The Reeds of Huanchaco, Peru


  • NOTE: This work, written originally as fiction and published in a now-defunct North Carolina literary magazine, WORDS OF WISDOM, has been modified to better recreate our travelers’ reality at the time these events took place in 1979.  A singular experience may give us a tantalizing glimpse of the Garden of Eden, but we are eventually and inevitably cast from Paradise.
  • I never remembered exactly how we arrived in Huanchaco.  Not that it mattered much, I supposed.  It was as if a shroud had descended over my recollections, distorting and fracturing my already hesitant memory.
  • I’d been staying with a friend named Mike in a flophouse full of travelers near downtown Lima.  Lately Peru’s capital was a troubled place, and violent demonstrations occurred with the spontaneous regularity so peculiar to Latin American cities.  Therefore at night the two of us kept mostly inside our cheap little pension, situated just two blocks from the street-fighting ferocity around the grandiose Presidential Palace.We had been partying seriously one fine coastal desert night with two alluring young women from Austria. I couldn’t quite recall their names, but that turned out to be the least of my concerns.  Suddenly the door their room swung open.  My friends John and Karin burst in, looking wide awake and in a hurry.  John, an Englishman, was a pale, thin young man, with frizzy blond hair and an Adam’s apple that always bobbed nervously up and down.  Karin was German, a few years older than her companion, and a normally placid woman with deep eyes and long black hair.

    1) Karin in San Augustin, Colombia

    2) John (leaning over closest to the camera) near Popayán, Colombia

    That very afternoon I absently agreed with them to an impromptu trip, six hundred kilometers up the coast to the town of Trujillo.  By eleven p.m., however, all thoughts of that arrangement completely escaped me; the Austrian girls were demanding our full attention.

    John and Karin looked impatiently at Mike and I, then somewhat disapprovingly at the Austrians, who appeared to be in no hurry to end the party.

    “Come on, guys.  Aren’t you ready to go?”  demanded John, who was also known as ‘Punishing John’ for his skittishness and frequent bouts of masochistic behavior.

    Karin looked at her watch.  “The last bus for Trujillo leaves just after midnight.  The station is just off Plaza San Martin, so we have to leave now if we want to make it.”

    Mike and I glanced at one another and shrugged.  “Well, we can always split tomorrow,” Mike observed. “What’s the rush?”

    “We all agreed on tonight!  Don’t you remember?” Karin sounded exasperated.  “Get your things together and let’s go.  There’s not so much time.”

    The conversation had continued with an awkward exchange between us and the German girl and before we knew it we were saying goodbye to our Austrian guests who glared back, partly angry and more than a little wistful.

    The bus ride to Trujillo passed like a flash, and eight a.m. the next morning found us haggard and glassy-eyed, sitting around a sticky plastic-topped table in the Trujillo bus station, drinking coffee.

    3) Travelers at Trujillo hotel – photo courtesy of Leticia Tyler

    “Jesus, what are we doing here at this hour?”  Mike said.  He was behaving like a child.  “Where we gonna go now?”

    “Why don’t we get a hotel for the day, and tomorrow we can go to Huanchaco and look for a house,” I suggested.

    “What’s Huanchaco?” Mike whined again.  He hadn’t been in Peru very long and never seemed to pay much attention to what he was doing.  So I explained it to him.  “It’s about 10 klicks north of here on the ocean, near the Chan Chan ruins.  I’d say there’s around five thousand people in the town, but it’s hard to be sure.  You know, it’s also quite famous around the world in surfing circles, and it’s a great place to spend time. Trust us, you’ll like it.”  I was really keen, because the deserted adobe city of Chan Chan was one of the archeological highlights of Peru.

    “We can find a place to rent near the beach and stay a few weeks.  It’ll make a nice change from the hectic life we’ve been leading in Lima,” added John.

    Mike didn’t appear convinced, but he consented to stay further with us, at least for the time being.

    However it happened, the next thing I remembered was the four of us walking up and down the beach, freshly arrived in Huanchaco and asking locals for a place to stay.

    The village was built into a shallow bay, and the beach swept past it, turned west and ended in a promontory ten or twelve kilometers to the north.  The scenery was so bleak as to be overwhelming, and from that came a sense of beauty unlike any I’d ever experienced.  The land was dry enough that there wasn’t a blade of grass to be seen.  Brown dunes and low cliffs of sandstone rose behind the sand, giving the area a surreal quality that reminded me of an alien moon.  The dour-faced bluffs were pockmarked as far as the eye could see with pre-Columbian graves, black dots from a distance that turned into the openings of tunnels, carved into the rock where natives had buried their dead for centuries.

    The sky above Huanchaco was never really cloudless or bright; there always seemed to be a haze above the desert that prevented any brilliance in the color to take hold on the landscape, and thus the terrain lacked the positive definition which would have enabled him to get a better handle on where I now found himself.

    From the Pacific rolled in the waves.  Not the ordinary waves that I remembered from his childhood summers on the New England coast, but vast sloping combers whose last port of call had been in Polynesia, thousands of miles to the west.  The contours of the ocean floor gave them near perfect form, and they broke in long gray-green curls, allowing the intrepid Peruvian and foreign surfers who were in town opportunities to ride for what seemed like miles.  As for the water, it was so cold that I never went swimming in all the time he spent there, and the surfers had the ocean to themselves.

    Architecturally, Huanchaco had nothing to distinguish it and was mostly dominated by Peruvian kitsch.  The village was a resort for Peruvians, and this was reflected in the gaudily painted hotels. But even their green and orange hues couldn’t hide the under-layers of concrete and adobe. So the village stretched along the beach, looking like modern humans’ attempt to recreate the silent tombs in the rock behind, in order to accommodate resting places for the living.

    Nobody, upon visiting Huanchaco for the first time, could help but notice the reeds.  The villagers grew tótora reeds somewhere, and fashioned everything from boats to baskets from their slender husks.  The boats, known as caballitos de tótora, were one-man craft made from reed bundles that turned up at the bow into arched points that reminded me of Moroccan sandals, and were paddled like kayaks by local fishermen with great abandon through the surf.

    Their lines were similar to the boats of the Aymara people of Lake Titicaca, which was the only other place where the papyrus-like reeds from which they were made grew, other than Easter Island, far away in the Pacific.

    I thought a lot about these reeds, plants that made life in this desert outpost livable, just as they were necessary for the natives of the high Andean lake country.  Yet why did they grow here in Huanchaco, and in so few other areas of the world?  One fact I knew for certain; the little boats made and used today were identical to those produced a thousand years ago by the present inhabitants’ ancestors.  Pottery had been found on the North Coast that depicted virtually identical small rafts, pottery that dated from time immemorial.  There was a continuum of life here unfamiliar to me and my friends, and it lent an air of mystery to the town, just enough to feed my fascination for rare enigmas.

    On the beach stood several restaurants, and it was through one of these that we found a house to rent.  It turned out that the owner, a gregarious man, had a place located just a couple of streets back, and was happy to rent the place for the sum of six dollars per week.  Its amenities included running water, electricity, and two bedrooms, although it was more of an adobe shack than a house – a builder’s nightmare of old and new pieces, down to the giant pre-Columbian water jug in the back yard.

    Mike and I took one room; John and Karin claimed the other. For a few days we enjoyed a period of tranquility, taking long walks on the beach or whiling away the afternoons drinking beer, and generally regrouping from our Lima experiences, which, truth be told, had been very chaotic in nature.  We had a small cassette player and frequently listened to Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, an album devoted in part to travel in Peru.

    Mike, however, was used to more comfortable surroundings; he definitely wasn’t happy about the rather fetid outhouse in the yard.  He spent less and less time with us, finally moving back to Trujillo to be closer to the action and nightlife of the big city.  A few other travelers came and went, but essentially we kept to ourselves.

    More and more Karin and I found one another in a quiet space, sharing our experiences and talking long into the night.  Karin and John had lived together for two or three years, so my relationship with Karin was strictly casual, but it was obvious we held an attraction for one another, as well as for the enchanted coastline where we now lived.  Also, John would go into strange depressive moods, spending too much time alone.  I wondered if he had a private stash of cocaine that he didn’t even tell Karin about, but for now the drug held only a casual attraction for me.  I supposed I would further investigate its intensities in time.  I had tried it on a few occasions in school and experimented with  more in Lima, but felt I didn’t need the stuff very much at the moment.  Or at least I rationalized my daily intake along those lines.

    Life was serene, and if I wanted to stimulate my senses I had but to walk to the beach and fix my gaze on the rhythmic motions of the Pacific.  The coke I’d brought  from Lima ( and everybody I knew in Peru always carried some) was only for special occasions.  That was the plan.

    The outside world did intervene once in a while.  There was an abandoned Catholic church perched on a hill above the town, a relic from Spanish times and I thought of it as a sacred and untouchable place.  One night some Europeans, drunk, climbed up to the structure and had an inebriated sing-along by the front steps.  Villagers found them, pulled them down from the church and beat them senseless for their sacrilege, before depositing the no longer merry group on the road at the edge of town.  But this incident didn’t give the townspeople a grudge against foreigners; it was never mentioned thereafter and life went on unconcernedly.  No one blamed us; our friendly welcome into small-town living continued unabated.

    4) Beach life: the church is in the background above the village.  I may be the person with the hat: photo by Craig Olivier

    The natives had a restless streak that I much admired.  Although fishing was a mainstay of the local economy, there was no harbor to shelter the bigger boats.  I used to watched with astonishment as fishermen directed their trawlers out to sea through fifteen to twenty-foot surf.  They would also pilot their fragile little caballito reed boats through fierce shore breakers in the icy water.  John met a man who was curious to see if the gringos were keen to try this bit of sport, but all three of us politely declined.  In the panorama of desert, waves and sky, the sea remained untouched.

    Still, my idle thoughts kept turning to the reeds.  The little house we rented had been unfurnished, so John and I bought woven reed mats for us all to sleep on, and Karin had purchased in the town market baskets and boxes in which to store food and other gear.

    We heard about the reed beds soon after arriving in Huanchaco.  These were ancient depressions where the reeds actually grew, dug into the sand a couple of miles outside the village.  Apparently the reeds thrived near salt water, but were not native to the coast, and here they had to be attended to carefully.

    One night we sat in our little house, having consumed a small amount of coke.  John, as usual, was in a negative mood, and I decided on the spur of the moment that it would be a fine time to walk down the beach and check out the reed beds.  “What do you say, guys?” I asked his companions.  “Why don’t we get out and see the reeds?”

    Karin said, “Let’s take a walk, John. We’ve been wanted to see where the tótora grows and the fresh air will be good for all of us.”  I was relieved that she was in favor of the excursion; he was getting more and more fed up with John’s unpredictable temperament.

    John, who was polite even when he wasn’t feeling well, thought for a minute before replying, “No, it’s okay. Why don’t you and Karin go; I’ll be alright here.”  His eyes looked wild and uneasy about what he had just said, but I paid him scant attention and looked at Karin. Somewhere the idea of a private walk into the desert night with her set a vibration humming through my body.

    Karin and I regarded one another.  Probably Karin felt the same way.  We’d quietly grown very close lately, sharing something unnamed yet powerful.  Our views of traveling and living meshed well and it was with a guilty hint of excitement that we stepped outside the house and headed to the beach.

    As soon as we left the lights of the village behind we seemed to exit from present time into another reality.  The moon had not risen and the night sky was as black as onyx.   The bluffs overlooking the ocean stretched before us, little more than pencil smudges above the ocean.  There was a layer of opacity between earth and heaven through which the stars shown feebly, casting just enough light to illuminate the ground underneath.  Tonight the sea was calm, with smooth wavelets lapping at the shore, releasing tiny splashes of phosphorescence on the sand.  The silence in another setting might have been stifling, but here it was a blanket, a blessing that permeated every corner of the beach where we walked.  Wordlessly, we touched hands and continued.

    An indeterminate period of time passed while we bathed ourselves in the halo of stillness.  Suddenly I made out something different about the setting ahead.  Rising from the sand was a wall that reminded me of a misplaced snow fence.  We walked toward it for a few minutes more, and slowly the wall began to take a clearer shape and substance.  We realized they were glimpsing the reeds.

    In a line at right angles to the beach appeared three or four reed beds from which the tótora sprang, coming up from the womb of the earth itself.  The air was quiet, and I heard the plants murmuring softly among themselves.  Karin and I stopped and looked in wonder.  The tall, slender shoots undulated quietly in their beds of sand, each one like a prayer straining to break loose from the earth and reach for the sky.

    And that’s when we first saw him.  Hovering at the top of the plants appeared the silhouette of a man, a man with a broad-brimmed hat. He was tilted into the reeds, watching and guarding, and nodding his head gently back and forth.  The murmuring in the reeds grew louder, and along with Karin he became transfixed.

    “Is that what I think it is?” I said in a barely audible whisper.  “I see a man in there.”

    “I do too,” replied Karin in an equally hushed voice.  “It looks like some kind of spirit. Look; his body is glowing.”

    The rustling in the reeds grew louder again and the figure within them slowly turned and gazed, as I would remember later, inside their thoughts and minds.  “You are there; I am here,” the mysterious form seemed to communicate, and his eyes were older than time itself.

    As astonishing as it was, we accepted him completely, witnessing his presence.  Suddenly we too felt safe and protected from the outside world.

    The man turned away and concentrated once more on his true charges, the reeds, leaving us to ourselves.  Karin and I were now elevated into a state of blissful grace; we knew exactly who this guardian was and that we were welcome in his domain.  The two of us turned to face the ocean and sat down gratefully in one another’s arms.

    I noticed how warm and soft Karin now felt, yet there was no temptation to engage in any physical exchange with her; we were already experiencing something infinitely higher.  The waves of strengthening and protecting energy from the reed beds caressed us, just as the waves of the ocean caressed the sand under our feet.

    As we walked back to the village later on, leaving the guardian to care for his reeds, the pebbles and shells on the beach came alive in celebration.  Tiny jewels jumped and glided a few inches above the sand, swirling and dancing around us, as if happy for our new inner peace, however brief it might prove to be.  We headed toward the distant lights of home, thour sensations heightened to the point where it seemed we were swimming through the beach more than walking on its top.

    When we opened the door to the little house an hour later, a stream of bad German came hurtling from inside.  John fairly ran to confront us, his drawn face white with rage, the pupils of his eyes dilated wide. White powder dribbled from his nose.

    “What were you two doing on the beach?” he screamed, switching back to English for my dubious benefit.  “I saw you holding hands and then you disappeared.”  His voice began to quaver.  “Karin! How could you do this to me?”

    She took him in her arms and tried to comfort him, but he shook, still livid with rage in his personal and private paranoia.  Meanwhile I treaded softly to my room and closed the door.   Sleep didn’t come right away; I felt disgusted with John for not trusting me with Karin, and at the same time guilty, thinking that somehow I must have betrayed that trust.  Had I been selfish in trying to get closer to her?  Certainly a beautiful night had come to an ugly end, even if John was so mixed up – and obviously drug-addled – that he accepted his twisted delusions as reality. I reflected that perhaps cocaine had been a catalyst in the crisis, but was at a loss regarding what I might do to help.

    Dawn broke before the yelling and crying between the Englishman and the German girl quieted down.  More than anything else, I felt a heavy sadness.


    Things weren’t the same afterward in Huanchaco. Karin and I drifted apart, and I departed the village a few days later to return alone to Lima.  I would see Karin once in a while around the city in the following weeks — she and John hadn’t stayed much longer either on the north coast — but I never remembered if we had spoken to one another again or not.

    Eventually I left for Cuzco and time went by, but my musings always turned back to the beach at Huanchaco, especially in the early hours of the morning before the sun had risen, about when the birds would wake up and sing their daybreak songs.  Then, after a while, I would turn over and try to sleep.

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