A Day In Q'ero Nation

It was long before sunrise as we piled into a little old station wagon that smelled like a room full of moldy drywall. Among us were a Columbian witch doctor, a young Venezuelan climber, a British Musician, an American Crypto trader, and me. We were headed deep into the Andes Mountains into an elusive community– Q’ero Nation. They are known as the last descendants of the Incas. When the Spanish invaded Peru, a group of natives ran so far into the mountains that no one found them until 1949. Even now, they remain secluded recluses with little ties to the outside world, living quiet lives dictated by an inconceivably harsh environment.

Other than one particularly intense Ayahuasca ceremony with a Q’ero shaman in the outskirts of Cusco, I knew nothing about them. After agreeing to venture out into the mountains to visit them, I attempted to learn a bit more. I found that I wasn’t the only one whose knowledge of the Q’eros was riddled with mystery. The satellite wifi was blocked by heavy clouds when I first heard about the Q’eros, so an internet search was out of the question. My friend rambled on about the Q’ero prophecy that tells of the destruction of Atlantis and the start of a dark period that would eventually end and the world would enter a new age of peace.

It was long past sundown when we finally arrived. I can’t tell you precisely what time it was. The pace of life there is not dictated by a clock, but rather– by the sun, the moon, and the frigidity of the mountain air. By the time we arrived, the Q’eros people were nowhere to be seen. They had resigned to their homes seeking shelter from the sub-zero temperatures. One of the Q’eros had taken an interest in Richie’s work with natural healing and invited us to stay in his home. It was a one-room Adobe hut with a small make-shift wood stove in the corner. We were so far out in the harsh mountains, that it's a miracle anyone has survived out there. I suppose that is the point. It’s no wonder they were able to stay hidden so long.

Two women tended to the fire as we sat there on old grimy buckets shivering in the dark. Their cold thickened skin gave them an appearance much older than they likely were. They wore long, thick skirts that stuck out like a 50’s poodle skirt. They had no access to the manufactured fabrics that made up the warm, thin, and lightweight clothing that my group was sporting. They wore what they could make– and that was a mound of alpaca wool. Under their skirts, the women wore leggings an inch thick that came down just past their knees. On top, they must have had at least five sweaters on giving them a thick, sturdy appearance. They moved around like overweight Americans on a diet of McDonald's. I was surprised at the amount of weight they seemed to carry on their bodies, considering that they live on a limited diet of potatoes and alpaca. Then, I noticed their stick-thin calves, visible in between their leggings and their traditional alpaca leather sandals. It dawned on me that it was their thick layers of wool clothing that gave them such a hefty appearance. I imagined what it would be like spending my days cooking, tending to fires, and trekking around these mountains herding Alpacas while restricted by all that clothing, and felt grateful for my thin, Patagonia down jacket.

In the corner of the room, I could just barely make out a five-foot-high pile of alpaca hyde mats and wool blankets. The women started handing them off to us and we laid them out over the hard, frozen dirt floor. Our bedroom was ready for the night. The women went back to their own homes confident that their guests would sleep comfortably. The one-room served as the kitchen, living room, storage space, and when the blankets and mats were laid out, it was the bedroom. We sat around quietly drinking tea and eating boiled potatoes. We took turns tending to the fire, which is a particularly difficult task at 17,000 feet. When I asked where I could find the bathroom, Richie laughed and said: “Where ever you like!”

As I stepped outside, I was met with complete darkness. Something that I wasn’t familiar with. No lights in the homes. No lit-up valleys. Just darkness. It was serene. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced what nighttime truly felt like. With the constant light shed on the modern world, most people will never experience a true night. I wondered why the world was so eager to escape this darkness. It was so peaceful. As the night grew colder, and the fire consumed the last of the wood, we all crawled into bed. This night was quite mild for the mountains. On some nights it gets so cold that the families bring in their alpacas to help keep warm. Just as the Q’ero families do every night, the five of us cuddled together under the mound of thick blankets and drifted off to sleep.

The next morning I woke to an eerie feeling wisping through the cold, crisp air. There was something very mysterious about the place– like there was a secret that they held onto for dear life. It makes sense. For hundreds of years, quietly hiding was their only hope of holding onto their ancient traditions. Even after they were discovered in 1949, they completely prohibited outsiders from entering the community for 50 years. Finally, a non-profit intervened to help them reduce their high rate of infant mortality. It is so cold up there, that it is not uncommon for children to freeze to death. Now, their homes are outfitted with metal roofs and wood stoves to help keep them warm through the night– instead of the traditional straw roofs meant to protect them from the intense blizzards that the Patcha Mama throws at them.

The rain was heavy and the clouds hung low that quiet January day. The morning was just as serene as the night– a peculiar antithesis to the city life that I was accustomed to. When the rain finally gave in, I stepped outside to take in some icy crisp, morning air. I was the only one willing to brave the cold morning. I saw no one. The Q’ero people stayed sheltered inside. They had no desire to awe at the beauty of the valley that they called home. They wished only to stay safe from the elements that so closely dictated their lives. I didn’t hear a single sound– not a laugh, or a shout, not a single word coming from any of the houses. Just the ferocious river rushing down the center of the valley. As I wandered along the hills that rolled through the valley, I had the odd feeling that I was being watched. Even though I couldn’t see them, they saw me. These people had only survived colonization because of their ability to stay quiet and hidden, and those qualities have become deeply ingrained in their culture.

The children, we were told, spent the morning in the Maloca doing their school work. The community has a small generator to power lighting and wifi. It is far from a reliable source of power and rarely works, so they must take advantage of it when it does. Since they first allowed outsiders into the community, vague hints of globalization have slowly trickled in. I see hints of modernization. A small DIY power source. A house or two with sheet metal roofs. With the morning light, I noticed a Covid-19 warning poster on the wall of the home in which we were inhabiting. I was shocked. It seems as though the western media has reached even the most remote and isolated cultures. There was certainly no effort to mask up and keep distance. Had they wanted to wash their hands with soap, the lack of running water would have made it impossible, and the river proved too cold to wash up without risking frostbite. It was a peculiar sign to be hanging in such a place.

It was about midday when the thick gray clouds started to clear and the sun began to shine. As the sun came out, so did a few kids. By this time we were packing up to head back to Cusco. Four children stood around enjoying the spectacle. We were loud and obtrusive compared to the natural pace of things around there. There is not much to do out there, so they seemed to be finding entertainment watching the Gringos who could barely stand one night out there in the mountains. I didn’t mind their whispers and giggles. Normally I would, but after a day in their shoes, I was happy to bring them some joy and entertainment. At last, our bags were stacked and tied atop the car so high I thought the car might just tumble over. We piled in and began our long journey back to civilization.

Before we took off, we asked some of our young spectators where we might find some more drinking water, as we had run out early in the night. They looked at us confused, with their eyebrows raised and mouths open, and pointed to the river. We laughed and shook our heads. Our western immune systems would have been absolutely destroyed by that water, but they did not understand why we asked for water when it was flowing all around us. The Q’eros laughed at us, and so did we. We were certainly not cut out for life in the Andes. My respect for their fortitude was immense.

I watched in wonder as we weaved throughout the mountainside bumping along the narrow torn-up roads. Q’ero nation seemed to go on forever. Clusters of straw-roofed adobe houses stretched miles apart. There were women trekking through the hills herding their alpacas and tending to the potato fields. When we finally passed their self-proclaimed border we were far from where we had started. The feeling of mystery and secrecy seemed to lift as well. I looked back as the sign disappeared in the distance and knew I would be back to poke at the walls that they have built for hundreds of years and learn the secrets that they hold so closely.

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