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Posts on the Andean Cosmovision

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My Second Trip to Peru (with photos)

Draft 2.2.  Photos (in addition to the cover photo) added to this draft.  Clicking on pictures will bring a larger version up in a new tab.

The children of don Manuel, 15,000 feet

For the context of this chapter please see the introductory words of “My First Trip to Peru”, available as a post on my blog at, and as a PDF document at In that chapter I describe in some detail the people and places in Peru that are such an essential part of these stories. Even though it has been six months since I posted that chapter, and thus perhaps six months since you’ve read it, I decided not to repeat those descriptions in this chapter, writing instead as if you have just sailed from that chapter into this one. Please feel free, of course, to go back and read that chapter anew.

This story of my second trip to Peru has been posted on my blog ( Due to its length I have also made it available to be downloaded as a PDF at I hope you enjoy it.

At the end of our first trip to Peru, Américo invited Gina, Judy, Bob and me (the “Apu Chim”) to return to Peru to work with him again. During that trip, he said that he had “seen” us all on Apu Ausangate, and that if we so desired, he would take us to visit the Apu when we returned. We were delighted.

A word about Apus. Part of the challenge (both fascinating and frustrating) of describing the Andean worldview (the “Andean Cosmovision”) to Westerners is that so many of the Andean concepts reside outside the confines of our Western worldview. Consciousness, for example, is viewed in the West as being either the byproduct of a nervous system or as an attribute of a transcendent soul that inhabits our material body. In the Andean Cosmovision, consciousness is seen as being an inherent aspect of the energetic filaments that make up the material world. Everything is conscious as everything is made up of those energetic filaments. Apus are not conscious because they have a nervous system, nor because they are inhabited by a transcendent spirit, they are simply the conscious beings that are the majestic mountain peaks on the planet. This concept is not an option within the modern Western worldview, although, as I discussed in the previous chapter, it was the primary view of science in the West before the 20th Century, and is being considered again as modern science attempts to come up with a working model of consciousness.

The problems the West has with this view of consciousness appeared in an early version of the Wikipedia article on “Ausangate”. The article defined “Ausangate” as a peak near Cusco Peru, and also as the name of the troll that lives on that peak. Troll?! It is my guess that some Westerner trying to understand the idea that Ausangate is considered to be conscious by the Andean people, had to attribute the consciousness to some being living on the mountain. The idea that the mountain itself could be conscious probably did not occur to the author. The updated Wikipedia article, by the way, no longer mentions trolls.

Back to our second trip to Peru. We were able to grab a spot on Américo’s calendar in the year following our first trip. Even better, that time slot corresponded to my Spring break at the university. The trip was longer than my Spring break so I had to arrange for my colleagues to cover the first couple of class meetings after the break. A consequence of this was that I had to fly in right before we started working with Américo, and leave the day after we were finished. This meant no additional time to enjoy wonderful Cusco. I also had no extra time to accommodate any travel complications that might arise.

Our itinerary was for us to start the trip by going to Salka Wasi (the “House of Undomesticated Energy”)–Américo’s ancestral home in the high Andes–to stay for several days. I love Salka Wasi, so that was great. Cusco is at 11,000 feet, Salka Wasi is around 12,000 feet, and Américo said we would be going to about 17,000 feet on Apu Ausangate. Our stay at Salka Wasi, always tranquil and beautiful, would help our bodies acclimate to high altitudes as preparation for Apu Ausangate. Equally important, our work at Salka Wasi with Américo would help us prepare energetically for our meeting with the Apu. At least, that is my after-the-fact perspective on the trip.

After Salka Wasi we would be going to Apu Ausangate. Américo informed us that we would be spending a couple of nights on the slopes of the Apu, at around 15,000 feet. We would be there during the tail end of the Andean rainy season, and so we have to bring the appropriate gear for that. I decided to take many layers of clothes: silk long johns, polypropylene long johns, normal clothes, sweater pants, a light sweater, a heavy Icelandic wool sweater, a light jacket to wear over the sweater, rain pants and rain jacket to fit over everything, and ski hat and gloves. The foundation, however, of my survival strategy for the worse case scenario was my sleeping bag. It was a polyfill bag that was good down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The advantage of having a polyfill stuffing versus down is that polyfill retains its insulating properties even when it gets wet (which is not true of down). I figured that if we were caught outdoors in a snowstorm at 15,000 feet I would probably survive. The only downside of the bag was that it was heavy and big (taking up about a third of my duffle bag), but our gear would be carried up the mountain by horses so I figured that would be ok. Several paq’os (mystics/shamans) from Qero (a very remote region of Peru close to Apu Ausangate) would be accompanying us on our visit to the Apu.

Our group’s first trip to Peru had been arranged by Tom Best. Américo had told us that for our second trip we could make arrangements directly with his daughter Arilu. This would save us some money (we wouldn’t have to pay Tom for organizing things or cover his travel expenses…he would not be coming with us), but still we were all stretched financially by the costs of transportation, food, lodging, and the honorarium to be paid to Américo and the Q’ero. Arilu (who made all of the reservations for our stay in Peru) and Américo said they would be happy to honor our request to make the trip as inexpensive as possible, which I thought was quite sweet and generous on their part.

A month before we left for Peru, Américo appeared in my dreams. He asked me if we were still coming to Peru and I said yes. He was pleased. I asked him if we were still going to go to Apu Ausangate and he said yes, and I was pleased. I then woke up. I often dream of Américo, and the vast majority of these are normal dreams, often centered around the anxieties and complications of traveling to Peru. I sometimes, however, have a dream where Américo appears that feels different than my normal dreams, with a very different and higher energy. This dream was one of those.

The day finally came for me to leave. I was exhausted and stressed from all of the preparations for the trip. That, however, is rather usual for me, and I relied on my memories of having been with Américo and of being in Peru to remind myself that it would be worth it. I had a layover in Houston on my way to Lima. As I was walking down the terminal I was surprised to hear someone call my name. I turned and saw Bob waving at me. We discovered that we were taking the same flight to Lima, so I had a friend with me this time, which was a lot nicer.

Our plane landed at the Lima airport around midnight. I tiredly made my way down the long hallways that led to the international baggage claim area, and waited for my duffel bag to be unloaded. And waited. And waited. The conveyor belt eventually came to a stop, the rest of the passengers had claimed their bags and left. I was left with that sinking feeling that descends when it is obvious that my bag has been lost in transit. I had my carryon bag with some warm clothes (to put on before departing the plane at Cusco), but my big warm Icelandic wool sweater, and my sleeping bag, were in the missing duffle. I found the person to talk to about lost luggage and gave Américo’s name and home address as the place to send the duffle bag should it eventually appear.

I caught up with Bob who was waiting for me outside of customs. We changed a small amount of dollars at the money exchange window there. You cannot get Peruvian money outside of Peru. They call their dollar a “sol”, which is Spanish for “sun”. I have to admire a country that calls its currency a “sun”. The exchange rates at the airport are not very good and so we only got enough soles to get us to Cusco. There we would visit a money exchange office run by a friend of Américo’s whom he trusts not to pass counterfeit money and that has good exchange rates.

Even though the international terminal and the domestic terminal have a connecting door, passengers are not allowed to use it. Bob and I had to exit the international terminal and go outside into the night and walk down a sidewalk to get to the domestic flight terminal. Outside it was rather surreal and a bit daunting. It was after 1:00 in the morning, and yet there was a big crowd milling around the doors; people waiting for arriving friends or family to come out, and lots of taxi drivers and tour guides clamoring for our attention. Bob and I made our way (a bit nervously) through the throng with many a “no gracias” for the taxi drivers and tour guides until we reached the entrance to the domestic terminal and could go inside. We went looking for a place to await our morning flights to Cusco (Bob and I had different flights that were both leaving around 6:00 A.M.).

We wandered around inside the airport looking for a safe place to catch a couple of hours of sleep. We settled down in a dimly lit corner with very uncomfortable chairs and a crowd of people with similar intentions. Some were stretched out in sleeping bags on the dirty tiled floor. Peru is not a safe place to be careless about possessions, and the Lima airport has a particularly bad reputation. Bob and I tried to get comfortable while resting our feet on our bags (to prevent them being stolen), and finally gave up. Up on the second floor and towards the back of the terminal we found a restaurant that was open all night. So, for the several hours until it was time to check in for our flights to Cusco, Bob and I sat in the lounge (we were their only customers) very slowly sipping beers and trying to stay awake. I attempted to read a book.

I have now travelled to Peru something like 17 times (I have lost track of the precise count). After the first trip–where I spent a couple of nights in Lima–I have faced having to cope with arriving in Lima around midnight and then catching a flight around five or six AM to Cusco. Staying overnight and waiting for an afternoon flight out of Lima is a possibility but the morning flights to Cusco are less likely to be cancelled due to weather in Cusco, and also I have been reluctant to spend the money and time to get a room in Lima. Up until somewhat recently there was no hotel at the airport, and then when one was built I decided that it was too expensive for just the few hours I had available to get some sleep. In the early trips the only safe alternative was to take a taxi to Miraflores, a suburb of Lima on the coast, where the embassies are situated, to a hotel there. That, however, involves a 90 minute taxi ride from the airport, and so about four hours just to get to there, check in, check out, and get back. For my third trip to Peru my friend Carla told me about a safe and inexpensive hotel she had found that was only about 15 minutes from the airport. That part of town is quite sketchy but the hotel was behind a locked fence and was said to be safe as long as you didn’t leave it to walk around. I stayed there a couple of times for a few hours rest, then I read a review from a couple who stayed there and were awakened by screams and shouts during the night. They later discovered that another couple coming to the hotel had their taxi waylaid just outside the fence by a group of thugs who proceeded to rob them. The hotel staff didn’t bother to help or call the police. So much for that option.

So, trip after trip after trip I have found myself sitting in the Lima airport, overnight, waiting for my morning flight to Cusco. They eventually remodeled the airport and put in a food court, consisting of several fast food counters with a large common area filled with tables and chairs. No one cares if you fall asleep there with your head on the table, if you can sleep in the bright lights and conversations going on around you, but you can count on having to move to another table somewhere around two in the morning as they clean your area of the court. I then found that if I go through the ticket checkpoint to get into the domestic concourse they have chairs in there where the seats are not separated by arm rests, and so you can stretch out to sleep. That concourse, however, is not always open to travelers in the wee morning hours. Anyway, this is a big deal for me as it has been such a constant part of the endeavor of getting to Cusco. And so was, for the first few trips, having to find the airport tax window to pay for the right to board the plane. This always seemed rather bewildering and a bit intimidating to my befuddled brain at 1:00 in the morning, following directions given to me in Spanish that I didn’t quite understand.

My flight took off as scheduled the next morning, which was a relief. Bob’s plane had mechanical problems and he was delayed for a few hours. I got off the plane in Cusco very excited to be there: caught up in the sense of excitement by everyone on the plane; then exiting the plane into the thin air and blue sky and bright morning sunlight; with a few fluffy white clouds; and the smells and sounds of Cusco.

Gayle (Américo’s son) met me at the airport, in the company of Javier, a friend of his whom I had not previously met. Javier was rather tall (about my height–six feet) and somewhat heavy, both unusual in Peru. He was a warm and gentle soul, and I liked him immediately. He also spoke English quite well. Arilu was to be our translator for this trip, but Javier helped out at times. He later served as our translator on our next (third) trip to Peru. They escorted me in good spirits to the hostal where Gina, Judy, Bob and I were to spend the night before heading to Salka Wasi with Américo the next day.

Once again I was in the hustle and bustle of Cusco; lively, noisy, energetic, full of diesel fumes and crowded with honking cars, and a combination of the ancient Andean culture and modern Peruvian commerce. This time my body seemed to recognize and accept the altitude and the energy (as Américo said it would…’the body learns’ he says.) I do love Cusco.

Our hostal was located on the Calle Loreto, a narrow, cobble-stoned alley that runs from the Plaza de Armas downhill toward the ruins of Coricancha. The calle is for pedestrians only, so we parked in the Plaza and walked down about 30 yards to a large, unmarked wooden door on the left. Gayle knocked and we were let into the hostal.

Like many places I’ve been in Latin America, the hostal was stylish, clean, and in some state of disrepair. We walked past a glassed-in patio with breakfast tables (with a few glass panes missing), past a small garden with beautiful and bright orange flowers, and into a small room with two beds and a bathroom. The furnishings were simple but nice. The blankets on the beds looked warm and had a beautiful Andean design woven into them. Our window opened onto the garden and patio area, it had no screen and didn’t close tightly, but that didn’t make much difference as there was no heating in the hostal. And…we were only 30 yards from the Plaza de Armas. Arilu had found us a very pleasant and inexpensive place to stay.

On the opposite side of Calle Loreto from the door to the hostal was the longest surviving Inca wall in Cusco. This was once the outer wall of the Inca compound known as Acclawasi (“The House of the Acclas”). The acclas are often referred to as The Chosen Women or The Virgins of the Sun.

The Inca empire had no currency, and the communities paid their taxes by supplying labor for the empire. All males between the ages of 15 and 50 were required to work part of the year for the public good; building roads, bridges, aqueducts, agricultural terraces and fortifications; or serving in the military. This service was known as mit’a. Local overseers were responsible to make sure that the men had enough time left in the season to tend their own crops. In ayni (the fundamental Andean concept of reciprocity) the Empire provided the advantages of empire (the roads, bridges, and so on) as well as organizing the storage of enough food to insure that the population could survive up to five years of drought.

The acclas provided female service to the Empire. Each year the Inca government sent out representatives to select girls around the age of 10 from the provinces to serve the state. They were mainly from the higher social classes, often the daughters of regional leaders, and were selected based upon their beauty, skills, and intelligence. They were then sent to an acclawasi for training. Those with the highest social standing were sent to the acclawasi at Cusco. The girls were trained in spiritual matters, the making of the finest weavings, and the brewing of chica (a type of beer.) The girls were then given a choice at the end of two years to continue their training or to return to their villages. Those who stayed became either high priestesses, or were assigned to be wives or concubines to the ruling class. The priestesses were required to remain virgins, which is interesting considering the sexual morés of the Andean culture, where premarital sex and trial marriages were encouraged to give couples the opportunity to discover whether they were compatible with each other.

There is a story that during the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire, a condor fell from the sky into the courtyard of the acclawasi in Cusco, killed in flight by a hawk. This was taken as an ominous sign by the Incas. After the Spanish prevailed, Acclahuasi was turned into the Catholic convent of Santa Catalina.

Before I could settle down and relax at the hostal I wanted to talk with Gayle about my missing luggage. The duffle bag contained my warmest layer of clothing (my heavy Icelandic wool sweater), my super-duper-survive-anything sleeping bag, and all of the presents I had brought for the children of Mollamarca (mainly school supplies.) Our itinerary was to go to Salka Wasi for several days, then return to Cusco for a night, and then travel to Apu Ausangate, so in the near-term I just needed enough to get by at Salka Wasi. We needed sleeping bags at Salka Wasi as they could not provide sheets there, but we would be indoors and have access to lots of wool blankets. Gayle lent me an extra sleeping bag he had, it was a light-weight bag not designed for very cold weather but it would be plenty warm enough with a couple of wool blankets. He also lent me one of his jackets. Gayle is shorter than I, and when I tried on his jacket I couldn’t quite get my arms down to my sides, but I figured I had enough other layers to keep me warm enough at Salka Wasi, so I gave it back to him along with my thanks.

It was our going to Apu Ausangate, to 15,000 feet, with the likelihood of storms, that had me worried. Gayle offered to dig me up anything more significant I might need when we returned from Salka Wasi. I began to describe to him the sort of sleeping bag I would want; something really warm, that would stay warm even if wet, and that was big enough for my height. He listened to me politely, and then put his hand on my shoulder, gave me a warm smile that was half amused and half affectionate, and said, “Don’t worry Oakley. I am your guardian.”

I had one of those moments when something that was obvious but I hadn’t noticed before suddenly became stunningly clear. Oh course Gayle was my guardian. And, what a guardian. At the time Gayle was around 20 years old. Every year he ran the annual foot race that goes the length of the Inca Trail. The trail runs along the top of the Andes, ending in Machu Picchu, and normally takes four or five days to hike. The racers complete it in one run. That year Gayle had won the race. In Salka Wasi I had seen him doing chin ups in good natured competition with his friends, and winning (I discovered I could barely do one chin up). He had climbed to the top of many of the local Andean peaks. When camping on the slopes of an Apu with a friend, a puma had prowled around the tent and stuck its head in the door. One day, at the river that runs in the canyon below Salka Wasi, he ran across a young deer standing in the river with a pack of dogs on the bank trying to get at it. He drove the dogs away (which was a tale in itself) and then picked up the deer and carried it up the steep 2,000 foot slope to Salka Wasi. What happened after that is quite incredible, but is a story that I would like to tell at a later time. He was in amazing shape, and yet without a hint of machismo or bravado; personable, friendly, slightly shy, warm hearted, competent, and impeccable. If, when hiking in the mountains, I were to turn a corner and suddenly find myself facing danger, I would want Gayle at my side. I don’t know how it would turn out, but I am sure it would be worth a song.

In the Andes they draw a distinction between our right side energy (paña) and our left side energy (lloqe). Our right side energy is for our everyday tasks, doing chores, going to work, being organized. Our left side energy is for connecting to the ineffable mystery that is the Cosmos and our presence as Beings within the Cosmos. It is on the left side where Américo likes to reside.

Whenever Américo and Gayle and I (often with my friends) have gone into the outback of Peru together, Gayle disappears when we settle down to meditate. A few minutes later Gayle can be spied sitting on some high point on the mountain side above us, keeping watch, making sure we are safe, ready to intervene if some danger approaches or if some party nears that could disrupt our meditation. Although he is now well versed in the lloqe work that Américo does with us, and could do that work himself, he frees his father to focus purely on the left side when he works with us, not having to worry about right-sided problems that could arise. He is our guardian.

Getting back to my second trip to Peru…by that evening, Gina, Bob, Judy and I had all arrived in Cusco. The next morning we took off for Salka Wasi. In the morning we took our luggage out to the curb in the Plaza de Armas and waited for Gayle. It was the first time I had been in the plaza early in the morning. The air was thin and cold but the morning sun was bright and warm. The sky was mostly blue with a few drifting cumulus clouds. It had rained the night before (this was still the rainy season) and the cobblestone streets around the plaza were wet from the rain. It was early enough that the tourists hadn’t come out in any real numbers yet. Shop owners and business people strode across the plaza in the morning sun, along with women in indigenous clothing with shawls strung over their shoulders holding big bundles of goods to sell, or babies. Kids in their blue school uniforms passed by, walking together in small groups, or holding their parent’s hands. Taxis and cars were entering and driving around the plaza, contributing to the sense that the city was waking up to business. Immersed in the sounds and smells and sights of Cusco in the morning it finally, fully, hit me that I was in Cusco again.

Arilu had told us that Gayle would be there right at 8:00 AM, and asked us to please be ready at the curb so that he wouldn’t have to (illegally) park to pick us up. But, of course, it was about 8:30 when he pulled up in his truck. He drove us out to Américo’s house in the suburbs of Cusco. Instead of us having to pay for a bus and driver to take all of us to Salka Wasi, Américo had offered to drive us there himself in his truck. The truck had a front and back seat in the cab with enough room for Américo, Bob, Gina, Judy, and me to squeeze in. All of the gear (our luggage, presents for the people of Mollamarca, and enough food and water for all of us for several days) was stacked high in the bed of the truck, covered with plastic sheets, and tied down. Arilu, Gayle, and two of their friends (Javier and Sebastian) perched on top of the gear in the back. They brought along a big sheet of plastic to pull over themselves as protection from the dust and rain during the five hour drive on the dirt roads to Salka Wasi. This really all to save us the expenses of hiring a bus.

When everything and everyone was secured in the truck, Américo drove us out of Cusco south on the paved road that leads to Bolivia. As his house was in the south section of Cusco we exited the city relatively quickly. As we drove along, Américo pointed out the Apus that could be seen along the way. I read once that Apus, like other beings, evolve spiritually, and that when they do they grow an inch during the night, thus the high peaks are great spiritual beings. It is just a nice thought that has stuck with me due to its beauty.

There are twelve major Apus in the area of Cusco. As he drove, Américo told us their names and a little bit about a few of them:

Apu Ausungate: Who brings order to energy, our destination later that week.

Apu Sacsaywaman: The location of the great ruins overlooking Cusco.

Apu Salcantay: Who makes energy chaotic. This peak can be seen from the summit on the drive to Salca Wasi. People rarely visit this Apu, it is a wild and dangerous place. Sometimes they don’t come back.

Apu Wanakowrai

Apu Pachatusan: Who holds the world on his shoulders, the location of our initiation during the previous trip.

Apu Mañual Pinta

Apu Warakochan

Apu Mama Simona

Apu Pukin

Apu Piqol

Apu Senká

Apu Chillen Chillen

I stared at Apu Mama Simona as we drove past her and I felt my energy shift. For the first time that trip I felt like I was finally immersed fully back into the energy of Peru, existing in a Cosmovision that seems so much more beautiful than the Western worldview I grew up in.

We were following the same route to Salka Wasi that we had taken on my first trip to Peru. About 30 minutes south of Cusco we turned left onto a dirt road and headed towards the mountains that flank the valley along its eastern side. After a few hundred yards of driving down the dirt road, weaving around potholes, just as we neared the base of the mountains, we were stopped at a military roadblock (the Shining Path guerrilla movement was still a threat at the time.) Américo climbed out of the truck and had a friendly chat with the soldiers. He had brought along some newspapers from Cusco that he handed out to them as they talked. The soldiers happily took them, immediately turning to the sports sections. They waved us on.

Shortly past the roadblock, right at the foot of the mountains, the road crossed a bridge over the river Vilcamayo (or Willkamayu), which in Quechua means sacred river. The river is a political boundary between provinces, but it is also another type of boundary, where you first feel that you are leaving the domesticated culture of Cusco and heading into the salka (undomesticated) mountains beyond. Américo stopped the truck in the middle of the bridge so we could watch some river-runners in inflatable rafts pass under the bridge, enter some rapids, and then rush out of sight around a bend.

From there the road immediately started to climb up into the mountains. I described that road in some detail in the story of my first trip to Peru. It was a narrow dirt road, with a cliff rising up on one side and a drop of a couple thousand feet on the other, with no guardrail, and big trucks carrying produce from the jungle barreling down the road around blind corners. I noticed that as Américo drove he would sometimes reach out his hand, as if he were about to grasp a doorknob, and wiggle his fingers in the direction we were heading. I asked him about that, and he said that he was checking out the road ahead, to see if there was any danger approaching. He then chuckled and added that he was a terrible driver, but that he had great intuition. I grinned and relaxed. I decided that whatever fate was in store for Américo that it was not going to be a warg’s belly (Tolkien reference), or a plunge into the abyss in a truck he was driving.

Shot from the summit of the road. In the far distance, peaking up on the left side of the photo, are the peaks of Q’ero, on the right side (partly hidden by cloud), Apu Ausangate.

We continued up the road to the highlands, through the town of Huancarani, and then down into a far valley to the town of Paucartambo. In Paucartambo, after stopping and milling around for a bit while Américo and Gayle ran some errands, we took the even narrower and rougher dirt road to Mollamarca (the village closest to Salka Wasi). Along that road we occasionally passed people from Mollamarca and Américo would stop the car briefly to chat with them (we didn’t have enough room to give anyone a ride.)

About two thirds of the way up the road to Mollamarca we turned a bend and there, suddenly, towering in the distance, was majestic Apu Ausangate. We got out to stretch our legs, soak in the energy, and take some pictures. Américo suggested that we walk down the road a bit and that he would come in a little while to pick us up. So we did, wandering down the dirt road, companionably together, in the highlands of Peru. After about fifteen minutes Américo pulled up and we piled into the truck again.

When we pulled into Mollamarca we were welcomed by the usual crowd of women and children. I don’t know where the men were, I assume they were out working, perhaps doing construction, for the men, women, and children work the fields together. From Mollamarca we walked down the mountain side for 20 minutes to Salka Wasi, passed along the way by the women and children hurrying past us carrying our bags.

We entered Salka Wasi, which I consider to be the Rivendell of the Andes. Just inside we were met again by the groundskeeper, the ancient and enigmatic don Miguelito, who always seemed to regard me from a different reality than my own. There we settled down into the days of being in Salka Wasi: awaking naturally at first light, pouring a cup of coffee in the living room, wandering down into the morning sunlight in the garden, listening to the birds in the trees and the distant roar of the river far below; having breakfast, then meditating in the garden while the house was cleaned and its energy cleared, then meeting with Américo outside in the garden for some energy work. Lunch, followed by a siesta or a stroll through the neighboring countryside or a steep hike down to the river, then meeting Américo again for more energy work. Supper, then an evening lit by candles with perhaps a little wine, putting on more layers of clothes to stay warm. Delicious and simple food; coffee, tea, hot chocolate, chicha morada (a sweet drink make of blue corn), rolls, oatmeal, granola, yogurt, fresh fruit from the jungle, frittatas, fresh trout from the river, native potatoes, fresh chicken, crackers, cheese, butter, yams, large-kernel native corn, a variety of delicious soups, and other great dishes cooked up by don Abolino and his wife doña Maria. All of this in a place that seems so essentially Andean, a house with three foot thick adobe walls, and no electricity nor heating, that is old and showing its age, not “kept up” as much as kept clean and made comfortable. At an altitude of around 12,000 feet, it sits on the side of the mountain, high above the river, near the stars. The Cosmos seems close enough to touch there.

Don Miguelito at the door to his room in Salka Wasi.

Salka Wasi (notice Miguelito standing in his doorway).

Gina sent me this photo with the caption, “The esteemed Dr. Gordon collapses in a chair after a hard day of meditating at Salka Wasi”.

The living room window.

Judy and Gina as we await don Amèrico for our afternoon meditation. The cooking veranda is behind them.

Having a picnic lunch together.

Me meditating at the bottom of Salka Wasi’s garden.

The fields near Salka Wasi.


I have given a fuller description of Salka Wasi in the tales of my first trip there. Here I would like to mention some of the events that were specific to the second trip. One was that Miguelito agreed to work with us again. As before, he changed from his interesting medley of Western clothes into his Andean clothes to work with us. This time, rather than telling our fortunes with the coca leaves, he used his mesa to clean our energy.

Maria, Abolino’s wife, worked on our energy as well. Maria was the daughter of a powerful curandera (healer). Américo had met Maria when she was a young woman. At that time she was not carrying on her mother’s work, and seemed rather adrift in a culture where such things were being left behind. Américo could see the potential inherent in Maria and encouraged her to continue in her mother’s traditions, and to include her own daughters in her work as well so that the tradition could be passed on to future generations.

We met in the living room at the appointed time and waited for Maria to arrive. She entered the room with her daughter. They were carrying a brazier full of hot coals and a shawl containing a large bundle of long, serrated, leaves. We sat there as she worked on us one by one. When it was our turn we took off our shoes and socks and loosened our jackets (it was cold in the living room). Maria then heated some of the leaves over the brazier, and while speaking Quechua, she rubbed the warm leaves over our skin; our feet and ankles, our hands, and our necks and faces. Then, depending upon where she sensed we needed more work, she tucked some warm leaves up our pant or shirt cuffs, or down between our shirt and chest, or simply held the warm leaves on some place on our body for a while. When the leaves cooled, she handed them to her daughter, who would put them in a discard pile and then hand her more, fresh, leaves warmed over the brazier. When she was finished with me I sat there for a while, reveling in the pleasant feelings I was having, until the cold led me to put my shoes and socks back on and zip up my warm jacket. It was an experience that I fail to have words to express, other than perhaps “comfortable,” “tranquil,” and “clear”.

We, of course, gave Miguelito and Maria some money as ayni (reciprocity) for their work. Not only did that restore the balance in our relationships, it also gave them a way to benefit from keeping the traditional healing practices alive. It also delivered, more deeply and clearly than words, the message that their culture had things of value that may be worth holding on to even as Western culture swept toward them like a tsunami.

One day Américo invited us to hike up to Mollamarca to meet the “Club of Mothers”. He asked us to please bring our cameras. He didn’t explain who the Club of Mothers were but I was certainly game to meet more of the people from Mollamarca. We all hiked up the mountain from Salka Wasi to Mollamarca, winding our way between crumbling adobe walls surrounding small adobe houses, passing small barefoot children, litters of pigs, and wandering chickens along the way.

When we reached the village, Américo led us around a building and on the other side we walked into a crowd of about 30 women. They ranged in age from the youngest mothers to the oldest grandmothers, and they were all dressed in their colorful indigenous clothing of woolen skirts over petticoats and sweaters. Most had on their colorful, flat, hats with the design and yellow fringe that indicated that they were from Mollamarca.

It was quite a feminine scene, and I hesitated for a moment before I joined them. Then I put aside my shyness, wandered in, and began to greet the women with one of the three Quechua phrases I knew (allillanchu?…how are you?) and responding back to them with allillanmi…I am fine. Just for the record, the third phrase I knew was tupanachiskama…until we meet again.

This is an important moment in the Andean culture, when two different groups of people first interact. It is a time to check out each other’s energy and to see if the different energies can mesh in a harmonious way. It is just about impossible for me to describe in third person, but I can share what was going on inside of me at that time. I had entered a group of strangers from a very different culture as well as from a different gender. I didn’t know exactly what was going on. I did not speak their language, and I wanted very much to somehow make a connection. I was eager yet nervous. I chose to put aside my shyness in favor of sincerity, and I opened my heart. Our differences didn’t disappear, but suddenly I was with the women, and we were interacting, and I was in a new dance and making dance steps I’ve never made before, and feeling like I’ve never felt before.

Things went well, I was welcome. Still, after a while, I needed to sit down and escape the intensity of it all. I sat on a crumpled well next to Américo, and with his limited English and my limited Spanish, I asked him what the Club of Mother’s was all about.

He explained to me that the Club of Mothers consists of most of the mothers from the area around Mollamarca. They get together once a week to work on projects that benefit the children of the village. They make crafts to sell at the Paucartambo market, and then spend that money for things the children need. They also work a plot of land to grow food to try to make sure that all the children have enough to eat.

Arilu and the Club of Mothers

La Presidenta of the Club of Mothers

Amèrico addressing the Club of Mothers

The building that the mothers meet in was donated to the club by Américo, as was the plot of land they farm. He had asked us to bring our cameras so that we could take photographs of the women working the field and then send him copies of the prints. He told us that the women wanted a way to show the other women at the markets how the Club of Mothers worked, and thus spread the idea of mothers getting together to pool their resources for the benefit of the children. Some of our photos from that day are group shots of the women holding their farming implements with the four of us standing with them. In those pictures I am in the back row, wearing my green sweater, and towering above the women like the jolly green giant. Américo was very low key as he explained the project. I complimented him on the beauty of what he was doing. He gave some humble reply.

Field donated to the Club of Mothers by Amèrico.

Gina, me, Judy with the Club of Mothers and their farming tools.

A difference of height.

Later during that visit I discovered that Américo has seven local villages that he is taking care of. He periodically arrives at the villages with his truck full of supplies for the elderly and the orphans, bringing flour, sugar, salt, candles, matches, blankets, and other essentials. He also supports the festivals in the villages by providing food, drinks, and ceremonial supplies, as long as the villagers are willing to hold the festivals in the traditional ways. This seems to me to be so typical of Américo’s approach, not insisting that the villagers maintain their traditions, but supporting them to do so.

I would like to share more about Américo and his relationship with the villagers by sharing some of the stories he has told me of his life. Please understand that these stories–as they are being told by me rather than by Américo–are secondhand and they are pulled from my distant memory. While they are as accurate as I can remember them, they should perhaps best be thought of as stories that contain an underlying beauty, rather than as factual accounts.

Américo’s family on his father’s side immigrated to Peru from the Basque region of Europe. In Peru they were granted haciendas, huge land holdings, essentially fiefdoms, over which they ruled. The indigenous people in these lands were not exactly slaves, they were more like indentured servants, forced to work for the hacendado (the owner of the hacienda) without pay. They had to fit the tilling of their own lands around the work demanded by the hacendado. On the surface this sounds similar to the Inca mit’a system I described earlier, but the hacienda system lacked the ayni (reciprocity) of the Inca system where the people benefited from the work they did for the empire, and where the Inca insured that the people had sufficient time to work their own lands.

Américo’s father’s hacienda must have been hundreds of square miles in size. Américo described it as stretching from the high Andes all the way down into the Amazon jungle. His father owned several houses within this area, and would frequently be gone from his family for two weeks at a time as he traveled by horseback from one house to another to oversee the work being done there. Américo said that when his father would return home from one of these trips, he would ignore his children and walk directly to his wife and they would retire to the bedroom. Then later, when they emerged again, he would speak to his children. One time he told them the following story of what had happened on his journey.

At that time there was a small band of bandits plaguing the area. They stopped Américo’s father as he was riding by (alone) on his horse. The leader of the bandits, however, was so impressed by his father that he invited him to eat with them around their campfire. While they were eating the leader gave his father a warning, that if he was to hear the call of (some specific local bird whose name I cannot recall) that he should immediately run away.

Later that trip, as his father continued on his way a thunderstorm approached. He took shelter in a cave, leaving the horse tied up outside and taking the saddle and the saddle bags into the shelter with him. As he was sitting in the cave, with the thunderstorm raging outside, he heard the call of that bird. His father immediately grabbed his saddle and bags and ran outside. Right after that a stroke of lightning shot down and hit the mouth of the cave, ricocheting into the cave itself.

Américo’s father had a powerful personality. Américo told me that people would sometimes become incontinent when his father yelled at them. He was very much the hacendado, the patriarch of an upper class family in a highly stratified social system. Indigenous people, other than servants, were not allowed to enter his house. When Américo was a young child, his family lived in a hacienda far from the nearest town. His friends were all local children, but he could not invite them into his home.

Américo told me that despite his role as the hacendado, that his father had great respect for some of the individuals within the indigenous community. He spoke five of the local languages fluently. He also spoke an ancient form of Quechua, no longer in use, that was somewhat like an Andean Sanskrit. Américo spoke a few sentences of it to me one day. It was a beautiful language. It sounded like it arose from nature itself, bringing to mind the wind and flowing water. Américo himself grew up with Quechua as his first language, not learning Spanish until he moved to Paucartambo to attend elementary school.

Américo’s mother was a quiet, book-loving, woman. She had taught herself French and had accumulated a library of books written in that language. When her husband was away she would invite the local, indigenous, paq’os to come into the house. There they would sit around the dining table and engage in such things as the reading of coca leaves. She would ask them to use the leaves to let her know how her husband was doing and if he was safe, and they would report things such as, “Right now he is riding his horse through the rain at (some location) and is doing well. He is a fine strong man”. Young Américo would hide himself in the room and watch and listen to all of this. Then, when a villager would run into the house and announce that his father was approaching, all of the paq’os would quickly disappear.

In 1968 a military junta who had taken over control of Peru dissolved the hacienda system, returning the land to the indigenous communities in what was called the “Agrarian Reform”. About this time Américo returned home having been sent to Europe to obtain a college education. He told me that his pre-college education in Peru was such that it wasn’t until he went to Europe that he found out that there had been a second world war.

Américo returned from Europe as a long-haired hippie (his description). When he arrived back in Peru–much to the consternation of his upper class family–he insisted that the servant who had helped raise him, and of whom he was very fond, be allowed to sit with him at his welcome home dinner. He also announced that he was going to begin studying with the indigenous paq’os. To communicate to me how his family reacted to this, he said it was like a son of an upper class family in the United States returning from Yale and announcing that he was going to start learning from the homeless people.

Américo’s aunt owned the house and property that was to eventually become Salka Wasi. She had established an artist community there. When the Agrarian Reform arrived she was allowed to keep the house, along with 20 hectares of surrounding land, as the government deemed it to be a cultural asset to the nation. His aunt, however, eventually left the place and it was abandoned. After some time had passed Américo asked if he could buy it from her and she agreed.

When Américo traveled to Salka Wasi to see what sort of shape it was in after having been abandoned for a while, the whole village of Mollamarca showed up in the village square to block his way. They did not want a Yábar to return to Salka Wasi. Américo told us that it took all of his shamanistic power to proceed at that point. Before getting out of his truck he took off his shoes and picked up a bag of coca leaves. He then slowly wound his way through the crowd, smiling, greeting people, speaking to them in Quechua, and offering them coca leaves. He then turned and invited them all to accompany him down to Salka Wasi to check it out. This invitation for them to enter the house with him clearly delivered the message that he had no intentions of returning as a hacendado.

After he had stayed in Salka Wasi for a while, Américo discovered that the villagers had been killing the eagles that nested in the tall eucalyptus trees that stand in Salka Wasi’s gardens. Américo spoke to them about this, reminding them of the sacred role of the eagles in their spiritual traditions. The people, however, pragmatically responded that the eagles were eating their chickens. Rather than trying to win them over to his point of view Américo made them an offer. If they would stop killing the eagles then he would replace any chickens the eagles ate. The villagers agreed. The next time Américo drove into Mollamarca from Cusco he arrived with a truck full of chickens. He said that this was the turning point of his relationship with the people of Mollamarca.

After Américo had been at Salka Wasi for several years, a social activist arrived at Mollamarca. He called a meeting of the villagers, and urged them to kick Américo out of Salka Wasi. He said that they should not have allowed a member of the Yábar family to return. After he spoke, the women of the village gathered together to discuss how they wanted to respond. They all went home, grabbed their long soup spoons and metal pots, and converged on the house where the activist was staying, hitting their pots with their spoons, and drove him out of town.

– – – – – – – – – –

At some point during this stay in Salka Wasi my understanding of the path I was on underwent a fundamental shift. Up until then I had seen this all as being a wonderful and fulfilling adventure. It was a salve for the existential anguish I had developed from my life within the Western worldview. This path nourished those aspects of my being that cried for attention; my love of beauty, my love of love, and my desire to have a meaningful life. Meaning, for me, came from exploring the essential nature of the Cosmos and of my existence within the Cosmos. I had started on this path with Américo to take care of myself, to heal. The story was about me.

Child of Salka Wasi.

Then, everything shifted. I realized that I had stopped being the main character of my own story. The story I was in was really no longer my story, it was a much bigger (and more beautiful) story. It wasn’t just about me, it was about me, Américo, Gayle, Arilu, the people at Salka Wasi, the villagers of Mollamarca, the Q’ero. It was about my friends, and others, to whom I have taught what I can (through my workshops, book and blog) about how to enter this story. It was about those waikis whom I do not know who have flowed into the story from other headwaters. And, of course, it was also about Pachamama, the Apus, Mama Tuta, the stars, the trees, the rivers, and the Cosmos. When I returned from this trip to Peru and looked at the prints of my photographs, I noticed that they were the best photos of other people I had ever taken.

– – – – – – – – – –

During our last night at Salka Wasi, Bob, Gina, Judy and I were sitting around the dining room table after dinner, chatting by candlelight. Gayle popped in to inform us that there was a beautiful full moon. We said thanks and that we would be out in a bit. Then Américo popped in to inform us that there was a beautiful full moon. OK, we got up, put on more layers of clothes, and walked out together into the night. Américo and Gayle guided us through some shrubs and under some trees, we walked along the top of a fallen log to pass over the small stream that runs by Salka Wasi, and then found ourselves in a large meadow sloping down the side of the mountain, illuminated by the full moon. There was a large ring around the moon, about ten times the diameter of the moon itself, and numerous streamers of clouds flowing off the ring, streaming off to the left.

We all played in the meadow; running, hopping, howling, and reciting poetry to the moon. Américo told us that the moon (Mama Killa) is the mirror of the shaman. I looked at the face of the moon, and searched within myself for what part of me was being reflected in that face, and I got in touch with a very mysterious and strange sensation. I recommend that, by the way. Then Américo had us feel the light of the moon in our umbilical region, rubbing that area with our hands. As I did this I had the feeling that part of me was stretching out towards the moon, but then when I realized that, it snapped back. After a while I noticed that the cloud streamers from the ring around the moon were now all going in the opposite direction, to the right. How could the upper atmospheric winds shift 180 degrees so quickly? I pointed it out to Américo, and I didn’t understand his reply, other than that it was something special.

After four very relaxing days and nights in Salka Wasi it was time for us to head back to Cusco for an evening, and then take off for Apu Ausangate. I am not sure, however, that “relaxing” quite encompasses being at Salka Wasi. It was four days of no chores, of just being, of eating great natural food, breathing clean air, getting good exercise wandering around the gardens and hiking up and down to the village and to the river, existing in the quiet of just the wind and the sound of the river and the occasional braying of donkeys, and connecting in a deeply soul-satisfying way with Nature and the Cosmos and the Peruvian people. I love being at Salka Wasi.

In the morning we packed up our bags and left them for the villagers to haul up the hill for us. Then we hiked up to the village and Américo’s waiting truck. After a two hour, uneventful, drive on the small dirt road to Paucartambo, and then another four hours on the dirt road up and over the mountains to Cusco, we arrived back at our hostal near the Plaza de Armas. When Arilu called home from the hostal she was informed that my duffel bag had been found by the airline and had been delivered to her house. I was back in the sleeping bag business, boys!

There was a religious celebration scheduled in Cusco for that evening in the Plaza de Armas. Outside the cathedral, religious scenes had been created on the ground using arranged flowers as the medium. That afternoon Bob and I walked around the plaza looking at them, then we returned to the plaza again in the early evening for the celebration. The plaza and the surrounding areas were so packed with people that we couldn’t get into the plaza itself, and had to watch everything from partway down a side street. I usually wear a small daypack when I am in the city, but the staff at the hostal had instructed me not to do so that evening. They gave two reasons: one was that it is considered rude to be wearing a daypack when so many people are crowded together; and the other was that it was highly likely that my pack would be empty before too long.

I am taller than most Peruvians and although Bob and I were stuck down a side street I could see some of what was going on in the plaza. A procession of people in religious attire had exited the cathedral and were making their way through the crowd and around the plaza. Behind them came a large statue of a saint, sitting on a litter being carried by a score of strong men. They were followed by a loud marching band of horns and drums. There was also a large contingent of military in the square to keep things reasonably under control. The scene was fun, interesting, cultural, and rather surrealistic.

When it ended Bob, led me to a small restaurant that he knew. It was on what I call the “Hippy Street,” a pedestrian alley that leads uphill from the Plaza de Armas. The alley contains tour group shops catering to young adult adventurers, camping equipment stores, attractive young Peruvian women handing out leaflets for (legit) massage parlors, the occasional waft of marijuana smoke (which is illegal in Peru), and a few restaurants. This restaurant was mainly a pizza place and prided itself on the quality of its sangria. It had a few long tables lined by chairs and benches, and a wood burning pizza oven. Its owner was rather dour and looked to be of Eastern European origin. He reminded me somewhat of Bob. On later trips Américo has taken me there a few times, he is friends with the owner. Bob and I ordered a pizza and some beer. After a week of healthy food, exercise, and soul-satisfying meditations, I was really in the mood for pizza and beer.

The next day we headed to Apu Ausangate in a bus that we had rented. Arilu had made all of the arrangements, and Gina, Bob, Judy, and I covered the cost of renting the bus and paying its driver. That morning we piled all of our luggage on the sidewalk along the edge of the plaza and waited for our bus to arrive. When the bus pulled up (in the no parking zone) Gayle and his friends jumped out and helped us get everything into the bus as quickly as possible and we took off. Américo sat up front next to Dante, the driver; and Arilu, Gayle, and his friends sat in the back next to the big pile of all of the gear (ours, theirs, and the supplies for the trip). Dante was the driver for many of my early trips to Peru. He was a friendly, middle-aged Peruvian, slightly stocky in a prize fighter sort of way, with short-cropped dark hair, and a quiet sense of humor. Whenever we would pull into a place to park, Dante would give it a serious look to make sure we would be safe.

We started off by driving south towards Bolivia. The Plaza de Armas is on the north side of Cusco while Bolivia is to the south, so the first hour involved our bus working its way down the Avenida de La Cultura, the always crowded main route that leads south out of town. As near as I can tell, the Avenida consists of four lanes of traffic merging, weaving, and darting their way down a three lane road. South of Cusco we turned onto the dirt road that heads towards Paucartambo. When we got to Huancarani, however, Dante turned off of the main road onto a very primitive dirt road that headed steeply up towards the peaks to the right. The road was rough, barely good enough for a bus to navigate, and when a stream crossed it there really was no road, just stream. We were at the tail-end of the rainy season and there was a fair amount of water in the streams, and a lot of mud. When we came to a stream cutting across the road we would all climb out of the bus and get to the other side by hopping on stones. We would then watch Dante very carefully and slowly drive the bus into and across the water. His main challenge was to keep the tail of the bus from getting hung up on the bank as the bus dropped down into the stream. Once the bus was safely across we would all applaud and climb back on again, congratulating Dante with smiles and laughter, which he accepted good-naturedly.

High lands near the summit.

As the bus climbed higher up into the mountains all signs of trees and shrubs disappeared. We entered a land of tough, short, grass and small herds of alpacas quietly grazing and staring at us as we drove by. Américo had Dante stop when we reached the summit of the dirt road. We all piled out to walk around and breathe and soak in the energy of this desolate, high land. I looked out at the vista and saw, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, a single house sitting on the crest of another hill. It was a rather large, stone, house, within a rectangular enclosure of walls made of stacked rocks, probably for alpacas although there were none there at the time. In fact, I saw no one in or around the house. There were no vehicles parked there or even any signs of vehicle tracks. The place, however, did not look deserted, just incredibly isolated and quiet. In the utter silence of the place I felt deeply engaged in a sense of mystery, and of a seamless connection to another world. Américo walked over and stood next to me. He looked where I was looking, and softly said, “Is incredible, like monastery, no?”

As the bus wound down the other side of the mountains we passed more and more dwellings, and a small village or two. As usual when we travel through the remote countryside Américo had a big bag of candy with him. Whenever we passed children he waved and shouted to them and tossed them some candy, indicating with his gestures that the ones who got to the candy first should share with the others. He gets great delight from this, as do the children we pass in these incredibly isolated lands. In later trips–my guess is due to expressions of horror from Westerners–he started bringing large bags full of pocket bread to give out to the children instead of candy.

Taking a break on the road. Gina, Javier, Judy, Sebastian, Amèrico and Arilu.

Working the land. The men break open the ground with foot plows, the women plant the seeds, in this way the planting is in harmony with nature.

At the foot of the mountains our path connected with a road that runs between Ocongate (a destination along our way) and Cusco. It was a good road, not paved, but wide and well-graded. I don’t know why we hadn’t taken it from Cusco. Often a road we want to take in the Andes is under repair or blocked by landslides, but in this case I think it was more likely that Américo wanted to show us more of the Andes, and to have the Andes shift our energy before we approached Apu Ausangate.

A short while later we pulled into Ocongate, a town not far from Apu Ausangate. Dante parked the bus in the town square and we all got out. It was a typical Andean town square, with trucks loading or unloading sacks, crates, and barrels; people in their colorful Andean clothing climbing into or out of the beds of the trucks (where they had purchased inexpensive rides); and a market where farmers–who had walked several miles to town–had set up shop to sell their produce. There were a couple of cafes with signs written in English, and a place to sign up for tours, and a sense that this town was used to accommodating tourists.

Gina and Bob in Occongate.

There is an important annual religious festival held on the slopes of Apu Ausangate, called Quyllur Rit’i (the Star Festival) which draws tens of thousands of local people, including many from the region around Paucartambo. The people selected to represent their village dress in costumes (e.g. as bears) and dance the entire way to the mountain, accompanied by musicians. When the festival is over they return to their villages, carrying a clump of ice (from the Apu’s glacier) that has captured the light of the star that is connected to their village. Américo told us that Ocongate was where many of the pilgrims exited the mountains on their way back home. We were not there during the time of the festival, and he added that it was held on a different side of Apu Ausangate than where we would be traveling. The glacier on Apu Ausangate is quickly disappearing due to global warming, and I have read that the villagers no longer carry its ice back to their villages.

After we parked in the square, Américo et al disappeared to run some errands. Gayle returned carrying a large bag of fresh coca leaves. The four of us wandered around a bit, looking in the door of a church that seemed on the verge of total collapse, and checking out the market. When we got back on the bus we discovered that someone had joined us. Américo introduced him as the man who would be providing the horses for our trip up Apu Ausangate. Américo was pleased to have run into him in Ocongate as we had arrived a day earlier than originally planned (which was news to us). Then, before we took off, the Q’ero who were to join us on our trek up Apu Ausangate appeared in the square. The seven of them had walked through the night to get there on time (as we were a day early). But, how did they know? Their villages had no power, or phones, or radios, and this was in the days before cell phones. This was not the first, or the last, time that I noticed that Américo can communicate with the Q’ero in ways I do not understand.

With everyone now on board, we headed up the road to the town of Tinki, which was as far as we could go by bus. The road to Tinki was in very bad shape. There were times when the bus had to slow to a crawl to maneuver around deep ruts and potholes, the bus throwing us from side to side as its wheels dropped into or climbed out of some mini-chasm. It being the end of the rainy season, the dirt road was impassable after Tinki. There we would spend the night, and take horses to Apu Ausangate the next day.

It was late afternoon when we reached Tinki, an old adobe town in a river valley near Apu Ausangate. Dante drove to the far side of town and pulled into a small hostal. The hostal consisted of a one-story building where the owners lived and did the cooking and where the dining room was located, and a small two-story building for guests. Each story in the guest building consisted of one rectangular room with a bunch of beds. We moved our gear into the second story, which had 10 beds. There were 10 of us, not counting the Q’ero who disappeared to who-knows-where to sleep (though they joined us for meals). The room was clean but run down and very bare, with nothing but the beds and one electrical wire stapled to the wall and ceiling to power a dangling light bulb. The beds were comfortable with warm woolen blankets, which we threw over our sleeping bags.

Hostal in Tinki.

Just after we got our gear into the room it began to rain, a piece of good luck. Much to my surprise, a few minutes later a group of teenagers from Israel pulled up in a bus, and moved into the room downstairs. They were heading to Apu Ausangate as well. Up to that time we had been the only outsiders I had seen in the area.

The rain stopped around sunset. Our room led out onto a rickety balcony looking toward Apu Ausangate, about 10 miles away as the condor flies, and rising majestically to 21,000 feet. Only its peak was illuminated by the setting sun, the lower peaks around it were wrapped in clouds. The surrounding landscape, including Tinki, drifted through various shades of gold, then tan, and then brown, as the sun set, shifting moods in a way that my camera failed to really capture.

Apu Ausangate from our balcony in Tinki.

The hostal gave us a pretty good dinner that night; soup, rice, fish, and potatoes. The soup (which is a staple in the Andes) was quite good, much better than the it-is-probably-safe-to-eat-because-it-is-hot watery soups that I’ve eaten in outback restaurants in the Andes over the years. But then for me that is part of the charm, or at least part of the adventure, of being in such a remote, beautiful, and different part of the world.

Children of Tinki.

The ten of us slept that night in the hostal. The report was that Américo snores, but if he did I slept through it.

When we woke up the next morning, Gayle and Arilu had decided to provide us breakfast from the supplies we had brought, rather than our going downstairs to eat. We sat on our beds and munched on fresh fruit from the jungle and baked-the-day-before pocket bread. When we stepped onto the balcony we could see that Apu Ausangate was wrapped in clouds. Américo came out to join us and told us that if the weather didn’t clear up we couldn’t visit the Apu. He informed us that our task that morning was to use the process he had once taught us for clearing away clouds to take care of the problem. He told us to first clear the weather off of the peaks to the right of Ausangate, who are the daughters of Ausangate. He added that they control the weather in the area. So, we directed our intent towards them. A little while later they were clear of clouds, then Ausangate cleared, and then finally the peak to the left of Ausangate, Qollogante–his wife–was free of clouds.

I don’t know what to make of the process we had learned for clearing away clouds. It could be that the process works. It could have been a coincidence. It could be that Américo really knows the weather patterns in that area and had asked us to do something that he knew would succeed. My logical side would like to run a repeated-measures, interrupted-time-series design before it would conclude that the process works. But then…that’s the thing. There is no magic that can’t be explained away as a coincidence, and no momentous experience that can’t be explained away by what psychology calls “response expectancy”. That, however, is letting logic be my prison guard (locking me in a land without beauty), rather than being my guardian (protecting me from buying swamp land in Florida). The clouds went away.

The plan was for the horses to arrive at the hostal around 8:00 in the morning. They were late, and there was loading up to do, so we finally departed around 11:00. There were eleven horses, six were ridden by Américo, Arilu, and the four of us and the rest were pack horses. Gayle and his friends walked, as did the Q’ero. One man led the lead horse, and the rest of the horses just followed along. Riding a horse is not something I enjoy or have much experience with, but I managed. My horse was fairly docile if not completely obedient. At one point I had to get off my horse and lead it by the reins across a stream that it was reluctant to cross. When it balked I looked back at it and both Américo and Arilu shouted out at the same time that I should never look a horse in the eyes! Hmm, I didn’t know that.

Heading out of Tinki to Apu Ausangate.

Américo suggested that walking a bit would be good for us, but to let the horses do all of the uphill work. At the top of the first big rise, I hopped off the horse. Within a few steps I could feel the altitude (14,000 feet?) and within 50 yards I had to get back on the horse again.

From Tinki, our path wound up out of the river valley and onto a long slope that rose steadily up towards Apu Ausangate. As the Apu towered higher and higher in front of us, Américo looked back from his horse and gave us instructions. He told us to approach the Apu with love and to open our energy field, and that was all we really needed to do, Apu Ausangate would do the rest. This advice informed my experiences for the rest of the adventure.

The majestic, snow-covered, rocky peaks of Apu Ausangate were beautiful. The vista when I turned to look back over the land behind us was also incredible. We were well above tree level. The river valley below cut through a rolling land covered with grass and groups of grazing alpaca. Desolate farms were sprinkled here and there, small stone huts surrounded by round enclosures of stacked stone walls. The land was dotted with a few small lakes, and snow covered mountain peaks rose in the distance. I desperately wanted to take a picture. I found, however, that I couldn’t stop my horse (who had become determined to get in front of all the other horses despite having the largest person sitting on him) and take a picture at the same time. I finally managed to take one photo by twisting around in the saddle, and then gave up.

Climbing up on horseback toward Apu Ausangate.


After a while we turned up a side canyon running down from the Apu and started to gain altitude more quickly. We rode for about six hours, taking several breaks along the way. One break was near a stone outcropping next to a cascading river. There we had lunch, and the four of us fell asleep on the grass, in the cold air, under the warm sun. After resting, we headed further up the mountain.

Approaching Apu Ausangate.

“Remember where we parked the horses.”

It was late afternoon when Américo suddenly announced that we had arrived. I couldn’t see any sign of being somewhere but we dismounted and followed Américo up out of the side canyon and around the shoulder of a hill, and there we found a small homestead. It was the home of don Manuel, his wife, and his three children. Américo introduced don Manuel to us as one of the “Guardians of Ausangate,” although he did not explain what that meant; it seemed to be something special and beyond a physical guardianship. The homestead consisted of two, small, rectangular, stone huts with thatched roofs, and a circular stone-walled enclosure that served as the alpaca corral (although there were no alpacas in it at this time of year).

Don Américo ushered us into one of the stone huts and informed us that this was where the four of us would be sleeping. It was the family’s sleeping hut, the family would be sleeping in their cooking hut. Américo, Arilu, Gayle and his friends would be sleeping in tents. The Q’ero slept under a wooden roof that provided cover over part of the alpaca corral.

The four of us were ushered through a rickety wooden door into our abode. It was simply one rectangular room with a curtain dividing a storage area to the right from the sleeping area to the left. Pushing through the curtain we found that our part of the room had a stone ledge along all three sides, wide enough to lay our sleeping bags on. The floor had a couple of llama skins as rugs. The stacked stones that made up the walls had been caulked with sod or dirt to cut down on the drafts. There was one window, located in the wall above where I put my bag. It had a wooden frame and was open to the outside air, with no glass, although it did have a cloth covering that could be secured. The roof was low over our heads, and thatched. There was a smoke hole part way down one side of the roof with its own little gabled roof to keep the rain from entering the room. One of the family’s chickens found it to be a perfect place to roost, looking out over the land, giving us a constant view of its butt. Although we were at approximately 15,000 feet way up the side of the mountain, I found that being in a stone structure made me feel secure.

Our hut, chicken, Gina, and Judy.

Outside the hut, Gayle and his friends were setting up the tents, with Arilu supervising. A fair amount of shouted instructions and laughter accompanied the process.

Arilu directing the setting up of the tents.

We had obviously been given the best place to sleep, and we offered to sleep in the tents or to let others join us in the hut as there was room in there for one or two more people, but Andean hospitality wouldn’t hear of it. We finally got Américo to say that he would move in with us if his tent proved inadequate, but he never did.

After I spread out my sleeping bag and pad on the rock shelf, and arranged some of my stuff along the window ledge, I stepped back out of the hut into the cold, late afternoon, air. I found the Q’ero and Américo sitting together in one corner of the alpaca enclosure. This was my first time to interact with the Q’ero outside of a ceremony, and I found myself a bit shy to do so, but I approached anyway. When Américo saw me he waved for me to join them. I sat down and they gave me some coca leaves (which they were all chewing) and I was given a turn with a bottle of some local liquor that was making its rounds. Each person, when it was their turn, filled the small cap of the bottle with the liquor, then poured a few drops onto the Pachamama, before sipping from the cap and then passing the bottle on.

The bathroom facilities were not (facilities). We were instructed to just go somewhere outside. This posed a bit of a challenge. There were absolutely no bushes, shrubs or trees at this altitude, and the land for as far as you would care to walk had no large rocks. There were low rock walls that formed enclosures for the alpaca, but the walls were about three feet tall, and no matter where you went you were in plain sight of the widely scattered dwellings in the valley below. I never saw any of the local people relieving themselves to show me where it would be appropriate. It was a bit of a mystery that needed to be put aside with an ‘oh well’ attitude.

At dusk Américo took us on a short steep hike up a rocky slope to the top of a hill. From there the land dropped off on the other side, then rose again to form the main peaks of Apu Ausangate. It was an impressive sight. We were at 16,000 feet yet Ausangate towered much higher still, to 21,000 feet.

Apu Ausangate.

Américo instructed us to look for the faces of animals on the stone cliffs of Ausangate. I let my eyes wander over Ausangate in the subdued light of dusk and I waited for the faces to come to my awareness. I saw, very clearly in the rocks, the faces of animals; a deer, a wolf, a rabbit, and many others. They were so incredibly clear that it was hard to believe they could be natural, but they undoubtedly were. We took a final look at Apu Ausangate and walked back down to the homestead.

Américo joined us in the hut for dinner, which consisted of pocket bread and a delicious hot soup. We sat around and talked for a couple of hours by candle light. Arilu came in and announced that dessert, hot chocolate, would be ready in five minutes. This announcement was made approximately every 10 minutes or so for more than an hour. It finally arrived and they served it with good humor. They explained that it was difficult to get things to come to a boil at 15000 feet when you are using dried dung as fuel.

As we sat sipping the hot chocolate, illuminated by the light of two candles propped onto narrow stone shelves, the candles flickering by the slight wind that found its way through the cracks, Américo told us that it was not ordinary that he brought us here. He said that he saw in us all a deep commitment to find the highest consciousness. He had been coming to Apu Ausangate himself for over twenty years. After many years the paq’os of the area, the ‘Guardians of Ausangate’, gave him a small stone hut to stay in, a hut that we would be seeing tomorrow. When he was a younger man he lived alone in that isolated hut for months at a time, developing his relationship with Apu Ausangate. He stressed to us how high a consciousness is available here. A couple of hours after dark he excused himself and went out into the cold to his tent.

I awoke the next morning and exited the hut, having to duck low to get through the small doorway. Outside, I found myself standing in the middle of a cloud that had descended onto the homestead. I spotted Américo and walked over to see what the plans were. He said that in one hour it would either clear up, or rain. Either would be OK, whatever Apu Ausangate decided. With a smile he added that lightning can provide a powerful energy (which notched my adrenaline level up a bit).

Waking up in a cloud.

I saw that Gina was up and about and went over to talk with her. After a few minutes Américo walked over to us and said that he would contact Apu Ausangate to check out the weather. He then strode over to the far side of the enclosure and stood facing the Apu. After ten minutes he returned to us and said that the Apu would give us four hours of good weather to accomplish our work, and then it would start to rain or snow. He added that we had better get a move on.

We all had a quick breakfast of coffee, oatmeal, bread, and fruit. We then mounted our horses and began to make our way further up the slopes of Apu Ausangate. The party consisted of the four of us, Américo, Gayle, Arilu, their friends, don Manuel, and the Q’ero. Again, the four of us, Américo, and Arilu rode while the rest walked. It was cold and cloudy, though the clouds had lifted enough to form a low, grey, ceiling over our heads.

The plan for the day was to climb to about 17,000 feet, which would take us to the sacred lagunas (lakes) that lie at the feet of Apu Ausangate’s main peaks. We would pass by several of these lagunas, stopping to perform ceremonies at each one, and then loop back to our camp when we finished.

On the way up.

The air was cold and crystal clear. The lagunas, the grass, the looming peak, stood out in incredible clarity. It was such a desolate scene, no shrubs or trees, only rocks and scarce grass and lagunas of strange colors (green, yellow, purple, blue, slate). We were incredibly high in both senses of the term, doing things I have never done before, seeing a place unlike anyplace I have ever seen before. I was experiencing a powerful, clear, and beautiful state of consciousness, and yet is seemed so natural to me that it was only when I reflected back to what my state of consciousness is like in the United States that I even realized I was in a highly different state of consciousness, a beautiful and powerful state of consciousness. As we were riding, Américo turned to me in delight, and shouted, “Oakley!!! Tell your scholarly colleagues about THIS!!!”

17,000 feet.

We rode our horses past two lagunas (whose names in Quechua mean “The Green Laguna” and the “Yellow Laguna”) before we reached our first ceremonial site. This was on top of a hill overlooking “Alka Cocha” (a laguna of seven colors). It was a large long laguna, stretching along the foot of Apu Ausangate’s highest peaks. My ability to guess distances was befuddled by the high altitude and by the extreme clarity of the air and by my state of consciousness, but I would estimate that it was about three quarters of a mile in length.

Panorama made by joining two photos.

When we stopped at Alka Cocha the Q’ero spread out their mesas and prepared to perform a despacho (offering) for Apu Ausangate. The despacho gave honor to the Apu in ayni (reciprocity) for all that it gives us. The despacho also connected our energetic filaments with those of Apu Ausangate, that we may always be connected to this massive spiritual being who towers 21,000 feet up into the clear Andean air. The wind had picked up, and it had started to lightly rain, and it was cold. The despacho seemed a bit hurried to me, I assumed because the Q’ero were working quickly due to the weather, or it could have been that I wasn’t as into it because of my own physical discomfort from the cold and rain. When the despacho was finished the Q’ero worked quickly on each of us, cleansing our energy and blowing beautiful energy down through the crowns of our heads and into our bodies.

We returned to our horses and rode along a level crest of a hill that ran parallel to the peaks of the Apu, passing one laguna after another. The clouds formed a gray roof a couple of hundred feet above our heads, sometimes lowering a little, sometimes rising. We were given occasional glimpses, through the mystical curtains of cloud, of the upper slopes of the Apu, but the highest peaks remained hidden from our view.

Occasionally a light rain would fall. My gear held up pretty well. I had purchased an expedition-quality rain jacket and had on rain pants as well. Under these I had many layers of clothing; silk long johns, poly long johns, a short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, pants, a light sweater, and sweater pants. I was also wearing a scarf I had bought from a woman in Mollamarca. Américo had recommended that we keep one layer of warmth to put on only when we really needed it, so that if it got colder we would have an extra layer we could add. I had my big, thick, Icelandic wool sweater in my day pack, which I turned to later.

Our next stop was at a beautiful, almost completely circular, small lake of incredibly clear blue water, La Laguna Celeste (a.k.a.. Q’oyllur Cocha), wife of Otorongo. This laguna provides a connection to the stars. We meditated there for a while, then dipped our hands into her outflow to connect to her filaments, washing our faces as well.

From the wife of Otorongo we went to Otorongo Cocha and meditated there. Américo informed us that the laguna is the “place of the jaguar,” and he added that at times the laguna gives off an intense light. I approached the edge of the laguna carefully, as the turf overhung the water, and I laid down to stare into its depths. It was very deep, its walls went straight down, and I could not see its bottom. There under the water, directly below me, a large rock, like the head of a monster, stared back up at me from the depths.

It began to rain again, and Américo led us to an overhang under a large boulder. The opening under the overhang was so low that only the people at the entrance could sit up, and those of us who moved in a little further to make room for others had to lay propped on an elbow. Américo told us that this place was well known as a haven from the ferocious lightning storms that can hit the area. We rested there for about a half an hour, looking through the rain at the world outside. Then, much to my surprise, hot chocolate appeared. Gayle had hauled a camping stove up from camp to give us a surprise treat.

When the rain abated a bit we climbed back on our horses and rode for another half hour to Américo’s hut sitting on the banks of a laguna. As we arrived it began to rain very hard, mixed with hail. The stone hut was small but we could all crowd into it. The place had a raised area that looked large enough for two people to sleep on, and a small place for a cooking fire across from the door. The thatched roof was in great disrepair. Américo said that he hadn’t been there for a while, and that now that he saw what shape it was in he was going to have to arrange for someone to come and fix the roof.

We sat huddled together in the small space, sharing body warmth, for some time while it rained hard outside. After a while Américo announced that it was time for us to go back to the homestead, and that the other ceremonies he had talked about our doing on this day were canceled due to weather. He said we would do some ceremonies and meditations in the morning to make up for it. He asked if we would be willing to walk back to camp. We had completed much of the loop. It was not too far back (just a few miles), and after a little bit of climbing it would be mostly downhill. He added that it would not be safe for the horses to carry us downhill in that weather. We said “sure”.

We started off. It was raining hard, it was cold, and it was starting to get dark. My jacket continued to keep the wet off of the upper part of my body (I was now wearing my big sweater,) but I was COLD. My old rain pants were not holding up too well after hours of strong rain, and water had soaked all of the way through my leather boots. Despite the rain I could hear the squish squish squish of my wet stockinged feet inside my boots as I walked. We hiked up and up and up through the clouds and over the rolling terrain at 17,000 feet. The rain turned to hail and started to sting my face. With the darkness and the weather we could not see very far ahead, maybe only 30 yards. There was no trail and no obvious landmarks to follow. We walked for another hour in the hard rain and hail, stopping many times for Américo and Manuel to confer about what would be the right direction to go. At times Américo would point one way, and Manuel another. When that happened Américo would concede to Manuel. We walked on and on in the high altitude through the dark and cold and rain and hail and I was getting exhausted, but of course we just had to keep going. Finally, to my relief and surprise, we walked right into the homestead.

The four of us, and Américo, retreated into our stone hut. I changed into dry pants and dry socks, but I had no shoes to wear as I had only brought my boots and they were soaked through. I sat huddled up with Américo under a llama pelt, colder than comfortable but warmer than shivering. Through the doorway I saw that as it was getting darker the rain and hail had turned into wet snow. And it snowed and snowed and snowed. I felt nicely safe inside the stone house, but I looked outside and worried about the next day when we were scheduled to return to Tinki.

Arilu popped into the hut and joined us for a while, then left to help the young men who were cooking our dinner. Américo informed us that we would not be able to ride the horses tomorrow on our return to Tinki, for it is unsafe for them to be ridden in the snow. He thought that if we walked about 1/2 way back we might get below the snow line and be able to ride from there. He said that it only snows about 5 times a year here. He then added that this was a regional (not just a local) snow storm, and that as all the roads to and from Tinki climb over high passes our bus would probably not be able to make it to Tinki to take us back to Cusco.

That put me into worry mode. Our plans were to spend the next day riding back to Tinki, the day after that we were to travel to Cusco, and the morning after that I was to fly home. This trip to Peru happened to fit into my Spring break at the University. My department had given me permission to miss the first two days of Spring Semester, and before I left I had made arrangements to have my classes covered on those days. Now I was suddenly looking at a delay of who-knows-how-many-days in getting back to Cusco and then having to find a new flight back home during the busy tourist season. Looking out at the snow, Américo and I joked about my conducting my classes telepathically, or by using the one radio in Tinki (they had no phones there). I became quiet as I started to run through in my head the various scenarios of getting back. Américo became quiet too, propping himself up on an elbow as he laid there, and looking pensive.

It got dark and continued to snow. Arilu came into the hut laughing, and announced that the weight of the snow had collapsed her tent while she was in it. We all said again, for about the sixth time, that there was room in our hut for more people, but she said ‘Not necessary, no problem’. So did Américo, though he promised again that he would move in if his tent was uncomfortable. I had brought a piece of heavy mil plastic, the length of my sleeping bag and twice as wide, with the thought that if we had poor shelter I could lay my bag on it and pull it up over the bag and protect it from the rain. I gave it to Arilu who said they could use it in the tents, as some of them had leaks.

I sat there thinking upon many things. Just how many days might we be stuck in Tinki? Are there any solutions to getting out quickly? Maybe four wheel drive vehicles, maybe helicopters. I don’t mind walking tomorrow, but what about our gear? We brought more than we could possibly carry back without horses. Can the horses carry our gear if they can’t carry us? I didn’t bring ALL that much stuff, could I carry it all that way without a pack though? Will we wait in Tinki until the snow clears, and then send the horses back for our gear? Might we get separated from our gear and have to return to the States without it? Would our gear really get back to us if we did? My mind went over and over the same questions, what if, but, and then, but then, or maybe…

My internal ruminations were interrupted by sounds coming into the hut from outside. Arilu and Gayle and their friends had gotten into a snowball fight. There was a lot of laughter and giggling going on. Eventually the Q’ero joined in. Arilu stuck her head in our hut to announce they were working on a ‘snow toy.’ After some thinking we realized she was talking about a snowman.

Many years later I was asking Américo for tips on how to run a good workshop. One of the things he told me was that when difficulties or problems arise it is important for the people running the workshop to model with their own behavior and energy how they want the group to respond to the situation.

Dinner arrived a while later in the form of delicious hot soup and bread. There was not a lot of it, but enough, delivered with the usual grace and efficiency and apologies that it wasn’t a fancier meal. It was wonderful to have a warm meal in my stomach. I pulled aside the cloth hanging over the window opening and looked out. In the darkness I could see, through the falling snow, a lone alpaca standing quietly on the slope of the hillside above us, in that deep silence that comes with a snow fall. It is a scene that is still clear in my memory as I write this. I pulled out my sleeping bag, took off several layers of clothes, and slipped into it with a sigh.

Even though I was exhausted, and finally warm, sleep evaded me for a while. Inside my mind all of the various scenarios for the next day, and for then getting home, paraded around. I had reached that point in the trip where my focus had shifted from being in Peru to being on the way home. The whole time I was lying there I heard Américo and Javiar out in their tent (some tent disaster had led them to sharing a tent.) They were setting each other off, laughing and laughing in great merriment. I slowly drifted off to sleep listening to their laughter.

The night was far from over for me. Twice I had to get up and go out to pee. This was only noteworthy for two reasons. The first was that it was such an ordeal. I had to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag and hurriedly put on the least number of layers that I could get away with. That included putting on my very cold, wet, socks as my boots were soaked and I didn’t want my dry socks to get wet. Then I had to tromp out in the snow, mud, and slush. The second was my discovery of something that glows in the dark. I had tromped out of the compound with shoe laces flying to get far enough away to relieve myself, and though I had my flashlight with me I didn’t need it and wasn’t using it. Much to my surprise I saw something glowing green in the icy slush. It was about the size of a marble. It looked like some sort of plant, and was buried about a half an inch under the ice. I turned on my flashlight to get a better look at it but could only see the reflection of my flashlight on the ice. I turned my flashlight back off and there it was again, glowing under the ice. I kicked at the spot with my heel but didn’t get down far enough to reach whatever was causing the green glow. I assume it was a phosphorescent fungus or plant of some sort. Hmm. One of life’s minor mysteries.

Later that night I awoke to a big headache, nausea, and a racing heart rate. Those are symptoms of altitude sickness. It had been a very arduous day at 17,000 feet. Before we left Tinki, Bob had given me an alka seltzer package in case I happened to get altitude sickness (he had heard that it helps). I tried that and then laid back down, still feeling rotten. I didn’t know a lot about altitude sickness, but I knew that it can be fatal and that the only way to cure it is to get down to a lower altitude. I didn’t know how serious my case was. My mind worked on this like a dog worrying a rag doll. I started thinking about the challenges of getting back down the mountain in a snowstorm. I would have to walk as we could not ride the horses. I wondered how high rescue helicopters can fly and if anyone could go get one, if it came to that. I wondered how far down the mountain I had to go to recover, and so on. Despite all of these worried ruminations, I was so exhausted that I did eventually manage to get back to sleep. In the morning Judy gave me some medication that her doctor had prescribed for altitude sickness and that helped.

The planned morning meditations and energy work were scrapped in favor of an early start for our trip back to Tinki. We had breakfast outside on a tarp spread out on the ground. It had stopped snowing during the night but it was very soggy, muddy, mushy, and slushy. With all my layers of clothing on I was not exactly cold, but in the pre-coffee morning I was not exactly warm enough either.

Before we left, however, something important came up that trumped both our meditations and our leaving early, don Manuel had asked if we would be willing to become godparents to one of his young daughters. The ceremony began soon after breakfast. It involved, among other things, our each cutting a snippet of her hair, and giving the family presents. We all rustled through our packs to see what we had to give, in addition to what money we had to offer. I gave them a Western cloth bandana, a backpacking clothes line with clothespins, and at Arilu’s suggestion my large plastic ground cloth (which she said they would find useful).

The Children of don Manuel, Guardian of Ausangate, 15,000 feet

In honor of the occasion, Manuel and his family gave us a feast, which was quite a sacrifice given their meager living at 15,000 feet. The feast consisted of boiled potatoes and roasted guinea pig. I knew that guinea pigs, living as household pets, were a source of meat in the Andes. It was an honor for don Manuel’s family to share their limited food resources with us, and I wasn’t going to say ‘no thanks’ to what they offered us. Besides, I wanted to be adventurous and fully experience being in Peru and give it a try. I want to inform you, guinea pig does not taste like chicken. It was hard for me to eat my whole serving, but I got it down.

All but two of the Q’ero had left early in the morning before we awoke to walk across the mountains to their villages. The previous night, don Pascual had given us a little ceremonial speech. He said he remembered us from our trip the previous year. He gave us a warm invitation to come to the Q’ero villages as his guests, saying how glad he was that we had for a while shared the same path. That morning don Pascual and don Bonito had hung around. I was delighted, as don Pascual and don Bonito were the two Q’ero I felt closest to. Don Pascual was a particularly good friend and guardian of don Américo, who referred to Pascual as “The Merlin of the Andes.” He was somewhere between 70 and 80 years old, and still jumped nimbly in and out of the back of pickup trucks, and walked days on end through the mountains to get to Cusco from his home in Q’ero. Don Bonito was notable to me for his ready and beautiful smiles. As I could only speak three phrases in Quechua, smiling was the main way I communicated with him. I was happy to spend some time with them in the morning. When they left to return to Q’ero, don Pascual gave me an affectionate little kiss goodbye on my neck (he was much shorter than me.) I was touched. After the good-byes don Pascual and don Bonito threw their cloth bundles over their shoulders and climbed up the hill on their way back to Q’ero, walking through the snow in their sandals.

Much later than we had originally planned, the rest of us headed down the mountain. Américo told us that the horses could carry our gear safely, but not us, and so we proceed on foot. As we crossed the creek rushing down from Apu Ausangate I stopped to select some quyas (sacred stones) for myself and for my friends back in Cedar City. Américo informed us that the creek was the headwater of the Paucartambo river, which flows past Salka Wasi on its way to the Amazon.

We hiked down the mountain valley for a couple of hours in a light rain, stopping twice to meditate and to connect again with the Apu. It felt good to be walking. My altitude sickness had gone and I felt healthy and very fit. The snow on the ground continued to diminish as we headed down, and eventually Américo told us that we could get on the horses. After crossing the cascading stream again, which was now quite a bit larger, we turned off the trail for a little ways and arrived at some hot springs! Most everyone stripped down to their underwear, or had brought swim suits, and they climbed gratefully into the hot water.

Now this was ironic! My wife Betsy has been so supportive of my spending time, money, and energy going to Peru to work with Américo, and I am extremely grateful. Before this trip she asked me to make a few promises that would help her feel more secure about my safety in Peru.

One of the promises she asked was that I not do any drugs while I was in Peru. There are three major shamanistic or mystical traditions in Peru. The tradition found on the coast of Peru uses San Pedro cactus for healing and religious divination. Along with many other alkaloids San Pedro contains mescaline. The tradition found in the jungles of Peru uses the entheogenic brew ayahuasca. The tradition of the high Andes, at least as I have experienced it, involves working directly with energy, without the assistance of plant medicine. Dividing the Peruvian traditions into only three categories, of course, erases many of the differences that can be found among the local traditions. There is also an amount of overlap where a paq’o might be trained in more than one tradition. I had never done drugs as part of my work with Américo but I had benefited from exploring psychedelics earlier in my life and I didn’t want to rule it out. So, this was a promise from which I asked to be excused. It did not prove to be relevant.

She also asked that I not go swimming while in Peru. We had a friend who had recently returned from Mexico with some horrible bug that he picked up while swimming in a stream there. I quickly said yes to this request. I mean, what were the odds that I would have a chance to go swimming when I would never be below 11,000 feet in the Andes?

So here I was at a hot spring at about 13,000 feet with everyone having a great time relaxing in the hot water after all of the cold we had endured on the mountain. I really believed that hot springs were perfectly safe and that Betsy would probably agree and not mind me going swimming. But, a promise is a promise. I wanted to be impeccable and to honor my side of this beautiful dance with Betsy. Everyone seemed surprised that I didn’t join in, and Américo invited me to join them a couple of times. I also didn’t want to explain why I wasn’t joining them, as that would come across as laying the responsibility on Betsy’s shoulders. I had agreed to this, and it was completely my responsibility that I wasn’t going swimming. So, I just kept saying “no thanks,” and sat by the pool chatting with everyone.

After a nice break we got back on our horses and continued down the mountain. It began to rain again. Then it started hailing, really hard, pummeling us painfully. We were on the wide, treeless slope slanting down from the peaks, and there was absolutely no shelter anywhere in sight. When the hail hit, our horses bolted and the four of us went racing down the slope, our horses dangerously out of control. We quickly left everyone far behind.

That ride was quite a challenge for me. I am larger than most Peruvians, and my stirrups were so small that I could only get about a half an inch of the toes of my boots into them. My boots kept slipping out and it was very hard to get them back into the stirrups while riding a horse charging down a mountain side. The worst of the hail storm passed and our horses slowed down. Ahead we could see the men who were waiting to collect the horses and take them back home. We turned the horse over to them and walked the rest of the way.

This was much more like it. We were tired and still a few miles away from Tinki, but it had stopped raining and hailing, the walking felt good after riding the horses, and our sense of adventure had returned. Here we were, the four of us, in one of the most remote places on the planet, having shared much together, having put so much into pursuing the path that our hearts have called upon us to travel, walking through the Andes of Peru. With the prospect of (relative) civilization ahead of us we began to speculate on what we would most wish Tinki could provide. For me it was a bar or a coffee shop. Of course it had neither.

After 45 minutes of walking we were more tired than excited as we approached a little, run-down village on the edge of the river valley overlooking Tinki. As we neared the scattering of houses a middle-aged man emerged from one of them and prepared to mount a horse. He was wearing red clothes, like a uniform but not a military uniform, more like what I imagine a Peruvian landowner might have worn fifty years earlier. He had a round face, short black hair, and a thin mustache. He turned towards us and saw us as we approached. His face became flushed and distorted with anger. He leapt upon his horse, gave out a shout as if he was riding into battle with a drawn saber, and charged down the road at us. The four of us jumped to the side of the road. It flashed through my mind that it would be Bob’s and my duty to protect Gina and Judy.

The man, however, charged past us and disappeared down the road. We all turned and looked at each other with a “what the hell was that all about?” look, and then continued walking toward the village. As we entered the village a very drunk Andean man wove towards me with a bottle in his hand and offered me a drink and asked for money. I turned down both–which made him angry–and he shouted at me as we continued on. As we passed through the village some children began to yell insults at us from behind some low walls and a few tossed pebbles in our direction. That was all so weird, unlike anything I’ve encountered in Peru before or since, and our guardians were who-knows-where, left behind in the wake of our bolting horses. We ignored the children and did the equivalent of a cat’s 30 mph nonchalant walk (where they hurry while looking as if they are not concerned). I was so exhausted that it was hard to pick up speed, or even think straight about how to get to Tinki. We conferred together and then turned down a dirt path that had a small stream flowing in the middle of it, leading down into the floor of the river valley. That took us to Tinki.

We made it to the hostal and wearily climbed up the stairs to our room. A nice warm bed to collapse upon! But first, I hung my wet clothes on the railing of the balcony to dry. Finally, I could lay down and rest, gather my ‘wa’ (harmony), and recover in safety and warmth. Gayle was there to greet us, he must have taken a more direct route to Tinki. Before he left on an errand he let us know that the bus would arrive as scheduled tomorrow morning.

It didn’t take long, lying there comfortably in my bed, for my thoughts to turn to how nice it would be to have a glass of wine, a thought that when expressed was endorsed enthusiastically by Gina and Judy. I hadn’t seen any signs of commercial enterprise in Tinki, just a row of adobe buildings about the size of small houses. When I offered to venture forth to see if I could find some wine, the women expressed their appreciation and sincere wishes for my success. I left the hostal and stood in the dirt road that is the main street through the town. I didn’t know in which direction to turn, and I started walking up the road back towards Apu Ausangate.

After about 100 yards I approached five men sitting on crates in front of a small building. My recent experience had spooked me somewhat, and as I approached I considered whether this was safe. Then I saw that Américo and Javier were among them. As I approached, Américo waved for me to join them. They were sitting in a circle on overturned beer crates in front of the doorway to a general store. It was a small, one-room, store, with shelves stacked with a variety of items and an apparently bountiful supply of beer. Américo turned over a crate for me to sit on, poured some beer from a quart bottle he was holding into a paper cup, and handed it to me. Well, this was a great turn of events!

Everyone was in a jolly mood. Américo spoke to the others in Quechua and then turned to me and said that he had just told them what a great waiki (brother) I am. Then he said some very nice things to me as well, about what he thought about me. He also complemented our group, saying how impressed the people here were with our energy, and with the dedication to our path we exhibited by visiting Apu Ausangate before the rainy season was over. I tried to buy some more beer to contribute to the festivities but Américo wouldn’t hear of it, and insisted in a most friendly way that he buy the next round as well. So I sat there very contently drinking my beer.

I thought…well… I could just finish this first cup of beer and then go report to Judy, Gina, and Bob. Before I did, however, Gina and Judy appeared, having gone out to find out what the heck had happened to me. Américo greeted them affectionately as well, poured them some beer, and gave us all a friendly toast.

It slowly got dark. The inside of the store was illuminated by a single oil lamp, its light flowed out the open door to where we were gathered outside. That, and the stars above were our only light. For all of my love and deep appreciation of mysticism; sitting there on an overturned beer crate, at night, outside that small store with its oil lamp, in an incredibly remote village high in the Andes, drinking beer with Américo and the locals, remains one of my all-time favorite memories of Peru.

Eventually, Gayle appeared and informed us that dinner was waiting back at the hostal. We all headed back, walking down the dark dirt, road side-by-side with our arms around each other’s waists. At the hostal we had a very good and wholesome dinner of soup, rice, fish and potatoes and the four of us went upstairs to bed.

The next morning we heard that Américo had spent all of his money buying food for the villagers. It had begun when he bought some cookies for the children of his friends who were there. He didn’t want to leave the other children out so he bought them some cookies as well. More and more people showed up and he didn’t have the heart (or had too much heart) to stop buying various food supplies for them.

Arilu asked me if I had any pain medication for toothaches. Don Manuel, our host at Apu Ausangate, and who had accompanied us back to Tinki, had a very bad toothache. I wondered if that is why he declined the offer to drink with us at the store last night, and why he had been so quiet. I gave her the rest of my pain medication and explained how often it should be taken, but I worried about him. What happens when the medication is gone, how will he get relief?

My thoughts had definitely turned to getting home. We needed to reach Cusco that day if I was to catch my flight the next morning. The day after I returned to Cedar City there was an important faculty meeting for me to attend. That morning, when our bus had successfully navigated the very rough road leading out of Tinki and had reached the point where it was a nice, flat, wide dirt road, I gave off a big sigh of relief. It was time for me to be home.

It took us about seven hours to drive back to Cusco. That night Américo took us out to eat. It was a lovely and affectionate meal together. The next morning the four of us went out to have breakfast (my flight wasn’t until 10:30.) We went to a restaurant on the Plaza de Armas that had tables on a balcony overlooking the square. I didn’t like it. It is one of those places that catered to Americans and Europeans, with rock and roll music, and no flavor of Peru. As we sat out on the balcony I watched the army march into the square. They were there to provide security for the ceremonies that morning, it was Easter.

Later, Arilu came by in her VW Bug to take me to the airport, arriving at my hostal only a half an hour before my flight was scheduled to depart. Then much to my consternation she stopped for gas and to get air in the tires on the way to the airport. She informed me that Américo had plans to meet me there. When we arrived at the airport she marched me right to the front of the line at the ticket counter and got me my does she do that?

I had my boarding pass. Still no Américo. Arilu and I shared hugs and presents. I said good-bye, and then I passed through the security gate into the ticketed passengers-only concourse. I walked down to the gate and got in line to board the plane. I looked up and there was Américo coming rapidly down the terminal accompanied by a security officer whom Américo introduced as his ‘dear friend.’ Américo gave me a hug and a quya from Ausangate, and I was off.

The person sitting next to me on the flight to Lima was named Jose. He spoke little English and I tried to carry on a conversation in Spanish, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t know enough Spanish, and I was tired, tired, tired. I broke into a cold sweat. I didn’t want to cope with any more challenges. I just wanted to be left alone. Now that I was back in the domesticated world I realized just how exhausted I was from the trip.

At Lima I had a 12 hour layover. I felt in no condition to cope with going into the city so I decided to wait around at the airport. I had heard that there was a first class lounge that I could pay a small fee to use, and once inside I could relax in an area that was comfortable and safe. I found it and paid the entrance fee. It was a dimly lit room with no windows and no other customers. If I were a ‘member’ I would have gotten free booze, but I needed to pay as I was not. The staff treated me as a second class citizen. When some other customers finally came in, they looked down their noses at me and appeared to be talking about me quietly, with disparaging glances in my direction.

My flight to the U.S. was scheduled to leave at 1:00 AM. The airline’s ticket counter had a sign saying that it was closed and would open at 5:00 PM. Finally, after many hours in the lounge, it was almost time to go check in. I arrived at the ticket counter at 4:45. At 5:10 the staff arrived. When I went to check-in they said that my flight had been canceled. They directed me to another airline that had a later flight.

So, I went to the other airline and they had a flight leaving about 3:30 A.M. It was fully booked but they expected some no-shows, so they put me on standby status. I really couldn’t stand the idea of waiting around until 3:30 in the morning to find out if I could leave or not, so I asked if there was any way I could simply buy a real ticket. They said I couldn’t.

There was nothing to do but wait some more. I went up the stairs to a snack bar that was located on a balcony overlooking the terminal, bought a burger and a shake, and just sat there for a couple more hours. The airport seemed particularly dirty that night. I reflected on the fact that I was in a dirty, dimly lit, third-world airport, thousands and thousands of miles away from home, and I just wanted to go home.

At 1:00 A.M. I decided to head on out to the gate. At about 2:00 the staff showed up. I approached them and asked them about my standby status and they informed me that I had a reserved seat, I never had been on standby. At 3:30 the plane took off, accompanied by a loud bang that I worried meant that we would have to turn around and land, but we didn’t. Some of the others on the plane must have been in a similar strait to mine, for as the wheels left the ground the passengers broke into applause. About fourteen hours later, with almost no sleep, I arrived home.

I have a couple of photographs of me from the day I got back. Both were taken in my backyard, one of Betsy and me, and the other of me and my young sons. Américo had said, a few days into both of my trips to Peru, that my face had changed to look like the face of an angel. After returning home from this trip, other people commented on the ‘softness’ of my expression. This soft appearance slowly wore off as I re-emerged into the domesticated demands of my normal life. In looking at my face in those two photographs, I do look like an angel…one who has gone through a wringer.


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My First Trip to Peru (with photos)

Draft 2.4: Photos added to the story (they enter the story after I get to Cusco).  A few of the photos were pulled from later trips when I just couldn’t find a good enough pict from Trip 1. Note: clicking on a photo will open a larger version of it in a new tab.

The “Andean Cosmovision” refers to the way the indigenous people of the high Andes perceive and interact with reality. It is fundamentally different than the Western worldview. The Cosmovision is not a set of concepts or beliefs, it cannot be described or encompassed with words. It can, however, be experienced and thus it can be explored. I have been exploring the Andean Cosmovision for the past 26 years under the tutelage and guidance of my friend and mentor don Américo Yábar, and with the assistance of his son Gayle Yábar.

In 2014 I published a book, The Andean Cosmovision: A Path for Exploring Profound Aspects of Ourselves, Nature, and the Cosmos (see The Andean Cosmovision ) which included many Andean meditations that can serve as portals for entering and exploring the Cosmovision. I later published several additional meditations in this blog. I then, essentially, ran out of things to say, as I had given as much ‘how-to” information as I could share, and the topic is one that simply cannot be approached through intellectual descriptions and explanations.

There is, however, another way to share some of the beautiful and significant aspects of the Andean Cosmovision without becoming pedantic (and subsequently losing its essence), and that is through stories. Stories have the ability to deliver a level of understanding that can’t be delivered in any other way. I have decided to write a book of stories that share my experiences of working with don Américo. The following story of my first trip to Peru is the first I have written and will probably serve as the third chapter of the book. As with my previous book, I have decided to write (and post) the chapters in the order in which they want to be written, and then later go back and polish them up and arrange them in an order that is reasonable (or better yet…artistic).

I hope that for those of you who have not worked with Américo in Peru that these stories will give you a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the Andean Cosmovision. And for those of you who have worked with Américo in Peru, I hope that you find some delight in reading a description of the people and places and experiences that you know so well.

Due to the length of this post I have also made it available to be downloaded as a PDF (but without the photos) at I hope you enjoy it.


[In the first two chapters–yet to be written–I describe how I met don Américo Yábar, a mystic and poet from the Andes of Peru; how he offered to serve as my mentor in an exploration of the Andean Cosmovision; and his invitation for me to come to Peru to work with him there. I also introduce Tom Best, who organized several Américo workshops in the United States, including the workshop in which I first met Américo two years before I traveled to Peru.]

In 1996, Tom Best arranged to take a small group, including myself, to travel to Peru to work with Américo. Our plans were to meet Américo in Cusco, and then travel with him up into the high Andes to his ancestral house, called “Salka Wasi” (Quechua–the language of the Andes–for the “House of Undomesticated Energy”). We were also going to have the opportunity to work with paq’os from Q’ero.

The term paq’o does not have a direct corresponding term in English. It is often translated as mystic or shaman. I would say that mystic is closer to the mark.

Q’ero is a very remote region high in the Andes, near the sacred mountain Apu Ausangate. The people who live there are referred to as the Q’ero. They are considered to be among the purest keepers of the ancient Andean view of reality (the Andean Cosmovision). The Q’ero live in isolated villages high in the Andes. They were first “discovered” by the anthropologist Dr. Oscar Nuñez del Prado who encountered them during a fiesta in the town of Paucartambo in 1955. Since then they have become rather famous, due to their open-hearted willingness to share their knowledge with the people of the West.

My story begins with me sitting in the international terminal of the Los Angeles airport awaiting my flight to Lima, Peru. I had flown to Los Angeles earlier that morning from the small airport in St. George, Utah, an hour drive south from Cedar City (my home at the time). St. George had flights to L.A., but the airport was so small that passengers had to walk outdoors onto the tarmac and then up a flight of movable stairs to get into the plane. As I climbed up the stairs my wife Betsy, and my two sons, Ben and Christopher (eight and four years old) were waving at me from the fence along the tarmac. Betsy cried when I left them at the gate, not tears of “please don’t go” but tears of “you are flying so far away, please be safe”. I teared up as well as I looked at them through the plane’s window and waved goodbye, not sure if they could see me.

A couple of hours later I was sitting in the LAX airport, and I was scared. Really scared. I was about to travel 4,000 miles from my home, to another continent, to another hemisphere of the planet, to a third world country, of whose language I only knew about 100 words , by myself.

As I sat there in the terminal I thumbed through again the various cautionary notes from my guidebook to Peru (The Peru Travel Survival Kit, by Lonely Planet).

Peru has a reputation for thievery and, unfortunately, it is fully warranted…By taking some basic precautions and exercising a reasonable amount of vigilance, you probably won’t get robbed…It’s good to know that armed theft is not as frequent as sneak theft and you should remember that crowded places are the haunts of pickpockets…Snatch theft is also common so don’t wear gold necklaces and expensive wristwatches or you’re liable to have them snatched from your body…Thieves often work in pairs or groups. Whilst your attention is being distracted, one thief is robbing you–whether it be a bunch of kids fighting in front of you, an old lady ‘accidentally’ bumping into you, someone dropping something on your clothes, the possibilities go on and on. The only thing you can do is to try, as much as possible, to avoid being in very tight crowds and to stay alert, especially when something out of the ordinary occurs…To worry you further, there are the razor blade artists…They simply slit open your luggage with a razor blade when you’re not looking…When walking with my large pack, I move fast and avoid stopping which makes it difficult for anyone intent on cutting the bag. If I have to stop, at a street crossing for example, I tend to gently sway from side to side so I can feel if anyone is touching my pack and I look around a lot…One of the best solutions to the rip-off problem is to travel with a friend and to watch one another.

Definitely avoid any conversations with someone who offers you drugs. In fact, talking to any stranger on the street can hold risks. It has happened that travelers who have talked to strangers have been stopped soon after by ‘plain clothes’ police officers and accused of talking to a drug dealer. In such a situation, never get into a vehicle with the ‘police’, but insist on going to a bona fide police station on foot. Be wary of false or crooked police who prey on tourists…

It is a good idea to carry an emergency kit….

This guerrilla organization Sendero Luminoso controls and terrorizes some of the remoter parts of Peru…there is now evidence that the Sendero and the drug cartels are connected in their attempts to disrupt the stability of Peru and some of the drug growing regions of Peru are now dangerous to travel in….The routes to avoid at this time are….

As I looked up from my book at the people who were also waiting for our plane. I could see that most of them were Peruvian and they were not speaking English. I had been very much looking forward to experiencing the Peruvian culture, but in my anxiety I now saw them as being alien, different, and that was scary. I yearned for the safety and comfort of familiarity. “I could be home right now”, I thought. “I could be sitting on my couch, safe and comfortable at home, with my family, watching football on the TV. I could just change my mind and go back home instead!” When the call came to board our plane to Peru, however, I stood up and joined the line filing onto the boarding ramp.

Years earlier, when I was a young man, I went sky diving. Once. It was important to me at the time to do something that I knew logically was safe but that would scare the beejeebees out of me. I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I would not let fear, a fear that was not grounded upon real danger, stop me from doing something. It was the type of sky diving where we jumped out of the plane on our own, connected to a static line that would automatically pull out our chute after a fall of several seconds (at least that was the theory). Something that contributed to the whole fear experience for me was that we didn’t just jump out of a door. When it was our turn we had to step out onto the wheel of the small plane, and reach out to the strut leading up to the wing, step off the wheel and dangle there until we were told to let go. I, obviously, survived, and I had nightmares for about a year after that, finding myself once again in the plane on the way up, so incredibly scared, and wondering why in the world I was doing it again.

We were scheduled to spend 10 days with don Américo in Peru. I was arriving a week early, giving myself a day to see Lima and then several days to explore Cusco before meeting up with Américo. I was visiting Lima just because I thought I might as well as long as I had to go through there on the way to Cusco. Lima did not have a good reputation as a tourist spot. Unlike Cusco, which was the ancient capital of the Inca empire, Lima was built by the conquistadores after the conquest of the Incas. It thus had no interesting pre-colonial ruins. It had a population of around 6 million people, many of them having moved down from the Andes and living in poverty in shanties around the city. It also had the reputation as being a relatively dangerous place to visit. I had reserved a room in a hotel about five blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the city square.

On the flight down I connected with a few people who were also going to Peru for the first time, and who seemed as nervous about it as I was. We made some tentative plans to meet in Cusco, seeking some reassurance from not being completely alone in our travels, but those plans ended up not coming to fruition. Eventually, I fell asleep in my seat, and awoke to an announcement that we were preparing to land, with an accompanying surge of adrenalin.

We arrived around midnight. I got off the plane in a strange mental state that was part adrenalin and part lack of sleep. It was a very surrealistic scene. Lima is on the coast, the air was heavy with humidity, and the lights were surrounded by globes of illumination. The air smelt of the sea, mixed with industrial pollutants and the aroma of a large city. Teenage soldiers carrying sub machine guns stood sentry on the roof of the airport and wandered around on the tarmac. The walk from the plane to customs took us down a series of long, long hallways, seemingly circling the airport a couple of times.

I made it through customs ok. Following the guidebook, I went to a counter in the airport that arranges for taxi rides. The guidebook warned that while there are many taxi drivers waiting outside the airport doors to offer rides, that this was definitely not a safe option, as some of those are not really taxi drivers and they may take you some place to rob you. Using the taxi arranged by the airport tourist counter, I made it safely to my hotel, after about an hour drive that included sudden shortcuts down small side streets that led me to wonder if I was being taken to a place to be robbed. The hotel catered to business people and was fairly nice. The door to my room was located inside the stair well, which seemed rather strange. The room was ok but the hotel had no air conditioning. I opened the window and eventually fell asleep to the sounds of bar music and loud conversations wafting up from the street seven stories below.

The next morning I set out to explore the Plaza de Armas. I knew I was only five blocks away but I stopped at the front desk of the hotel to ask the best way to get there. They informed me, quite sincerely, that I should not go out on the streets at all as it would not be safe. When it became clear that I was going to anyway, they added, “Today is Sunday. You should know that the police do not work on Sundays.” That was certainly something I had not considered. But, I just decided to go anyway. I thought the most likely crime I would encounter would be robbery or pickpocketing, and I didn’t take much money with me on the walk. I am taller than most Peruvians, and I tried to fluff up and look bigger, holding my arms a bit out from my sides, and I made it a point to look very alert. It wasn’t a relaxed stroll. But still, it was interesting and stimulating. I reached the Plaza to find it rather unimpressive, just old and dirty post-colonial buildings. Standing on the edge of the square, looking it over, I was approached by a roguish looking young man, in manner and dress he reminded me of Michael Douglas in the movie “Romancing the Stone”. After establishing that I didn’t need any of his tourist opportunities we engaged in a friendly chat, and he gave me some advice about traveling to Cusco.

I returned to the hotel early, and later that night went to the hotel bar to get a drink. The bar took up the entire top floor of the hotel, the windows looked out on the smog of Lima. There was only one other customer, a business man. We struck up a brief conversation but had little in common. He seemed rather depressed or discouraged.

That was my experience of Lima. I have since traveled through Lima many, many times on my way to or from Cusco. After that first trip, if I have had a long enough layover to need a room, I have always taken a taxi to Mira Flores, a nice outlaying area along the coast where most of the embassies are located.

My flight to Cusco the next morning was scheduled to leave at 6:00 AM. I arrived at the Lima airport around 4:00. Flying into Cusco is a bit dicey. It is located at 11,000 feet and flights there are often cancelled due to poor weather. Approaching planes have to turn and dive into the Cusco valley which is surrounded by high mountains. If the weather isn’t quite right then planes can’t safely land. My guidebook warned me that sometimes flights will leave earlier than scheduled to take advantage of a break in the weather at Cusco.

The Lima airport in those days was rundown and dirty. Gates didn’t list the departing flights and, due to my lack of Spanish and the distortions of the PA system, I couldn’t understand a thing that was being said in the announcements. I approached a friendly looking, older woman, and managed to communicate that I wanted to compare tickets. I saw that she was on the same flight as me. At some point, the loudspeakers said “WNXDS UHJDR DWEFR XAMD!” and about half the people sitting around me got up and moved to another gate. I saw that she was one of them so I followed her.

Our plane took off just as it was starting to get light. Thanks to my trusty guidebook I had chosen a window seat on the side of the plane that usually has the best view of the Andean mountains. We climbed above the clouds. I had to struggle mightily against lack of sleep, and the warmth and hum of the plane, to stay awake. Outside, the top of the clouds turned pink from the sunrise, and then suddenly there were the Andean peaks soaring up through the clouds! Oh my God, they were so majestic and beautiful.

It only takes about an hour to fly from Lima to Cusco. The plane banked steeply and dropped down into the Cusco valley. As the plane landed I had to once again slip into survival mode (anxiety and adrenalin) to face the great unknowns of making my way through a strange land and knowing so little of the language. While Lima had been warm and humid, when I got off the plane in Cusco it was cold, and the air was noticeably thin.

As I walked into the Cusco airport I heard live Andean music playing, it ended up being from a group performing by the luggage carousels. The people around me were excited and happy to be in Cusco. I started to shift from being scared to being excited myself, but I was wondering whether or not the transportation that Américo had promised would indeed be waiting for me outside the airport, and contemplating what I would do if it wasn’t. I picked up my bags and walked out of the doors into the parking lot and the cold morning sunshine.

In the crowd of taxi drivers waiting outside the door was a darling young woman (in her early twenties), Américo’s daughter Arilu, calling out my name and then waving enthusiastically at me when our eyes met. She gave me a big friendly hug, and offered to take my big duffle bag, which like a dazed idiot I handed over to her . She struggled for a few feet with it before it was scooped up by a personable and handsome young man (in his late teens) who was Gayle, her brother. He gave me a friendly hug hello and introduced me to two of his friends who had also come along to pick me up. We all piled into two cars and they drove me to my hostal, The Maria Rosa, located on the Avenida Sol (“The Avenue of the Sun”) about six blocks from the main square, the Plaza de Armas.

They took my luggage into the hostal and helped me to register. Then Arilu sat me down and served me some coca tea, which helps the body acclimate to high altitudes. After talking with me for a bit and being assured that I was ok, they took off, promising that someone would contact me soon to fill me in on the plans. I felt like I had been enveloped in the loving arms of my own family, it was like having my brother live in town. I knew that they would make sure I was ok and be there (and care) if there were any problems. I began to relax.

Hostals are a type of lodging found in Spain and Hispanic America. They are essentially hotels but somewhat smaller and less expensive, and usually owned and run by a family. The Maria Rosa had cinder block walls, a very thin and worn carpet, was somewhat rundown, and was very clean. Spartan, rundown, clean describes many places I’ve stayed at in the Andes. The proprietors were two very friendly, middle aged, Peruvian women. The place was cold for it had no heating. Despite Cusco being at 11,000 feet, almost none of the buildings–including restaurants, hostals, government buildings, and museums–have heat. The only exceptions I can think of are some of the fancier hotels. People there just live with the cold. That Peru is fairly equatorial helps keep it from being too amazingly cold–it rarely snows in Cusco–still it is a very noticeable part of being there. Often the hostals will provide–if you ask–a portable electric space heater for your room. No space heaters were available at the Maria Rosa, and the toilets did not have toilet seats. This is very common. Toilets in restrooms and lower scale hostals typically don’t have toilet seats. My friend Oscar once asked about this when we were in Peru, and was told that many places don’t provide toilet seats because they just get stolen. For both of us, our reaction was, “really”?

Tom Best was scheduled to arrive a few days later, right before our time with Américo was scheduled to start. I had arrived several days early to explore Cusco, as had the other three participants in this adventure; Bob, Judy, and Gina. Bob was my roommate and had arrived in town a day before me. He was out when I arrived and I climbed into bed and fell asleep, this was about 9:00 in the morning. Around 11:00 there was a gentle knock on my door and I opened it to the woman from the front desk who informed me that Arilu had called to let me know that Américo would drop by the hostal at 1:00 that afternoon to welcome me to Peru.

Shortly before 1:00 I went downstairs to the hostal lobby, with my mind wrapped in that dull gray fog that comes from awaking from a nap after too little sleep. Following mystic/shaman time, Américo strode into the lobby from the street around 1:30, full of his usual love, energy, and presence, accompanied by Arilu to do the translating. Américo describes his English as being “catastrophic”, but it is still much better than my Spanish.

After being welcomed enthusiastically by the woman at the hostal desk, he gave me a friendly hug and we sat down at a table in the breakfast area. I have since been to Peru almost a score of times, and Américo almost always has arranged to meet me soon after I have arrived. On this first trip, I arrived with one and a half of my feet still planted in the Western view of reality. Getting to Peru takes a huge amount of time and effort, and a quite a bit of money. When I arrive I am usually at least a little ambivalent about being there, having to rely on my memory of previous times with Américo to assure myself that it will all be worthwhile. Then when I am there it becomes obvious to me that indeed it was worth it. As an irrelevant side note, this is similar to my experiences when I used to travel to Grateful Dead concerts. Which reminds me that at some point I decided that Américo was the Jerry Garcia of shamans…a reference that will be highly significant to a small minority of you.

Being in Américo’s energy that morning, with his enthusiasm for what we would be doing, and his affection, immediately transported me with both feet into the Andean Cosmovision. Suddenly I was present. I felt like my being there with Américo, getting ready to go on this adventure together, was the coolest thing going on at that moment on the planet. The Cosmos was our destination, our hearts the space ship, our minds the passengers, and with the help of many, many friends along the way, including the trees and the rivers and the stars and the majestic mountains and the night sky, and with the people who converse with them. Kind of like that. My first meeting with Américo each trip always has this effect on me.

During our conversation I mentioned to Américo that that day was my birthday. He was delighted, and after a moment’s reflection, said that he had a special treat in mind for me. He asked me to be at the hostal at 5:00 that afternoon, ready to spend some time outdoors in the evening, and to invite Bob, Judy, and Gina as well.

Bob arrived back at the hostal shortly after Américo left. Bob was a Hungarian-born, middle-aged man with a bushy mustache, thinning dark hair, and a dour visage. I was to find that at times, particularly in response to touching moments, his dour mask would slip away, his eyes would soften and a delighted smile would emerge on this face. We were to get along very well together. He had already explored Cusco some, and that afternoon he took me out to show me around.

Cusco was the capital city of the Inca Empire that stretched for 2500 miles along the Andean mountains, the biggest empire in the world at the time, until it was conquered by the Spanish conquistadors. Cusco is wonderful (it and Edinburgh have become my two favorite cities). It is not connected by rail to the coast, and the road from Lima to Cusco is long and arduous. As a result, the buildings are made of local materials, there are no tall buildings or skyscrapers, and most of the buildings in the main part of town are very old, some dating back to colonial times and built upon Inca ruins. All of the Inca temples and palaces in Cusco were destroyed by the Spanish but stretches of the Inca walls still exist in the city, often integrated into other structures. The city is also surrounded by many Inca ruins and sacred sites.

The sidewalks in modern Cusco are crowded with people offering to exchange currency, old women selling candies from trays, young tourists with backpacks, stylish looking business people smiling and chatting as they walk down the street, women dressed in traditional clothing with babies slung on their backs (the babies looking at me with wide eyes over their mothers’ shoulders), darling groups of children in uniform going to school, and beggars sitting on the sidewalk looking about as needy as a person can look. The streets are jammed with cars and taxis and minibuses. The driving strategy appears to be to floor it and honk at anything that might get in the way. Traffic lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule. My strategy for crossing the street without a traffic light involves standing next to a local women and her child and then leaping to join them when they cross the street.

Photo by Alyson Froehlich.

The Avenida El Sol (Avenue of the Sun) runs several blocks uphill to Cusco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas. Along the way it passes the remains of Coriconcha, the Court of Gold, the most famous temple of the Americas. The temple enclosure stretched hundreds of meters and housed 4,000 priests and attendants. Its walls were lined with gold and it contained a large golden disk positioned to catch the morning sun and illuminate the temple of the sun. It also contained a large silver disk that cast moonlight into the temple of the moon. In addition to these two temples there were shrines to Thunder and Lightning, to various stars, and to the Rainbow. Forty one sacred pathways, called ceques, radiated out from the temple into the rest of the Inca empire. Their alignments corresponded to the rising and setting of certain stars and constellations (including the Pleiades…which was important to the Incas), and the sun and the moon. Some ceques ran out to large monoliths standing on the mountainous horizons of the Cusco Valley, marking the azimuths of the winter and summer solstices, as well as critical dates for the planting of crops. Three hundred and twenty-seven huacas (sacred sites) were located on the ceques.

Coriconcha was completely destroyed by the Spanish, all of the gold and silver statues and idols were taken and melted down, and the virgins who attended the temple were raped. The Spanish then built the monastery of Santo Domingo over the ruins and Coriconcha disappeared. In 1950, however, a large earthquake leveled much of the monastery and revealed again the foundations of Coriconcha. The Incas had mastered the art of constructing stone walls and buildings that could withstand the many earthquakes that strike the region. Some effort was then taken to restore a small amount of the Inca temple, which now stands intermixed with the restored monastery. It is really not much to see as a ruin, but I love to go there and sit on one of the low walls overlooking the grass square below, and meditate, connecting with the energy of this place that the Incas selected as the center of their Cosmology.

Santo Domingo (the ruins of Coriconcha are in the white building to right).

Bob and I slowly walked up Avenida El Sol, past Coriconcha, to the Plaza de Armas. Cusco had hit me like a ton of bricks. The very high altitude, the cold, the intense sunlight, the crowds on the sidewalks, the honking horns, the diesel fumes, and just the energy of the city, were overwhelming. As we walked into the Plaza, vendors converged on us, trying to sells us hand-knitted gloves and sweaters, decorated gourds, watercolor paintings, hatbands, other various trinkets, and offering to shine my sneakers. They were surprisingly persistent, and would not take ‘no’ for an answer, or even ‘no, gracias’ repeated over and over again. I later discovered that the magic words to get them to go away was to say “possiblemente mas tarde” (“maybe later”). Also, after a day or two, once your are a familiar sight on the square, they largely stop approaching.

But at the time I was just being overwhelmed, with Cusco, with lack of sleep, with everything, and particularly with an indigenous woman who wanted me to buy one of her decorated gourds. She just wouldn’t give it up and followed me all around. Finally, I told Bob I had to flee, and so we ducked into a restaurant on the square (the vendors are not allowed into the restaurants). I plopped down at a table and gave a big sigh of relief, and then looked up. The woman was standing on the sidewalk in front of the window. When our eyes met she slowly raised a gourd and pointed at it…and we both burst out laughing.

Portico along Plaza de Francisco.

After a rest, Bob showed me some of his favorite places to buy Peruvian wares (hand-woven scarfs, gloves, and sweaters; figurines; ponchos; wall-hangings; musical instruments; hand-carved items, etc) . At the time Peruvians were allowed to set up stalls under the portico along one side of the Plaza de Francisco near the Plaza de Armas (in later years they were all forced to move to a couple of warehouses and await the tourist busses). Bob, however showed me some nondescript doorways that led down small alleyways into dirt courtyards hidden inside the blocks. There, twenty or so stalls would offer all sorts of stuff without the big crush and hard sales found in the streets. I had never been into shopping as a tourist until I hit Cusco. There were so many cool things to buy, particularly those with roots in the Andean culture. There was one stall in particular that I went back to several times. It was run by an old Andean woman who just had such a pleasant energy. We couldn’t converse very well with words, but that didn’t matter. We smiled a lot and our tone of voice suggested a connection.

It was my first experience of shopping in a culture where haggling over the price is expected. Bob was amazingly good at it. The vendor would state a price, he would offer one ridiculously lower, the vendor would move slightly in that direction, Bob would get angry and stomp out, to be called back, and so on, until he would get them down to a cost much lower than the original asking price. This was all new to me, and at first I was tempted to just given them the price they asked (which still seemed amazingly inexpensive), but I wanted to enter into this new culture, and explore a new way for me to be, so I learned how to haggle. After all of these years I am still inclined to want to pay what people ask, not because I am timid (like I was at the beginning), but because I know how much they need the money. Still, I dance a bit with them, getting them to lower their price a little, to honor their ways and to celebrate their culture.

Bob and I got back to the hostal with little time for me to get in a good rest (typical for my visits to Peru) before Américo was scheduled to arrive . Judy and Gina were there by then and I had a chance to meet them. Judy was an open hearted woman from a farm in Canada. Gina was a quiet and sincere woman from Wisconsin. We were a pretty compatible group, but then, we had in much common in our desire to work with Américo.


Judy, Bob, and Gina in Cusco.

Arilu had requested that we be in the lobby and ready to go at 5:00 so that Américo could just pull up and we could pile into his truck in the no-parking zone in front of the hostal. Somewhere around 5:30, Américo and Gayle pull up in Américo’s cab truck (the kind of truck that has two row of seats in the cab). In the back, in the bed of the truck, were five paq’os from Q’ero. The four of us piled into the truck and as we pulled away I looked back through the small window in the rear of cab. Looking in at us were the Q’ero; brown faces with very big smiles. I waved at them enthusiastically and they waved back.

Américo took some side streets to avoid the worst of Cusco traffic, and before long he turned onto a road that wound up into the mountains surrounding Cusco. We drove past the massive Inca ruins of Sacsayhauman that sits on the top of a hill overlooking the city. Shortly thereafter he turned off the main road onto a very rough dirt road. We bounced along that for a few hundred yards and parked at the bottom of a hill of stone. After we all climbed out of the truck Américo made the introductions. One of the Q’ero was don Pascual, who was a particularly dear friend of don Américo. I later learned that don Pascual and Américo had been friends for many, many, years. Don Pascual was a pampa mesayoq, one of the two levels of revered Q’ero paqos (the other being alto mesayoqs).

By then it was dusk. Peru is close to the equator and it seems to me like no matter what time of year I visit Peru, the days and nights are of about equal length, and it starts getting dark some time between 5:00 and 6:00. Don Américo and the Q’ero led us around the stone hill to its other side. There we were told by Américo that this was a pre-Inca sacred site called “Amaru Machay“, sometimes referred to as the “Temple of the Serpent” and other times as the “Temple of Mama Killa (the Moon)”.

Amaru is a great, Cosmic, serpent that has a powerful presence in the Andean Cosmology. Amaru emerges from the uju pacha, the under world, below the surface of the earth; it then travels through the kay pacha, the surface world, where we reside; and finally enters the hanaq pacha, the superior or upper world.

The Quechua word pacha does not correspond directly to any concept we have in the West. It is, instead, an integration of our concepts of place, time, and consciousness. The uju pacha is both the under world and the past; the kay pacha is both the surface world and the present, and the hanaq pacha is both the upper world and the future. Consciousness exists outside of any concepts we may have, including our concepts of space and time, and thus is present in all three of these pachas. As Amaru moves from the uju pacha through the kay pacha to the hanaq pacha it weaves these three pachas together. Amaru then returns from the hanaq pacha to the uju pacha in the form of lightening. In the Andean Cosmology Amaru is a symbol of wisdom and fertility, and also one of change. Amaru is a force that dismantles systems that are out of equilibrium and helps to bring them back into balance and harmony. The term machay translates from Quechua into English as a portal. Amaru Machay is therefore the portal of Amaru.

Now, Américo didn’t say any of this. Two years earlier, when I first met Américo, some things became clear to me. The first was that he was offering to serve as a bridge between the West and the Andean Cosmovision, a beautiful and ancient way of experiencing reality that is still part of the living culture of the high Andes, and that is fundamentally different than the Western worldview. The second was that what he had to share could only be learned experientially, it could not be expressed or taught by words or concepts. He was offering a different way of experiencing reality, of being in reality, not a different way of thinking about reality. I knew that my time with don Américo was not going to involve lectures, or the laying down of conceptual frameworks, or much in the way of explanations…for that matter.

As a young man, I was a voracious reader of books about psychology, mysticism, and consciousness. I went on to earn a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology (the scientific study of perception, attention, learning, memory, and consciousness). When, however, I began to explore the Andean Cosmovision, I stopped reading anything related to that topic. I wanted my understanding of the Cosmovision to arise from my experiences in exploring it, rather than having my experiences be shaped by other people’s thoughts about it.

It took me about 17 years of exploring the Andean Cosmovision before I felt grounded enough in experiential knowledge to start reading what others had to say about it. I had a whole lot of intellectual questions about Andean culture and history that neither Américo nor my own experiences had answered, and so I began to fill in the corners of my knowledge by reading (mainly anthropological) works that I considered, based upon my experiences, to be valid and reliable.

Back at Amaru Machay…don Américo led us to a cave in the side of the hill. Américo told us that the cave is known as The Womb of Pachamama (Pachamama is the great mother who is the conscious planet earth). At the entrance two large snakes were carved in the stone walls. Their heads had been chopped off by the Spanish and their bodies heavily marred. The cave ended quickly in a chamber where several places to sit and a low altar had been cut out of the rock. Gayle had brought some candles which he lit and put on small ledges. In the ceiling of the chamber, above the alter, was a large, rounded, bulge of rock, known as Pachamama’s embryo. We all meditated for a while by candlelight, in the womb of Pachamama.

In the workshops I had attended before going to Peru, Américo taught us many different types of meditations that accomplish various changes in our energy. Over the years that I have been traveling to Peru, however, I have noticed that Américo often just has us meditate (by quieting our minds) and lets the energy of that particular, sacred, spot inform our meditation.

I have also come to find that there are many sacred places in Peru where the Andeans, rather than building a temple, left the site largely in its natural condition, with just perhaps some stairs, an altar, and seats upon which to meditate, cut out of the natural stone. I believe these are largely of pre-Inca origin, although they were later used by the Inca as well. Rather than moving people indoors, out of nature, to connect with the sacred, these places facilitate connecting to the beauty, and the sacred, found within nature.

When we had finished, Américo drove us all back to Cusco. When Bob and I returned to our room I found a pair of alpaca wool gloves on my pillow, a birthday present from the women who ran the hostal.

Gayle phoned the next morning and offered to drop by after lunch and take us to see the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. We had nothing scheduled before that, but then Américo and Arilu appeared at the hostal. Américo was out doing errands in that part of town and wanted to know if any of us would be interested in joining him. Judy and I were the only ones there and we were delighted to accompany him. He drove us to San Blas, an artist neighborhood uphill from the Plaza de Armas, and we followed him around as he dropped in to see a few of his artist friends, which gave us a chance to see their works. One of his friends specialized in making statues of people with very elongated necks. It was a fun outing.

Me, Arilu, Judy in San Blas

Shortly before lunch time Judy and I returned to the hostal, hooked up with Bob and Gina, and then we all walked up to Plaza de Armas looking for some food. We found a restaurant on the second floor of a building with a balcony overlooking the plaza. It was very pleasant to sit on a balcony and look out over the Plaza de Armas. The square is surrounded by old, two-story buildings holding restaurants, shops, and guided-tour centers, and a couple of large, colonial churches. The square itself is mainly grass, with a large fountain with water gushing out of the mouths of geese and an Inca emperor standing on top (added after this first trip). Not far beyond the square are the mountains surrounding Cusco, not the big majestic apus, but still they make a nice backdrop. It is a great place for people-watching. There is often a parade, or a ceremony, or protest march being held on the square, or hordes of adorable, very young, children decked out in their school uniforms, being herded around by their teachers.

The plaza comprises about half of the square that was there during the time of the Incas. Back then the square was divided by the river Sapphi, which now runs underground beneath the buildings on the West side. Before the conquest the square was flanked by Inca palaces. They were all destroyed by the Spanish. A cathedral stands where the palace of Inca Viracocha once stood. A large church stands on the ruins of the palace of Huayna Capac. There are, however, places around the square where the original Inca walls have been artistically incorporated into the buildings. There is a restaurant on the plaza that has an Inca wall, I’ve stayed in a hostal near the plaza where my room had an Inca wall, and there are stretches of Inca walls along the streets leading out from the square.

Inca Walls.

The Inca built their walls by shaping large stones to fit together. They didn’t just cut them into cubes for stacking, they shaped each stone to fit the contours of the others. The stones fit so closely together than you can’t slip a piece of paper between them. They also incorporated protuberances in the walls, looking rather like nipples, that help the wall to release excessive energy. The Inca walls and structures were designed to withstand the frequent earthquakes in the area.

The restaurant with the balcony where we ate was called Keros, and I later learned it was run by one of Américo’s cousins. More recently its name was changed to Los Balcones. Every time I have visited Cusco I have gone to that balcony, and ordered a meal or a beer or a cappuccino, and sat, deeply contented, looking out at Cusco and the hills beyond.

Plaza de Armas from the balcony.

That afternoon Gayle, Arilu, and Javier (a friend of theirs) came by to take us to, and show us around, Sacsayhuaman. Sacsayhuaman is an immense ruin sitting on top of a hill overlooking Cusco. Western archaeologists aren’t sure whether it was a citadel, a temple, or both. It was probably both, as the Inca did not draw the distinction we draw between the secular and the sacred. Cusco was originally laid out by the Inca to be in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman as its head.

It was at Sacsayhuaman that the Inca made their last stand in Cusco against the Spanish Conquistadores, a battle that the Spanish came very close to losing. After the conquest, Sacsayhuaman was used as a source of easy, pre-cut, stones for the construction of churches, government buildings, and the homes of the wealthiest Spanish in Cusco. All that is left now at Sacsayhuaman are the stones that were too large to move that constituted the immense ramparts of the site. The three ramparts are each about 1000 feet long and 18 feet tall. The heaviest stone in the ramparts is estimated to weigh some 200 tons. Like the Inca walls in Cusco, these stones were cut and placed so precisely that a knife blade cannot fit between them. Before the complex was destroyed, a Spanish chronicler estimated that it was large enough to house a garrison of 5,000 men.

Late afternoon in Sacsayhuaman.

Gayle led us along a path that ran along the top of a rampart. Below us was a large grass-covered plaza. Gayle told us that in the time of the Inca, the paqo’s from the length and breadth of the Inca Empire would gather together for a ceremony once a year on the plaza. We walked on for a bit, and then I began to have a curious experience. It was as if the huge crowd of paq’os were just on the other side of a veil, I could almost see them and I could almost hear them. How I could almost see or almost hear something is a mystery to me. It was as if they were really there, but not really there. Years later I read an anthropologist’s description of how the ancient Andean people experienced the flow of time. The Andean people believed that at critical points in the timeline, time would bifurcate, and two different timelines would proceed forward. When I read that, I thought back to that experience at Sacsayhuaman. There are places in the world that are reputed to have only a thin veil between two different realities (the Scottish island of Iona is such a place). I wondered if perhaps Sacsayhuaman, or the effect it was having on my state of consciousness, might have thinned the veil between my world and one where the Inca still existed.

That was only the first of some interesting experiences I had on that visit to Sacsayhuaman. After we had gazed out at the plaza for a few reflective minutes, Gayle led us further down the path along the top of the rampart. As I was walking I burst into tears. I wasn’t thinking sad thoughts, I just started crying. Then I stopped, walked a bit further, and burst into tears again without any thoughts or images that would seem to have triggered it. This happened several times. It didn’t concern me, I was just curious about what was going on with me.

Gayle then led us to the mouth of a cave that was barred with a locked gate. He said that this cave was very long, rumors had it that it went all the way to Bolivia. It was locked because there was bad air down there, and several people had died while exploring it. There was some shade where we were standing outside of the cave, and I sat down to rest with my back against a large rock. As I was sitting there, I drifted into a vision.

Now, I would like to say a little about my “visions”. Some of my friends have very clear and intense images when they have a vision. I don’t. I think it would be cool to have experiences like that, although these same friends also mention that there are some drawbacks. I mainly experience altered states of consciousness kinesthetically, i.e. as feelings that arise when I meditate, rather then images or sounds.

It is rare for me to have visions while meditating. When I do, they are not like the visual images I have when I look about me, or that I experience in dreams. They are more like what I experience when I daydream. My daydreams, however, are scripted by my conscious flow of thought. My visions are like daydreams that I don’t script, my conscious mind observes them, but doesn’t create them. So where do the images of my visions come from? Well, they are not the product of my conscious mind, so they must either be generated by my unconscious mind or they are generated by something outside of myself. My intellect would rather like to know which it is, but my heart only wants to know whether there is beauty and meaning in the vision.

Getting back to my vision at Sacsayhuaman. As I was sitting there on the ground, with my back against the rock, looking at the mouth of the cave, a whirlpool of something like smoke appeared in front of me. The whirlpool was about 8 feet tall, its mouth facing me, and the smoke spiraling away from me toward the cave. Within the smoke, sparkling lights like stars began to flash. And–this is the part that was so significant to me–I suddenly knew that in looking at this whirlpool I was somehow looking at myself. Then a very clear thought arose within me, “I am a much more mysterious Being than my Western society has led me to believe.” Followed by, “And so is everyone else”. This, for me, had the ring of deep truth. We are much more mysterious Beings than our society has led us to believe.

When Gayle dropped us off back at the hostal, he told us that Américo again had something special planned for us the next evening. This meant that we had the rest of that day and most of the following day to relax and tourista around. In general, we spent our free time in Cusco going out for lunch and dinner (breakfast was provided by the hostal), checking out museums, shopping for Peruvian doodads, and just walking around looking at everything; interspersed with resting as our bodies were still getting used to the energy and altitude of Cusco. Being in Cusco is so different from my everyday life in the U.S. The sights are different, the sounds are different, the smells are different. The people are different, their everyday lives are different, their culture is different. And in that difference I sense something of value that we lost in the industrial revolution.

I had, by then, reached a nice, secure, place about my being in Cusco. It sounds paradoxical, but I found that if I never let my guard down, then I could relax. By not letting my guard down I mean that every time I left my hostal I had my passport, tickets, and most of my money, stashed in a security pouch that I wore around my waist under my pants. I never left my daypack dangling on the back of a chair in a restaurant, I always put it somewhere that would make it difficult for a thief to grab it and run. When I left my room I would put anything of value that I wasn’t taking with me into a locked suitcase. And I–more or less–restricted my wanderings to the safe parts of town. By taking these precautions, I could relax and enjoy myself.

The following evening Américo pulled up again to our hostal in his truck. He was in a very jolly mood. He looked at me and broke into a big smile. He complemented me on the state of my energy and said that I looked like an angel. He drove the four of us to his house in Cusco. We arrived just as a half dozen Q’ero walked up the sidewalk and at the same time as Gayle pulled up in his truck. Américo was tickled by the synchronicity of everyone arriving at the same time.

The Q’ero clambered into the back of our pickup truck with the usual amount of smiles and waves of greeting. Américo then noticed another Q’ero walking up the street. He exclaimed “Oh good…don Julio is here! I’ll ask him to join us.” He jumped out of the truck and walked over to talk to him. Américo returned and told us that Julio would not be joining us. He had just arrived in town after the five day walk over the mountains from Q’ero to Cusco. Américo explained that it can be very disorienting to shift from the salka (undomesticated energy) of the high Andes to the domesticated and frenetic energy of the City. Don Julio had told Américo that he needed to wander around for a few hours to adjust his energy.

We drove up to the hills above Cusco, past Sacsaywaman, to the ruins called Tambo Machay. Three tourist busses were parked there, however, so Américo changed his mind and had Gayle drive us again to Amaru Machay. By the time we got there it was dark. Mama Tuta, mother night, had opened her arms, spreading wide her robes and revealing the stars. There, hanging low in the night sky, was the Southern Cross. As a child I had learned the names of all of the major constellations in the Northern sky. I never thought I would have a chance to see the Southern Cross, I was thrilled.

After we arrived at Amaru Machay Américo led us into a narrow canyon that cut through the stone hill. A short way into the canyon we came to a halt. One of the Q’ero climbed part way up the canyon wall and began to speak in Quechua. It was so dark in the canyon that I could only see him as a silhouette against the stars. From his tone of voice, and his cadence, and the energy I was feeling, I could tell that he was giving us a blessing, calling upon Pachamama and the Apus and other sacred Beings.

It was a beautiful moment, and magical. I felt the essence of who I am expanding out beyond the boundaries of my physical body. Then, among the various entities the paq’o was calling upon, I heard him include “Apu Jesucristo”. In my thoughts I exclaimed, “What is Christianity doing in this ceremony? Man, its everywhere, even in the Q’ero. I didn’t come all the way to Peru for a Western-religion based blessing (grumble, grumble, grumble)” I realized at that point that I was back in my head. My experience of my own Being had shrunk to a small sphere of consciousness located behind my eyeballs…which is my normal state of being.

Some part of me that resides outside that sphere gave a gentle “shhhh, you can think about this later.” My mind quieted and I once again found my experience of self expanding out into the Cosmos. I could feel the Q’ero and the stars and my immediate surroundings, we all seemed as one. And there was more, a vibration just below the threshold of feelings, and shimmering just on the other side of sight.

I thought, “Wow, this is a really altered state of consciousness. By turning off my thoughts am I becoming aware of a state I was already in, or does turning off my thoughts create this a shift in state?” Followed by another gentle, internal, “shhhhh”. I was back in my head. “Oh yeah, sorry about that.” I returned to the experience of my expanded self.

This, of course, is what mediation is all about, at least for me. Meditating requires my turning off my internal dialog. My internal dialog always intrudes, when I realize that has happened I simply release it and get back to meditating. With practice I get better at going longer periods without internal dialog while I am meditating…most days. Sometimes turning off my internal dialog is like trying to ignore a marching band parading by. The experience I had that night at Amaru Machay was special to me, for I had never swung back and forth so quickly and repeatedly from such a deep meditative state and my normal cerebral consciousness. The contrast between those two extremes taught me something valuable but ineffable about shifting my states of energy.

When the blessing was over, we slowly made our way through the darkness in the narrow canyon and then out into the open to an evening sky filled with stars, and a little light seeping up from Cusco down below. Don Américo and the Q’ero began to climb up steps cut into the side of the stone hill, which led to some benches, also cut out of the stone, and there we settled down to meditate.

I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder between don Pascual and another of the Q’ero. It occurred to me that this would be an excellent circumstance in which to get in touch with Pachamama, the great Being who is our mother the conscious planet Earth. With my imagination I floated out of my body, traveled a little away from the hill, and then went down into the Earth. At that point I stopped consciously running the experience, and had another vision (which I swear…really are rare for me).

I found myself in a cavern below the earth. There I encountered a Being of great warmth and tremendous love. She enfolded me in her embrace. I felt at home, loved, safe. Almost as a test, I then pictured myself lying on the floor of the cavern, with my throat cut, laying in a pool of my blood, and I knew that I was safe, that all was ok, that I was simply returning home to Pachamama. I later reflected on this experience, wondering if I will really return to Pachamama when I die, or if this is the last illusion that I will leave behind when I die.

After a while we got up and started walking back to the truck. I paused, looking up at the stars. Using my intent, I sent my energetic filaments to connect with the Southern Cross. As I was doing this don Pascual passed by, he said something to me in Quechua and then continued on. I had no idea what he had said but I wanted to know, so I kept repeating it over and over in my head while I made my way back to the truck. I repeated it to Américo, asking him to translate it for me. He told me that Pascual had said “I see you are connecting your filaments to the Southern Cross”. It was neat that he could tell that was what I was doing, and yet I had rather hoped for something more mystically significant.

When we had all climbed back into the truck, Américo put it into gear and we bounced our way along the rough dirt track. Just as we were pulling on to the main road there were flashing lights behind us and the quick chirp of a siren. We were being pulled over by the police. Américo sent Gayle back to sort things out. While we were waiting Américo turned to us with a soft smile and said, “Welcome to Peru. This is very much what Peru is like. One moment you are connected to the vast mystery of the Cosmos, and the next moment you are being pulled over by the police.”

Gayle returned after a few minutes to announce that we had been pulled over because the truck had a burned-out tail light. He had promised to get it fixed right away in Cusco and the police had let us go. But then he said, and Américo agreed, that the real reason we had been pulled over was because we had a truck full of Q’ero.

Peru has a very strong and very stratified social structure. At the top are the very rich European-looking Peruvians. At the very bottom are the indigenous people of Peru. These people, whom I have come to so greatly appreciate and respect, are often treated with scorn by the rest of the Peruvian society. In Peruvian television shows they are portrayed as buffoons. The Q’ero, identified by their traditional clothing, are often denied admittance to hotels and restaurants.

Tom Best once told me of a time when he and Américo had gone with the Q’ero into a restaurant. The restaurant served the Q’ero food that was obviously inferior to what was being given to everyone else, watery soup with no meat and few vegetables. Américo stormed into the restaurant’s kitchen and shouted at the cooks. What I have noticed over my trips to Peru is that when we go to a restaurant with the Q’ero, usually in some little village in the way outback, that Américo goes and talks with the management. He and Gayle then take on the role of being the waiters for the Q’ero, serving them their food with affection and respect.

As we were driving back that night from Amaru Machay, Américo told us that when the Q’ero walk the streets at night in Cusco, that pickup trucks will sometimes stop and teenagers then jump out and assault the Q’ero. For many years, to give them a safe place to stay and to make sure they had food, Américo would put the Q’ero up at his house when they visited Cusco. When his wife finally tired of this, Américo rented a house in Cusco where the Q’ero can stay in safety. He also made arrangements with a restaurant where if the Q’ero put their thumbprint on the bill Américo will pay it.

The next morning Tom Best arrived in Cusco. That evening was when our time with Américo had been officially scheduled to begin. Shortly after dinner that night, Gayle picked us up in the truck and drove us into the mountains surrounding Cusco. He parked the truck at the bottom of a canyon, and led us on foot up the side of the mountain and then into a forest. It was now getting dark. We wound our way slowly through the deeper darkness under the trees, and into a small clearing. There, sitting in a circle in the very dim light, were don Américo and about ten Q’ero. A gap had been left in the circle to so that we could join them.

This was the beginning of our formal work with the Q’ero. The next day they were going to give us a karpay (initiation ceremony). First, however, they wanted to meet with us to check out our energy, to make sure that it was congruent with their own. It was also a chance for our energy to start to mingle with theirs.

As we sat down I could see that the Q’ero all had woven cloths spread out on the ground in front of them. In the dark it was difficult to see exactly what they had displayed on the cloths but it looked like some of them had their mesas out. Mesa is the Spanish word for table, but in the Andes the mesa is a large, square, woven cloth that the paq’os used to wrap up and carry some of their sacred objects. The mesa is then opened and spread out on the ground to serve as a portable altar, with the sacred objects spread out upon it. Many of these sacred objects are q’uyas. Q’uyas are stones with which the paq’o has a special relationship. Q’uyas may be given to someone by a paq’o, or a person may find q’uyas of their own.

When I saw the paq’os and their mesas I entered into an internal debate. I had a q’uya that Américo had given me. I had it wrapped up in a red bandana and stashed in the daypack I had brought with me to this gathering with the Q’ero. I was debating whether or not it would be ok for me to lay my bandana on the ground in front of me and put my q’uya on it. I wanted to do this to show my respect for the Q’ero and to participate fully in the power of the moment. I didn’t know, however, whether this would be ok, whether it would be taken as a sign of respect or as a sign of disrespect by the Q’ero. I vacillated for a few minutes and then decided I would rather err on the side of not being timid and to follow my heart. I quietly spread my bandana on the ground and put my q’uya in its center. No one said anything.

Don Américo started things off with beautiful words of welcome, and then we went around the circle, with everyone saying what they wanted to about us all being there together. When the Q’ero spoke they spoke in Quechua, Américo would translate that into Spanish, and Tom would translate from Spanish to English. When we spoke to the Q’ero, the translations moved in the opposite direction.

As everyone took turns talking, I noticed something special going on inside me. I could feel the energy in the region of my heart growing stronger and expanding outwards. When it was my turn to speak I started off by saying what a great honor it was that the Q’ero had come all of the way to Cusco to be with us. Then, when I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I described what was going on within me at that moment, that I could feel the energy of my heart expanding. Don Pascual responded back, “Yes, we are watching that happen.”

Later, when the meeting was over, we all stood up and gave each other hugs. Then we began to slowly walk in the darkness, down through the trees, and back towards the truck. A Q’ero took each one of us by the hand to lead us down safely. As we emerged from the trees and into the starlight I looked at the Q’ero around us, and I had a Tolkienesque thought. It came to me that the Q’ero had the bodies of dwarves and the spirit of elves. The starlight shone upon their faces.

When we were back in the truck I asked Tom whether he thought it was ok that I had put my q’uya on a bandana in front of me when we sat down. His response was that the Q’ero had been hiding in isolated villages in the high Andes for the past 500 years, trying to protect themselves from the Spanish society that had outlawed their religion and ridiculed their customs. We represented the West to them. They knew that we had traveled a great distance to meet with them, and I had pulled out a q’uya and put it on a mesa. Tom looked at me, and stopped talking.

The next day was our karpay (initiation) ceremony with the Q’ero. It was not an initiation along the lines of going through some ordeal and then becoming members of the club. It was, instead, an initiation into a new state of consciousness. After having entered that state of consciousness it would then be available for us in the future, a new step in our dance with the Cosmos.

Américo picked us up around 10:00 in the morning, and we headed south on the main road that leads to Bolivia. After an hour or so we turned onto a dirt road that took us east into the Andes. After about another half hour of driving, we came upon Gayle and a dozen paq’os sitting on the side of the road next to a van. Gayle had driven them there to meet us. We got out of the truck and visited for a while. Ten of the paq’os were from Q’ero, and then there were another two paq’os from a region close to Q’ero who had gotten wind of what was going to happen that day and had asked if they could join in.

Pascualito and Gayle (front row) waiting for us to arrive.

Three of the Q’ero who were with us that day were to play important roles in my later trips to Peru. Don Pascual was one. At that time Pascual was in his seventies, but still did the five-day walk from Q’ero to Cusco, and back, in sandals, over the mountains, sometimes through snow. Américo had a special affinity with don Pascual, calling him “the Merlin of the Andes”. In addition to being friends, Pascual served as a guardian of Américo’s energy. Américo told me that when Pascual died that he might die soon thereafter. But Pascual did eventually die, several years later, and Américo is still going.

Another Q’ero with us that day was don Martin. Américo had saved his life once and they had become close friends. After this trip I didn’t see Martin again for another twenty years (when Américo arranged for Martin and his wife to do some energetic work on me). He is now, perhaps, the most highly revered of the Q’ero paqos. I’ll have more to say about don Martin when I describe my later trips to Peru.

The third Q’ero who was there that I would like to mention was don Pascualito. He was to accompany me on several later trips to Peru. When we met on this first trip he was quiet and withdrawn. Tom said that Pascualito’s first child had died during the first winter after her birth. Then his second child died during her first winter. And recently, his wife had died during the birth of their third child, leaving him with a newborn daughter to raise. About 800 Q’ero were living at that time, and their numbers were slowly diminishing from the rigors of living at 15,000 feet, the very limit of agriculture and herding, and far from any medical help. According to Tom, Pascualito had about had it with life in Q’ero and wanted out. Some years later, when I met Pascualito again, he had a new wife, and they worked together as healers. I believe he lives in Cusco now.

We all palled around for a bit on the side of the dirt road.


Tom had brought a rather large video camera (good video cameras in 1996 were large) and he and the Q’ero were having fun making videos of each other and then looking at them on the camera’s screen.

After a while we piled into our two vehicles and drove on a bit to where the road met the river Vilcanota. There we got out to meditate for a while next to the river, to prepare our energy for the karpay. Meditating with a river, connecting your energy to the energy of the river, can clean your energy as well as help it flow. While there we took some group photos.

Tom, don Martin, don Pascual, Bob

Don Américo (blue shirt), me (red shirt).

Apu Pachatusan in the background.

The Vilcanota River flows along the foot of Apu Pachatusan. An Apu is a great Being who is one of the majestic mountain peaks on the planet. An Apu is not a transcendent spirit who inhabits the mountain, it is the conscious mountain itself, a fine distinction, but I believe an important one. In our Western worldview we have, since the time of Descartes, separated reality into a physical realm of matter and energy, and a transcendent realm of souls who inhabit our physical bodies. In this view, consciousness is seen as being either part of our transcendent soul, or as something that emerges from a complicated nervous system. My understanding of the Andean Cosmovision is that the Cosmos consists of a vast network of energetic filaments. Where these energetic filaments come together to form a bundle, or node, is what we experience as an object. Consciousness is seen as an inherent attribute of the filaments. In this view, everything is conscious as everything is made out of these filaments, including the Earth (Pachamama) and the mountains (the Apus) and the stars and the rivers and the trees…

In the history of Western philosophy, the view that everything is conscious is known as panpsychism. Just out of intellectual curiosity I looked into panpsychism and found some interesting information. Panpsychism has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both the East and the West. It seems like such a strange concept to us now–that everything is conscious–but it was the predominant viewpoint in Western science until the beginning of the 20th Century. I discovered that William James and Alfred North Whitehead (both described below) ascribed to it. Panpsychism is emerging again in philosophy and psychology as modern scientists attempt to arrive at a reasonable model for the basic nature of consciousness.

William James (1842-1910) has been my favorite psychologist ever since I first discovered him while studying the history of psychology as part of my graduate studies. He is considered to be the “Father of American psychology”. Discovering that he was a proponent of panpsychism delighted but didn’t surprise me. He examined religion from a psychological perspective in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. Two of the more famous statements from that book are, “The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist”, and “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

That Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a proponent of panpsychism was a pleasant surprise to me. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell wrote a book entitled Principia Mathematica, that was one of the twentieth century’s most important works on mathematical logic. The book contained a chapter about “logical types”, which resolved a type of paradox that can arise in human communication but that also had fascinating ramifications in understanding reality. That chapter had a big effect on the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, and through my studies of Bateson’s writings, had a big effect on how I view reality as well. I find it particularly useful in understanding how it can be possible to integrate two different worldviews, in my case, the Western worldview and the Andean Cosmovision.

Earlier in my career I would have used James’ and Whitehead’s belief in panpsychism to give the Andean Cosmovision some validity in the eyes of Western scientists. But frankly, I no longer care whether or not the Western worldview can validate the Andean Cosmovision, for I don’t see the Western worldview as being the superior of the two. They are simply two fundamentally different ways to face the ineffable mystery of existence. The integration of the two…well that is something special…and important.

Apu Pachatusan, unlike the other Apus I have since visited (e.g. Ausangate, Veronica, Salkantay, Wamanlipa), is rather unassuming in its appearance. It lacks the towering rocky peaks and glacial fields of the other Apus. It is just a large, brown, mountain, but it plays an important role in the Andean view of the Cosmos. That role has been described to me in two different ways; that Apu Pachatusan is the pillar that supports the Cosmos on its shoulders, and that Apu Pachatusan is the axis around which the Andean Cosmos turns. In either description, it is an important Apu in the Andes, and it was significant that our karpay ceremony was going to be held on its slopes.

After meditating by the river, and taking some group photos, we turned onto a road leading up the side of the Apu. We were heading for a huaca (sacred place) that, before the conquest, had been of great importance to the Andean people. The Spanish had built a sanctuary of San Salvador named Señor de Huanca on that spot, keeping with their strategy of placing Christian churches on sacred Andean locations.

Our two vehicles pulled into the church’s parking lot and we all climbed out. At that point a priest, looking quite agitated, came running out to confront us. I assume this was because of the presence of the Q’ero in their traditional clothing. Américo talked quietly to the priest for several minutes and what he said seemed to calm him down. Américo waived to us all to follow him and led us into the church. We went in, lit some candles, and sat there quietly for a bit. The Q’ero sat in the back row of pews looking slightly amused.

After sitting there for about 10 minutes, Américo stood up and we followed him out of the church, across the parking lot, and up the side of the mountain. The vegetation on the mountain consisted mainly of low trees and shrubs and–wherever the land was somewhat level–small plots of cultivated land. We stopped at one of those to have lunch. Gayle had hauled up a large burlap sack filled with food. He spread out a tarp on the ground to serve as a table cloth and dumped our food out in the middle of. Lunch consisted of fresh fruit (Cusco is only a day’s drive from the jungle), big wedges of cheese, piles of pocket bread (a locally baked product that is very tasty), and chocolate bars. The chocolate barely hit the ground before being grabbed up in delight by the Q’ero.

After lunch we all laid in the shade on the ground and had a siesta; Américo and Gayle, the dozen paq’os, Tom, Gina, Judy, Bob and I. I don’t know where it started or why, but one of the Q’ero began to giggle. It spread, of course, and soon we were all laughing. After a respite, someone would start to giggle again, and then the rest of us would break out laughing, and so it went on for ten minutes or so. Finally we settled down for a half hour of rest.

When the siesta was over, don Américo led the paq’os a bit further up the side of the mountain. Then he came back and beckoned us to join them. We found the paq’os in a small grassy area, sitting in two lines facing each other along opposite sides of a long woven cloth. On the cloth each paq’o had laid out various sacred accoutrements; primarily mesas, flowers, and piles of coca leaves. The ceremony began.

Amèrico leading us to the ceremony.

Several paq’os carefully selected, from the stashes in front of them, three prefect coca leaves for each of us, presenting them to us arranged as a fan. These ceremonial sets of three coca leaves are called k’intus. We were told to blow our very finest energy into the coca leaves, commingling our energy with that of the k’intu. Some of these k’intus were then added to an offering that the paq’os were putting together, and other k’intus were given to us to chew if we wished. Another use of a k’intu is to blow your finest energy through the coca leaves to establish a sacred connection with the Pachamama or an Apu or some other aspect of the Cosmos.

I had drunk coca tea in Cusco, but this was my first experience of chewing coca leaves. Gayle quietly told us that this was completely optional. If we wanted to, we were to chew the leaves a bit, and then stash them between our gums and cheek where their essence could flow into our body. He added that we were not to swallow the leaves. Then, when we felt like it, we could discretely take the wad of leaves out of our mouths and dispose of them in the foliage around us (it is considered impolite to just spit out the coca leaves).

Coca is very sacred to the Andean people. While it is also the base for making cocaine, coca leaves and cocaine are very different. it takes a huge amount of coca leaves to make a small amount of cocaine, and during the process 28 other chemicals are added as well. On a physical level, coca is a mild stimulant and anesthetic; it subdues hunger and helps the blood carry more oxygen; both useful for a day of strenuous work in the mountains. My own experience in chewing coca leaves is that it provides a level of stimulation about like having two cups of tea. On a social level, when a stash of leaves is shared among people it serves as a token of friendship and mutual connection. On a sacred level, it plays a very important role in a ritual connection to the Cosmos. For more information on coca I recommend The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community, by the anthropologist Catherine Allen.

As we continued with the ceremony, a woman or a child would occasionally walk by, driving a flock of sheep or a cow, or carrying a large bundle on their backs. They would just glance at us and continue on. Families were working their fields on the mountain side, not too far from us. At first I was surprised that Américo hadn’t selected a more isolated spot. But then I understood that this was Peru, where the sacred and the secular are one. The people greet the sun every morning as it rises above the mountains, they ask permission of the fields (the daughters of Pachamama) before they work them, they invite the Cosmos to join them when they have a fiesta. The sacred is inherent in everyday life.

After the paq’os had completed their offering to the Cosmos, several of them began to work on our energy. They took their mesas (the woven clothes containing their sacred objects) and gently touched us on the top of our heads, on our heart regions, and near our belly buttons. They leaned over and spoke Quechua into the top of our heads, and then blew energy down through the top of our heads and into our Being. When they blew down through the top of my head I experienced a flow of beautiful energy cascade down my spine. From the beginning of the ceremony I had begun to slip into an altered state of consciousness, with no apparent reason other than the ceremony itself. By the time they finished working on our energy I had been initiated into a profound, and beautiful, altered state of consciousness.

When they were finished working on us don Martin and don Pascualito gave us each a q’uya. A q’uya is a stone with which a paq’o has a special relationship, or one that he or she has infused with some special energy to give to another. Those q’uyas, 24 years later, are still in my mesa.

When the ceremony was over, we all sat back and relaxed. Américo had brought some pisco (local brandy) and we passed that around, each pouring ourselves a capful of pisco from the bottle. The Q’ero were also engaged in the partaking of sacred tobacco (smoking unfiltered Marlboro cigarettes…which I found to be rather amusing). I was feeling so mellow, and happy, and relaxed.

At that point an old woman approached our group and walked right up to me. She was dressed in indigenous clothes, wearing a colorful, knitted sweater and woven skirt, and sporting a white stove-pipe hat. She was amazingly short, so that even though I was sitting on the ground and she was standing we were almost at eye level. She had shining black eyes and a friendly smile. She spoke to me in Quechua. I had no idea what she said, but Américo, who was sitting near me, responded back to her in Quechua. She looked at him and then back at me, and smiled, and said something more. Again, Américo responded. When he finished she got a big, beautiful, smile on her face and turned to walk away. Américo called her back for a moment, rummaged around in what was left in the food bag, and gave her as much food as she could carry.

After she left, I asked Américo what that was all about. He said that when she first approached me she asked if I would like to see her chickens. Américo had responded by saying “No thank you mama”. She responded to that by saying “But they are really nice chickens, he might want to see them”. Américo then replied, “No thank you mama, I’m afraid he has no use for your chickens. But what he could use, would be for you to caress his dreams tonight with your gentle hands”. That was when she got her beautiful smile and walked away. When Américo told me that I felt like I was in a song.

Looking down the valley from Apu Pachatusan as we returned to the bus.

We walked back down to the parking lot, Gayle drove off with the Q’ero, and Américo drove us back to Cusco. Our time with the Q’ero was over for that trip. We were left with a deep concern about the future for the Q’ero. I don’t see how anyone with at least half a heart wouldn’t be worried about what was in store for them. They lived lives still informed by the Andean Cosmovision, and little influenced by the West. This was possible due to their living in such isolated villages in the high Andes. The Q’ero we met lived at 15,000 feet. As Américo put it, Western civilization was sweeping up the Andes like a tsunami. At the time of our trip, it had reached 12,000 feet and was still rising. The Q’ero could not move any higher. Q’ero, indeed, represented one of the few places on the earth where the West had yet to significantly intrude.

It was tempting to want to (metaphorically) build a wall around Q’ero to keep the West out. This, however, raised all sorts of ethical problems. Who are we to want to direct the future of Q’ero? Their numbers were declining, the story of don Pascualito is telling. To want them to stay isolated from the West was asking them to please continue their almost stone-age existence so that we could come visit them, and then return home to our refrigerators, central heating, internet and modern medicine.

The West, however, does not simply arrive with modern advancements and material goods. History shows us that when the West arrives, the indigenous worldview blows away in the wind, the land is exploited and destroyed, and the people move from subsistence farming to starving poverty. In reaching out for what they wanted (and in my opinion deserved) the Q’ero were likely to end up much worse off. That seemed by far the most likely result if everyone just stood by while the Western colonization of the Andean culture proceeded.

I also had a more global concern. Every worldview is based upon a set of assumptions about reality that make it easy for a society to excel at somethings but with a tradeoff that it makes is more difficult for the society to excel at other things. The Western worldview makes it easy for my society to excel at gathering information and inventing new technology, but it makes it hard for us to directly experience our connection to nature. The Andean Cosmovision makes it easy for people to experience our connection to nature but I don’t think the Incas would ever have gotten around to inventing the internal combustion engine. Our Western society is in a car speeding toward the edge of a cliff, and when we go off that cliff no saying we are sorry will make any difference, and we will take much of what is beautiful about this planet with us. We have all the technology we need to head toward a future of greater health and beauty on this planet, but we seem to lack the heart to do so. The Andean culture lacks the technology but has the heart. Integrating the two worldviews may be the answer. We can’t integrate the Andean Cosmovision with the Western worldview, however, if the Cosmovision no longer exists.

These were the issues I was wrestling with in my first trip to Peru (now 26 years ago). Since then, the Q’ero and other Andean people have been faced with all of the calamities that hide in the hand held behind the back of Westerners who have reached out the other hand to greet them. Some of us have done our best to help them. But I’d rather that story come out as I move forward through time in the accounts of my other trips to Peru.


The next morning, Américo, Gayle, and the five of us drove in a rented van to the Sacred Valley of Peru. The Sacred Valley is about an hour’s drive from Cusco. The road climbs up out of the Cusco Valley and travels along some high, flat land until it suddenly drops down into the Sacred Valley. That high territory is quite beautiful. It is covered in small plots of farmland, containing various crops at various stages of growth; some plots are fallow, others coming into bloom, and some showing just the promise of new growth. For all the world it looks like a patchwork quilt, spread out upon the lap of Pachamama, extending out from the road to the snow capped peaks in the distance.

High lands between Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

We stopped along the way to get out of the van, stretch our legs, take some pictures, and to just enjoy being there. Across the road from where we stopped, a potato field was being harvested (by hand). When the people harvest potatoes, they take the first few potatoes of the day and bury them in a hole, putting them back into the Pachamama from whence they came. They then light a small fire over the potatoes, cooking them for lunch. The fires are tended by people who can’t work the field. In addition to providing the nourishment needed for the hard day’s work, the ritual also honors the Pachamama.

Across the road, only about 30 yards away, sat a young woman, tending a fire while she nursed her baby. She was dressed in the typical indigenous clothes of a knitted sweater and a skirt woven from wool. She wore a tan hat with a wide brim and rounded peak, her baby was at her breast. Just as I was about to turn and climb into the van our eyes met, I paused, and she gave me a smile. It was the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. It was a smile that communicated a complete contentment with life. It was a moment that became embossed in my psyche. I climbed into the van and we took off.

At the far end of that high plateau the road came to the edge of the Sacred Valley, bordered along its far side by a line of truly spectacular mountains. The valley stretches 36 miles from the town of Pisac (elevation 9,800 feet) down to the town of Ollantaytambo (9,160 feet). It has a nice sized river confusingly known at various stretches as the Vilcanota, the Urubamba, the Vilcamayo, the Wilcanuta, and the Yucay. At Ollantaytambo the valley narrows, the road comes to an end, and the river tumbles down a gorge for 20 miles to Machu Picchu, before falling further down into the jungle to empty into the Amazon River, to begin a 4,000 mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean.

The valley has fertile soil and an agreeable climate and was the breadbasket for the Inca empire. Driving down its length you can see the remains of farming terraces the Incas had cut into the mountain sides, climbing unbelievably high up the mountains, almost to the peaks. While the vast majority of the terraces have long been abandoned, the valley floor is still heavily cultivated and provides food for Cusco.

The valley has many Inca and pre-Inca sacred sites and ruins (including major ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo). The Inca considered the Sacred Valley, and its river, to be an Earthly manifestation of the Milky Way, which they referred to as The River of Stars. The Milky Way played an important role in the Incan cosmology.

The road wound down into the Sacred Valley, arriving at the valley floor at the town of Urubamba (I’ve always liked the sound of that name). There we turned left onto the road that travels alongside the river to Ollantaytambo, following the railroad tracks that lead from Cusco, through Ollantaytambo, to Machu Picchu. When we reached Ollantaytambo we were directed by traffic officers down some narrow, one-lane streets to the main tourist parking lot at the foot of the Inca ruins. The lot was surrounded by vendors sitting at tables under awnings, selling the many and varied things that tourists like to buy in Peru.

The small town of Ollantaytambo is the only town in Peru that has survived pretty much as the Inca’s laid it out several hundred years ago. When you climb up one of the surrounding hills and look down at the town you can see that it is trapezoidal in shape. In its full, original, design it represented an ear of corn. The streets of Ollantaytambo are oriented to the rising of the sun on summer solstice. Water still continually flows down gutters along the sides of some of the streets.

The main Inca ruins are on the side of a mountain facing the village. A long series of terraces with steps lead up to a temple of the sun at the top. The terraces and temple were designed to form the outline of a llama on the side of the mountain. The Inca work at Ollantaytambo was interrupted by the invasion of the Spanish and the temple was not completed. After the defeat at Sacsaywaman, Manco Inca led his troops to Ollantaytambo to make another stand against the Spanish. At first, the Incas were victorious against the Spanish forces, but when overwhelming Spanish reinforcements arrived, Manco withdrew from Ollantaytambo to make his last stand at Vilcambamba. During the battle at Ollantaytambo, the Spanish captured Manco’s wife. When Manco refused to surrender the Spanish stripped her naked, flogged her, shot her with arrows, then tied her body to a raft and sent it down the river to be seen by Manco’s men who were arrayed downstream.

Temple of the Sun.

On a cliff across from the ruins, on the opposite side of Ollantaytambo, is a huge stone face, with a partially defined upper body holding a large sack over his shoulder and wearing what looks like a small crown. The whole figure is 140 meters tall. It has the appearance of being a natural rock formation that looks remarkably like a face, but the cliff was at least partly worked by human hands. The figure is Tunupa, messenger from the Cosmic Consciousness to humanity, depicted as he emerges from the Uju Pacha (the interior world and the world of the past). A few hundred yards to his right (as he faces you), on the shelf of a cliff, sits the ruins of a temple dedicated to Tunupa. When the sun first rises on the summer solstice it sends a shaft of light that illuminates the temple.

The face of Tunupa is in the lower center of the screen, half in shadow.

Closeup of Tunupa and his temple.

A note on my use here of the term “Cosmic Consciousness”. When you read of Tunupa he is usually described as a messenger of Wiracocha. Wiracocha, in turn, is usually described as the Andean god of creation. I believe, however, that this is a conceptual distortion that comes not just from translating from one language to another, but from translating from one worldview to another. In his chapter Three Times, Three Spaces in Cosmos Quechua, in the book Story Earth: Native Voices on the Environment, the indigenous Peruvian anthropologist Salvador Palomino writes, “In the Quechua language, the words ‘religion’ and ‘god’ do not exist, but we use them in Spanish to indicate our relationship with the divine beings that are the holy forces of nature”. It is my understanding that in the Andean Cosmovision the Cosmos, rather than being the creation of an outside entity, is itself a conscious Being with a creative impulse that organizes itself and changes over time.

After we arrived at Ollantaytambo, Américo sent Gayle to find us a place to have lunch. When he returned he led us up some stairs to the second floor of a building to a restaurant that had windows overlooking the ruins. If you have ever been to a third-world tourist site and had lunch at a place that draws in the young adult backpacking crowd you can probably picture about what the restaurant was like. Gayle had managed to find a table with enough chairs for us to crowd around, and we had some lunch selected on the principle of what would be safe to eat.

After lunch we walked down to the parking lot at the foot of the ruins, passed through the tourist ticket gate, and slowly climbed the stairs leading up past the terraces to the Temple of the Sun at the top. It was rather crowded with tourists, and there wasn’t a lot to see at the uncompleted temple. Américo led us around a corner, up at that high place, that took us out of the crowds, to a rock shelf overlooking a canyon. This, Américo told us, was the Temple of the Wind, which was indeed blowing at that spot. We sat down and meditated, connecting with the wind, for a while. Meditations that connect us to the wind can be used to clean our energy and to expand our consciousness and Being.

After the meditation, Américo took us along a high trail to another long set of stairs where we could descend to the valley below. At the bottom we turned away from the main ruins and walked along a very nice stream.

The high trail.

After we had walked a little ways, Américo had us turn back and look at the rock formation we had just passed. There, up a bit on the side of the cliff, was a large, stone condor. It looked like a completely natural rock formation, but also looked uncannily like a condor’s head, poking out between hunched shoulders. The exactly correct position of its eye supports the idea that it was worked a least a little by human hands. Below the condor, toward the foot of the cliff, the Incas, or pre-Incas, had carved out of the cliff a flat shelf to serve as an altar. There the shadow from the beak of the condor falls, and there they would leave offerings to the condor. On that shelf is a stone gnomon where the shadow from the condor’s beak falls on the summer solstice.

The condor; hunched shoulders, beak facing to the left, dark eye, light breast.

We continued up the valley floor along a path that led between the bottom of the cliff and the river until we arrived at the ruins of several small rooms made of stacked blocks of stone. Channels had been cut into the stone to allow some of the river’s water to flow artistically through the area. Américo told us that in the ancient days this place had been reserved for the women to do their ritual work. He added that the women at that time were amazingly short in height, which brought to my mind the old woman who approached me on Apu Pachatusan. Here he invited us to meditate again.

I started to realize something at this point. When I am with a group of people in Peru, at some sacred spot or a place of good energy, and Américo invites us to meditate, he then disappears around a corner or over the crest of the hill. He comes back after a while to bring the meditation to a close. I don’t know what he is doing out of our sight. Perhaps he is resting or having a smoke (metaphorically speaking). When he returns, however, he often makes a few–sometimes specific–comments about the quality of our meditations. From that I get the impression that he is monitoring our meditating at some level I don’t understand, or perhaps even aiding us, as an intermediary with the Cosmos. He has never mentioned it and I haven’t asked.

When we finished at Ollantaytambo, we drove to a hotel in the Sacred Valley to spend the night. It was a nice step-up from our place in Cusco. The hotel had an expanse of grass around it, and lots of tropical flowers growing in the flower beds, and tables under large umbrellas. The rooms were also nice. It would have been great to spend more than just the one night there. I was so tired I went to bed early and felt like I was missing out on some of the pleasure of being in that comfortable and pretty locale..

The next day we drove to the town of Pisac at the upper end of the Sacred Valley. Once a week, including the day we were there, it has a farmer’s market for the indigenous local people. It also has a really nice, and large, crafts market. I had never been much into tourist shopping before that trip, but I have discovered that I really enjoy it in Peru (and still do). There are so many fascinating things to buy that are very Peruvian, that I have never seen anywhere else, and that make great presents for when I return home. Just being there milling around and interacting with the Peruvian people is such a pleasant difference from my normal life.

Pisac Market.

Me, Bob, Tom, Gina, Judy.

After we had finished shopping, Américo took us up to the ruins in the terraced hills above the town. The Pisac ruins were a major Incan site; with a Temple to the Sun (including a rock outcropping that was a hitching post for the Sun), altars, fountains, and baths, all situated within a large enough walled enclosure to provide a sanctuary for the people in the area during an invasion. We went there to meditate in the energy of the ruins. The meditation there, by my perspective, was a bit of a dud. Américo had taken us to a relatively isolated place in the ruins to meditate, but soon after we started a tour group came by, led by someone wielding a whistle and a megaphone. The group finally moved on but they were soon followed by others.

Don Amèrico in Pisac Ruins.

After our visit to Pisac we headed back to Cusco to spend the night before moving on to stay for several days at Salka Wasi, Américo’s ancestral home in the Andes.

The next morning Arilu and Américo picked us up in a van with a driver that we had hired to take us to Salka Wasi. Gayle had earlier taken off in the truck, which was filled with provisions (food, safe water, and candles) for our stay. On the way out of Cusco Américo stopped at a store where we could stock up on personal things we might want to have with us at Salka Wasi; wine, cookies, bottled water for the trip there, and so on.

During the previous few days we had all been busy trying to get small bills and change for our visit to the outback of Peru. The people outside of the cities cannot make change for large denomination bills, nor do they want them. Merchants in Cusco can make change but don’t like to. My strategy is, when in Cusco, to pay for meals with large bills ( restaurants can handle that), and to avoid spending the small stuff whenever possible (which can be darned inconvenient at times). For every trip I’ve taken to Peru, I have spent the first couple of days working the system to get change before leaving Cusco.

We drove south out of Cusco on the paved road toward Bolivia for about an hour. Much of that hour was spent just getting out of Cusco. We then turned east on a dirt road and headed up into the mountains. It was a frightening and dangerous journey. The road climbed up a side canyon towards the mountain peaks, climbing much faster along the side of the mountain than the river at the bottom of the canyon. Soon there was a steep drop off of two thousand feet on one side of the road, and a cliff face on the other side.

Climbing up into the Andes. Apu Pachatusan in the background.

There were no guardrails. The dirt road was barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other…slowly and carefully. Occasionally huge open-bed trucks would come barreling around the corners and down the road at us, filled with produce from the jungle (this was one of the routes from the jungle to Cusco). In the back of the trucks, standing between or sitting on the bags of produce, were colorfully dressed indigenous people (it is an inexpensive way to travel through the Andes). When we confronted each other, often accompanied by the hard application of brakes, one of the vehicles, usually ours, would have to back up–very carefully–to a wider spot in the road. The narrow road had many blind curves and the trucks were traveling fast and downhill. At each blind curve our driver would slow down and sound his horn before we would venture around it.

Photo by Tom Malloy (from a later trip).

As we neared the top of the mountain, the bottom of the canyon to our left rose quickly up to meet us, and then the road spilled onto a high land of rolling hills. We had entered the purely indigenous lands of the Andes. Cusco and the Sacred Valley are a mixture of the indigenous, Quechua-speaking culture, and a modern, Spanish-speaking culture that has benefited from the inflow of money from tourism. Up in the high Andes the money from tourism doesn’t flow. The culture, the language, the dwellings, and the life-style are predominantly indigenous.

In the van we bumped up and down the dirt road, passing small villages, people working the fields by hand, and adobe walls. Our driver was playing a cassette tape that could be described as “101 Peruvian Pipes Play the Beatles”. Although it was some 30 years after the Beatles had broken up, we often heard their music in places that catered to tourists. I figured the Peruvians knew it was a safe bet that the music would be enjoyed by Westerners, or perhaps it was the case that the Peruvians liked it a lot too.

We were all sitting in our seats watching Peru, and the people of Peru, and the lives of the people of Peru, glide by the window. We had just reaching the outskirts of the Andean town of Huancarani, when on the van stereo the Beatle song “With a Little Help from My Friends” came on, and we all started to sing along with it. I was looking at a Peruvian woman, in her native dress, running along the road as we drove past. And I realized, suddenly, that the Beatles had always been singing about a world, or a potential world, or some very special aspect of our world, that was not like our world, but better, more beautiful; and that I was seeing, outside the window, in the high Andes of Peru, the reality the Beatles had been singing about. It was a very deep connection for me, and seemed to come not from my conscious mind, nor my unconscious mind, but from the depths of ourselves where we connect with the Cosmos.

Taking a break. Me (writing notes about the location of the photos I had taken), Arilu, Gina, and Tom.

Huancarani was a large enough town to have a town square and a few local government offices. We climbed stiffly out of the van and went in search of a restroom we could use. We found one close to the government offices; bring your own toilet paper, no toilet seat, and a 50 centimo fee. Américo was out by the van talking to a couple of locals. What we were to discover is that almost everywhere we go in Peru, from Cusco down to the tiny villages, people come running up when they see Américo, smiling and greeting him, eager to talk with him, or lean out of windows to wave at him. On my most recent trip to Peru, one of those big produce trucks passed our bus, and a woman riding in the back spotted Américo and shouted out “Papa Américo! Papa Américo!” as they went by. This happens all the time.

I’m, like, “I’m with him!” when we meet people. But more seriously, being with Américo is like having a ticket into instant acceptance by the indigenous people of Peru, which is incredible. Being with Américo is a ticket into the people’s lives, but to stay welcomed there requires my willingness to interact with them with an open heart. I can’t tell you how much I love being in a culture where that is the path to acceptance. When I return to the United States our society seems so cold.

After leaving Huancarani, Américo told us that if we needed a bathroom break in the future that all we needed to do was to shout out “Pee Pee Time”, and he would have the driver pull over at the first convenient copse of trees.

The road climbed a bit higher after Huancarani, and we soon reached a summit. Américo had the driver stop, and we got out. Américo pointed out in the distance the snow capped peaks of Q’ero, and in a slightly different direction, but still far away, the majestic peak of Apu Ausangate, perhaps the most important Apu in Peru. I was to travel to both Q’ero and Apu Ausangate in later trips.

After the summit the road began to slowly work its way down until we reached the edge of the valley containing the town of Paucartambo, our next stop. Just over the edge, the road wound by a collection of small, stone, cylindrical, structures called chullpas. The van pulled over and we walked over to them. There Américo told us the story of the Machukuna (Quechua for ‘ancient ones’), spiritual beings also known as The Children of the Moon, who are said to have built the chullpas. They cannot abide the sun, and after it has set they emerge from the chullpas and warm their bones by the red glow of the early evening sky. For a fuller version of this story please see “The Fate of the Machukuna” in my book The Andean Cosmovision, or my blog post by the same name (

Chullpas near Paucartambo

Chullpas in the hills near Paucartambo

We had been traveling on the dirt road for a couple of tiring hours by then, and we could see Paucartambo on the floor of the valley below us. The road, however, turned and went way up a side canyon before turning and heading down into the valley. The road was bone-jarringly washboarded, and it seemed like we would never get there. We finally arrived at the valley floor and the Paucartambo River (also known as the Mapacho River), that springs from the glaciers on the slopes of sacred Apu Ausangate.

Having reached the valley, we turned downriver and soon arrived at the town of Paucartambo, nestled between the river and the foot of the mountains. Paucartambo was important both in Inca and colonial times, being a gateway between Cusco and the jungle. It is also where Américo went to elementary school.

As we approached the town we could see that it was located on the other side of the river. On this side there were just a few buildings; a couple of small buildings on the bank of the river that could generously be called cafes, and a cement, two-story building containing a local farmer’s market. Along the curb on both sides of the road, women in indigenous clothing sat with cloths spread out on the ground in front of them, displaying various items of produce for sale.

Just past the cafes, Américo had the van stop to let us out. He invited us to walk into town by crossing the river on its arched, old, stone bridge (build in the 1770’s). He said the van would cross further downstream on the modern bridge used by cars and trucks, and meet us in the town square. We walked up to the top of the bridge and looked out over its stone parapet at the river for a while. The banks of the river were lined with 20 feet tall brick walls, leading from the river edge up to the level of the town. The walls were adorned with hanging flowers, the aesthetic effect of which was somewhat lessened by the large amount of trash floating in the eddies of the river. The river was somewhat milky, given its origins in the glaciers. Looking downstream we could see the new, metal, bridge for vehicular traffic. It had a plaque on it with the unlikely name of “Sven Ericsson”.

Photo of the old bridge taken from the Sven Ericsson bridge.

We passed over the bridge and walked through the narrow, cobblestone, streets of Paucartambo to the main square, where our van was indeed waiting for us. Américo had disappeared on some errand, and Arilu suggested we explore around a bit or visit a store for any last minute supplies we might want, for there would be no more stores after this.

Paucartambo was a town of one- and two-story buildings; most painted white, and all quite old. It seemed like a town where, 100 years earlier, time had stepped out, saying it would be right back, and then was never seen again. One of the surprising things, for me, was that the place appeared to be almost deserted. It was a hot, sunny, afternoon; perhaps it was siesta time.

Across the square from the van a short flight of cement stairs led up to an open door. Bob and Judy and I climbed up the steps and looked in. It was a small, general store, about the size of a living room. It was quite dim inside, the only light being what was flowing in through the door. After a moment of looking around I noticed in the shadows the proprietor, a middle-aged, Andean woman, sitting completely still behind the counter, and looking at us with–at the most–mild interest. I bought a candy bar and another bottle of water.

When we came back out into the sunlit square Américo was still not around, so we began to wander. The square had a fountain with no signs of water having flowed in it for a long time. Within the fountain were metal sculptures of figures wearing slightly disturbing costumes and masks with long noses, that we later heard play an important part in Paucartambo’s annual Fiesta de la Virgin del Carmen. While Paucartambo is located at 9,534 feet elevation, it is close to the equator, and palm trees grew in the town square. The town had an air that was a interesting blend of the high Andes and the jungle.

Américo eventually appeared and we all piled back into the van. Under Américo’s directions the driver drove up a winding side street of Paucartambo towards the mountains. We stopped once for Américo to jump out and talk to an old woman who lived along the way, someone with whom he had a special friendship. He wanted to make sure she was ok. As we got to the edge of town the paved road turned into dirt. Shortly thereafter the road forded a wide but shallow stream. On the other side of the stream was a closed-up adobe shack. Américo told us that sometimes, when it rains, the ford becomes impassable for a day or two. People coming down the road toward Paucartambo just have to wait it out on the far side of the river. When that happens, a woman shows up and sells them beer from the shack.

The dirt road from Paucartambo to Mollamarca–the village close to Salka Wasi–was rougher and narrower than the road from Cusco, just one-lane wide. When we encountered a vehicle coming the other way, which fortunately was rather rare, one of the vehicles had to back up to a wider spot. Like the road from Cusco, this one climbed up and up along the side of the mountain until there was a sheer drop of thousands of feet to the river far below.

Heading up toward Salka Wasi.

We drove for about a half an hour when the road suddenly turned around a bend and there, towering in the distance, was Apu Ausangate. Américo had the driver pull over and we climbed out to take pictures and to connect with the energy of the majestic and beautiful Apu.

Apu Ausangate.

We were on our way to Salka Wasi, which is Quechua for “The House of Undomesticated Energy”, Américo’s ancestral home in the high Andes. Tom Best had come down to Peru the year before and had been taken to Salka Wasi by Américo. Tom effused with the wonderfulness of the place, saying it was like an Andean monastery. This was to prove to be correct in some esoteric sense, but it gave me a completely inaccurate image of what it was like. In any event, it sounded like a great and mystical place, and we were going to spend several days there.


Eventually we pulled into the village of Mollamarca, situated about one third of the way up the side of a very large mountain. This was as close to Salka Wasi as we could get by car. I am sorry to say this Mollamarca, but I was very disappointed and concerned when I first stepped out of the van and looked around at the village. We parked in the main square, which was a large , flat, expanse of dirt, rather like a vacant lot, with piles of rocks and debris scattered about. It all looked depressingly dirty and poor. The small adobe houses had windows with no panes or shutters. I saw nothing charming about it, and I wondered how we could possibly have a pleasant time there.

A crowd of smiling villagers, mainly women and children, ran up to meet Américo when we arrived. He instructed us to take our daypacks with us, but to leave all of our luggage. Arilu would lead us down to Salka Wasi, while he met with the villagers. So, Tom, Judy, Gina, Bob and I followed Arilu as she made her way past some houses and down the side of the mountain. We passed some chickens running around, and a sow with piglets rooting in the ground next to a house, and the situation started to seem rather ok. We went rather steeply downhill for twenty minutes, the path was steep enough to require all of my attention to avoid sliding . Then Arilu opened a small gate in a rustic fence made out of sticks, and we walked over uncut grass towards a wooden door in an adobe wall. We had arrived at Salka Wasi, and my energy was reacting as if I was at the cusp of something special.

My first view of Salka Wasi. 1996.

Arilu took out some keys, and applied one of them to the big wooden door, wondering out loud as she did so whether or not Miguelito would be there to greet us. She opened the door and we walked in. Standing in a door to our left, immediately after we entered, was Miguelito. He looked ancient, short (compared to me…but most Andeans are), slight of build, with a fair amount of stubble on his aged face. He came across as immanently indigenous, but he was wearing a hodgepodge of Western-style clothing, including a Western, felt, hat with an upturned brim that he had squashed down over his traditional Andean hat (which was woven, colorful, with tassels).

Don Miguelito

Miguelito had the eyes of someone who had seen many very strange things, magical things, and that viewed as an outsider the world that I knew. He had the mannerisms of a very old person. I almost always have at least some sense of how to interact with someone, but with him I was clueless. I was friendly to him, but I also rather stepped back energetically, not knowing how to act. I felt a little bit intimidated, not by fear as much as by uncertainty.

Having greeted Miguelito (who greeted Judy and Gina with more interest than he did Bob and I) we entered the courtyard of Salka Wasi. The courtyard was covered with dry, rather threadbare, grass, with the remains of what might once have been a well in the center of it. It was surrounded on one side by a crumbling, old, adobe wall and on the other three sides by old, one-story, adobe buildings. The courtyard was on a bit of a slope. The upper boundary (on our right) was an abandoned building that looked like it might have once been used for storage or as a stable. Along our left, sloping downhill, was a series of dark-looking rooms with small windows and wooden doors that served as bedrooms for don Américo, and Gayle and his friends, when guests were staying in the main house. Across the courtyard from it was the old adobe wall. The back of the main house formed the lower boundary of the courtyard, showing just a couple of windows and a door.

Amèrico with Salka Wasi children.

Arilu led us down the lawn to the house. She showed us around, including were we would be sleeping. The house had three-foot thick adobe walls, with deep windowsills . The floors were of wood. We entered the main room first. It had a long dining table, capable of sitting a dozen people, and a living room area with old and simple chairs and sofas covered with Andean blankets, and llama pelts as rugs. The living room had a big, multi-paned, window looking out over the garden area on the downhill side of the house. Previous visitors had left many mementos on the shelf below the window; photos, little pieces of art, favorite books, and so on. On the whole, the place had a very pleasant, rather Andean counter-culture, feel about it. I came to decide that Tom was wrong, Salka Wasi was not an Andean monastery, it was an Andean Rivendale, the last homely house East of the Sea and West of the Mountains.

Salka Wasi had no electricity. We were to spend our nights there lit purely by candle light. I had never before stayed in a place lit only by candles, and I quickly grew to love it. The only running water was a hose that came in through a window into the bathroom for use in flushing the toilet (which had a toilet seat). The house had three bedrooms with two beds in each and little else; Spartan, clean, very old, and welcoming. We had brought our sleeping bags to throw on the beds, as there was no way for them to wash sheets for guests. There were, however, plenty of warm woolen blankets if we needed them.

As we were plopping our daypacks on our beds we heard coming from the courtyard many voices, animated, and happy, and Américo’s voice above them all. We went out and saw that the women and the children of the village had arrived with our luggage; women carrying duffle bags almost as big as themselves slung over their shoulders, and children half-dragging the smaller pieces. Américo was handing out tips to the women and candy to the children, trying to herd them into line so he could be sure to give something to everyone. We went out to get our suitcases and to be introduced to everyone. Américo had suggested, while we were in Cusco, that we buy some bags of candy for the children and we handed that out as well.

Some time after we had settled down, I was standing in the living room looking out the window at the garden, when I saw Miguelito walk solemnly by. He had put on a blue suit coat and was carrying some large garden shears. Gayle walked into the room at that moment, and standing next to me looking out, chuckled affectionately. He said that as near as he could tell, Miguelito, who was the caretaker of Salka Wasi, didn’t do anything when Américo and Gayle were away. Then, when he heard that they had arrived in the village, he would turn on a couple of sprinklers, put on his coat, get the shears, and go out to do some trimming.

Gayle had come in to let us know that dinner would be in a couple of hours, and that we should relax or wander around or do whatever we wanted until then. I decided to check out the gardens below the house. Immediately below the living room windows was a small lawn with healthy, green, uncut grass. Then the path dropped down a few steps at a small wall, and led into the garden area itself. The garden looked like the result of planting nice, domesticated, flowers, and then letting the area run a bit salka (wild), for many, many years. The path divided and wound its way through many engaging places to meditate, each with one or more places so sit on homemade chairs and stools made out of local willow or sawed-off tree trunks. There was a quiet place under a fruit tree that–long ago–had been part of an orchard, surrounded by flowers, that I came to like a lot. There were a few, tremendously tall, eucalyptus trees, where eagles nested, with benches at their feet where you could sit, meditating, with your back against the trees. Eucalyptus trees had been imported to Peru many years earlier to provide straight logs for buildings. Around one corner, and down a few steps, was a natural, shallow cave, with several stools, where you could get in touch with the uju pacha (the interior world). There were many places like this, created with an artistic touch, welcoming humans to connect with nature, in salka.

At the end of the garden the land dropped off steeply, down 2,000 feet to the Paucartambo River below, flowing from Apu Ausangate to the jungle. Its distant roar rose up the side of the mountain to the garden. There were no motorized sounds; the occasional trucks passing up the road past Mollamarka were too far away to be heard, and no jets fly over the area. I could only hear the distant river, the wind through the trees, the birds calling to each other, and the occasional braying of a donkey. On one of my trips to Salka Wasi I made a short video of the view from that spot. It can be seen at

View from the Gardens of Salka Wasi

The view was amazing. The scale of the mountains was staggering. A village, on the mountainside across the river from Salka Wasi (and a little higher up) was so far away that it could barely be seen. And everywhere was salka.

After meditating for a while, sitting on a large fallen tree trunk at the edge of the abyss, I headed back to the house. Soon it got dark, and Gayle and Arilu went around lighting candles for us; on the dinning room table, in the living room, on a stool in the hallway leading to the bathroom, and in the bathroom. We all also had candles next to our beds, but we didn’t light them until we needed them. Salka Wasi is somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 feet, it got cold at night, and there was no heating, so we kept putting on layers of clothing until we were warm enough.


I hadn’t seen Américo for a while, and I wondered where he was, and I also wanted to go out into the evening, so I ventured forth to see if I could find him. Standing on the porch in the dark, I heard quiet conversation and saw some fire light. I headed in that direction and approached a covered veranda. There the family who cooks for Salka Wasi were working on our dinner. I saw that Américo was sitting there with them. The veranda was lit only by the mellow light of the cooking fire in the quncha.

A quncha is a home-made, hollow, dome of hardened clay, with an opening in the side for feeding the fire within, and a couple of holes on top of the dome that are the right size for setting in and heating the pots. In the Andes, houses made of the stuff of Pachamama (i.e. adobe and stone houses), are called Wasi Tira, (literally a ‘house of the earth’), and are extensions of the Pachamama. The quncha is considered to be heart of the house.

Américo sitting there in the fire light, with the family busy making the meal, was an intimate scene, but, I thought, perhaps not an exclusionary one. I hesitated before getting close enough for them to see me, then I girded my loins, overruled my shyness, and stepped forward.

“¿Con permiso?” I asked (“With permission?”).

“Of course!”, replied Américo, and he motioned me to enter the veranda. I found a place to sit on a stone balustrade running along the side of the veranda. The family politely acknowledged my arrival and then went back to work on preparing the meal, talking quietly to each other in Quechua.

Américo was eating a small potato that he had selected from the pile of those that had been cooked for dinner. He offered one to me. I did what I saw him do, and peeled off the outer skin with my fingers before eating it. Then I sat, in the warmth and light flowing out from the concha, listening to the fire crackling and the soft conversations in Quechua, some of which involved Américo, and slowly ate my potato. Just beyond the veranda was the deep darkness and silence of the high Andes, and a sky filled with stars. I had been welcomed into the intimacy of that moment, and I savored it, and my heart quietly sang a beautiful tune.

After a while, Gayle rang a small gong hanging next to the door leading from the house out into the garden, indicating that dinner was ready. We all filed into the dining room and found seats at the long table. The food was delicious, we broke out some of the wine that we had brought, and we slowly sank down into that state of relaxation that comes after a long day’s journey.

The cook at Salka Wasi was Abolino, who was assisted by his wife Maria and their family. Abolino had been cooking at Salka Wasi for many years, during which time Américo had welcomed visitors from around the world, many from Europe, and many who were themselves skilled cooks. Abolino had learned much from them, and had become a very good cook indeed. When Américo had bought Salka Wasi from his aunt, it came with 20 hectors of land. He gave half of that to Abolino and his family, as theirs, to farm and support themselves. We also paid Abolino and his family for their work on our behalf.

After dinner I retired to my bedroom to put on some long-johns, and then came back to the dining room table to perhaps read, or to write in my journal. I found both a little harder to do by candlelight than I had supposed. And I was tired. I soon headed to bed.

Sometime in the early morning hours I awoke. It was dark and completely silent in my room. And I realized that it was not quiet because the house, with its three foot thick adobe walls, was protecting me from the sounds of the outside world, but because the world outside the house was also absolutely silent. If I went outside I would be with Mama Tuta, Mother Night, who holds the stars in her embrace in the deep silence of the Cosmos, and I would be with the stars themselves. And nowhere in the distance would I see an electric light, nor view the glow of lights from a distant town, nor see the blinking lights of a jet plane flying overhead. Just salka stretching out through the night to infinity.


I arose early the next morning. Gayle had put thermoses of hot water on the dining room table, along with a selection of teas (including coca tea), a couple of jars of instant coffee, and canned evaporated milk (for the coffee). I usually can’t stand instant coffee, but this was really good. I don’t know if it was the brand or the setting or both. I know that Américo says that the instant coffee in Peru is better than what is sold in the U.S. I made myself a cup of coffee and stood looking through the living room windows at the sunrise as it flowed across the mountains and up the river valley. Then I went out into the garden to meditate.

Our schedule while we were at Salka Wasi was as follows: breakfast was served around 9:00. From 10:00-11:00 we were requested to be outside while Gayle and some local friends cleaned the house, both physically (with brooms) and energetically (smudging each room with burning sticks of Palo Santo). At 11:00 we would meet with don Américo for a couple of hours in the garden. He would lead us through some energy work and answer our questions about the energy work, the Cosmos, just about anything. Around 1:30 we would have lunch. After lunch Américo would take a break for a siesta and we would do anything we wanted, including resting. Somewhere around 4:30 we would meet with don Américo again for a couple of hours. Finally we would have dinner. Don Américo would then often join us after dinner for a little while, and then head off to bed. Some of the things Américo would reminisce about, by candlelight, with a glass of wine, were deeply touching and part of my favorite memories about my times with him in Peru.

That was more or less the official plan, but the days were often filled with interesting intervening events, and if it involved getting together with the villagers then there was a fair amount of imprecision regarding starting times. One thing I noticed, which concerned me, had to do with Américo’s siestas. He had talked to us about how much he relies upon siestas to recover his energy during the day. Whenever I was out and about during siesta time, however, I found Américo having some earnest conversation from one or more people from the village who had come down to Salka Wasi seeking his help or advice about something. When I expressed concern about his lack of downtime he said he was fine. I believed him, as I have never met a person who was so skilled at taking care of his own energy.

A very earnest looking me, Tom, and Amèrico talking about visions of the future.

That first morning, as I entered the courtyard, I found Miguelito talking with Bob, Américo, and Tom. Américo was translating Quechua to Spanish, and Tom Spanish to English, so that Bob and Miguelito could have a conversation. As I approached, Bob said that Miguelito was just starting to describe something that happened to him the day before. Miguelito then recounted that he was walking down the trail when he saw a rooster ahead of him. Something about the rooster caused Miguelito to want to follow him, so he did. The rooster walked down to a pond and hopped into the water, turning into a swan. The swan glided across the pond to a waterfall, where it turned into a woman, who then disappeared behind the falls. At this point the story seemed to suddenly be over. Américo grinned at us and said that Miguelito must be channeling Bolivia again.

There are two major ways of becoming a paq’o (mystic/shaman) in Peru. One way is to find a teacher, either by going looking for one or by having one find you. The second way is to be hit by lightening, and (of course) survive. Miguelito had come down that second path. He also worked extensively with q’uyas (special stones) that had been hit by lightning.


My memory of the events of the following few days is like a deck of cards whose order has become hopelessly shuffled. I would like to just deal them out to you without having to remember exactly in what order they originally occurred.


One event I remember happened while we were doing energy work one morning with Américo in the garden. We were doing a meditation that involves two people connecting to each other’s heart energy (munay). This meditation is called “Heart to Heart” and instructions on how to do it is are provided in my blog. I had partnered up with Américo to do this meditation. When I was connected to his heart energy and he was connected to mine I suddenly felt the energy in my heart explode outwards like a super nova. At which point Américo said “ouch!”.


During lunch Américo asked if we would be interested in having the women of the village come down that afternoon to sell us some of the goods they had made (e.g. sweaters, hat bands, woven necklaces). He emphasized that this was completely optional, he just wanted to know if would be something we would like to do. We all enthusiastically said yes. During siesta time a score of women arrived, along with their babies and younger children. That sat in a large circle on the sparse, dry grass of the courtyard with their wares spread out in front of them on blankets. Américo said he didn’t want to be the middle-person in any of the sales, and that this was between the women and us. He just asked that, if possible, we buy from as many different women as we could, rather than all of us buying from just a few. Then he left us to it. It was a chance for us to interact with the women of the village, and start to get to know them…and their energy. And, it was a way for us to support both them and the continuation of their traditional crafts.

Speaking of the energy of the women…one afternoon a group of women from the village came down to Salka Wasi. They were all wearing their indigenous clothing; sandals, a woven skirt over several petticoats, a sweater or two, and a hat. Their hats were rather like the mortar boards worn at graduation in the U.S., with flat tops, but the tops were circular rather than square, much larger, and very colorful (the color and decoration of such hats indicate which village a woman is from).

They entered the courtyard and sat on the ground. At an earlier time, when talking about how the women of the Andes usually sit on the ground rather than in chairs, Américo had mentioned that this made it possible for their vaginas to be in contact with Pachamama and that this was very important. I entered the courtyard and sat not too far from the women. After a short while I realized that I was slipping into an altered state of consciousness which seemed to be caused by my proximity to the women. I grew up in a culture where femininity was associated with pink frills. What I was experiencing then, however, was something else entirely; a powerful, womanly, energy that felt as strong as the foundations of the Earth. Later, when I was mentioning this to Américo, he concurred that the Andean women had a strong energy. He added that if I spent more time with them then my own energy would never be the same. His tone of voice implied that this would be a worthwhile thing to do.


When we sat down to our meals, Gayle would bring in our food, and when we were finished, he would take our dishes away to be washed by Maria’s children. Imagine that you had a cabin in the mountains and some dear friends were coming to stay with you. But it snows before they get there and their car gets stuck in the snow. They finally arrive at your cabin, hours late, cold, and exhausted from the worry and toil of the road. You have some delicious, hot, soup waiting for them. As they sit at the table, you bring it out. Imagine your feelings, and your demeanor, as you bring them the soup. That is as close as I can describe how Gayle served us, every time. A level of service, impeccable, present centered, as if that moment in the Cosmos was sufficient and worth attending to, but more than that, a service based upon an open heart. His was an impeccable level of Being in service that had no hint of either servitude or condescension, yet not particularly more important than, say, a flower in the garden.

A few years later, when I was again in Peru with Gayle and Américo, Gayle told me that I was his teacher. I didn’t know what he was learning from me, and as I write this now I pause to think of how Gayle and I are different, and what I have of value in my approach to life that he could learn by being with me. We can set off each other’s senses of humor, and that I highly value, but that is something we share. I do know this, however, that Gayle is my teacher as well. The first thing I learned from him was how to be a host, like a breeze coming in through the window from salka meadows beyond.

During a later trip to Peru, my friend Karen asked Gayle about the difference between the two types of paq’os; pampa mesayoqs and alto mesayoqs. Others often describe the difference between the two in terms of their abilities. Gayle responded, however, by saying that pampa mesayoqs dedicate their lives to service to the Pachamama, while alto mesayoq’s dedicate theirs to service to an Apu. It’s all about service, salka, and the heart.


One afternoon Américo approached us and asked if we would be interested in having Miguelito read our fortunes using coca leaves. Reading coca leaves is one of the skills, or paths, that a paq’o can choose to master in his or her life. It is rather like an Andean version of a Tarot reading. Américo added that it would be appropriate to offer Miguelito a small amount of money in ayni (reciprocity) for reading our fortunes. We all said we would be delighted.

That night, after dinner, Miguelito entered the house dressed, for a change, not in Western clothes but in indigenous, Andean, clothes. Again I was struck by how old he looked, moved, and spoke. Américo sat at his side in support, helping him through this long and energy-draining work.

One at a time, we came up to sit next to Miguelito to have our fortunes read. As we sat down we gave him our ayni. He took the money, said something in Quechua to it, and placed it near where he did his work, involving it in the coca reading. Then he took a hand full of coca leaves and placed them in a bag made of animal hide. Speaking in Quechua, he threw the bag onto the table in such a manner that the bag made a big exhalation when it hit, causing the coca leaves to come shooting out of its mouth and onto the table.

He then began to poke around the leaves, noting their position and orientation, and their condition (torn, or bent, or straight and flat) and began to speak. Miguelito spoke in Quechua, and Américo translated that into Spanish, but Américo also did more. Often he and Miguelito would discuss for a bit some interpretation of the leaves, for Américo had also been trained in reading coca leaves.

For many years, as a young man, Américo had traveled through the Andes seeking and studying with venerable paq’os in the area. One of them was don Bonito Qoriwaman, the most renowned paqo of his time. As his “graduation exam” from his studies with don Bonito, Américo was tasked with using coca leaves to find the whereabouts of a llama that belonged to one of don Bonito’s friends, and that had gone missing. When he was telling us about this, Américo said that it took him about 45 minutes of intense work to arrive at the answer. He finally announced that the body of the llama could be found in a specific ravine several miles away. Some of the paq’os headed off toward the ravine, and arrived back a few hours later with the body of the llama. They threw it at don Bonito’s feet. Américo had passed his exam.

When it was my turn for Miguelito to give me a coca leaf reading he told me many things. The one that stands out in my memory is when he said I was an excellent father to my sons, for I walked in the light of the great Cosmic Being. I hadn’t told Miguelito that I had children, but then, Américo knew and he could have told him. In any event, it was meaningful to me.

Miguelito was quite old, and giving all five of us a coca reading tired him greatly. When he was finished, don Américo helped him off to bed.


Something happened during our stay at Salka Wasi that was of significance to my next couple of trips to Peru to work with Américo. Américo really liked Tom (Tom is now deceased), and yet one afternoon when Bob, Gina, Judy and I were with Américo he told us that he had a special name for the four us; he had decided to call us “The Apu Chim”, which refers to those condors that are considered to be the royalty among the condors. If I understood his gestures correctly, the apu chim are the condors who have the white collars around their necks. Américo then said that if we wanted to come to Peru to work with him again that we could arrange that directly with Arilu, and that we didn’t have to rely on Tom to organize the trip for us.


Late one afternoon the people of Mollamarka–women, men, and children–came down to Salka Wasi to dance for us. We all gathered in the courtyard, which was large enough for us to sit along the side–on ledges and benches–and still leave a big enough area in the center for dancing. The villagers brought a small band (drum, guitar, flutes) to provide the music. While some of the villagers had adopted Western clothing for their everyday use, for the dances they were all wearing their traditional clothes. Women, men, and children all had their own dances, and there were some dances where the men and women would dance together in a fashion that suggested ritualistic flirting. In one of the dances by the men they were dressed in costumes that reminded me of the statues in the fountain in the main square of Paucartambo. In another dance the women and men paired up, and while they were dancing they whipped each other about the legs using their warakas (slings). In some of the dances the women came over and pulled Bob, Tom, and I into the dance, while the men pulled Gina and Judy into the dance.

The various dances went on for about an hour. I was getting exhausted from being pulled into some of them, as we were at around 12,000 feet. About the time it looked like they might wrap things up, Tom gave some money to the band. They shouted with delight and played for another half an hour. When it was finally all over, Tom turned to us with a wry grin and said, “Lesson to be learned…don’t tip the band.”

I have been to other places where the indigenous people have demonstrated their dances for tourist, but in those circumstances the dances seemed to have lost their connection to the culture, and were being done simply as a show. This wasn’t like that, these dances felt like they were still grounded in a living culture.


On our last full day in Salka Wasi we went on a field trip. Américo had arranged for some horses from Mollamarka to be brought down to Salka Wasi. Mollamarka and Salka Wasi are situated about one third of the way up a massive mountain, and we were to ride to the top of that mountain to a sacred site known as Misti Pucari. We were accompanied by the owners of the horses and a few local paq’os. I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of riding a horse, I hadn’t had much experience doing that, but, of course, I wasn’t going to pass on whatever experience Américo had in mind for us.

Getting ready to head up the mountain.

The horses were small but with barrel-like chests to handle the altitude. My feet didn’t quite drag on the ground as we rode, but I did have to lift my feet occasionally as we rode past rocks and shrubs. We rode to the top of the mountain and then over its crest. There, not very far away, rose the majestic peaks of Apu Ausangate. As we got off our horses and stood there taking in the sight, Americo told us that he “saw” that on our next visit to Peru that we would travel together to Apu Ausangate. We then walked a short distance to a circle of stones.. This was Misti Pucari. The local paq’os informed us that this was a nodal point where lines of energy (ley lines) from Apu Ausangate and other powerful spots in the area meet. We meditated there for a while and then two of the paqos from Mollamarka gave us each two q’uya’s. The mountain side was too steep to ride the horses back down (they can carry people up slopes more easily than they can carry them down) so we walked most of the way back. There I was, with a healthy body, walking down the side of a mountain, breathing in the clean air, soaking in the salka, with my friends and don Américo and the men from Mollamarka, still vibrating from the meditations, in the high Andes of Peru.

Misti Pucari

During our stay at Salka Wasi, I began to come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of what don Américo was up to. As a young man he had studied under many Andean teachers representing a variety of paths leading into the Andean Cosmovision, and he had reached a high level of mastery. While Cusco is now rife with people offering Andean energy work, when don Américo hung up his plaque there many years ago he was about the only one. He told me once that his fee schedule when he first started was 50 soles if the client was rich, 10 soles if the client was not, and for clients who were very poor Américo would give them 5 soles to work on them. He added that his list of clientele grew rapidly.

But the point I am heading toward here, is that Américo could have given us the karpays himself rather than having us work with the Q’ero. Indeed, in earlier years he had helped the Q’ero to recover some of the elements of the path that they had lost. Instead of giving us the karpays, he arranged for us to work with the Q’ero. This delivered to the Q’ero the clear message that what they have to offer is something of value to the West, so valuable that we traveled thousands of miles to receive it. This is important for them to know as they face increasing pressure to be integrated into the Western worldview, that it does not have to be an all or none proposition, that they may want to hold on to aspects of their Andean worldview.

We pay them for their work with us, which gives them a way to improve their standard of living (which they want) while maintaining their connection to the Andean Cosmovision. The money is ayni, the energy of reciprocity, which in this case brings individuals from the two worlds, the Andean world and the Western world, into closer relationship, a relationship based upon the munay (the energy of the heart). The same thing applies to Miguelito reading our coca leaves, and the paqos of Mollamarka giving us a ceremony at Misti Pucari. Américo could have done those himself, but he arranged for us to work with and pay others instead. He arranged for us to give the dancers of Mollamarka some money as ayni for their coming to Salka Wasi to share their traditional dances. He arranged for the women of Mollamarka to sell us their traditional hand-made goods. All of these actions nourished within the Andean community the view that their traditional ways have value and that they can obtain the increased income they desire without giving up the culture.

Américo has never stated any of this explicitly to me, being explicit is not how he walks through the world. Artists are rarely if ever explicit about their work, they can’t be, or it is no longer art. Don Américo approaches his life as a work of art. As a student of his, all I can or need do if I want to learn from him, is to be in harmony with this way of being.


Our time with don Américo wasn’t quite over yet. After several days in Salka Wasi we drove back to Cusco and then the next day we all (including Américo) caught a ridiculously early train for a day trip to Machu Piccu.

Machu Picchu is the creme de la creme of Inca ruins. It is situated on the peak of a mountain, above a river gorge, several miles downstream from Ollantaytambo. It is a truly impressive site, the location is awesome and the architecture amazing, and frankly, I found it disappointing. I had just spent a week in isolated reaches of the Andes, in a world of salka (undomesticated energy) and munay (heart). At Machu Picchu I was elbow to elbow with hordes of distracted and impatient tourists. What beautiful energy the place no doubt had, was overwhelmed by the energy of the thousands of people who walked through the site every day, each person leaving a whirlpool of society-flavored Western energy with every step. Américo estimated that if Machu Picchu were given a break from tourism, that it would take about seven years for it to return to its essential energy.

Me at Machu Picchu

Still, while I was disappointed by the lack of mysticism in the experience, it was a cool place, and we had Américo as our guide. In those days, after you handed in your ticket at the gate, you were free to just freely wander around the site. Américo said that the last time he had been there was many years earlier, when he went there with an Andean teacher whom he revered. His teacher was quite old, and had informed Américo that he would soon be dying. Américo followed him around Machu Picchu in tears.

Américo shared with us some of the things his teacher had told him about the place. The structures in Machu Picchu are made of stone, but their roofs have not survived. His teacher told him that when Machu Picchu was inhabited that all of the roofs were covered in colorful bird feathers from the jungle (which is not very far downstream). He also told Américo that paqos from all around, including some from far away lands, used to meet through astral projection once a year at Machu Picchu. Let me note that in general I have found the indigenous people’s accounts of Inca and pre-Inca ruins to be much more interesting than those provided by anthropologists.

In addition to the various, famous, sites in Machu Picchu (e.g. the temple that has a hitching post for the sun), Américo showed us a place where the stone balustrade had been shaped to match the distant peaks on the other side of the river, allowing the paqos to connect with those peaks by touching their closer replicas; and a face, cut into the stone, of an Inca sporting the large ear disks that were the symbol of status. Américo, apparently, also found the energy of the tourists to be too much, for he told us that he thought that that would be his last visit to Machu Picchu. As far as I know, it was.

While my fascination with Machu Picchu had to battle it out with my disappointment at its crowd of tourists, I did very much enjoy our lunch, and a beer, at Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is a tourist town at the foot of the mountain below Machu Picchu where the railway station is located. Sometimes, having a relaxing meal with friends or family after a day of being a tourist is my favorite part of the day. After lunch we took a late afternoon train back to Cusco.

Beer and lunch with waikis at Aguas Calientes.

Machu Picchu had not been discovered (and subsequently) destroyed by the Spanish. It was simply abandoned by the Incas. It was brought to the attention of the Western world by Hiram Bingham, who was shown the ruins by a local campesino in 1911. As a fun note, there are several similarities between Bingham and Indiana Jones, and a fair amount of speculation that the Jones character was inspired by Bingham. In any event, the untouched (except by time) and spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu leads me to wonder what the world lost when the Spanish destroyed every Inca temple and site that they found.

The Inca, however, while constructors of a huge empire, were simply an imperialistic expression of older civilizations and cultures that emerged within Peru. I would like to semi-close this chapter with some words from one of my favorite guidebooks to Cusco. “So what are we to make of the Incas? This book proposes no answer, except to note that they, and the continuum of cultures that preceded them, represent a significant event in human history. It is true that their civilization was brought to an abrupt end, and little of what they created has entered the mainstream of human culture. They were overwhelmed by a race that was blind to all but the most obvious material aspects of their world. But much of what sustained Andean civilization was not external, and the spirit of the ancient way lives on in the hearts and customs of the millions of native inhabitants of the Andes. In this sense it is possible, after all, that we have not heard the last of the Incas.” Exploring Cusco, by Peter Frost.


The next day, Bob and I were scheduled to take the same flight out of Cusco on our separate journeys back home. I realized that I was suddenly going to be kicked out of the cocoon of love and safety in which I had been immersed for the past two weeks. I was faced with making my way through a third-world country where few people, including those who ran ticket counters, spoke English. I was going to have to leave the heart-centered reality of the Andean Cosmovision and enter the cold reality of the Western world. Fear and anxiety hit me like a bucket of cold water.

Bob and I needed to leave the hostal at 4:00 AM to catch our flight. Arilu, bless her heart, offered to pick us up and take us to the airport and make sure we got safely on our flight. We gratefully accepted her offer. Tom couldn’t believe it. He harangued and shamed us for accepting Arilu’s offer, and we eventually gave in and said we would take a taxi instead.

The next morning we took a taxi to the airport. When we arrived there, and were standing in line at the ticket counter, I heard a sweet voice call out “Oakley! Bob!”. We turned around and there were Arilu and Américo. Arilu stepped forward and talked to the ticket person and made sure our tickets were correct. Then, when we arrived at the security checkpoint where only people with tickets can go any further, Américo talked to the security guy, who let him enter, and he walked with us to the gate. He gave both Bob and I a hug and a q’uya (briefly blowing on and talking to each q’uya before handing them over). Then with a friendly wave he strode off.


The trip back was an exhausting 40 hours of flights and layovers. I landed at the St. George , Utah airport in the late evening. Betsy was there to pick me up. The drive back to Cedar City took an hour, and I talked nonstop the whole way, recounting all of the amazing and touching experiences of the trip. The next day I didn’t want to face the Western world. I asked Betsy to please intercept all phone calls and to answer the door if anyone dropped by, and to say that I was unavailable. I hid in the house for two days before I gingerly reemerged into a Western society that now seemed so cold and heartless after my experiences in Peru.

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Podcast Episode 1: An Introduction to the Andean Cosmovision

A conceptual introduction to the Andean Cosmovision.  I recommend listening to this before moving on to the meditations.

To download the episode click on “Download“, if an audio player appears and begins to play the episode, right click on it and then select “Save Audio”.

Transcript (pdf)



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It Is a Way of Being

The Andean Cosmovision provides a different-from-Western-Society way of perceiving and interacting with reality. It is not a way of thinking about the world, it is not a set of concepts and beliefs, it cannot be describe or encompassed with words. To explore the Andean Cosmovision is to enter into another way of experiencing reality that is so different from that of the West that it cannot be distinguished from actually exploring a different reality. I have found it to be a path that takes me through territory that my own society ignores. It takes me to my heart, to beauty, to love, and to a relationship with Nature and the Cosmos that fulfills my desire to sip at the cup of the sacred.

It isn’t easy. It is not a path that everyone would want to take, and it certainly isn’t a path that everyone should take, for it has no dogma, it has no rules laid down by an external deity, within the Cosmovision there is no moral imperative to walk this path. If the path itself is rewarding to you then keep going (if you wish). If not, stop, and try some other path, or no path at all. That decision is something that only you can make.

Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi.  From The Illuminated Rumi
Broadway Books, Coleman Barks (translator).

There are many different paths that lead into the Andean Cosmovision, each has its doorstep in a different region of the Andes or with a different teacher. I really only “know” the path I have been shown by don Americo Yabar and don Gayle Yabar and that I have walked for many years in the company of several dear friends. I know something about some of the other paths, not enough to describe them from experience, but enough to know that they have some noticeable differences from the path I have taken. I would like to point that out, so that you will understand that what I share in this blog may apply only to the path I know.

In this path of heart the meditations serve as the portals for entering the Andean Cosmovision. That is a reality that has no limits, and I intend to be exploring it for the rest of my life, or at least so long as it continues to nourish my blossoming as a Being in this Cosmos. For me it is not a set of powers to be gained, or techniques to master, or knowledge to accumulate, it is a way of being in this Cosmos, and very much so it is a way of relating to Nature and the Cosmos.

There are times in my life when I stop meditating for a while.  This often happens in the winter when it is hard to go outside and I am busy teaching at the University and being all intellectual.  Engaging with the politics of a world that seems to be increasingly directed by fear and hate also moves me away from meditating. Much of what I love and value is under immanent threat of destruction.  There are times to meditate by the river and times to throw myself in front of the bulldozer. The two modes represent my left side and right side, respectfully, and part of what I value about this path is that it embraces all of who I am.  Occasionally I get glimpses of that aspect of myself that is greater than the sum of those two parts, for whom the left side and the right side are but two facets of my existence, but we are the diamond that has those facets.

Still, when I stop meditating, this path stops being something I am being, and it becomes a memory, an idea, which it can never be without losing its essence.  I have discovered, rather obviously, that when I abandon this path, this connecting with the Cosmos, that I slowly start to feel abandoned by the Cosmos.  I get depressed.  When I start to meditate again I return to this way of being, and its essence returns and my existence again puts on a mantle of meaningfullness.  My challenge is that when I haven’t meditated for a while, and I start to feel down, I don’t feel much like meditating.

I would like to share with you something that I have found to be useful.  I have put the following poem on the desktop of my computer where I can see it everyday:

Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi.  From The Illuminated Rumi
Broadway Books, Coleman Barks (translator).

You might enjoy my book:  The Andean Cosmovision:  A Path for Exploring Profound Aspects of Ourselves, Nature, and the Cosmos.

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The Path of the Poet

On my journeys down the path of heart into the Andean Cosmovision my intellect cannot lead, it cannot even follow.  It can, however, let me go and it can welcome me back.

Prose cannot guide me, but at times poetry can be a window to that place that blossoms, and even give hints on how to journey there .  The poems of Rumi, in particular,  and I have quoted Rumi in this blog.  Recently a friend of mine suggested that I read Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke, during the years 1903-1908, to a young poet with whom he was in correspondence.

“Here, where an immense country lies about me, over which the winds pass coming from the seas, here I feel that no human being anywhere can answer for you those questions and feelings that deep within them have a life of their own; for even the best err in words when they are meant to mean most delicate and almost inexpressible things. But I believe nevertheless that you will not have to remain without a solution if you will hold to objects that are similar to those from which my eyes now draw refreshment. If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance. You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by M. D. Herter Norton. Revised edition, 1954. W. W. Norton & Company. pp 34-35

The post The Creature and It’s Creations also address’s the poetical nature of the path of heart.  If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy it as well.

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