Colibrí in the Peaks

Originally published on March 18, 2016 on the Where There Be Dragons “Field Notes Board” at

My own breath surprised me with its fluidity; I hadn’t known I was suffocating. Air here is untainted with the slow, lush movements of the jungle and the mountains spring up gasping for it, shunning excess oxygen back down into the green valleys of sloths and mosquitoes. I am ashamed of my inability to exist in the jungle and my absolute, pitiful surrender at the slightest urging of an ant. The rainforest is vibrant and fertile to a fault. Mystical quests and astonishing, surreal animals seemingly lifted from the pages of magical realism make sense when placed between the wrist-thin vines and centenarian trunks of intimidation. Hidden behind great banana leaves, though, are the trials of the jungle we can’t prepare for from books, that require a certain strength of character I’m dismayed to find I don’t readily embody.

In the mountains it’s hard to contemplate the complexities of the jungle. Ausangate, the Sacred Peak, stands vigilant, splendid in its Quechua namesake of untouched snow. I find a small hillside above the lookout point in the compact Andean town of Ocongate and scramble up the scree-covered slope. Tiny alpine flowers greet me between the rocks and patches of hard earth, laughing at my ragged breath enticed by tens of thousands of feet of altitude and magnificence. Even on the bus, when I caught glances out the window between the worst of Hollywood dubbed in dramatized Spanish, I was overcome by alternating flutters of excitement and relief. Green, stony hillsides striped by Incan ruins grew beside us as we climbed, lifting us closer to Hanan Pacha, the world above the earth, and tranquility and thin air. Once the bus deposits us on the side of the road in Ocongate with one backpack too many, we meet Siwarq’ente, or Fabian, our guide to the relatively untouristed and untarnished magic of the Andes. The two of us connect instantly. Maybe it’s his generous, unguarded smile or the fact that I’ve grown accustomed to introducing myself by my middle name, Sol, meaning sun in Spanish and offering me a slight pathway past my face value of just another gringa with a name that’s difficult to pronounce. Siwarq’ente kisses my cheek and calls me Inti, the Quechua word for sun. His own Quechua name means hummingbird, or colibrí, and I show him the tiny silver hummingbird earring perched on my left ear. He grins and points at himself.

The following day we eat breakfast and lunch together, and he helps me pick a restaurant for dinner. Siwarq’ente rides a red bicycle through town and passes me no less than five times throughout the day, somehow always managing to show up right on time for a meal or a quick laugh. Thick black hair with few clandestine strands of silver and unrelenting mischief constantly playing in his eyes belies his fifty years, but I can tell that more wisdom than I can envision is harbored within Siwarq’ente’s dynamic impression. On the way back from our preliminary ceremony recognizing Ausangate, we laugh and plan a secret hike across the ridge line that we will soon divulge to the rest of the group. Notes on a wooden flute dance from his lips on the path down from the lookout, converting a minor excursion into a sacred pilgrimage. I have no reservations following this hummingbird.

Alone on my short hike to the cross looming over the city, I stand with my hair whipping and the sun piercing easily through the fine-combed air. The ridge extends forever and my mind with it. Brown-roofed buildings below are becoming when ringed by the green and blue sloping mountains joined in the center by the great Ausangate. I feel the Rikuna, the spirits of the land, rippling through that intoxicating mountain air and the voices of the Incas are unmistakeable. The Quechua phrase for ‘thank you,’ Urpichay sonqoy, means “my heart flutters like a dove.” My entire being agrees and I’m pretty sure it’s not just the altitude.