Where there’s chutzpah, there’s Pachamama

By Nicholas Asheshov

I first met Washington Gibaja in 1995 when he was 13. He was the pushiest and most winning of half a dozen village urchins offering their services as guides in the dramatic ruins at Ollantaytambo.

“How did the Incas construct this citadel-temple?” he intoned in a pip-squeak voice, confidently imitating the big-shot professional guides. When three even smaller urchins began a song-and-dance act we said we hadn’t any small change. Washington said expansively, “Don’t worry. I’ll handle it”.

A week ago I sat with Washington at a table at the Tambo Café in the Plaza de Ollantaytambo eating roast pepper and palta salads. I had run into him at the airport. His card featured a classy chacana design and went on

Magical Tours Peru

Washington Gibaja Tapia

Manager – Photographer – Writer

Machu Picchu Cusco Peru

Private Native Guide Ceremonies & Workshops

“See you Saturday,” he had said.

His websites include www.Magicaltoursperu.com  and as we sat with him and his pretty wife Pamela and four-year-old daughter, Washington was signing for me a copy of his new book, Sabiduria y Amabilidad de la Pachamama.

Thirteen years ago his efforts as a guide supported a handful of younger brothers. Today as he scribbled quickly a dedication he was telling us of his trips to universities in half the states in the U.S., to Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand and Taiwan.

Then we moved on to his campaign a couple of years ago for mayor of Ollanta. “I lost because people got confused with the numbers,” he said. “I think I’ll be in next time.”

His English is quick and fluent. The bubbly energy that had caught our eye back in 1995 was very much still there but the brashness had meshed into a good-humoured earnestness.

I already knew how he had talked himself into an early big leap forward. He must have been 16 or so and was as usual working the ruins when he spotted Sharon Forrest. Sharon is a big, blonde Canadian leader of New Age tours to Peru, Egypt and India. Forty years in the business, Sharon once hypnotized me and said later that I’d talked like a parrot of my previous lives.

In any case, there she was like a battleship at full steam surrounded by her admiring group as she preached in the ruins. Ni sonso ni perezoso, Washington went straight up to her and said in broken English, “You were my mother in another life.”

It was chutzpah meets chutzpah. Sharon is an admirable personage who enjoys doing good and nothing by halves. A few months later Washington had a room in Sharon’s house in San Diego, California and was going to school there. One of his little brothers was later to join him.

Washington told us the other day that he had just returned from a tour including Sedona and the Cascades Ski Resort above Seattle. He had given séances and organized shamanistic ceremonies: “Groups of 20 to 30, put together by friends. I made $4,000. Ten percent of this I used to buy story books in Lima for the kids in the schools up in the highland communities. I coat them in plastic and give them to the teachers.”

This is part of a virtuous circle that sees Washington organize chocolatadas at Christmas for the 35 Quechua communities out in the boonies among the glaciers above Ollanta, Peru at its most profound.

When visitors buy Washington’s book, @ S/35, they mark one of four boxes on a fly-sheet to signify where they want their 10% to go. The choice is between ojata sandles; the chocolatada; school books and a school-lunch comedor for 120 kids that Washington has set up in Ollanta itself.

“They put in their emails and I send them photos of what they contributed towards. I’m building up quite a mailing list.

“Obviously I’m pretty well known to the people up in the comunidades.”

Sabiduria y Amabilidad is full of fine photos, many of people not just ruins, all taken by, of course, Washington. The book, which has a twin version in English, takes travelers through a score of sites as well as Machu Picchu including those round Lake Titicaca. It’s without doubt the top New Age guide to the Inca world. Here’s a sample from the Intro:

“Todos poseemos una forma de energia y solamente tenemos que empujarla hacia el planeta y compartirla con nuestros semejantes asi como la Pachamama comparte su energia con nosotros plena de amor y humor.”

It’s all fluid, fresh and polished, a credit to the Ollantaytambo and San Diego educational systems. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Jan. 16, 2009

 

The Niños and the financial roller-coaster

By Nicholas Asheshov

Ferocious blizzards in the United States, a warm North Pole, biblical floods in Queensland and drought in northern China are being blamed on La Niña but here in Urubamba in the permanent eye, one supposes, of the Niño+Niña complex, the weather could not be more charming.

The shock pre-Niña rains a year ago which cut away big slices of the railway to Machu Picchu, have been followed this year by the traditional monsoon mixture of warm sunshine and refreshing rainfall. It’s sparkling, green and friendly, our favourite time of the year. We sense some of the mystery of the carefully-sculpted Cloud Kingdom of the Incas where dramatically chiseled rock walls controlled the rivers, the fields and the ciudadelas.

The first El Niño that gave Peru a headline role in the world’s climate drama occurred four decades ago in 1972. Newspapers worldwide published little maps showing Peru with arrows going in all directions. My sister Anna, an international skier, complained that Peru’s desert rainstorms were ruining the snow in the Swiss Alps – globalization avant le mot.

That Niño had been preceded in Peru by a famously remorseless anchoveta hunt by the brash new Peru fishing fleet led by the engaging, brilliant Lucho Banchero. Every single anchoveta from the beach breaks to the whale belt 100 miles offshore was netted. Boats would capsize and sink with too much fish. The catch was 12 million tons, one in every five fish caught worldwide that year.

The Apus struck back instantly and implacably. The dense horizon-to-horizon clouds of seabirds, the world’s greatest, have never returned. In Lima we watched thousands of starving pelicans fight for their last scraps outside the Surquillo market. The price of fishmeal, corn, wheat, sugar, cotton and soya skyrocketed on the New York and Chicago markets.

Serendipitously perhaps, OPEC doubled and tripled the price of oil to $15 the barrel. I myself moved the market. I reported to McGraw-Hill’s commodities wire on the strength of a good-humoured tip from the U.S. Embassy, then literally a stone’s throw away on Av Washington, that Arabs had come to Lima to buy copper. I practically had them mounting their camels in flowing robes at the door of the Hotel Bolivar before riding down La Colmena. The Chicago Board of Trade copper price jumped from 60 to 70 cents the pound but I was too young and poor to take advantage. In any case I had just come from Fleet St where you learn on Day One never to believe your own story.

Thus the first post-WWII price crisis. Nixon had de-pegged the dollar from gold. The oil people had no idea what to do with their billions –before that a million or two was real money– and gave it to Citibank who lent it to obscure states that even Brazilians hadn’t heard of, to Peronist bag-men and soldiers in Buenos Aires and to the Banco Popular in Peru.

Six hyper-crises later here we are again. Hundred-degree heat scorched the wheat crop last year in Russia and the Ukraine, The same economists who six months ago were gasping deflation are now fighting inflation by, of all things, reducing taxes.

So even here in Urubamba we all know that bumbling bankers, confused bureaucrats and a cascade of  Niños and Niñas have packaged themselves into a global roller-coaster, though I bet that in the Andes we’re safer than anywhere else.

Here in any case is where we stand, broad-brush, in the southern Sierra.

Four decades of figures from Senamhi, the weather bureau, show an average increase of between two and three degrees centigrade -the figures themselves are precise but it depends on the location. This is a lot. The glaciers from the Vilcabamba south to the Cordillera Real above La Paz and Lake Titicaca have all but disappeared. All you’re looking at now is a dusting of snow. The remains of old airplanes that crashed into the ice fields 30 and more years ago are being uncovered, frozen bodies of young pilots recovered and buried by their families.

A few hundred miles to the east the Brazilians continue mowing down the Amazon and Sertao, unthinkable even as recently as the 1972 widescreen Niño.

Average rainfall here has lessened, too, though the overall figures aren’t startling. But the rain now tends to come in sharp bursts, meaning there’s a lot less for farmers.

“We’re having to undo the work of decades where European NGOs brought in big, expensive cows and thirsty crops like alfalfa to feed them. Now there’s not enough water,” a Ministry of the Environment official in Cuzco tells me.

“We’re bringing back llamas and alpacas, smaller fields. We’re going back to how it used to be.”

As you might imagine, the Incas had it all clear. Their huge high-altitude polylepis –queuña— forests, now largely cut down for firewood, conserved water. Their great flights of terrace complexes made best use of it.

If I, like many of my friends, were running for President –Election Day is April 10– my Government Plan would be just four words and here they are:

Back to the Incas. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Feb. 17, 2011

Indian girls + machetes = Christians

By Nicholas Asheshov

Just downriver from Machu Picchu at this time of the year there used to be a slave market where Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominican priests from Cuzco would buy Indian women and children in exchange for machetes and other trade goods.

It was known as the Feria de Santa Rosa. Earlier it had been known too as the Feria del Carmen because it took place in July as well. The women and children were Machiguengas who had been pirated from their homes deep in the jungle by tough Piro Indians from the lower Rio Urubamba.

The Piros, great traders and travellers all over the western Amazon, would paddle up the Urubamba, past what is today the Camisea gas fields, a multi-billion-dollar industrial complex, in raiding-trading parties of dozens of war canoes, through the still-ferocious rapids of the Pongo de Mainique.

The Piros were such powerful paddlers that in their canoes they ressembled, according to one missionary, “centaurs as one with their horses.”

They would come to a site called Cocabambilla near the present-day towns of Quillabamba and Echarate where the railway line would later end; this was wiped out by a huge avalanche in 1998.

The women and children, acquired from Machiguenga curacas or simply snatched from their homes, would be exchanged, along with salted fish and other deep-jungle goods, for Cuzco mountain produce as well as knives and, later, guns provided by the rubber barons.

The Incas would have been impressed to see how their descendents, today’s comuneros from the highlands of Cusco and Puno, have taken over the eastern jungles. In the old days, 600 years ago, the Chunchos, or Antis (Antisuyos) were much feared by the rulers of the greatest empire of the 15th century.

No longer. Today’s jungle Indians are all but exterminated. They stood up to the Incas and then the Spaniards though by the early 20th century they had been badly hit by the rubber barons. But the invasion by sierra campesinos in the past few decades, plus lumbermen and oil and gas men from Texas, have just about done for them.

The Incas conquered the mountains with a wonderful system of tens of thousands of miles of roads. The Amazon was dominated by the canoe on the world’s greatest network of rivers. It may be that a couple of thousand years ago, say, there were great cultures in the Amazon as there were along the pre-Conquest Mississippi.

Some scholars, including my old chum Gene Savoy, the great Andean explorer, maintain that the Amazon is the original source of all the Andean cultures.

Until a hundred years ago the jungle indians, like the Piros and Campas, were the aggressive ones. The chroniclers record forays by the Chunchos into the Cuzco region, including one where a jungle princess went off with Inca Prince Copacabana and “large quantities” of women and children.

The Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans wanted the women and children, we should assume, to convert them to Christianity.

Whatever, there were occasional more refreshing side-effects. One of the Machiguenga boys, Martin Mentiani, arrived in Lima during the guano boom in the service of the gay Dominican provost of the Santa Rosa Convent.

Martin escaped and hid out on a French merchant ship during the Chilean occupation, turned up in Antwerp and became butler to Paul Gauguin’s art dealer. He returned to Lima during the 1900 centenary celebrations, and returned to Cusco and the jungles of the Alto Urubamba.

This and other tall jungle stories were told to me this week by Alejandro Camino, Peru’s distinguished and much-travelled anthropologist. He has just returned from Madagascar and has spent years in places like Nepal. He and Mrs. Camino serve the best Hindu food this side of Darjeeling at their home in Miraflores.

The Santa Rosa/Carmen slave market came to an end only three or four generations ago, in the early years of the last century.

I was reminded of it by a visit, also this past week, to the annual barter market at Tiobamba, Maras, just above Urubamba, where truckloads of people arrive from Pucara and other parts of the Puno altiplano with thousands of clay chombas which they exchange for maize from the Urubamba Valley. Most of the deals are still straight barter and all the chatter is in Quechua. The metre-high ones for making chicha make fine pots for plants, though I admit that I paid coin of the realm, not maize, for the chombas –S/25-30 for big ones, the same as the cost of a machete.

Published in Caretas Magazine

 

Don’t believe all you hear about lost cities. But then again, why not?

By Nicholas Asheshov

Sra. Nelly, who helps out on busy weekends, told me the other day when she heard me talking about a valley below Machu Picchu: “My cousin Alfredo knows where there’s this really big ruin. It’s on his own place, above Sta. Teresa.”

Nick's adventure as captured by Peruvian artist Carlos Christian Castellanos Casanova

I should have a double Scotch for every time someone has told me where to find buried treasure and secret ruins.

Nelly went on, looking round to see that no one else was listening. “It’s got these three lines of great walls, near the top of a hill. There’s a waterfall…”.

With lost cities and buried treasure there’s some common characteristics to the stories. One is that they are always second-hand.

The most consistently unreliable stories come from priests and protestant missionaries, invariably imprecise and gullible; perhaps it goes with the territory. The most famous in our area was a Padre Polentini, active for decades in the Lares Valley over a cold bare pass from Calca. According to everyone you meet in this attractive but little-visited area, Padre Polentini spent all his time -this would be the ’70s and ’80s– looking for lost cities and of course he built up, the same stories say, a hoard of gold and silver objects which one of the Cuzco archbishops sent off to the Vatican.

To add substance to the foggy world of lost cities and buried treasure, there’s a private museum in Lima crammed full of spectacular gold and silver objects that are all grave-robbed. It is much better than the tourist-trap Gold Museum, which is full of fakes.

A late-breaking version of the secret hoard syndrome is the story, first published in Caretas’ Country Notes in March this year, that Machu Picchu itself was looted in the 1880s by a German, August R. Berns, and all the huacos were sent off to the Berlin Museum.

The discoverer of this gem of lost city-ology, Paolo Greer, is much smarter and more persistent than the professional archaeologists and historians. One of Paolo’s specialties is locating old gold and silver mines, some of which are in production again over on the eastern slopes of the Carabaya between Cuzco and Puno. Today this is one of Peru’s toughest no-go regions, controlled by drug gangs and illegal gold panners.

Paolo has also been working on what he calls “Portuguese” silver mines to the East of Machu Picchu. He tried to get up there a few months ago but got turned back by impassable cliffs.

Others, led by Gary Ziegler, of Colorado, and Vince Lee, a couple of months ago held a symposium hosted by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of The Explorers Club. I’ve been out many times with Gary in the Vilcabamba beyond Machu Picchu and he thoughtfully combines GPS technology with ensuring that one of the mules is assigned to carry three crates of Stolychnaya with a few bottles of Martini for the women.

Technology doesn’t seem to have made the slightest difference to the rate of discovery of lost cities in the Andes.

The Instituto Geografico 100:000 maps, produced arm-in-arm with the Pentagon, are still dodgy, because they don’t do much footwork to back up the clever satellites.

However, things are a lot easier in the field today with the ferocious accuracy and handy cheapness of GPS machines the size of a telephone. This means that you can draw your own maps, as detailed or as sketchy as you like with spot-on accuracy.

But clear thinking is much more important than technology.

A few years ago a priest down in the Apurimac told me about a treasure-trove of dollars, quantities of camping equipment, a massive cache of canned food, a light bulldozer and shotguns up in the northern Vilcabamba. He added: “There’s a dozen late-model parachutes.”

I instantly realized he was talking about my own National Geographic expedition in 1963 Perú by Parachute – NGS 1964 (link to pdf of article) where, true, I’d had to abandon a couple of torn ‘chutes, a broken 16-bore shotgun and a pile of empty Coke bottles. I explained it all to the priest.

He didn’t believe a word of it.

Now I must get on with organizing a trip before the rains start to check on Sra. Nelly’s cousin Alfredo’s lost city above Sta. Teresa. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Sept. 12, 2008

The Return of the Otter

By Nicholas Asheshov

Last Friday an otter appeared, warming itself in the morning sun on the path between the trees on the riverbank and our duck pond.

No one has seen an otter here for 30 years. I couldn’t decide whether to rush out and tell everyone or whether to keep it to myself, like when you find a new cebicheria.

The otter, which slipped into the pond with the wild immigrant ducks from Canada, was “a fish with two kinds of lungs,” Fernando, our nurseryman said, adding that it was “silvery”. That tells you how long it’s been since countrymen round Urubamba, 2,800 metres above sea level, have seen an otter on the banks of the Rio Vilcanota. Sra. Ana, our housekeeper, was less imaginative and more accurate: “It was like a cat, brownish with a flat tail, like on the telly.”

Now, we all know that the Rio Vilcanota, which runs from way up behind Cuzco and is the main river for the Sacred Valley, including Machu Picchu, is filthy, heavily polluted and getting worse. Most of the effluent, industrial waste as well as raw sewage, comes straight out of Cuzco itself via the Rio Huatanay, a tributary which is these days just a smelly ditch.

I’m surprised, for a start, that there are any fish left for an otter to eat. So we have to suppose that the fish, trout invariably, and the otter are going to the trouble of adapting to civilization. There are trout in all the cold mountain streams that bring the snowmelt down to the main river. The other day I met a 10-year-old girl and her four-year-old sister up in the Chicon valley carrying an old paint bucket with half a dozen trout between 15 and 20 centimetres long swimming around. She’d caught five and the tiny sister one, she explained, by lying on the bank and holding her hand in a pool until a trout floats into her fingers. Then she flips it out over her shoulder. In England, us kids and poachers called this “tickling” trout.

Coincidently, the New York Times the other day reported that a beaver had taken up residence in the river in the Bronx. So my Urubamba otter may not be so strange.

Otters, rather like owls, are uncommon but universal. You could find them in the marshes of the lower Euphrates, in northern Europe, all over North America and of course in the rivers of South America. There are also sea otters; there are still some left on the coast here. There have been best-sellers about tame otters, like “Tarka the Otter” and “Ring of Bright Water”.

You can still find otters in the more remote corners of the jungle. A couple of years ago the kids and I watched for half an hour a family pack of them in a lake in the Manu Park, over the hills from Urubamba. One of the older otters surfaced as we watched with an impressive two-foot fish flapping in his mouth. He nipped up out of the water onto a fallen tree-trunk a few yards from a crowd of baby otters who immediately started yapping and jumping up and down on their own tree-trunk. After a while the dad chewed down a piece of the fish and then let the cubs come and wolf down the rest of it. I was feeling quite proud of being a dad when my wife said, “I’m pretty sure that was the mother”.

What’s done it in for otters in many parts of the jungle has been the continual dynamiting of lakes and stretches of the rivers, or the use more traditionally of barbasco, a natural poison dumped into the river. Both of them kill everything around. Even though the otters themselves are probably canny enough to escape, there’s no food left for them. Today when people eat fish in and around jungle towns, it’s mostly canned atun from the coast.

I thought of popping over to the local trout farm and pouring a bucket full of fat, ready-to-eat live fish, at S/10 the kilo, into the duck pond. But in the unlikely event that this might work, I’d have been saddled with an otter family. Charming, but as much of a worry as my own kids and possibly almost as expensive.

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of March 4, 2007

 

How Calca absorbed Maotsetung’s Naked Chullo

By Nicholas Asheshov

If Lima follows Manhattan this year everyone in Miraflores and San Isidro will be wearing a chullo to work when the wet winter begins.

Thousands of people were wearing chullos at President Obama’s inauguration parade in Washington and my colleague Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a front-line dispatch to The New York Times, “Season of the Chullo” reported: “Gone is the Afghan pakol. Gone is the keffiyeh. This is the winter of the Andean hat.”

Verlyn immediately, however, puts her fashionable finger on the chullo’s only weakness: “It’s impossible to wear a chullo stylishly.”

She describes the chullo as just “a bag for the head”, briskly writing off seven millennia of Andean civilization. But she does spot a message.

“Perhaps the anti-stylishness of the chullo, its simple functionality, is its politics.” She prattles on:

“Perhaps it signals indigenousness, international-ness. But what it mostly says is, I don’t care how I look as long as I’m warm.”

Warm, simple, colourful, cheap and politically correct is a powerful combination but though gringas wear chullos and often, whatever Verlyn says, look charming in them, up here in the Andes the chullo is for men only.

Las mamachas in the markets in their keep-the-sun-off stovepipe sombreros or, on the Altiplano, their little bowlers on top of their braids or the shepherdesses in the red-and-yellow soup-plate monteras come in hundreds of variations. But girls don’t wear chullos.

What’s more, it’s men who make them. Franco Negri, the man behind La Casa Ecologica in Cuzco, tells me that the chullos he buys in Ocangate, around Ausangate, the highest Apu in Cusco, are all made by men.

“Real chullos are made by crochet knitting with five needles,” he says. “The men make the chullos and the llama-fibre ropes while it’s the women who make all the textiles with the traditional waist-loom.”

The other day, in any case, I ran into the man who has produced the defining statement of our time for the chullo. His name is Maotsetung Jimenez Dorado, a 29-year-old sculptor who has created a 2.70ms bronzed stone-cement statue of a strapping Andean Indian dressed only in his chullo and it was installed not long ago outside the bus station in Calca, a lively market town 20 minutes up the road from Urubamba.

Sited on a two-metre plinth just up from one of Calca’s two traffic lights, it has caused an uproar. “La madre de las monjitas dominicanas del Colegio Belem puso el grito al cielo, los padres de familia quejaron diciendo que “los niños se enferman,” Maotsetung told me.

“La madre dijo que la estatua es ‘morbosa’ and asked me why didn’t I do a statue of something like Heroism or Religion?”

Maotsetung, an evangelico, tells me that “the chullo es la expresion indigena de las alturas“.

His statue tells us that “los indigenas no son alienados y que son tal cual desnudos.”

Maotsetung’s statue was his graduating thesis work from the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Calca.

Maotsetung says, “I did un estudio profundo para presentarlo como obra de arte y no erotico. I even made the pene disproportionately small.”

In one hand the chullo-wearer holds apututu, the sacred Andean conch shell used in ceremonies and in the other a sort-of plaque with “Escuela de Bellas Artes” inscribed.

The statue is a reddish-bronze colour made of 500 kilos of marmolina, @ S/.1.20/kilo con cinco bolsas de cemento, mas fierros, and seis cubos de piedras para plinth/fundacion. “No me han pagado todavia para las piedras,” Maotsetung says referring to the Sub-gerencia de Obras de la municipalidad.

It took months of door-knocking, endless waiting for appointments, for Maotsetung to get the municipality to put up the statue. “Nadie le daba bola.” recalls Jean Concha, a mutual friend who works in the municipalidad.

Instead of lobbying Calca’s highland alcalde, Siriaco Condori Cruz, Maotsetung focused on lower levels like the Oficina de Educacion y Cultura de la municipalidad.No lo tomo al chico en serio,” Jean Concha says.

Maotsetung’s persistence paid off, “Pero no habia nada de inauguracion.”

Al inicio lo taparon con plastico,” reflecting the controversy that swirled through the town’s two radio stations and its markets.

Though a little weary of small-town politics, Maotsetung is hoping to get financial and official blessing for his next project which will be, naturalmente, “una ñusta solamente con su montera.

I am sending Maotsetung a suitable cheque to get the ball rolling. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of February 27, 2009

 

Hemingway, Mancora and the World’s Greatest Fish

By Nicholas Asheshov

Last week saw me trolling the warm chop over the Mancora Bank at a brisk eight knots in a 28′ Phoenix Express fisherman hoping to hook a giant marlin, the king of the sea.

The boat belonged to Jose Luis Martinez, the international big game fisherman. Jose Luis, a jolly young Lima construction mogul, catches 30 or 40 marlin a year here.

I had six rods out with the lures between 20 and 40 yards aft a few feet below the surface, each of them glittering spoons aimed at attracting the attention of a curious, perhaps not too bright fish.

From the bridge we spotted a couple of marlin dorsals and spun round to trail the lures before their noses. No marlin takers today though we were to return to base at Punta Sal in the evening not empty-handed.

We cruised past a score of sperm and humpback whales, had a school of charming dolphins for company and a dozen artesan Kankas and Mancora fishermen long-lining in the distance for tuna and mero.

The temperature gauge showed the water at between 24 and 26 degrees centigrade. The Humboldt Current to the south is typically at 18 degrees and lower and the meeting of the cold north-flowing and warm south-flowing waters just here is what makes this the Piccadilly Circus, the Copacabana Beach of the oceans.

The depth sounder varied between 100 metres over the Bank, down to two, three and even five hundred metres.

A reel screamed.

“Es grande,” Alex, the captain, said.

I gripped the rod, My arms ached. My hands ached.

Then the fight was over. It was a Dorado, green and wet gold. It had a big head and big eyes.

I could hardly lift it. It was a big fish.

So might Ernest Hemingway, who fished these same waters six decades ago, have described my own fish, caught that day last week, a 50-pounder.

Anglers anywhere could be proud of a 50-pounder but in these exuberant waters it’s small beer. Hemingway himself brought in a massive 910lb black marlin here in 1956.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Cabo Blanco Fishing Club, founded by my old Cambridge chum Enrique Pardo, was the spectacular heart of international big game fishing.

Today, Jose Luis tells me, the best he can expect to catch, even with his state-of-the-art tackle, is 500 or 600 lbs., the size of a pony, terrific but half, even just one-third of the giants of half a century ago before the vast shoals of over-fished anchoveta disappeared.

Marlin are no good to eat. “Every one I catch we just bring it alongside, unhook the hooks, tag it and let it go.

*Sometimes after a big fight it’ll be exhausted so we stroke its bill and pull it along a bit to re-oxygenate it and then, suddenly it’ll flip and it’s off.”

Like salmon and whales marlin are world travellers. “My tags turn up in Australia or Hawaii,” Jose Luis says. The International Game Fishing Association, of Dania Beach, Fla. requires its members to fill in a form for every fish that’s taken.

The story of game fishing at Cabo Blanco, between Talara and Mancora, 250 miles south of the equator, is dramatic. A report by Doug Olander in World Record Game Fishes is headlined:

Cabo Blanco, The Rise and Fall of The Greatest Blue Water Big-Game Fishing The World Has Ever Known.

Olander talks of “colossal black marlin” and “huge bigeye tuna”. It was not just the size of the fish but their “amazing abundance”.

The rods in those pre-tungsten and carbon fibre days were of bamboo and the line not of tough stretch plastic but of ashaway linen.

“The biggest change has been in the reels with their gearing and braking systems,” Jose Luis tells me.

Olander describes a couple of epic all-day battles in Black Marlin Boulevard, as Cabo Blanco Club members called it, just three or four miles offshore.

The most famous of them came on August 4 1953 when Alfred C. Glassell Jr., a Houston oilman, brought in the biggest black marlin that has ever been caught and no one today doubts that it will remain the record forever. The fish is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. The photograph of Glassell, a tall 180lbs or so, standing with his rod dwarfed by the marlin hanging from a rope round its tail, is a famous one. It has “1,560 lbs.” whitewashed on its side.

Astoundingly, beyond serendipity, a Warner Bros film crew, down in Cabo Blanco shooting The Old Man and The Sea, starring Spencer Tracy, registered the whole of Glassell’s fight in epic widescreen Technicolor. The battle lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes, shorter than many, and the film caught this massive animal, the size of a bull, leaping 49 times.

The Hemingway story, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, was, of course, about a Cuban fisherman in the Gulf Stream but now you know that the fish and the sea are all from up here on the north coast of Peru.

My own 50 lb. Dorado the other day was caught for posterity on the cell phone camera of Jose Luis’ wife, my daughter Kitty. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of February 14, 2009