The Curious Legend of the Papitos

“Superstition” and “faith” are interesting aspects of human nature.  So many of our beliefs, or disbeliefs for that matter, are formulated around unsubstantiated facts, and still we choose to think what we want to think based solely on what our intuition tells us correct.  I can’t argue with you that ghosts don’t exist when you claim to have seen one, it’s impossible for any singular conclusion to come of it.  And yet, without any scientific merit, we will maintain our speculations until something changes how we feel.

The papitos of Southern Peru are the latest “beings” of the region that have been met with skepticism, their supposed manifestations taking on a variety of forms and purposes.  Considering the Inca empire – whose central operations were based in this area – was a polytheistic civilization that celebrated an assortment of mythical creatures, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a society which venerates its ancestry has generated its own lore.  Or is it lore?  Obviously, that would depend on who you ask.

For those who believe in the papitos, the general consensus is that they’re here for good; to provide services for the native population.  What those services are, though, revolves around what you need.  They have been known to be doctors, psychiatrists, mediums, or business consultants; I’ve heard of requests from clients looking to solicit healthy harvests from the mountain spirits to widows seeking counsel on their grief.  The only issue is that the papitos never stay in one place, they travel from town to town in complete secrecy, setting up shop at random locations for fluctuating durations of time. You have to be lucky to catch wind of their arrival and set up an appointment with an intermediary before they leave for wherever the next destination may be.  What this means, of course, is that if you’re in some kind of medical emergency, a visit to the papito probably isn’t in the cards.

If you’re wondering how it is that these papitos are capable of tackling so many professions, the answer is unknown.  That’s because no one has ever seen a papito before, a clear rationale for the debate over what these social benefactors even are in the first place.  There are three theories that have gathered the most traction; they’re either angels, devils, or aliens, with a fourth, smaller faction hypothesizing they’re nothing more than humans with metaphysical powers.  There’s a solid reason for why they’ve gone undetected so long, and it’s due to how they welcome their patients to the meetings.

Once you’ve arrived at a predetermined venue (usually at night), an enlisted helper ushers you into a windowless, pitch black room and sits you down before shutting the one and only door.  It’s there, in the total dark, that you wait for the consultation to begin.  After a certain period of time – whenever the papitos are ready – they expose their voices from obscurity and start discussing whatever is troubling the customer.  How they enter, no one is sure, but it’s here in the shadows that they perform their miracles, never being seen nor touched.  Whenever they’ve concluded their business, the papitos inexplicably disappear and the operation is taken over by the helper again, gathering payment and closing the transaction.

It’s natural to be apprehensive.  The entire scheme may seem suspicious, especially when you take into account that a majority of the locals that visit these less expensive “clinics” are usually impoverished and desperate, but what keeps the idea alive is that they do (supposedly) work!  People swear by them.  A friend of mine who taught English in Southern Peru recalled a story where the mother of one of her students suffered from crippling back pain, a shooting twinge that constantly plagued her spine.  Doctors were having trouble coming up with a solution to her discomfort, so she figured it’d be worth seeking out the papitos in case they could find a way to heal her.  She went through the whole bizarre process – dark room, strange voices – and was ultimately told a certain operation could be performed, that all she had to do was lay facedown on the ground. She was on the floor for around thirty minutes, not a single hand having touched her, when she was informed the “surgery” was complete.  Yet, when she rose to her feet, all of her aches had somehow dissipated.

The cherry on the sundae?  When she went for a routine check-up with her doctor, he noticed that her vertebrae were straight and asked when she had received an operation.  Creepy stuff.

I could easily approach the subject and call malarky, but the truth remains that this woman is one out of many successful cases.  I have no clue what really went down, I’m just the messenger, but somehow, someway, this fortunate lady is walking around pain-free.  It’s no thanks to a doctor, either, that cannot be disputed.  So, what happened? How is it possible that a seemingly incurable ailment casually rehabilitated itself?  Most likely, there will never be a clear explanation.

In the end that’s not what’s important, it’s not like this narrative is the first to bring light to an unexplained phenomena.  When it comes down to the basics we’re an odd species with disparate and peculiar beliefs, not everything we do makes sense.  Instead what the papitos offer is insight into a beautiful and historically complex culture, exhibiting a way of thinking that’s rooted centuries in the past.  It’s fascinating that this greater recognition of folkloric spirits is the residue of a belief system that has permeated through the generations, and that the remnants of dated ideologies have birthed new concepts.  Oddly enough, when you look at in that context it’s totally reasonable.

One day the curtain may lift and we’ll know the reality of what’s going on backstage (I, for one, am rooting for aliens), but until that day comes let’s have fun deciphering the possibilities.  Isn’t that the point of a good mystery?  Let’s dig into a world different than our own and appreciate how a population deals with their own unique bumps in the road, facing challenges that contrast what we’re used to.  Let’s indulge in “faiths” and “superstitions” with an open mind, so that we may enjoy the stories that precede them.  And besides, the papitos, oh man what a cool basis for their “existence”!

What do you think?  Do you believe the papitos are real?

Restoring Valparaíso’s Former Glory

Beginning in 1848, a little event called the California Gold Rush intoxicated people from all over the world with the idea that they could make a quick million.  With hearts full of ambition, nearly 150,000 prospectors in Europe took advantage of the golden opportunity and sailed across the Atlantic, around the southern tip of South America, and all the way up the coast until the reached the boomtown of San Francisco.  If you’ve ever looked at a map, you already know that’s a crazy long trip, one that could take months upon months to complete over the unpredictable dangers of the open ocean.  Such a voyage is, to say the least, exhausting.

During this surge of migration, the small Chilean seaport of Valparaíso reaped the benefits of money-hungry sailors.  Since its location was half the distance to San Francisco, it was a reasonable spot to rest up for the remaining journey.  With a growing number of Europeans bringing over their influence, the town began to blossom into a cultural hub with staggering diversity.  At the turn of the century, Valparaíso was inhabited by British, German, French, and Italian immigrants who injected the town with their own unique flare, and by the time Valparaíso reached its Golden Age in 1914, it had earned the title as the “Jewel of the Pacific”.  It was, without a doubt, the most important port city of South America.

The docks of modern-day Valparaíso.

The docks of modern-day Valparaíso.

While the economy of the region began to explode, budding entrepreneurs who sensed a business opportunity opted to take up residence there instead of continuing north.  As the permanent population grew, so did the innovation.  Before Valparaíso had even reached its peak, it was already responsible for South America’s first football team, volunteer fire station, stock exchange, mercantile building, Protestant church, public library, Spanish-language newspaper, and brewery; all of which were scattered amongst beautiful, palacial Victorian buildings and lush, rolling hills that descended right into the blue waters of the Pacific.  With a stunning backdrop and spirited culture, it’s no wonder people were sucked in to Valparaíso’s magical allure.  The city had found its swag, and the sky was the limit!

Except it wasn’t.

Almost overnight, everything changed.  Just as Valparaíso had reached its pinnacle in all things cool, the United States decided to build the Panama Canal.  Starting in 1914, all traffic from Europe that would’ve gone through Valparaíso chose to cut their voyage in half and sidestep South America altogether.  The fallout was absolutely devasting; nearly all of the wealthy families left for greener pastures, rendering large sections of the city abandoned.  With no real reason for being, Valparaíso started to fall into the abyss.

Ironically, it’s this very desolation that makes Valparaíso the incredible city it is today.

She didn't turn out too badly!

She didn’t turn out too shabby!

With many locals debilitated by the sinking economy, they turned to the ports for creative solutions to their problems.  Most notably, they recycled corrugated metal sheets left behind by ships and incorporated them into their architecture as protection from the weather’s elements.  Once they realized that the humid air from the water rusted the metal, they used the leftover paint shipping companies would discard to protect their homes against the moisture.  In many instances, though, there wasn’t enough of one paint to finish off an entire facade, so the exterior would be done up in a variety of hues.

Imagine a whole city full of color like this, it never gets old!

Imagine a whole city full of color like this!

Slowly, the city began to regain its vibrance.  A new generation recognized the charm Valparaíso still held, subsequently bringing flocks of artists and free-thinkers in search of inspiration within the port’s former glory.  Its antiquated elegance was still palpable, thus giving Valparaíso a newfound appreciation.  In 2003 its authenticity was saved when UNESCO declared the historic center a World Heritage Site, driving the Chilean government to declare Valparaíso the nation’s “Cultural Capital”.  In doing so, the city’s distinct appearance was preserved.

Calle Serrano, the area that was being built up as the rich section before 1914 hit.

Calle Serrano, the area that was being built up as the rich section before 1914 hit.

It’s not just Valparaíso’s presentation that makes it unique, it’s the vibe that truly makes it shine.  Progression, art, and liberal thought are the forces that drive the city forward; freedom of expression is more perciptible here than anywhere else I’ve visited.  It’s not uncommon to see a dude dressed in a Peruvian alpaca pullover, sporting a dreaded mullet, carrying his guitar and smoking a joint; nor is it rare to spot a girl with dark-red lipstick wearing chained clothing, head half-shaved (think Skrillex), shoving nails up her nose to earn some spare change on the street.  The people are inventive, illustrating the bland spaces of their walls with world-class street art, thus rendering Valparaíso one giant canvas in which to play.  It’s a sight to behold; magnificent, dazzling, and wholly consuming.

Walking along the streets is more like taking a tour through an outdoor museum.

Walking along the streets is more like taking a tour through an outdoor museum.

Valparaíso may not have fully regained the economic prominence it once held in the early-1900s, but it doesn’t need to in order to be the incredibly special place it is now.  Presently, you can be who you want to be – there is no standard for what’s “weird”, everything just “is”.  It’s an attitude that’s refreshing to bear witness to, and after seeing how the youth of region approach life I can’t help but be convinced Chile will be good for years to come.  It seems as though other foreigners have caught the scent as well; I’ve talked to dozens of travelers who were captivated by what Valparaíso had to offer, they meant to pass through but instead decided to figure out some kind of work to keep them there.  They found the soul of this marvelous city just too good to resist, unable to move on from the thrilling renaissance passing before their eyes.  Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Can it get much better than this?

Would you want to leave this?

Keeping the Sacred Valley Sacred

Once upon a time, around 500 years ago, the Inca Empire stood as the largest nation on the planet.  The four districts, or Tawantinsuyu as they called it, that constituted their rule covered an absurd distance that reached as far north as Colombia, went as far south as Santiago, Chile, and even stretched inland into modern-day countries like Bolivia and Argentina.  As a result, the Incas have their stake in history for having erected the biggest native state to ever exist in the Western hemisphere.

In the midst of this impressive expanse of land lies the Sacred Valley, and out of all the valleys that carve into the Andes it’s the only one that earned the name “Sacred”.  Hundreds upon hundreds of other prodigious locations could’ve scored that designation, and yet this modest 37-mile tract of land takes the gold.  Why?

The most commonly known reason is for the Valley’s agricultural benefits; the soil is rich in nutrients, the rain pours, and the sun shines – the obvious criteria for cultivating good crop.  Yet, the fact it had such wonderful farming properties in the region it’s in is what separates it from all other valleys.  Cusco, which was the capital and centerpiece of the Tawantinsuyu departments, was only a day’s trek from the Sacred Valley, thus making it a crucial pipeline of trade, transport, and rest; a pivotal artery that delivered nourishment to the Inca’s heart.

With food production at its core, the Sacred Valley allowed an easy passage for those from the Colla Suyu (southern) district to reach noteworthy municipalities like Ollantaytambo, Cusco, and Machu Picchu.  Such access gave convenient lines to Chinceros and Urubamba, which fostered an industry of exchange for those passing through.  This was especially significant since the Incas didn’t do business with hard currency, it was with commodities like food and tools.  In turn, the abundance of resources that made their way across the valley provided ample means for citizens to have downtime on longer treks and recuperate.

But, as you’re probably aware, it didn’t last.  The Spanish conquistadors made sure of that.  With its destruction the Sacred Valley was in danger of getting lost in the annals of time until the accidental discovery of Machu Picchu (a topic in which I’ll touch on later).  Instead, it continues to be “sacred” in another sense; it’s beautiful, rich in history, teeming with a vibrant culture, and brings mass amounts of tourism to an area of the world that could use the economic support.

While that may not have the same ring to it, it’s importance in the present shouldn’t be understated.  It’s not just about marvelous landscapes or money, it’s a source of pride for the native population.  Here, where conditions aren’t as glorious as they are in developed countries, being able to point to the hillsides and share their ancestor’s ingenuity is an indispensable aspect of life for the locals.  I hear it in their voice each time they talk about it, they speak with passion and conviction, fully aware of the triumphs that are scattered over their cherished land.

A lot of families here operate differently than I’m accustomed to, the whole concept of “opportunity” and “career-growth” is often lost amongst the necessity to farm, work, and provide for your household.  As an adolescent it’s way more problematic to branch off, pay for an education, and leave your parents on the highland to do backbreaking labor; sadly, the future rarely shines as bright here as it does in other parts of the world.  With little to look forward to except years and years of toiling in the soil, what do they have?  The glory of a time past, reminiscing in the marvels that their own bloodline created.

If something as simple as a venerated homeland can offer someone a sense of belonging in an otherwise tedious lifestyle, wouldn’t you still consider it “sacred”?  I know I do.

The Business of Misrepresentation

The house we use here in Urubamba is falling apart, it has been since the very beginning.  The list of defects seems boundless; the showers are of glacial temperature, all of the faucets run, our stove shoots plumes of ash, and within our first week here the sink in the boys bathroom fell off its hinge and shattered on the floor.  We’ve been confronting our landlord about these problems around twice a week for two months, pleading with him to get all the facilities running properly.  “Yes, of course,” he says, as if his responses are always pre-recorded, “I’ll have someone on it tomorrow afternoon.  The most important thing for me is that you’re comfortable!”

To this day, nothing has been fixed.  It hasn’t even received inspection.

Our trash collector is a five minute bike ride away from where we live.  With a house that lodges 25 people, 20 of which are teenagers, you can imagine how much garbage we accumulate (it’s a lot).  We’ll call him in the morning to confirm the pick up: “Please come by in the afternoon, we’ll be waiting here with your payment.”

“Great!  I’ll be there!” he usually replies, only to never show up.  His excuse?  “Oh, my apologies.  Today wasn’t a good day.”

You may be starting to sense a pattern, so allow me one more parable.  Last year when I was traveling around South America I would always tell the bus company I wanted a direct route, no stops whatsoever.  I’d buy the ticket, and the common outcome would be six or seven stops, the complete opposite of what I had requested.  A girl I met was telling me her tagged luggage was stolen from under the bus during one of those unspecified stops and how nothing was done about it.  Their reaction towards our complaints?  Essentially, it went like this: “Whoops!”

I find this aspect of the culture, how businesses function, to be one of the most curious.  That’s because if any of the aforementioned situations transpired in the United States, they’d be out of business.  Fast.  The landlord wouldn’t be able to find tenants, someone who actually collected trash would collect the trash, and the bus company would have zero passengers.  Yet here it seems as though falsifying information to please the client – and subsequently not following through – is accepted.  Even when I ask directions for somewhere simple, like a restaurant, the person I ask will point off into the distance and say: “It’s over there.”

“Over where?” I’ll inquire further.

“There,” they’ll point.

“Do I need to turn anywhere?” I’ll ask, confused.

“Just go that way,” they’ll reply, finger still outstretched, “you can’t miss it.”  And needless to say, I always seem to miss it.

Over the course of my time living in Urubamba, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that this distorted truth stems from a good place; that they want to please you.  No one wants to look you in the eye and say I don’t know, instead they’d rather give you an answer and try to lead you down the right path.  As Southern Peru is a shy culture, perhaps they just feel uncomfortable letting you down.  As for some of the larger companies, it could be that there isn’t an infrastructure to deliver astounding customer service; like in the example of the bus company, maybe there simply isn’t a way to recover the bag.  “Whoops!” just might be the best answer they have.

I don’t know what the real answer is, and maybe I don’t need one.  Cultures differ, and this is just one of those characteristics that contrasts what I’m used to.  It’s these small nuances, the pockets of diversity, that make our species so interesting; I don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.  In the interim, I have no problem taking advantage of “Peruvian time” and showing up 30 minutes late.  Instead, I finally might have found a culture that goes by my schedule!

“I climbed all the way up the mountain with a torn knee so I could feel the land’s spirit.  I was hoping its energy would help me heal faster.  When I arrived at the top and pressed my body against the snow I could sense a power from within the ground revive my leg, urging it to rehabilitate.  It was then I knew all the pain and agony from the ascent was worth it.”

-Nico Jara, Program Coordinator

The Underrated Dominance of the Andes

Last year, I made it my goal to hike up Mt. Chicon and touch the glacial snow that stared down at me every single day.  The massive, imposing peak had been dangling a carrot in front of me since the moment I arrived in Urubamba; and I was taking the bait.  I am going to touch snow, I thought to myself, I am going to conquer the summit.  I had a vision – or even better, a dream – of myself standing high above the Sacred Valley laughing at the mountain that had taunted me since day one.

The thing is, I failed miserably.  I didn’t come close.  By the time I needed to turn around my lungs felt as though I had chain-smoked 5 packs of cigarettes earlier that morning, and I wasn’t even halfway up.  I couldn’t take ten steps without keeling over and gasping for air.

I was completely clueless at the time, but I had the foolish expectation of climbing a mountain with an elevation of 18,175 feet.  That isn’t a typo; Mt. Chicon, which casually exists in Urubamba’s backyard, is nearly 4,000 feet taller than Mt. Elbert, the tallest mountain in the Rockies.  Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, sits 3,670 feet lower.  Even Mont Blanc, the pride of glory of the Alps, stands at a mere 15,780 feet.  Chicon towers over other ranges and still only holds the title of 11th tallest mountain in the Cusco Province, or 126 tallest in all of Peru.  For as enormous as it is, it’s nothing in comparison to the rest of the Andes.


You’re pathetic, Chicon.

The point I’m trying to make is this: the Andes are gargantuan.  At 4,300 miles end-to-end they’re the longest continental mountain range in the world, stretching over 1,000 miles further than the United States is wide.  Within that impressive distance lie more than 50 volcanoes that rise above 19,700 feet (which is taller than Mt. Kilimanjaro, by the way).  Additionally, within approximately 1,333,000 square miles of territory, the Andes possess an average height of 13,000 feet.

I’m not trying to knock the Himalayas, I know it’s the most immense mountain range by far, but the Andes don’t get the credit they deserve.  Having trekked the Altiplano previously I can say from experience they’re relentless; the landscape is littered with rocky, serrated ridgelines as far as the eye can see.  It’s almost claustrophobic being so inescapably enclosed by the numerous snowcapped peaks that boast their supremacy, perpetually bursting skyward like they’re trying to make a statement.

They’re tall, cold, dry, and deprived of oxygen; an impressive creation to say the least, a prime example of Mother Nature’s brute strength.  They’re capable of taking the most determined human and putting them on all fours – trust me, I would know.

Living Amongst the Ruins of the Incan Empire

There is a quote I think of often these days.  It’s simple, but to me it speaks volumes, and it goes like this: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”

Who said this?  Francisco Pizarro did.  He wrote it in a letter to King Charles V shortly before he decimated the Incan Empire, simultaneously attempting to destroy any evidence of its existence in his wake.  What was he talking about?  Cuzco, the imperial capital of the Incans, and the pure marvel that a population had somehow managed to create.  By today’s standards even I am stunned at what such a society was able to accomplish, and so I can only imagine what Pizarro was thinking as he looked down on Cuzco from the surrounding mountains.  Unfortunately, I think I have a pretty good guess.  Without flinching, I believe he thought to himself: “I want this to be mine.”

For a Conquistador that was promised governance by Spanish royalty for any land he took over, I’m sure the deal seemed pretty fruitful.  I bet a few other factors widened his pupils; such as the fact the empire had a well-functioning infrastructure, was rich with precious metals, and was inhabited by people who recognized (and feared) the power their modern weaponry held.  The latter was what brought Atahualpa, the Incan emperor, to voluntarily meet with Pizarro in hopes of discussing a peaceful resolution towards the accusation of being an enemy to the Catholic Church and Spanish Crown.  Of course, this was nothing more than a conniving plan to isolate Atahualpa who, having never seen a book before, threw the Bible aside when presented with the option of converting to Catholicism.  This was the only impetus the Spanish needed to attack, thus unleashing a rain of cannon and gunfire on the unarmed natives that had accompanied their leader.  The result?  2,000 massacred Incans, a captured emperor, and only 5 Spanish deaths.

Afterward, the general gist goes as you would expect; Pizarro’s men pillaged their gold and silver, raped their women, mercilessly killed those who didn’t convert to their way of thinking, and demolished communities in order to rebuild them as “Spanish” (the one they missed, as you may know, being the famous Machu Picchu).  As I alluded to earlier, these Conquistadors literally wanted nothing more than to erase anything Incan from the history books.

All of this from the man who said: “We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.”

It is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.  Those are the key observations of Pizarro that keep reverberating in my head.  On a factual level these words have meaning because it’s true, the Incan empire was so beautiful and they did complete astonishing works of engineering, but on a personal level it’s because I have trouble coming to terms with someone who carried out brutal atrocities when he was fully aware of the majesty that was laid out in front of him.  Acting primarily out of greed, he ordered the complete destruction of one the most impressive cultures history has ever seen.

As I work and live in the Sacred Valley, a region which is a stone’s throw away from Cuzco and was the main agricultural stronghold of the area, I am constantly surrounded by this history.  Ruins – which include anything from watchtowers, to terraces, to houses – are scattered across the landscape in such abundance that many a passerby don’t even bother to look.  Yet there they stand, not only as a stark reminder of what once was, but as an indication of resistance from a civilization who ensured the Spanish couldn’t finish what they set out to do.

I find that to be one of the fascinating aspects of where I am currently living, that I am constantly surrounded by both the magnifcicent creations of human ingenuity and the beastly demonstration of unyielding coercion.  It always amazes me how the beauty and ugliness in the history of this place perpetually co-exists in a bizarre harmony, and that you can see it plainly in front of you in a simple task like walking to the market in the morning.  Never before have I lived in a place as unique as this, and I’d be lucky as hell if I ever get to again.