24 September 2012

Otuzco: a slice of rural life

On our last day in northern Peru, we decided to head out of the city into the countryside or, rather, into the highlands behind Trujillo. Our guide was 23-year-old Dilser, whom we had met during one of our outings with Henry. He was a pleasant and knowledgeable young man, and we had a good day with him and driver Leo. It took two hours of slow, careful driving to get there but we were glad of Leo’s caution as the roads were winding and hazardous. We passed two buses that had obviously been recovered after crashing off the road down to the river bed below, and the numerous roadside crosses were graphic reminders of how tragic the consequences of such crashes could be.

As we left Trujillo, we traversed field upon field of sugar cane, and saw another of the smoke-belching factories. This one only processed cane into sugar whereas the others we had seen process the syrup into rum and the cane fibres into a rough quality paper, for making bags and cardboard. We also saw a rather animal-like cane cutting machine, rather aptly named an air scorpion. Such machines are not very common as most cane is still cut by hand. 

As we climbed from sea level into the mountains, eventually to an altitude of around 2000 metres, the crops changed. The main highland crop is pineapple and we passed many plantations, stopping at one point to photograph this succulent fruit. There were also fields of orange and guava trees, as well as the ubiquitous maize, lettuce and cauliflower, beans and artichokes, and asparagus, a big export earner for this area.

At first, the skies were grey and overcast, with very low cloud blanketing the hills, but this cleared as we went climbed and, although we had been warned that it would be colder in Otuzco, the weather was actually bright, sunny and warm.

Though quite a small town, Otuzco is the hub for surrounding area. However, its main claim to fame is its local saint, the Virgen as la Puerta (Virgin of the Door), and people come from all parts of Peru to present her with offerings in the hope of getting favours in return.

The church that originally housed the statue of the Virgin proved too small to seat the crowds that flock to Otuzco for her special commemorations in December, so, when its roof collapsed during an earthquake, the locals took the opportunity to build a new, larger church next door and re-roofed the old church with corrugated iron. It is now a fascinating museum, housing the thousands of dollars worth of offerings donated by the faithful. Row upon row of glass cabinets contain the sumptuously embroidered robes that cloak the Virgin’s statue when she’s paraded through the streets, but there were also three cabinets of small shoes, offered by the shoemakers of Trujillo, tall cabinets of assorted whatnots donated by individual families, several cabinets of gold and silver jewellery of all types and sizes, even a cabinet of human hair, grown then cut off and offered as a personal treasure to the Virgin.

To me, there was a strong element of bargaining in these offerings, which seemed rather more profane than sacred and, in a country as poor as Peru, to leave such largesse in a museum seemed an unbelievable waste. Apparently, you can donate small items and money simply by depositing them in the capacious blue barrels in the new church but, if you want to offer something more significant like a robe for the Virgin to wear, you must first write to the church authorities for permission. They write back, approving and scheduling the date you may make your gift. For example, the wearing of the robes is reserved so far in advance that the Virgin may not wear a current donation until perhaps 2025.

The new church, adjacent to the old, is a solid grey concrete monstrosity – ugly in its utilitarianism. Visitors were having their photos taken in front of the altar and the statues of the various saints who occupy the walls. We went upstairs to see the ‘lesser’ Virgin – this statue is still considered sacred, just not as sacred as the larger, main statue inside. You had to pay for an appointment to see that one.

Leaving the Virgin to her followers, we walked up one of the steep streets that lead off the plaza and up the hill beyond, though, in fact, this was also part of the Otuzco religious experience. Climbing up the narrow pedestrian street, with beds of flowers running up it, small religious statues at various points as you ascended and a large cross at the top, also earns the faithful brownie points – so I made a couple of small non-verbal wishes – no harm in putting them out there! The view from the top was certainly worth the effort, as were the views from the surrounding streets which we also explored.

One interesting local tradition we noticed as we strolled around was the adorning of the roofs of new houses with bunches of flowers. And, when someone in the house is getting married, small figurines representing the bride and groom are also placed on the roof. I also noticed several roofs with small bull and matador statuettes – our guide was not sure of the significance of these.

We wandered around the local market and popped in to a small, but charming local chapel, where the Italian-born priest was delighted to have interested visitors and happily explained a little of the history of his building. We ate in a local restaurant, though declined the offer of guinea pig, settling instead for a big bowl of chunky chicken and vegetable soup. It was a refreshing change to be in a relaxed small town, away from the hustle and bustle of big cities, breathing the fresh mountain air, and exploring at a leisurely pace.

We were back in Trujillo by about 4pm, in plenty of time for a last piece of the local mouth-watering cakes, a last stroll around the streets for a few more photos, and a bite to eat before heading back to the Cruz del Sur bus station for the overnight bus back to Lima. It had been a laid-back kind of day, the ideal way to finish off a wonderful week’s holiday exploring northern Peru.

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