The Road to Paradise
Trekking through the Cordillera Negra with a Divine Purpose
Story and photos by Gregory J. Rummo
THE PAN AMERICAN Highway winds along Peru’s Pacific coastal desert. The landscape here is grey and foreboding, barren of almost all life. It is a no-man’s land. This main artery becomes less of a highway and more of a road north of Lima, passing through several small, noisy towns where outdoor fruit and vegetable markets toe up to its edges. On the outskirts of Pativilca stands an innocuous, green sign with an arrow pointing to the right. “Huaraz 200 KM,” it announces. You could miss it if you weren’t paying attention.
Fortunately our driver doesn’t. From here at sea level, it’s uphill for the next four hours on a sinuous road that winds back and forth through hairpin curve after hairpin curve. There are no guardrails. One misjudged turn would spell almost certain death. Fortunately I took a Dramamine at the airport several hours ago so I sleep through most of the excitement.
The bus climbs ever higher through the villages of Chasquitambo, Raquia and Cajacay until arriving at the Conococha pass at 13,260 feet. Here, the treeless grasslands stretch out into the east before rising into a spectacular group of snow-capped mountains called the Cordillera Huayhuash. It’s shortly after sunrise and we stop for a bathroom break. The air is chilly and noticeably thinner. I wonder to myself if it’s the lack of oxygen or the view that is breath-taking. A few become dizzy and retreat back into the warmth of the bus but not before taking in the awesome spectacle. “There’s Huascaran,” someone announces pointing out the twin peaks of Peru’s highest mountain, visible above the much larger Cordillera Blanca almost 100 KM to the north.
It’s been less than 24 hours since I left home. Two flights and an overnight 8-hour bus ride have taken me south of the equator from summer to winter; from the lush, green highlands of New Jersey to the giant, glacier encrusted Andes mountains.
I remember the first time I made this trip in 1999. It was hard to digest the change in scenery and accept the culture shock in so short a time. But this is my third trip to the Andes and while there aren’t any surprises I am still in awe of the mountains.
We file back into the bus, one by one, for the remaining two-hour ride that will take us to Huaraz, the largest village in the Callejon de Huaylas, the huge valley that separates the Cordillera Blanca from the Cordillera Negra. Approximately 100,000 people live here. It’s a popular jumping off point for trekkers and alpine climbers looking to summit Peru’s highest peaks. Many Americans and Europeans come here and there are first class restaurants, decent hotels and Internet cafes on almost every street corner to cater to their cosmopolitan tastes. But we have come to the Andes mountains for a different purpose.
We’ll trek far and high and we’ll have mountain-top experiences but they won’t just represent extraordinary physical achievements. We have come to the Andes bringing regalitos—small gifts—for the indigenous Quechua who have lived here for centuries. We have toys, crayons and candy for the children and pencils, pens and books for the teenagers. But we are also bringing with us the greatest gift of all—over 15,000 copies of various portions of the Bible translated into both Spanish and Quechua.
We’ll spend the next week walking from village to village through the Cordillera Negra visiting places with names like Punap, Huasho and Carachuco; pueblos virtually impossible to reach by any other means except on foot or by horseback. Phil Winfield is the brainchild of these treks. As a missionary in Peru’s capital city, he spent 13 years there with his family involved in a variety of different ministries aimed at all levels of society; from the wealthiest decision makers running the country to the poorest outcasts in Manchay, a squatter’s settlement where it is estimated almost a quarter of a million people live in the most horrible squalor imaginable.
In 1998, just before his son Phillip was to leave for college in the States, Winfield decided to take him on a father and son trek along the Santa Cruz trail, a well-traversed 60-mile circuit through the Cordillera Blanca.
They went for the adventure but God had another idea. What they encountered along the way were Quechua villages with names like Cashapampa, Colcabamba, Vaqueria and Yanama. There were no churches and no Gospel outreach. Winfield’s heart was stirred. He vowed to return with a larger group of men who would be willing to trek the 60 miles to bring the Gospel to these needy people.
A year later, Winfield’s vision was realized. 25 men walked the Santa Cruz trail accompanied by several guides and over a dozen burros. They carried with them various portions of the Bible translated into both Spanish and Quechua by the Wycliffe Bible Institute in Huaraz. I was privileged to be among that first group of trekkers in 1999. I went back again in 2001 when a larger group of both men and women took a different route through the Cordillera Blanca that included camping among the pre-Inca ruins of the Huari in Joncompompa and two, day long, lung burning 13-mile walks, the first of which brought us to our last campsite high in Quebrada Honda at 13,200 feet and the second, on the very next day, up and through a pass at 15,613 feet.
The Andes Trek has continued to grow and is now an annual event, taking place during the first week of July. More groups from other churches have become involved and often several treks are made to different parts of the Andes each year. The goal, proclaimed on the group’s website, www.AndesBlanket.org , is “to blanket the Andes with the Word of God over the next 10 years.” Winfield now pastors Grace Church in Des Moines Iowa but being located in the Midwest hasn’t put a damper on his zeal. His 2000-member church is as missionary minded as he is and they make it possible for him to return to Peru several times each year to supervise the various works. “It’s amazing,” he explains. I leave and the work not only continues but it grows. I guess that shows you who’s really in charge of the work of spreading the Gospel—it sure ain’t me.”
This July I returned once again to the Andes along with 30 other Americans. The trek took us through the Cordillera Negra—so named because there is little precipitation here and consequently no snow even on the highest peaks.
Few people visit the Cordillera Negra, yet there are many villages that dot the deep valleys. And despite the sparse rainfall during the South American winter, there are enough small streams to provide irrigation for the terraced fields of wheat and other crops grown by the Quechua.
After two days of acclimatizing in Huaraz we piled into a pair of small, underpowered Toyota buses for the dusty, 5-hour ride on a narrow dirt road that hugged the sides of a mountain. A truck with our gear followed slowly behind. The buses struggled with their loads climbing ever higher until topping out at 14,660 feet. Finally gravity’s drag relented and became our friend. Several hours later we rolled into the small village of Punap. An ecstatic group of Quechua were waiting to welcome us.
We carried our backpacks almost a quarter mile down a steep slope to a grassy field enclosed by rock walls on three sides. Here we set up our first camp. There was yet one hitch—the truck carrying all of our gear hadn’t arrived. Two hours later the driver showed up. He said he "took it slow" on the dangerous roads, which made me wonder whether our bus drivers were trying to establish a new course record.
There was little time to ponder that thought. Daylight was fading quickly. We clambered back up to the road to unload our heavier gear—no easy task for us at 11,200 feet. Thankfully, some of the locals volunteered to help. I watched amazed as young boys half my size and older men shouldered our heavy bags effortlessly, carrying them down to the field despite the thin air.
We set up our tents quickly while the cooks set up their larger tent. They always had large pots of boiling water for tea, coffee and to reconstitute the dehydrated meals we brought along with us for dinners.
We were behind schedule so we all ate hastily. Meanwhile, one by one, the people of Punap slowly filtered into our campsite for the showing of “The Jesus Film,” a two-hour movie depicting the life of Christ in which virtually every word spoken by Jesus comes from the biblical text of the Gospel of Luke. We had shown this film in Vicos in 2001, using an old video projector run off a car battery. The poor quality image was projected on an old bed sheet we had draped on someone’s adobe house. But technical difficulties didn’t stop several hundred Quechua from showing up that chilly night and standing through the entire presentation.
Tonight however was different. Pastor Winfield’s church had taken up an offering, raising enough money to purchase a DVD player, a Dolby surround-sound system, a huge screen and a generator to run it all. It was like going to the drive-in. Over 400 Quechua showed up that evening. Many of them had never seen a movie in their lives.
It was late by the time we crawled into our tents.
Day breaks in a strange sort of way in the deep valleys of the Andes. The sun is warm and often the difference between being hot and chilly is whether one is standing in the sun or the shade. At the end of a long, cold night where the temperature dips below freezing at altitudes above 12,000 feet leaving the tent frost-covered in the morning the sun is a welcome sight.
Instant oatmeal was on the menu. No time for homemade pancakes or bacon and eggs—there was a lot to be done, and before we could start the work of Bible distribution, we had to break camp, haul all of our gear back up the same hill we had carried it down on the previous day and load it all back on to the truck.
Many of the same volunteers showed up again and we gave them a few soles for their efforts. Finally, we set out to Huasho, a village about 7 miles away. The people there were expecting us and a school had given us permission to camp outside on their concrete basketball court. Along the way we stopped and talked with people on the road. One sick woman stopped us and asked for prayer. Others simply were delighted to receive a copy of God’s word in their own language.
As we passed through the small pueblos, stopping in village squares and schools, the people were eager to listen to the missionaries traveling with us, especially Pushpi, the Quechua evangelist who lives in Huaraz and accompanies us on these treks. The message of the Gospel was eagerly embraced by all who heard. Often every hand in a crowd was raised to receive Christ. The golden fields of grain we walked by along the roadsides served as a constant reminder of the words of Jesus “The harvest truly is great but the laborers are few.”
That evening we showed “The Jesus Film” again in the village square in Huasho. This time we drew a crowd we estimated to be closer to 600. On the third day, we all piled into the truck bed like a herd of cattle for another hair-raising ride. What made this ride worse than the one in the bus was that we couldn't see out of the truck. When the driver told us he could go no further because the road was too steep, we were relieved. But we still had 8 more miles to cover—and most of it was uphill. Our campsite at the school in Huasho had been at 9,300 feet. In order to get to the next county, we had to hike up and over a mountain. In only six miles, we climbed to 14,600 feet. Despite leaving at 8:00 that morning, it was after 3:00 in the afternoon by the time we reached the summit.
Some had grown so weary they were forced to ride a horse. Others were vomiting from the high altitude. But we still had another two miles to go. Mercifully it was all downhill.
By now, the group was spread out over more than a mile. I was among the first to arrive at the campsite, beating the burros, which were carrying most of our gear, by almost two hours. One by one, the rest of the trekkers staggered in, exhausted. But there was a problem. The sun was setting, and we were still above 13,000 feet. The temperature was dropping quickly and people were starting to become chilled. My tent was among those that arrived on the first burros. I quickly set it up and several piled in to get out of the wind. I wrapped my down mummy bag around one young guy who had made the mistake of wearing a cotton shirt. It was still damp with perspiration and he was shivering. Fortunately the cooks’ tent showed up an hour later averting what could have become a disaster. When they fired up the propane burners to boil water, we all squeezed in to take advantage of the small cocoon of warmth.
We only realized the next morning just how great the exertion of that hike had been. One of the burros had dropped dead from exhaustion from the steep climb.
Over the next two days we covered another 15 miles, stopping in every pueblo along the way. Finally, we met our buses and the truck for the 5-hour ride back to Huaraz. But not before something truly extraordinary happened.
On the last day, about two miles into the hike, a woman named Santa came running up to us on the trail. She had been a Christian for many years and was so moved by our efforts that she wanted to give us a gift.
She stood in our midst sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was visibly shaking as she wept, thanking us for coming all the way from America to bring the Good News to her people. She offered Pastor Winfield a goat from her flock saying “I want nothing in return.”
It was a Sunday. We only had time back at camp that morning for a brief devotion before setting out. But Santa made sure we went to church that day. Her actions preached the most vivid message any of us had ever heard on the true spirit of giving. I was reminded of the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
We exchanged tearful good-byes, thanking her and giving her big hugs until finally walking on several more miles to a high ridge that offered a spectacular panoramic view of the Cordillera Negra with the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Dropping our packs, we sat for a half hour in silent reflection of what had just happened. Once again, as on past missions' trips, we went to minister to the people but in the end, it was they who ministered to us. We went to see lives changed by the power of the cross but it was our own lives that had been impacted—and hopefully changed—forever.
This article appeared in The New Jersey Herald, The Herald News and the Des Moines Register.
Gregory J. Rummo is a syndicated columnist. His weekly opinion column appears Sundays in the New Jersey Herald, the Herald News and in about two-dozen smaller newspapers around the country. His monthly religion column, "An Evangelical View," appears in The Record. This was his third trip to the Callejon de Huaylas in Peru. In 1999 he trekked along the Santa Cruz trail with a group of 25 men, distributing Bibles in Cashapampa, Vaqueria, Colcabamba and Yanama. In 2001 he went back with a larger group that walked a different route through the Cordillera Blanca from Huaypan to Hualcan to Vicos, Copa Chica, Copa Grande, Joncompompa and then up through the Quebrada Honda. Articles written about these missionary adventures and others in Mexico and Venezuela appear in his book, "The View from the Grass Roots," published in July 2002 by American Book Publishing.
Read all of his columns on his homepage, www.GregRummo.com. E-Mail Rummo at GJRummo@optonline.net.