Los Caballeros

We felt as though we had had no rest, but we were lucky; the horses hadn’t even had a drink of water.

After a quick meal of sausage, red wine, and biscuits, we set off again up the valley, Jorge leading the way. We followed single file along the banks of the Rio, a small, swiftly running stream barely 10 feet across. Weaving our way up the valley, we had to cross and re-cross stream.

Edward, who rarely stops chattering, gave a whoop every time we went into the water. Usually, we just splashed through a thin stream, but occasionally the horses sank up to their bellies. On either side of the valley were dry rock hillsides rising from the road steeply, with nothing but cactus growing out of them. Down in the valley, gnarly old quebracho trees grew near the stream, along with thick clumps of pampas grass. Wherever the valley widened out, green fields of alfalfa filled the space.

“It reminds me of Santa Fe, New Mexico — or as it might have been 500 years ago,” said Elizabeth. “But it is much prettier here.”

It was a very narrow valley. In some places, from one side to the other — where the vegetation stopped and the rocks rose up into the mountains — it measured as little as 50 feet. Then, suddenly, it would widen out into a rich field of alfalfa.

“How do you ever get tractors in here to work the fields?” we wondered aloud to Jorge.

“We don’t use tractors. We do it all by hand, and then we load the hay onto a horsecart. That big, grey Percheron that Henry is riding pulls it down the river and we rick it up there for winter, ” Jorge replied.

We had been riding for about an hour. The stream had gotten smaller and smaller so that it was now only about a yard across, with barely any grass or trees on either side. Then, Jorge left it all together. With no apparent movement, he urged his horse up the bank. Now the animals were going to have to work, for the mountainside was steep and stony.

Each step required consideration — the horses didn’t want to step either onto a sharp rock or into a cactus plant. We wondered how they kept track of all four feet at once. At first, this was purely a matter of curiosity. But soon, it became a matter of life and death when we gained altitude and found ourselves picking our way along the edge of a cliff. A single mistake would have been fatal to both the horse and its rider. The reckless, incompetent horses must have been eliminated from the gene pool many centuries before, we reasoned, giving thanks for natural selection.

Still, we wondered. Maybe the Peruvians were surefooted, but what about Henry’s big Percheron? In the rolling hills of La Perche, in France, what were eliminated were the horses too weak to pull a plow or a wagon — or carry a knight into battle. There would be no way for nature to know which animal couldn’t negotiate a mountain trail in the Andes.

At one point, the little trail itself seemed to give way to the urge to fall into the gorge. There was nothing left of it, except some loose stones and a 200-foot drop. Still, no horse and no rider hesitated; we all slipped forward without casualty.

“Look,” said Francisco, turning around in the saddle when we reached a level area.

We had been so concentrated on the path that we had barely raised our heads. Now, we saw that we were in the middle of an area of tumbled-down stonewalls — acres of them.

“Los Indios,” Jorge explained.

“What Indios?” Henry asked.

“Well…my ancestors,” said Jorge

We have already described Jorge to you. Our guidebook describes him further:

“The indigenous peoples of the Calchaquies valley are very pleasant and friendly, with broad faces and exceptionally white teeth. They are descended from a local tribe which probably had its roots among the peoples of Patagonia and became vassal to the Inca Empire before the arrival of the Spanish invaders.”

According to politically correct history, America was not “discovered” by Columbus, it was “invaded” by foreigners who exterminated several enlightened and promising civilizations. One book we looked at in a Buenos Aires bookshop, told us that the Aztecs, when they weren’t actually ripping out the hearts of their children or their prisoners of war, “respected both old and young…and lived in harmony with nature.” So, you see, dear reader, there are two sides to every story — usually equally absurd.

“These were all terrace gardens,” Francisco explained. “They grew their crops up here.”

We looked around. Except for the piles of rocks, laid out in rough semicircles, there was nothing here, but high, parched, barren ground. The only vegetation it seemed willing to support was the cactus — and even those were small. Majestic “cardone” cacti grew down at lower elevations; up here, there were mostly small, ground-hugging plants with sharp needles growing out of flat, paddle-like green pulp.

Why would the locals live in such a place? Why would they want to climb up this barren mountain, when the bottomland is so much richer and more hospitable?

“A team of archeologists came up here and looked at it,” Jorge explained, “but they still don’t know very much.”

While we were looking around at the Indian ruins, we noticed what looked like a green, fertile, and inviting oasis on a nearby mountainside. There, against a background of more dry rocks, was a verdant meadow and large trees. Under the trees was what looked like a stone house.

“That’s where one of my cousins lived,” Jorge told us. “I don’t see him very often.”

We were surprised he ever saw him.

“Is there any way up there?” your editor asked.

“Yes, of course, there’s a little trail. Not as good as this one, of course, but you can get up there,” said Jorge.

Jorge made a yelping sound at the top of his voice: “Ooo-ooohhh!”

He explained, ” I’m calling him. We don’t have time to go all the way, but in these mountains, sound carries a long way. He’ll hear me and come out. Besides, I should ask about how he’s feeling.”

“Why?” we inquired.

“He’s dying,” Jorge responded.

“Oh…has he been to the doctor? What’s wrong with him?” we asked.

“To the doctor? He’s never seen a doctor in his life. He’s just ready to die. He’s 95 years old — or something like that,” Jorge told us.

Jorge yelped a couple more times, but there was no sign of life from the other side of the valley.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.