‘Siete Tinajas,’ hissed the locals of Quillabamba in their soft lisps as we crossed the square, Seven Waterfalls.
My friends and I made our way into the cool innards of the helado parlour, which boasted every colour and every tropical fruit flavour, including the perfume-infused lucuma that is produced locally. Two glistening balls of ice cream were served in generous scoops for just S5. The rough plasterwalls were painted a bright yellow, and the plastic tables had cheerful plastic covers decorated in daisies. Sunshine suited this place, and it is no surprise that Peruvians have named it the City of Eternal Summer.
Ordering my second cone, I practiced my best Spanglish with the owner’s daughter while my friends were musing on how we could spend the next couple of days in this tiny town. Quillabamba is surrounded by jungle and dissected by angry white rivers. Tubing was ruled out – the river that our guide from Aguas Calientes had recommended to us had swelled monstrously since he’d last been here, and it was now a death-defying rapid. Not fit for inexperienced rafters on flimsy inflatable doughnuts. We’d already visited the local swimming pools at Sanbaray the evening before, in an attempt to wash away the inch think dust that the road had been deposited on us during the long bus ride up.
Seven Waterfalls sounded too good to refuse. Think a Herbal Essences video: rapture in wild, untamed nature. Standing in the darkness of the cave, the cold wet rock enveloping you as you gaze through the falling water into the bright world beyond.
We set off to find the bus stop, but it no longer existed. Undeterred, we eventually stumbled upon a bus terminal. A couple of buses were parked in the dusty heat, and before them sat a dozen grizzly men on plastic chairs, smoking and chatting. Approaching them without my phrase book on show, I asked if there was a bus to the Seven Waterfalls. One man pointed to a smudgy window at the edge of the depot forecourt. Following his lead, I asked the second man behind a screen, ‘¿Qué autobús va a las Siete Tinajas?’ He shook his head and crossed his hands twice to show there was no bus. But finding a ride was pivotal – not only did we want to explore the jungle and waterfalls – we did not want to return to town past the snarling dog packs that had gathered outside the open garages where men showered sparks over rusting bonnets.
Cue Dareek. A round faced, excitable taxi driver who saw our miserable plight and stepped in to save us. At an extortionate price. However, not much haggling could be done since the usual mountain road was closed for maintenance, and he was the only driver willing to take four flustered gringos the long way round. The journey took five times longer than the usual twenty minutes.
Dareek pointed out the impressive eagles, or ‘ganaserro’, with giant brown wings that circled slowly, looking for dead animals to consume. Or tourists, he joked. He fondly adopted the nickname of ‘Dalek’, and our trip was punctuated by stops to study volcanic rock, peer into abandoned white stone chapels and sample the fresh guapa that he nimbly plucked from the trees. We were afforded a long break to take photos of the stony mountainside homage: ‘Quillabamba Te Quiero.’ The Dalek wasn’t satisfied with how many we were taking, and gestured to us to take (hundreds) more.
Unlike his robotic namesake, his love for Quillabamba was infectious, and the onward car journey was filled with jovial broken snippets as we asked about his family, work and home. Job prospects in the region were limited but the town was receiving more and more tourism, with tour companies expanding their Machu Picchu itineraries to include white water rafting on the local Urubamba river systems. We had fun teaching him the nuances of the English language, but had to admit defeat when trying to explain the differences between ‘three’ ‘free’ and ‘tree’. In return, he taught us some Quechuan – although ‘chiriwanmi’ (cold) was not an adjective we could use to describe our stuffy car.
Opening the window was a mistake. Fine red-gold dust swarmed in, sticking to our pores, clothes and tonsils. We saw an unlucky motorcyclist coated so thickly he resembled a relic, a statue carved from one colour of stone. We pulled over to pay a small child to cross the river as the guard snored in the shade of his hut. We twisted upwards around a new mountain, until we finally stopped.
A man wearing only shorts and a scraggly beard greeted us and impatiently ushered us past his house. Our guide translated that we needed to pay him for entry, and as we fumbled for change our eyes searched the place for the infamous waterfalls. Dalek grabbed a thin chewed rope and began bounding up the rock face ahead. Taking off our hot boots, we watched his body sway and wondered how the frayed rope was still intact. Once he’d climbed to the top of the lower ridge, he pointed to a small trickle. We were here. This was the waterfall, only there was no water. And we really could’ve done with a shower as we were pasted in dusty sweat.
My friends and I laughed, but the flatness betrayed our obvious disappointment. Determined to enjoy it, I started towards the swinging rope and followed the guide. All of us reached the wide ridge and clamoured up barefoot past dry tree roots towards the top, watching for sleeping snakes. Fat-bodied black cicadas screamed from branches above us and flew by our heads to ensure that we could hear them. Two eagles looped in intersecting circles not much higher than us. The jungle was thick and battled the light that fought through the canopy to reach us. Dalek sprung across a wooden bridge to show us a small brook under slimy dark leaves, which would usually spew endless volumes of water over the steep edge during the wet season. Instead, we looked down at smooth curves of giant rock.
We descended on the other side and explored a slippery pool that had formed. The water did not seem to be running down the rock, but rather it was seeping from the saturated stone. We competitively abseiled down in leaping long arcs, causing dismay to our guide who cried ‘¡despacio!’, slowly!
Before we squeezed ourselves back into Dalek’s car, we sat under the hum of three large hornet nests that had attached themselves to the underbelly of a tin roof. My friend bought chocolate from the bearded owner who farmed it himself. Taking a large bite of the corner, his face screwed up in disgust as the overpowering bitterness filled his mouth. It had not been exactly how we’d pictured it, but our dusty ride to find the Seven Waterfalls had been unexpectedly worthwhile. And we will always treasure this special photo:
All photos to be credited to the very talented Alex Buckman.
Helado de Lúcuma, http://southamericanfood.about.com/od/desserts/r/lucumaicecream.htm
Quechuan Phrases, Cultures of the Andes, http://www.andes.org/q_phrase.htm