Tales from the Mountains

A photo taken from the back seat of the three-wheeled moto-taxi. The driver's back can be seen. He wears a jacket and a wide brim hat.

Señor Vildoso cuts the little moto-taxi’s engine as we careen down the curving hillside towards Estique Pampa. 

Once again, I have returned to the mountain region of Tacna, accompanying my students on their summer service trip. One of my students, in a moment of poor teenager-induced decisions, cut himself in the eye with some wire and it is now up to me to retrieve the antibiotic eye drops that can only be found a few towns over. 

I’ve resigned myself to a dead-silent trip in this vehicle whose austere owner ties my tongue and makes me forget the Spanish I have learned over the last two years. I expect the only thing to break the silence to be the the chug-chug of the pungent engine, but the minute we start on our journey to Tarata, Señor Vildoso launches into a one-sided conversation that I am inexplicably drawn into. All I can see are his broad shoulders hunched forward, his hat with wide brim and crooked top. I find myself leaning forward to try and hear his words over the sound of the struggling motor. He tells me he is one of the four real Estiqueños left, the others come from away and although they may claim to be part of the community, they don’t know the true history and legends of the town, marking them forever as outsiders. His pride is deep and his knowledge of the terrain and towns vast. As we slowly move along I am treated to a private tour of the area. Señor Vildoso reveals rocks that look like wolves (El Lobo) and a couple going through the rite of marriage with a priest (La Boda). I confess now that although I tell him I see the hidden figures, I can barely see anything out of the worn, plastic windows of the little moto-taxi. 

We make it to Tarata. I buy the eye drops, an errand that takes me to every clinic and pharmacy in town— a whopping total of 3. Señor Vildoso invites me to some local fruit, small pears that have an almost fermented taste, but I enjoy them all the more. He pours a jug of gas into the rickety vehicle, buys another half liter, and off we go. He’s warmed up to his role as “tour guide”, which I had jokingly dubbed him with as we shared a soda, and officiously stops for a panoramic view, waiting for me as I get out to take another shot of this spectacular landscape. 

A panorama photo of the mountains taken on a ridge next to Estique Pueblo. Below are terraces of different farms.

As I turn back from the view, Vildoso looks me directly in the eyes. I can see his irises, a dark brown outlined by an ever-growing stark blue, the sign of who-knows-what ailing eye condition. He suddenly launches into a story. Little do I know this will be the first of many on this day.

El cajón

(The Coffin)

Before, in the olden days, when there was no cemetery on the hill of Estique Pueblo and people had very little money for gravestones, the people of Pueblo used a single cajón for all of their burials. They would load the dead up into the box, carry them to a hole dug in the ground where they would then be buried. The cajón was used so often that one day it came to have the power of prediction and would come to visit those who were on the verge of death. It is said that the cajón one day made its way to the policeman of Estique and that the man died, instantaneously, of a heart attack when he saw the cajón right in front of him. 

As we wind back to town, I struggle to hear his second story over the motor:

Los seis caballos blancos 

(The Six White Horses)

Vildoso tells me that six white horses, the horses of the devil, come out of something called the “Portón” late at night, a sort of gate out there somewhere amidst the rocks. These horses run all the way from Estique to the “Quebrada del Diablo” (The Devil’s Pass), a two hour’s journey by car. The place comes with a variety of ghost stories and hauntings to call its own. What these horses do, I am unsure, and Vildoso has no answer for me. 

My curiosity stirred, I ask him about a legend I’ve already heard of, 



In my head I’m picturing dwarves or fairies that I’ve seen in the movies, more or less human but very small. What I don’t expect is to hear his version of what the people in this region call “chinchilícos”.

These duendes are far from humanlike. According to Vildoso, they have pig noses and hooves and dance about in large circles, guarding the long-lost Inkan gold that the last great leaders left hidden in these mountains. They wear a bata, a sack-like cloth. 

How does Señor Vildoso know? He’s seen them, he says to me, a whole group dancing together up on the mountainside. 

I find him suddenly veering off into a story of how he himself found gold once, but the gold is a tricky fiend, alive, and it moves from one storage box to another whenever he has a hankering to sell it. No one believes him so he rarely shares the story of his treasure with others. 

We’re chugging up the final hill when Señor Vildoso cuts the engine. He shows me the Portón, and again, I see nothing. “I met a gringo here”, he tells me, “years ago, when I was a young man. He was walking from here to Argentina.”

Señor Vildoso chatted with the stranger for a while, showed him the supposed Portón, and the stranger took out of his pack the latest camera. Vildoso was intrigued by the camera and asked the foreigner if he could purchase it from him. After taking photos, the stranger finally agreed to not only sell his camera but to develop and share the photos he had taken as well. He would be in Tacna at such-and-such hotel, in such-and-such room number he told Vildoso, waiting for him in the next few days. Vildoso was delighted. He promised the gringo he would be back to show him more of the countryside after lunch, returning with some canchita and queso. But upon returning, the man had disappeared. Unperturbed, Vildoso made his way to Tacna two days later. But upon arriving at the hotel, the owner claimed never to have heard or seen a foreigner with blue eyes. At Vildoso’s insistence, the owner took him to the very room the gringo had promised him he would be waiting in. On opening the door, they were shocked to find, written on the wall:


“Who knows if it was blood or paint,” he says to me.

There is silence. I am not sure what to say. Finally, Vildoso starts the engine once again. Again, he tells me that very few people believe his story. 

Over the next few days, I’ll hear various versions of these legends that clash with the details I heard that clear and crisp afternoon, but the fervor and vividness with which Vildoso shared his stories far outweighs the exactness of the details. For a day, I was lost in the legends of the Sierran countryside, amidst the steep mountains and fragrant eucalyptus trees. 

One of my students stands in the local clinic with a smile on his face, with one eye bandaged.
A bonus photo: My student with his eye patch “like Nick Fury, Miss!”

Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com


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