Celebrations and Ruins in Huánuco Pampa

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Results of ground turning competition at Huanuco Viejo
Results of ground turning competition at Huanuco Viejo (View on flickr)

Visiting wonderful archaeological sites along the way has been one of the many joys of traveling through the Americas. Occasionally it requires a good hard hike to get there. We had no intention of visiting the Peruvian ruins of Huánuco Pampa (also known as Huánuco Viejo) but while we were riding through La Unión, the local pride in this beloved site got our curiosity going. We could have taken a 5am bus up to the 3700 meter plateau but we didn't want to get up that early, we needed some exercise on our day off from riding, and it's far more direct to walk, so we headed up the narrow canyon to visit old Inca Ruin, Huánuco Pampa.

I was very impressed on how treacherous this route was but it was a major walking thoroughfare for the local people. Slippery rubble lined the route the first first few hundred meters. It seemed not to bother the locals as they knew this was the shortest route from the high pampa flat plateau down to the town of La Unión 700 meters below. It was a beautiful sunny morning and just the right temperature for this adventure. We greeting everyone as we passed by. "buenos dias!" to the shepherds and the cowboys leading the horses and donkeys laden with recent harvested goods. "Hola" to the school children riding donkeys or hiking down with plastic backpacks on their tiny backs. "Como esta" to the woman riding the horse 6 hours from her farm high in the mountains. The most amazing was the very ancient woman who trekked this arduous route with her cane. It took her an hour to make her way down this steep, steep trail with the beautiful woven shawl she used as a backpack to haul her goods up and down. I stopped to talk to her for a few minutes (and catch my breath). Looking into her face, I saw an Inca women of tremendous age, eyes worn from years of living off the land, a few brittle teeth stubbornly stuck inside her withering jaw, leathered skin, and hair as bristled as an old discarded brillo pad. When we parted, she looked up into my face, took my hand and gently pulled me toward her as she gave me the most memorable hug I have ever received. She was Mother Earth, and I was touched by her forever. She smiled and told me to have good travels.

When we reached the flat pampa after an hour of what seemed like straight up, the landscape was completely different because we were up on the plateau above the valley. Adobe houses and stone walls divided the dry, high tundra. Sheep, cows, horses, goats wandered in groups followed by the shepherd. I wondered how such an overgrazed land could support so many animals. There was signs stating a project or two was working in the area to save the environment and the soil. I think they have a lot of work to do to revive this hard-packed land. After another hour of walking the Inca-like trail, we reached the entrance of the ruins of Huánuco Pampa, also known as Huánuco Viejo or Huánuco Marca.

In the wide open field in front of the 800-year-old Inca site was a huge gathering of local people. Some kind of festival was going on. We stood to the side, watched the goings on and soon many kind people came up shook our hands and welcomed us to the Potato Festival. This was the time of year villages in the area celebrate the planting of the most important crop of Peru, the potato.

Weaving rope at the Huanuco Pampa cultural competitions
Weaving rope at the Huanuco Pampa cultural competitions (View on flickr)

We stayed all day and watched the festivities. Most of the day was filled with competitions between people representing their village or neighborhood. First was the turning of the soil. Two teams of three men raced each other down a 100-meter row preparing the earth of planting. Two men would break the soil with special shovels while another man would turn the huge clump of earth. Barefooted and in unison the teams worked as they sliced the into the ground, pushed the tool two feet deeper, turn the clump to the side, remove the shovel, back up and start again. In 15 minutes the two teams completed their 100 meter row. One team was faster but the other team had dug a prefect trench void of clumps. The competitors dropped down to the ground with exhaustion. The crowd cheered, clamped and jumped around with jubilation. The judges inspected the rows. They both won, one team for speed and the other for perfect work.

The second competition was slingshot accuracy. A special hand-woven sling which held a colored rock was twirled around clockwise and the rock was released toward a distant target. The crowd roared with each attempt. Peruvian shepherds use this technique to either herd wayward animals or to scare off approaching predators. The target was missed by everyone during the first round so the target was moved 10 meters closer. One man won in the third round, eventually hitting the target. The third competition was similar but was based on distance. There was even a woman who competed in this. She was great but not good enough to win the furthest throw.

We took a break from the competitions and visited the ruins. These ruins seemed to be a huge hotel for travelers between Cuzco, Peru and Quito, Ecuador, the South and North capitals of the ancient Inca empire. The most impressive part was the perfectly cut rocks which fit together like a puzzle without any cement or grout. Some of the rocks had 12 perfect angles as they were cut in a "L" shape. How they got these huge stones to this site from distant quarries is one feat. The other is how they cut these without metal, without modern tools. The huge dormitory structure had different stone work which was the first we have seen. It uses a rosary design to build the walls. A large round boulder is set surrounded by smaller boulders forming a rose like design in the wall.

Spinning wool in the spinning competition, Huanuco Pampa
Spinning wool in the spinning competition, Huanuco Pampa (View on flickr)

After touring the site we headed back to the center of the local village to watch the rest of the days event: Potato peeling, wool spinning, rope braiding and tug-of-war competitions. (the archaeologists did an awesome job against the strong hard working farmers but came in second) Then the local band marched in, followed by several magical characters and young women in traditional costumes dancing and singing traditional songs. After invitations and prodding Randy and I joined the center dance which was the opening ceremony for the 3 day festival of Potato Planting.

I am amazed at how so many events in Latin America are public events and open to all. The people of Peru are such generous, open people who share in their culture and riches with complete strangers like us. They seemed honored that we would stay all day and join in with the festivities.

Here are some videos of the wonderful events:

If you're reading this on hobobiker.com, you can click on any of the pictures below for a full-size view and a slideshow, with captions.

Competitors in the rope weaving competition with their results. Huanuco Pampa
Potato Peeling contest at cultural contest in Huanuco Pampa - 3 kilos in 10 minutes
Ever see a marching harp before - Huanuco Pampa celebrations
Dancers at Huanuco Pampa celebration
Dancers representing Incas at Huanuco Pampa celebration
Dancer (Inca virgin) at Huanuco Pampa celebration
Girl with lamb and puppy at Huanuco Pampa
Competition turning the ground for sowing time

Exhausted competitor after the ground-turning competition at Huanuco Pampa
Boys on the pampa near Huanuco Viejo
Woman spinning wool in the Pampa above La Union, near Huanuco Viejo
Little girl at cultural competitions at Huanuco Pampa
Puma at Huanuco Pampa Ruins
Puma at Huanuco Pampa Ruins
Wall at Huanuco Pampa ruins
Main entryway to the Inca's private quarters at Huanuco Viejo