Stories from the Amazon
The countryside of western Peru is very dry. It sits in the rain shadow created by the Andes mountains.
Jacobs Sets Plans to See the Source of the Amazon
Endless views of brown rocky sand dunes rolled past my bus window as I headed south.
Traveling down the west coast of Peru, I was surprised by the fact of how much of the country is a desert. The spine of the Andes drains most of the moisture from the air as the winds carry it from the Amazon basin. This creates a rain shadow on the west coast.
Life still abounds here, though. Rivers carry water from the Andes positioned on the western side of the continental divide. It's at this point when I began to appreciate that most of the water in South America drains to the east.
The Amazon is almost 4,000 miles long.
Imagine a river starting on the west coast of Washington at Neah Bay and running east to Key West, Fla., where it merges with the Atlantic Ocean. To total 4,000 miles, 300 miles would have to be added.
All great journeys have specific benchmarks that measure the adventure in some type of linear fashion. Finding the source of the Amazon is my benchmark challenge.
Gathering information about the specific source location also proved to be a challenge. Some articles claimed it was a lake; others said it was the side of a mountain called Nevado Mismi in southern Peru.
A National Geographic expedition in 2001 claimed it was on the north side of Nevado Mismi. That's good enough for me. Now, how do I get there?
After three days of riding on a bus from the border of Ecuador, I arrived in southern Peru in the city of Arequipa. A former colonial city, majestic volcanic peaks shadow this beautiful community and it has a stately plaza in its center.
The only plan I had was to find a guide who would take me to the source of the Amazon.
This needed to be done with some sense of seriousness since my destination was 17,000 feet up the side of a mountain. Altitude, also, was a concern.
After repeated visits, the shop I had researched finally had someone in it.
Children demonstrate traditional dance near the Canyon del Colca of Peru.
An elderly couple sits in the central park of Chivay Peru.
"Yes, we can take you to Nevado Mismi, the source of the Amazon," said Carlos Zarate, the 54-year-old son of the trekking agency founder.
"If you can leave a couple of days later, I will take you there myself," Zarate said. He added, "And you can go ahead to visit Chivay and acclimatize."
Pleased that the trekking agency owner would accompany me, I accepted his offer to personally guide me to Mismi.
With some time to fill before my tour to Chivay, I decided to go water rafting down the Chile River. This would be a tune-up for rafting I hoped to do near Cusco.
"I've never flipped a small raft until today," my river guide said. He smiled as I pulled myself back into the boat after I felt like a bobber in the roaring river.
"I'm glad I could help you make history," I replied, laughing.
I now noticed my knee was starting to swell, apparently from hitting a rock as the river dragged me along. This was not what I wanted since I planned to be hiking in the Andes in a few days.
Nonetheless, it was a fun and exciting day in the countryside.
The next day, I set off for the small town of Chivay where I would spend a few days at 12,000 feet.
The next couple of days were filled with checking out the pre-Incan indigenous cultures of the Cabanas and the Collaguas. Apparently, these two groups once practiced cranial deformations. In modern times, this practice has been replaced by wearing certain shaped hats.
A late afternoon visit to natural hot springs brought relief to my knee and helped reduce the swelling.
Sitting high on the edge of the Canyon del Colca, with the river below at 3,960 feet, I watched several condors. They caught the thermal updrafts and glided away until they disappeared on the horizon.
Behind the largest flying bird in the world, the top of Nevado Mismi loomed hidden in the clouds. Somewhere up there, waiting for me, was the source of the Amazon.
An Andean condor soars over the Canyon del Colca in southern Peru. Considered the largest flying bird in the world, the condor can weigh up to 22 pounds and have a wing span of 10 feet.