque stood 25 kilometers away.)

In spite of the distance, longtime locals assured us we could walk to Italaque from Puerto Acosta in seven hours.

It was a brilliant morning. We had arrived the evening before in total darkness. Now we could distinguish our surroundings. Tiny Puerto Acosta’s calm, airy lanes centered on a big, open plaza; the town tucked neatly into a gentle mountain valley.

There was no proper restaurant in town, only one-room comedores with simple planks to sit on. A señora served up whatever she had available. For now, that was eggs, dry bread, and weak coffee, the same meal as we had eaten in the just discernible candlelight of the night before.

At 10:30 Patrick and I set off for Italaque. (Josh, nursing a pulled muscle, decided to remain in Puerto Acosta which was beginning a festival of its own.) We toted sleeping bags and carried packs with overnight basics, a bit of bread and two tins of sardines. We were almost immediately in the country. We started up a hill and in only a few minutes inauspiciously lost the muy directo path in the middle of a field of green vegetables.

We found our way out of the garden and onto a nearby trail. Six feet wide, winding upward, this had to be the route.

For a long time, we hiked up, then down; up, then down, up and down. All the while, we could not be sure where we were going.

Hiking just above the tree line (at 12,000 feet), our surroundings, while nowhere near as barren as the moonscapes of higher elevations, were mainly rock and green scrub. Early afternoon, we suddenly stepped onto a wide cultivated plain ringed by craggy offshoots of the lofty Andean ranges. The spaciousness and dramatic clarity of the setting were exhilarating. For Patrick and me, it was an opportunity to experience the real life of the altiplano. Basic but cared for adobe houses stood at expansive intervals; each dwelling’s inhabitants maintained extended agricultural tracts. There were scattered groups of people about: women herding sheep or exhorting well-packed llamas forward, men digging and harvesting tiny potatoes. Veins of water flowed freely through long irrigation canals.

As we crossed the plain, the wistful tones of wood flutes wafted on the wind. The sounds came from a distant settlement. Nearby, an Indian man motioned us to his home to speak with him and his son. He was a handsome man, a bronze sheen to his skin, square face, prominent cheek bones, in loose white clothing. He was about 45 with the aura of a wise elder. He was curious to know where we had come from and where we were going. We filled him in, but our conversation was as much an unspoken acknowledgement and affirmation of each other’s presence as it was an exchange of information. He wished us well and sent us on our way.

At the plain’s end, we stopped for a brief lunch. Then, following a narrow roughshod path, we climbed very high up, spectacularly above a layer of white clouds, then wound steeply down, more than 3,000 feet, into a rugged green valley. (Oh, the legs!) All around, the mountain’s abundant rock had been used to create fences and facing for rows of flat terraces that were planted up and down the sides of every available incline. (This agricultural method was put in place by the Incas; many Inca terraces are still in use.) We traveled alongside a streaming silver river until our path took us over some boulders to the other side. The trail veered off; stone gave way to cobblestone. Daylight waning, to our amazement we walked into Italaque.

The village’s boundaries were roughly defined by high rock wall fences. Its white stucco buildings were topped by tin roofs. Tall eucalyptus trees graced the area, so that the village appeared almost as a mountain oasis.

Italaque was even tinier than Puerto Acosta, not even a pension to stay in. The Aymara Indian men we encountered upon our entrance into its large square were impressed by the fact we had arrived there on foot. One of them – short, dark, dignified – hospitably suggested that we spend the night with him and his wife. Like his compadres, he was durably attired in wool sweater, alpaca scarf and heavy jacket, a worn but stylish brown fedora on his head.

Night was coming. The town had no electricity; it also had no running water, only the nearby river. Our host led us to a room above a small store he owned. It is where he and his wife lived, ate, and slept. The modest room was little decorated; a corner was noticeably hung with antique wood flutes and panpipes.

For dinner, the señora served Patrick and me one fried egg each along with about twenty baby boiled potatoes. There was an unknowable story in the dusky map of her stoic Indian face, barely lit by the faint flame of a low hanging oil lamp.

Bedtime followed. The señor secured the door to the space with an old skeleton key that creaked as it twisted in its weathered lock. We were confined for the night. There was no bathroom, so the señora placed a pink plastic pail on a miniscule balcony for use as a toilet. When the señor extinguished the flame of the lamp, the darkness was as dense as in a deep cave.

The couple slept in one double bed; Patrick and I, in our sleeping bags, in another. An ongoing nightmare was a loose plank in the middle that automatically popped up whenever either of us shifted positions.

I had just passed into a state of semi-slumber when the low throbbing of big bass drums began. They rumbled purposefully, persistently in the distant night. The beating came to a quickened crescendo, halted, ritually began again. My eyes shut; mind drifted through dreams. Silence. Sound! From the square below: the loud riffling of snare drums, cadential bursts of breath blown hard into perhaps a dozen high-pitched sikus, or panpipes. I could imagine the jaunty spring in the steps of the musicians as they marched. Their playing was taut, crisp, and proud, not unlike that of a well-drilled fife and drum corps. The band’s snappy sounds slipped mysteriously in and out of the consummate blackness.

We were up early, walked to the river to wash, wake, and rejuvenate.

The celebration of “El Dia de la Invencion de la Santa Cruz” was to take place several hundred feet above the town on the narrow ridge and precipice of a hill known as Calvario. The May 3rd date, honoring the “Discovery of the Holy Cross,” is coincidental to the timeframe that the constellation “Southern Cross” reaches its highest peak in the heavens. We hiked the hill’s rocky grade. On its crest sat a tiny chapel and courtyard. A quiet market spilled off the top, barely clinging to the summit’s edge where an ample portion of earth had eroded away. It was mainly run by Indian women in an array of bowler hats, plaid aprons over their bright skirts, peddling an odd assortment of items ranging from wool and polyester clothing to rubber tire sandals and plastic kitchenware. A barely palatable stew of anonymous highland tubers (our breakfast!) was being eagerly downed by hungry villagers.

By mid morning, circles of costumed male musicians, twenty to twenty-five in a group, began forming on the hillside below. Their instruments included the sikus we had anticipated and also large and small end-blown flutes and a variety of drums. The drums boomed periodically as the players carried out ceremonial observances, including the consumption of an overpoweringly strong white grape brandy. Their ritual drinking would continue throughout the hours of playing to come; the festival’s celebrants, we included, would be invited to join in the communion. As a clue to the drink’s significance, when asked if I wished to partake of it, it was with the simple question, “Potencias?’” or “Powers?”

Single file, the first group of musicians began rapidly ascending the hill, stepping hurriedly in their rubber or leather sandals. Over silky white shirts and dark pants, the players were hung with shiny gold and rainbow- streaked capes and scarves; their cocoa brown faces were offset by tall hats circled with gaudily painted feathers of red, yellow, and green. Running intently, they simultaneously blew a low stately melody on their great and small sikus and beat out rhythms on their drums. Most of the sikus were grand, the longest tube of each instrument being nearly four feet long. The players exhaled big billowy breaths of sound that whooshed about like gusts of mountain wind; their airy blasts were harmonically tinged with the twitters and chirps of panpipes only inches in length. The drums that were strapped over their shoulders were large; the heads were over a foot in diameter and the wooden cavities, surrounded by animal hide, more than two feet long.

listen to First Group – Large Sikus

As if the sight of the band and the sound of it were not astonishing enough, at its wings flew two giant condors! Rather, I should say, two beings who, for the sake of the ritual, had taken on the feathered costume and character of the great bird of prey. When the group had reached the courtyard of the small chapel the musicians, still playing, began circling about the creatures, first in one direction, then the other. Someone entered the chapel to pray and make obligatory offerings. The birdmen, shrouded in black, opened wide their dark wings for full effect and stood upright, their faces hooded with white gauzy material through which they could see and to which was attached a small mirror, perhaps to honor Inti, the Sun, or to ward off evil influences. And they began imitating the postures of flight of the Andean condor which they believe is endowed with mythical powers.

As the world’s largest bird of prey, inhabiting and soaring above the mountains’ highest and most remote peaks (the realms of spirit), the condor is thought to carry the souls of the dead into the afterlife. It lives by feeding on what has died, but in so doing transforms what could be dangerous to life. The condor therefore symbolizes the mysteries of life and death. It inhabits a world between worlds, able to carry messages to the gods.

The dance of the condor likely dates from pre-Inca times, as it is intimately associated with the history of the siku which itself is that old. Little has been written of it ethnographically, however, and it is rare to see it.

We stood in awe of what we were witnessing.

The great birds momentarily drew in their wings. The sikus blew a long, slow finish to the ceremonial song. The drums, now alone, roared like rolling thunder. Then, beginning the tune anew, the group wound its way through the festival crowd onto the narrow precipice of the hill.

Already, a second group of musicians was playing and entering the small courtyard. A third, then a fourth were ascending the rocky slope.

The giant condors circled portentously overhead.

Next Week: “The Festival’s Wild Finish; Lost in the Mountains”

Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.
Text, photos, and recorded sound Copyright Henry Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.

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