Ever been legally exported by Peru—potential purchasers should exercise the greatest caution, demanding a complete legal pedigree for any such items for sale. MOST PEOPLE would expect Peru’s parched coast to be a jungle, like the Pacific coasts of Colombia and northern Ecuador. One reason for the anomaly: the Peru (Humboldt) Current, which flows northward from the Antarctic, working a sea change over virtually everything. Surface winds chilled by the ocean are trapped beneath the warmer air above the coast, thus inhibiting rainfall. From the east the Andes block rain-laden clouds coming out of the steaming Amazon basin. The result: Most of the coast records only a few inches of rain in each decade, if that.
Prevailing winds from the south drive surface waters offshore, causing cold water to up well from the ocean depths. The plankton that permeate these waters attract vast swarms of small fish called anchovetas, or anchovies, which in turn attract millions of seabirds, whose droppings over the centuries coated offshore islands with guano hundreds of feet thick. A century ago, before the wide-scale use of man-made fertilizers, guano was the primary export of Peru. More recently, Peruvians turned to catching the anchovetas themselves for use as fish meal to be sold as animal feed. Never known as world-class fishermen, Peruvians, by the early 1960s, surpassed Japan, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to rank as the leading fishing nation.
But overfishing combined with warm-water invasions of the cold upwellings have lately caused the whole web to unravel. By the early 1970s the anchovetas had diminished drastically, as had most of the seabirds that lived on them. Peru’s fish-meal industry suffered a near collapse. While sharp restrictions on fishing have revived anchovy stocks somewhat, only time will tell if they can restore themselves to their previous numbers. ALL NIGHT LONG the dogs barked in Ayacucho. An old saying has it that dog’s bark the night before an earthquake—which only added to my sleeplessness that Good Friday morning.
I had arrived the previous evening in this city of the Andes, noted for its Holy Week ceremonies, after a battering 12-hour drive up from Maracas on the coast. Along precipitous dirt tracks hardly wider than our little Toyota Land Cruiser, my guide, Tony Luscombe, and I had snaked ever upward from sea-level desert to ear-popping Andean heights above 15,000 feet. Several times downward-hurtling buses and trucks had loomed suddenly out at us from around blind mountain curves.
Damage in the city itself was slight, unlike the nearby villages where eight persons were killed by the quake and a dozen more were injured.time Tony had somehow managed to swerve away from onrushing traffic without plunging us thousands of feet into the beautiful chasm we could see below. Crosses routinely set up at curves marked points where unluckier travelers had made that final plunge.
Fortunately, I’d been too sick to pay close attention. A cold chicken sandwich, eaten in Paracas the night before, had set off a tumult in my insides. Compounding my problem was soroche—altitude sickness—a constellation of miseries including dizziness, headache, fever, and stomach-curdling nausea. Now, wrapped like an Inca mummy in my sweat-soaked bed sheets, I roused to a knock at my hotel-room door. It was one of the bellboys, bearing a cup of coca-leaf tea—a popular antidote for soroche.