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I borrowed my title from John Hemming’s wonderful, definitive book Tree of Rivers. If you look at the diagram of the Amazon Basin below, it is not difficult to distinguish his “tree” of rivers that appears to grow west from the Atlantic. The tree trunk is the main Amazon River, and the labyrinth of tributaries and streams appear to branch off In every direction are like, well, branches! (Also like arteries, veins & capillaries of a living organism, which has no doubt contributed to the concept of the Amazon as the ‘lungs of the earth’). I have now reached the crown of the tree, and am approaching the source.
Image ©️NASA source Wikipedia
The pull of earth’s gravity on this mesmerizingly large watershed, forces the life-giving fresh water inexorably downwards from high in the glacial mountain tops towards the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Meandering, descending, carving, oxygenating, purifying, replenishing, cleansing – the seasonal melt from the glaciers in the mountains helps sustain the whole complex, biodiverse web of life spun out across 7 million square kilometres between Andes and Atlantic. Without this “Tree of Rivers” there would be nothing here but a barren wasteland.
Peru’s 2,679 glaciers, spread over 19 snow-capped mountain ranges, are the source of the vast majority of the country’s streams and rivers, used for drinking water and agriculture from the Andes to the Amazon. In fact, Peru is home to 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers, which are especially sensitive to warming temperatures, and according to Etienne Berthier, glaciologist at the Laboratory of Geophysical Studies and Oceanography in Toulouse, “Across the Andes, glaciers have lost nearly 3 feet in thickness annually since 2000 (Nature Geoscience). They have lost not just in depth but in extension, with rising temperatures causing them to recede swiftly, particularly in the southern Andes, where some glaciers have retreated 5.5 miles in the past century. “Ninety-eight percent of Andean glaciers have shrunk this century.” (Yale E360 – read the full article here). Even the centuries-old Andean Qoyllur Rit’i (Snow-Star festival) has been affected by glacial ice-melt. Read the National Geographic article here.
Source of the Amazon
A glacial stream on Mount Mismi was convincingly identified as the most distant source (most distant source of uninterrupted flow) of the Amazon River in 1996, and this blog entry will be the last before I reach that source, hopefully within a few weeks.
I have been walking alone since I left Pichari, in the heart of the controversial VRAEM area, last October, where I said goodbye to my (Ashaninka) walking companion and guide Miques Quentisha (see guides page). Now, I plan to hire two local Quechua people for a few days to accompany me to the summit of Mismi and the source. One will accompany me to the ice- and snow-covered peak, while the other will stay at a base camp to look after the gear and prepare a hoped-for celebratory dinner (and hot rum coffee!) on our return from the 5,597m mountain summit.
I do not possess anything like the stupendous physical qualities – and especially the lungs – of the amazing, record-breaking, Nepalese Gurkha and mountaineer Nirmal Purja @nimsdai and his team, who recently completed the fastest ascent of the 14 highest peaks in the world (the ‘Eight-thousanders’) to break a whole bunch of world records (I highly recommend watching the full story on the wonderful Netflix documentary.)
Having struggled a bit at ‘just’ 4,300m, I imagine I will be crawling up the remaining 1,600m at a snail’s pace – gasping for oxygen, questioning my sanity, and chewing determinedly on the coca leaves pressed on me by the concerned Quechua – and that’s without carrying my heavy pack! Assuming I make it, and after my rum coffee on the way down, my plan is to stay a few days in a nearby town and then prepare to walk on to the Pacific coast, descending Colca, the deepest canyon on earth, to complete my mission.
I have tried to stay as close to the Rio Apurimac as possible on the way up, using Inca trails with stunning views and passing farmland and many pueblos where some people only speak Quechua. In fact, most people on the mountains still live as they have done for hundreds of years, using traditional clothing, house-building and cooking methods, and farming alpaca and llama like previous generations. However, many of the smaller villages I passed have been wholly or partly abandoned (see image below) becoming almost ghost villages, apart from a few older residents. Younger people now spend more time in the bigger towns, looking for work,education and of course for access to the internet and all the information that is so rapidly changing the world.
Inca Rope Bridge.
When I arrived at the now famous Q’eshwachaka rope bridge, a local recommended a friendly hostel that overlooked the Apurimac, and the bridge. I ended up staying for two nights. The owner and his daughter went out of their way to proudly show me how they live, and how they make the rope for the bridge. They even took me up the mountain to their farmland to harvest potatoes, and finished it off with some impromptu live tradtional musical, when the owner’s brother turned up to play music and sing, while I was being shown how to make the grass rope for the annual replacement of the bridge. I was surprised again by how the indigenous peoples always seem to have time to offer spontaneous and selfless help.
If anyone is thinking of visiting the bridge or attending the annual renovation & celebration in June, I recommend staying with these people. Contact details here…..
Gregorio Callasi.Hostal Turístico Q’eshwachaka.
Distrito – Queche Provincia – Cañas. Peru.
+51 966 444 976 OR +51 949 345 791
A short video about weaving the bridge. ©️Smithsonian Source YouTube
Another unexpectedly interesting place I passed was in a village called Surimana. On my arrival the locals asked “Have you come here to visit Tupac Amaru’s house?”
“No, I said honestly. “Who is Tupac Amaru?”
I had seen the name painted on some walls in the villages I had passed on my journey, but never had the time to follow it up. Now, I was happy to visit the 250-year-old house that overlooks the stunning Apurimac, high in the mountains, to find out more.
Tupac (birth name José Condorcanqui) rebelled against Spanish colonial rule and Spain’s brutal treatment and oppression of the Inca people of the Andes, and sought equal rights for the indigenous Inca/Quechua people. After his death he became a revered figure in the Peruvian struggle for independence and indigenous rights. I was shocked to learn how his and his family’s lives were so brutally ended at the hands of the Spanish in Cusco’s Plaza del Armas over 230 years ago. Read the full story here. It preyed on my mind for a few days as I walked.
Execution of Tupac and his family in the Plaza del Armas, Cusco
My next blog will come only after I have resolved a few important logistical issues and reached the summit of Nevado Mismi and the source of the greatest, and by some accounts longest, river on this planet. In the meantime, please accompany me with more frequent updates via my Twitter Feed @amazonascent (also displayed on the website).
Easter/spring greetings to all, especially all those who have been affected or displaced by the war. Let’s hope for a complete resurrection of Ucraine soon🇺🇦🙏
Support the expedition
If anyone would like to help with a donation to my Paypal account to keep things going, it would be greatly appreciated. Please use the Paypal link below, which will take you to my support page. Any donation above £25 or $30 will eventually receive a special calendar with images from this trek signed sealed and delivered anywhere on the globe. Any technical problems donating, or if you prefer to help via a bank BACS payment, details are now on the support page also.
Many thanks indeed to everyone who has recently donated ,names should be listed on my partner’s page unless opted to remain anonymous. Please let me know if I have missed anyone out.
I will contact via email all contributors for a postal address for the calendar after the expedition.
📸 Photos 📸
Header Photo. Gregorio Callasi and his brother play their Charangos. Daughter Antoine sings while weaving the grass rope
Close up of the Charango instrument.
Gregorio praises Pachamama, the river, and the rope bridge. You can just see the bridge in the distance.
Curious llamas watch my progress.
Crossing the Q’eshwachaka Inca rope bridge
Quechua residents still make mud bricks (adobe) to build their houses. An Incan construction method that dates back over 5000 years.
A silent village, with hardly any people apart from a few elderly Quechua residents. Note the adobe mud brick houses.
The Plaza in Surimana village overlooking the Rio Apurimac. Statue of Tupac Amaru centre.
Statue of Tupac at his house.
Wild horses roam freely 1500m above the Apurimac.
Gregorio Callasi pet Alpaca and daughter Antoine
Strange wild cactus & wildflowers grow naturally in abundance along the Apurimac riverbank.
Crossing the Q’eshwachaka rope bridge, it’s renewed every June.
Another village overlooking the Apurimac. I had a steep 1000m climb to get to the next trail above this.
I crossed paths and had brief conversations with many Quechua residents on the mountain trails.
More Quechua people along the trails
Moon river. The stunning rock formations bordering the upper Apurimac.
A frequent sight – Quechua people escorting their llamas, sheep and cows to fresh pastures.
Very happy with my Altberg mountain boots, still going strong
Nice to be able to sleep inside a house now and then. Much warmer. Shop owners in pueblos often had a spare store-room.
This blog’s maps kindly Sponsored by Jody Hoose
Garmin Tracking Maps
Overview image of route following the Apurimac is recorded every 5 minutes. The detail of the curves, up down & around obstacles is too much data to display.