Pilgrims find peace in Andean peaks

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      We're looking for Aconcagua. The highest peak in the Americas, it's the one we expect will stick straight up from the rest. But it's hard to see. An hour outside Santiago de Chile, dusk settled on the cacti and roadside vendors selling apples and huge avocados. By the time our car started climbing steep switchbacks, it was already dark. Roberto drives carefully, pulling into the other lane to pass transport trucks that flash their left lights, signalling us to go ahead. I pull out my camera to try to press this vast shadowy landscape into a box. I can't do it.

      Soon we arrive at the border with Argentina. The other six vehicles in our convoy pass through customs and wait for us. With signs on all our cars showing our final destination–Parque Punta de Vacas–we are processed quickly. When we burst out of the bunkerlike building, the full moon hangs above us, illuminating the grey ribbon of highway leading deep into the valley between the Andean peaks.

      From here, it's an easy 10-minute drive to Puente del Inca and 10 minutes further to Los Penitentes, small settlements in this remote area nearly 3,000 metres above sea level. Along with thousands of others from around the world, we are staying in the area for a pilgrimage to open the park, a place of reflection and study dedicated to the ideal and practice of active nonviolence, built by Silo (born Mario Rodriguez Cobos) and those involved in Silo's Message and the Humanist Movement.

      Nearly 40 years ago, the military dictatorship in power at the time told Silo, a writer, philosopher, and organizer of the then-emerging Humanist Movement, to go and "talk to the rocks". He did. On May 4, 1969, hundreds arrived at Punta de Vacas to listen to "The Healing of Suffering", the speech that launched the movement. These days, the grassroots volunteer movement for personal and social change is active in over 100 countries, working for a world where human beings are given a higher value than money, the state, religion, and the system at large. In 2001, Silo left the movement to start Silo's Message, a spiritual current based on nonviolence, diversity, and the ancient human search for the profound.

      The event we're here for is the first worldwide gathering of Humanists at Parque Punta de Vacas. Some 6,000 people have come to take part in three days of spiritual inspiration in the Andes, with the theme of reconciliation. It is an opportunity to turn one's attention to the internal through meditation ceremonies and discussions. Many of us are also excited to visit with Silo and to hear him speak, including my friend Roberto Verdecchia, who has been in the movement for 18 years, since he was a teenager.

      "Silo is inspiring. He's been a constant voice of nonviolence, of humour, of compassion, and also rebellion and action for all these years, and people turn to him as a kind of guide not only for social action but also deeper questions of one's personal life," Roberto says. "And because he has only spoken publicly from Punta de Vacas three times before in nearly 40 years, it's a special opportunity to hear him here, where it all began."

      Silo isn't a guru. Each person must find his or her own truth, he has always said. On the first day, he suggests that we take note of our dreams and the memories and thoughts that arise in order to learn something about ourselves and what we need to reconcile. That night I have a dream that there are ghosts in my childhood home.

      In this location of wide valleys and high peaks coloured orange and blue and green and grey, it is easy to become contemplative, whether one takes part in a pilgrimage or not. Condors sweep through the sky above a unique geography. At Punta de Vacas, three rivers and three mountain ranges converge. And then there's Aconcagua. At nearly 7,000 metres above sea level, the mountain inspires great emotion.

      "People cry at the summit," says Sgt. Pedro Rodriguez, a member of the Argentine military and a guide for climbers. "There is so much effort and then it's so beautiful, they cry."

      Rodriguez lives on the military base in Puente del Inca, where we're staying. This tiny village has a couple of shops and restaurants and a line of craft vendors leading to the town's claim to fame, a natural stone bridge over the Rio Mendoza. Across the compound, a hotel called the Compania de Caza is often booked solid during the summer months of December, January, and February, when climbing is in full swing.

      Many expert climbers see Aconcagua as a must-do ascent, but "even inexperienced mountaineers can make some of the journey," according to Lieut. Raoul Vege. From this village, guides bring groups on a two-day journey to Plaza de Mulas (Place of Donkeys), where they leave the animals before continuing the trek to base camps below the permanent snow line, he explains.

      But for some, the journey to the summit does not end successfully. In a wide valley off the highway, the graves of climbers crowd together in a lonely cemetery. A ragged pair of shoes sits on the final resting place of Korean Joon-Ho Kang, who reached the summit in 1998, only to die on descent. Nearby, Newell Bent Junior from Massachusetts was buried, after succumbing in 1936. The marker on the grave of Brazil's Mozart Catao, who died in 1998, reads: "God let him rest in the mountains, having with him the frozen flag of his nation."

      For us, it is enough to simply see the mountain. A few kilometres east of Puente del Inca, a road leads into Parque Provincial Aconcagua, a 71,000-hectare park. Here, an educational trail with placards leads along a rushing river, toward the distant snow-covered peak. We walk the path, chatting easily. Our ascent is figurative–a climb out of the confusion of the everyday into a deeper understanding of ourselves.

      This understanding comes partly through the ceremonies on the second day. Meant to open each building within the park, they also enable us to touch something deep inside of us. To open the hall, we ask sincerely from our hearts that pilgrims connect with their silent interior, their mental peace, and reach a reconciliation with themselves.

      That evening, I order milky South American coffee and write down thoughts I've had about struggles and resentments that have floated to the surface over the past two days.

      On the final day, after the closing ceremony, I climb to Lookout Point. The path rises in lazy switchbacks, leading to a platform where pointy orange flags snap in the wind. Below, the Rio Tupungato shines in the sun, threading its way between mountains that stand like giants. Something inside me has shifted in this otherworldly place, revealing some ghosts, laying others to rest.

      ACCESS: Future pilgrimages will be held at Parque Punta de Vacas in the Southern Hemisphere's summer (December to March). All those who believe in nonviolence are welcome to attend. For detailed information about upcoming events and the park, including accommodations, visit www.parquepuntadevacas.org/ .

      Rates at the Compania de Caza are between US$10 and $25 per night, including breakfast. The hotel can be reached at (54) 02624-420430 or (54) 02624-420338. Reserve two months before you plan to visit.

      Fernando Grajales Expeditions ( www.grajales.net/ ) and Aconcagua Express ( www.aconcagua-express.com/ ) provide expeditions and guiding services for climbing and trekking in the area.