A Very Ancient Civilization


A Very Ancient Civilization…..

Chavin, Peru, January 27, 2011

A spiraling courtyard, stone heads, and an infinite stone labyrinth that disappears under the mountains.  How can this story not be cool?

As a general rule, I try to avoid tour guides and my traveling companion Ms. B. seems to agree with me on this point.  That’s why we decide to take a public bus from the tourist city of Huaraz, Peru to the small village of Chavin to see the ancient stone ruins.   There were plenty of tour agencies in Huaraz selling the minibus and guide option.   And the complete package was quite reasonably priced.  There and back in six hours, an official registered guide and a lunch for only 35 soles (about 15 bucks).   Indeed, it may very well cost us more to go the public transport route.  But it’s the principle of the thing.  Sometimes in this life, you just have to go without a guide.

Theoretically, the bus ride from Huaraz to Chavin takes two hours and the buses leave hourly.  So we stroll down to the station at about 9:00 am planning a pleasant afternoon.  We’ll  catch the 10 am bus, get to Chavin in time for lunch, check out the ruins and come back in the afternoon (ha, ha, ha).  At the bus terminal we learn that the next bus does not go until 11:00.  No big problem; that still gives us plenty of time.  We buy tickets, eat a light breakfast and wait until 11:00.  The bus finally leaves about 11:30 and we are almost immediately ensnarled in a nightmare.  Road congestion, traffic jam, it takes forever just to get out of town.  And the construction and delays continue well down the road.   Finally, we make it through the mess and pick up speed.  When we reach the end of the Ancash valley at the town of ______, we get off the main road, make a left and head up into the mountains.

Wow.  What a glorious bus ride.  Zig Zagging up the valley, climbing towards the high mountain pass, this is certainly a great way to travel.  But I thought I checked the guide book before we left and the altitude of the bus ride was only up to 4000 meters.  I must have been mistaken though because a glance at the map now indicates that up ahead we are passing through the Cahuish tunnel at 4670 meters.  That’s as high as Lake Churup where Ms. B. got so sick from high altitude that she almost died.  Oh shit, I hope she will be all right.

We pass an amazing glacier lake and the road climbs higher and higher…wending ever upwards…through spectacular scenery.  Again, I have mixed emotions.   Part of me is in awe at the impressive surroundings.  The other part of me is worried about Ms. B. and the altitude.  Had I known the true altitude before hand, I may have opted not to go for her sake.  Sometimes a lack of info turns out to be a blessing.  She doesn’t have any problems.  Though she does give me a priceless look as we pass through the tunnel and there’s a sign outside of it indicating the altitude at 4760 meters.

Emerging from the tunnel on the other side of the mountain pass we face a giant Jesus statue perched off a rock promontory.  A zig zagging road descends forever into the infinite valley.  There’s a metaphor here somewhere…Jesus, the mountain, the tunnel, human ingenuity to overcome obstacles…but I can’t quite figure out what it is so I just sit back and enjoy the view.  Waterfalls tumble down the sides of sheer rock cliffs.  Puffy white clouds hug the tops of the surrounding peaks.  Tiny distant villages dot the infinite green, brown and grey valley.  One of those clusters of homes must be the village of Chavin.

We finally arrive at about 3:30 pm and as soon as we get off the bus, the rain begins.  We stop in a cheap local restaurant on the plaza to have some lunch and assess the situation.  It’s almost 4:00, the ruins close at 5:00 and it’s raining.  Perhaps we should stay the night and go to the ruins in the morning.

So we find a cheap local hotel.  The room is kind of shitty but it’s our own fault.  We don’t really look around but instead accept the first room shown to us.  The night is far from fantastic.  A cold rain falls, the streets are empty, and most restaurants are closed.  We spend the night in our shitty room playing cards and watching bad movies in Spanish.  Perhaps we should have gone on the damn tour.

But alas, what a difference a day makes.  We awake early, have breakfast at a decent café and go directly to the ruins.  We arrive at 8:30 and learn that they don’t open until 9:00.  No matter, it’s not raining and an atmospheric mist hangs in the valley as the sun peaks through the clouds.  So we take a short walk up a dirt path into the valley outside the ruins snapping photos all along the route:  cactus flowers, pigs and dogs, a rushing river and towering rock mountains; there seems no end to the amusing and entertaining sights.  But we return to the ruins at 9:00 just as the gates are opening,

The ancient culture of the Chavin people is a lot older than the Incas.  No, these stone structures are not several hundred years old but several thousand years old.  At first I thought I read the information wrong.  But no; the words on paper were completely accurate.  The Chavin Culture thrived and lived approximately 3,000 years ago.  And the buildings still standing today were constructed so long ago with dry laid stone.

There’s a sort of walking path that meanders through the ruins and we follow it.  At first it’s just a few random rock piles and a nice view of the valley.  There’s a few diversionary trails that we follow to other rock piles and one side trail to a picnic area by the river.  We take a short break there but then continue on to the main plaza.  Wowie kazowie!  That’s all I can say.   Ancient stone architecture always bedazzles me.  It’s the left over bones of a culture that once lived and thrived.  As I stand here, before this once living plaza, waves of ancient memories wash over me;  fiestas, parties, celebrations.  Days of wonder and glory…but then…collapse.  All civilizations fall…eventually.  The Chavin society lasted for several thousand years.  America has only been around for a few hundred.  How long before the waves of history wash us to oblivion?

We walk across the center of the plaza.  The size is comparable to a sports stadium only constructed with dry laid stones rather than steel and plastic.  Up the pathway and steps we go to the main building; massive structures of perfectly fit together interlocking stones.  How much labor, how much skill, to construct such a reality?  It’s not just a building; it’s a metaphor, a religion, a world view.

After a while, we find our way to the doorway which leads inside.  How often in this life, does one get to explore a stone labyrinth?  Truth be told, I have a burning desire to build one myself.  Indeed, the fortress of Chavin is an acceptable model of what I envision.  It has it all.  The modern lighting dilutes some of the magic.  And many passages have been blocked off so tourists don’t get lost.  But the concept and design is more or less complete; a stone maze, a spiraling courtyard for festivals and celebrations and a vast collection of stone heads.  Technologically speaking, reproducing something similar in the modern world seems fairly simple.  But spiritually speaking, it seems impossible.  We no longer have the belief system or metaphorical construct to make it possible.  It’s not economically efficient, market friendly or rational.  Instead, its meaning is founded upon a completely different metaphysical construct.

We won’t get lost in the maze…  But then again, maybe we will.  The pathway lit up for tourists is fairly easy to follow.  There are a few twists and turns but the way out is never very far away.  There are, however, various and sundry blocked off side passages that disappear into unlit, off-limits alternative tunnels.  Who knows where such passages may lead?  The labyrinth goes on forever underneath the mountain….it’s a place where someone could truly get lost.

Ms. B. does have a headlamp.  What would it hurt to explore just a little?  Yeah sure, it’s against the rules.  But there are no guides around to tell us so.  We climb over a rock pile and slip under some red caution tape.  Darkness surrounds but as soon as we round the first bend, Ms. B. flips on her headlamp.  There isn’t much to see.  Dry laid stone walls surrounding tunnels that extend inwards towards the mountain.  Structurally, it’s exactly the same as the part lit up for tourists.  The only precarious factor is the breadth and depth of the labyrinth.  How far does it go?  Could we really get lost?  Perhaps we could enter the maze and re-emerge in Huaraz, or Lima or Machu Pichu or Oneonta, NY.  It’s not realistic but it is nice to imagine such things; an infinite labyrinth of tunnels, criss-crossing the earth with a few entry and exit passages hidden secretly in the far away chambers of various and sundry ancient ruins and civilizations.

We don’t wander very far.  Down a couple passageways, a left and a right and then the passageway is blocked again.  We stop for a moment to turn off the light and experience darkness…total darkness…nothing at all to see.  We are under the mountain; within the maze; entombed in the earth.  If the tunnels collapse now we will be buried forever.  But these tunnels have existed for 3000 years.  It would be real bad luck if they decided to collapse today.  They don’t collapse.  And after a few moments in the darkness, we turn the light back on and retrace our steps to the entrance.

Back outside, the daylight seems brighter, the images seem sharper….the whole experience of being alive has taken on an added intensity.  Perhaps that’s an after-effect of wandering in a stone labyrinth.  We follow the path through another doorway that has a chamber containing a carved stone monolith.  I can’t make out the images in the dim lighting but it is definitely a very awesome 3000 year old carving.  Yeah sure, the modern world has computer technology, lasers and fantastical colorful graphics.  Somehow though, for me, it doesn’t compare to the ancient worlds of stone.

It takes another hour or so to complete our unguided tour of the ruins.  We observe the spiraling courtyard where the spiritual ceremonies were held.  We examine the carved stone heads that have feline and human characteristics.  Apparently, the Chavin religion involved the ingestion of hallucinogenic cactus (San Pedro) and the transformation of shamans into mountain lions.  Seem impossible?  Only if we restrict our thinking with rational constructs.  No doubt a Hollywood special effects, computer graphics wizard could make it happen.  Who’s to say a shaman and a cactus could not do the same?  It’s a question of perspective and the metaphors we are accustomed to using to understand the world.

It’s late morning by the time we leave the ruins behind and head back to the real world; good by stone labyrinth and spiraling courtyard.  Goodbye hallucinogenic cactus and giant stone heads.  Goodbye to the wonder and magic of the faded and forgotten metaphor of the past.  Hello to the pollution and efficiency of the modern world.   The lunch we have in the center of town is decent and cheap.  And the bus ride back to Huaraz is again spectacular.  Nevertheless, for the rest of the day, my mind is lost in a daydream of stone.

As a general rule, I try to avoid tour guides and my traveling companion Ms. B. seems to agree with me on this point.  That’s why we decide to take a public bus from the tourist city of Huaraz, Peru to the small village of Chavin to see the ancient stone ruins.   There were plenty of tour agencies in Huaraz selling the minibus and guide option.   And the complete package was quite reasonably priced.  There and back in six hours, an official registered guide, and a lunch for only 35 soles (about 15 bucks).   Indeed, it may very well cost us more to go the public transport route.  But it’s the principle of the thing.  Sometimes in this life, you just have to go without a guide.

Theoretically, the bus ride from Huaraz to Chavin takes two hours and the buses leave hourly.  So we stroll down to the station at about 9:00 am planning a pleasant afternoon.  We’ll  catch the 10 am bus, get to Chavin in time for lunch, check out the ruins and come back in the afternoon (ha, ha, ha).  At the bus terminal we learn that the next bus does not go until 11:00.  No big problem; that still gives us plenty of time.  We buy tickets, eat a light breakfast and wait until 11:00.  The bus finally leaves about 11:30 and we are almost immediately ensnarled in a nightmare.  Road congestion, traffic jam, it takes forever just to get out of town.  And the construction and delays continue well down the road.   Finally, we make it through the mess and pick up speed.  When we reach the end of the Ancash valley at the town of ______, we get off the main road, make a left and head up into the mountains.

Wow.  What a glorious bus ride.  Zig Zagging up the valley, climbing towards the high mountain pass, this is certainly a great way to travel.  But I thought I checked the guide book before we left and the altitude of the bus ride was only up to 4000 meters.  I must have been mistaken though because a glance at the map now indicates that up ahead we are passing through the Cahuish tunnel at 4670 meters.  That’s as high as Lake Churup where Ms. B. got so sick from high altitude that she almost died.  Oh shit, I hope she will be all right.

We pass an amazing glacier lake and the road climbs higher and higher…wending ever upwards…through spectacular scenery.  Again, I have mixed emotions.   Part of me is in awe at the impressive surroundings.  The other part of me is worried about Ms. B. and the altitude.  Had I known the true altitude before hand, I may have opted not to go for her sake.  Sometimes a lack of info turns out to be a blessing.  She doesn’t have any problems.  Though she does give me a priceless look as we pass through the tunnel and there’s a sign outside of it indicating the altitude at 4760 meters.

Emerging from the tunnel on the other side of the mountain pass we face a giant Jesus statue perched off a rock promontory.  A zig zagging road descends forever into the infinite valley.  There’s a metaphor here somewhere…Jesus, the mountain, the tunnel, human ingenuity to overcome obstacles…but I can’t quite figure out what it is so I just sit back and enjoy the view.  Waterfalls tumble down the sides of sheer rock cliffs.  Puffy white clouds hug the tops of the surrounding peaks.  Tiny distant villages dot the infinite green, brown and grey valley.  One of those clusters of homes must be the village of Chavin.

We finally arrive at about 3:30 pm and as soon as we get off the bus, the rain begins.  We stop in a cheap local restaurant on the plaza to have some lunch and assess the situation.  It’s almost 4:00, the ruins close at 5:00 and it’s raining.  Perhaps we should stay the night and go to the ruins in the morning.

So we find a cheap local hotel.  The room is kind of shitty but it’s our own fault.  We don’t really look around but instead accept the first room shown to us.  The night is far from fantastic.  A cold rain falls, the streets are empty, and most restaurants are closed.  We spend the night in our shitty room playing cards and watching bad movies in Spanish.  Perhaps we should have gone on the damn tour.

But alas, what a difference a day makes.  We awake early, have breakfast at a decent café and go directly to the ruins.  We arrive at 8:30 and learn that they don’t open until 9:00.  No matter, it’s not raining and an atmospheric mist hangs in the valley as the sun peaks through the clouds.  So we take a short walk up a dirt path into the valley outside the ruins snapping photos all along the route:  cactus flowers, pigs and dogs, a rushing river and towering rock mountains; there seems no end to the amusing and entertaining sights.  But we return to the ruins at 9:00 just as the gates are opening,

The ancient culture of the Chavin people is a lot older than the Incas.  No, these stone structures are not several hundred years old but several thousand years old.  At first I thought I read the information wrong.  But no; the words on paper were completely accurate.  The Chavin Culture thrived and lived approximately 3,000 years ago.  And the buildings still standing today were constructed so long ago with dry laid stone.

There’s a sort of walking path that meanders through the ruins and we follow it.  At first it’s just a few random rock piles and a nice view of the valley.  There’s a few diversionary trails that we follow to other rock piles and one side trail to a picnic area by the river.  We take a short break there but then continue on to the main plaza.  Wowie kazowie!  That’s all I can say.   Ancient stone architecture always bedazzles me.  It’s the left over bones of a culture that once lived and thrived.  As I stand here, before this once living plaza, waves of ancient memories wash over me;  fiestas, parties, celebrations.  Days of wonder and glory…but then…collapse.  All civilizations fall…eventually.  The Chavin society lasted for several thousand years.  America has only been around for a few hundred.  How long before the waves of history wash us to oblivion?

We walk across the center of the plaza.  The size is comparable to a sports stadium only constructed with dry laid stones rather than steel and plastic.  Up the pathway and steps we go to the main building; massive structures of perfectly fit together interlocking stones.  How much labor, how much skill, to construct such a reality?  It’s not just a building; it’s a metaphor, a religion, a world view.

After a while, we find our way to the doorway which leads inside.  How often in this life, does one get to explore a stone labyrinth?  Truth be told, I have a burning desire to build one myself.  Indeed, the fortress of Chavin is an acceptable model of what I envision.  It has it all.  The modern lighting dilutes some of the magic.  And many passages have been blocked off so tourists don’t get lost.  But the concept and design is more or less complete; a stone maze, a spiraling courtyard for festivals and celebrations and a vast collection of stone heads.  Technologically speaking, reproducing something similar in the modern world seems fairly simple.  But spiritually speaking, it seems impossible.  We no longer have the belief system or metaphorical construct to make it possible.  It’s not economically efficient, market friendly or rational.  Instead, its meaning is founded upon a completely different metaphysical construct.

We won’t get lost in the maze…  But then again, maybe we will.  The pathway lit up for tourists is fairly easy to follow.  There are a few twists and turns but the way out is never very far away.  There are, however, various and sundry blocked off side passages that disappear into unlit, off-limits alternative tunnels.  Who knows where such passages may lead?  The labyrinth goes on forever underneath the mountain….it’s a place where someone could truly get lost.

Ms. B. does have a headlamp.  What would it hurt to explore just a little?  Yeah sure, it’s against the rules.  But there are no guides around to tell us so.  We climb over a rock pile and slip under some red caution tape.  Darkness surrounds but as soon as we round the first bend, Ms. B. flips on her headlamp.  There isn’t much to see.  Dry laid stone walls surrounding tunnels that extend inwards towards the mountain.  Structurally, it’s exactly the same as the part lit up for tourists.  The only precarious factor is the breadth and depth of the labyrinth.  How far does it go?  Could we really get lost?  Perhaps we could enter the maze and re-emerge in Huaraz, or Lima or Machu Pichu or Oneonta, NY.  It’s not realistic but it is nice to imagine such things; an infinite labyrinth of tunnels, criss-crossing the earth with a few entry and exit passages hidden secretly in the far away chambers of various and sundry ancient ruins and civilizations.

We don’t wander very far.  Down a couple passageways, a left and a right and then the passageway is blocked again.  We stop for a moment to turn off the light and experience darkness…total darkness…nothing at all to see.  We are under the mountain; within the maze; entombed in the earth.  If the tunnels collapse now we will be buried forever.  But these tunnels have existed for 3000 years.  It would be real bad luck if they decided to collapse today.  They don’t collapse.  And after a few moments in the darkness, we turn the light back on and retrace our steps to the entrance.

Back outside, the daylight seems brighter, the images seem sharper….the whole experience of being alive has taken on an added intensity.  Perhaps that’s an after-effect of wandering in a stone labyrinth.  We follow the path through another doorway that has a chamber containing a carved stone monolith.  I can’t make out the images in the dim lighting but it is definitely a very awesome 3000 year old carving.  Yeah sure, the modern world has computer technology, lasers and fantastical colorful graphics.  Somehow though, for me, it doesn’t compare to the ancient worlds of stone.

It takes another hour or so to complete our unguided tour of the ruins.  We observe the spiraling courtyard where the spiritual ceremonies were held.  We examine the carved stone heads that have feline and human characteristics.  Apparently, the Chavin religion involved the ingestion of hallucinogenic cactus (San Pedro) and the transformation of shamans into mountain lions.  Seem impossible?  Only if we restrict our thinking with rational constructs.  No doubt a Hollywood special effects, computer graphics wizard could make it happen.  Who’s to say a shaman and a cactus could not do the same?  It’s a question of perspective and the metaphors we are accustomed to using to understand the world.

It’s late morning by the time we leave the ruins behind and head back to the real world; good by stone labyrinth and spiraling courtyard.  Goodbye hallucinogenic cactus and giant stone heads.  Goodbye to the wonder and magic of the faded and forgotten metaphor of the past.  Hello to the pollution and efficiency of the modern world.   The lunch we have in the center of town is decent and cheap.  And the bus ride back to Huaraz is again spectacular.  Nevertheless, for the rest of the day, my mind is lost in a daydream of stone.

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