It turns out that buying a donkey in Peru is not the easiest thing to do. Which, if you have ever been to Peru, may surprise you. Donkeys are everywhere. More ubiquitous than the llama, almost as common as the cow, donkeys are used on every trek and they can be found in every field.
Understandably, after a year of living in close contact with Peruvian farmers and their donkeys, I came to the conclusion that buying one would be a simple task.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Buying a donkey took me 4 weeks from the day I started looking.
Okay, so why on earth was I trying to buy a donkey in the first place?
My then partner and I had this crazy idea to walk across Peru from the ocean to the Amazon. But we really didn’t fancy carrying all our supplies on our backs. So we decided to buy a donkey to help us out.
The mission started when we arrived in Chimbote in late August, 2015. Chimbote is a fairly large port city in Peru. We got a room in a small hospedaje, the cheapest version of a hotel in Peru, and went out to get a feel for the town.
Her shock was plain to see. Not in Chimbote, she told us, incredulous, but outside in the chakras (farm fields) in a town called Santa. But, she warned us, donkeys were very expensive, 2,500 soles, or about $700… WAY more than we wanted to pay.
Still, it was our first lead. So off we went next day to Santa, a smaller much more agricultural town outside of Chimbote. We soon found an agricultural products store and asked them, Busco un burro? Donde se vende? (I’m looking for a donkey, where are they sold?)
Our timid questioning was met with much belly slapping hilarity. Not in Santa! This is a town! Silly gringos, go out to the chakras!
Into a moto and out to the rural area we went. And that was how we found ourselves standing in a deserted collection of 5 mudbrick houses. No one around. Donkeys in all the open spaces. I could just see the tumble weed floating by in the distance.
What was there to do? We didn’t know, so we walked down the street until we found someone. Eventually we ran into a guy using an ox to plow his field so he could plant his quinoa. He said he might know a guy with a donkey and calls a friend. Pretty quickly we get the standard response ‘nooo, no hay’ (There aren’t any).
Why do we want one? He askes. And we explain that we are looking for a donkey to carry our stuff from the ocean, across the desert, up and over 2 mountain ranges, and out into the Amazon jungle.
He looks alarmed.
No, these donkeys, he tells us, are burros costeños (coastal donkeys). A walk like that would kill them. They aren’t made for carrying heavy things.
Well there was the crux of our mistake. We had been living high up in the mountains near Cusco, where all the donkeys were hearty mountain donkeys. We had completely forgotten to take into account the fact that coastal donkeys would be as ill equipped for high altitude life as we were.
We decide, with much trepidation, to complete stage one of our walk, across a desert and over one 4,800m (15,700ft) mountain pass, without donkey.
Probably the most painful decision of my entire life. I was committing myself to two weeks of walking through unforgiving terrain with up to 50 pounds on my back.
14 days later and we’d made it to the end of stage 1 and the bustling metropolis that is Huaylas, Peru.
Did I say bustling metropolis? No sorry, I meant completely dead mountain town.
Huaylas, which had been our mecca for 2 weeks, is a ghost town. The tiendas are empty. There is one hotel and we appear to be the only guests. The market has one lady in it who, at 2pm, doesn’t appear to be serving lunch.
Having placed all our hopes on this town as our best option to buy food and a donkey: we despair.
But over the next 4 days, this ghost town slowly comes to life around us and I begin to love it.
The one lady who works in the market is Maria and she becomes our biggest supporter in town. Every day she makes us breakfast and asks how the donkey search is going.
On day 2, Maria calls up her son, and he and his cousin take us up into the mountains to several villages, asking around for a donkey. We head up to tiny rural communities without cars and ask everyone we see if they have donkeys available. We are greeted by a chorus of ‘nooo, no hay’. But to give our guide, Ibo, credit, he never gives up and even commiserates with us: que hacemos? (What are we going to do?) I had this beautiful sense that we were his friends and he was going to help us until the very end.
On day 3, Maria takes us herself through town to ask some friends about donkeys. Even when we are away, she goes by herself to a different pueblo and actually finds someone willing to sell a donkey to us.
Not to mention Maria is incredibly kind, friendly, and welcoming. Her help turned Huaylas from a ghost town to a living Peruvian community of which we are briefly a part.
On Day 2 in the morning, before Ibo can take us up to the mountain villages, we take a walk through Huaylas and up to the next town, passing through all the farm fields in between. We speak with everyone who crosses our path. People ask us where we are staying so they can find us if they do find a donkey. A man offers to sell us his, but he wants 800 soles, still way more than we are willing to pay.
Day 3 of the Huaylas search was the day of success. After Maria took us to meet her friends without success, we went back and asked the man who owned our hotel if he knew anyone. He turned out to be yet another incredibly helpful and friendly character from Huaylas.
And so we are off again, following señor through the town to the house of a woman who may own a donkey. Well, she doesn’t know of anyone, we get another ‘noooo, no hay’ and are about to give up, when a tiny campesiña woman walks by and our host calls out to her. Asking, does she know anyone who wants to sell a donkey?
For the first time, we don’t hear ‘nooo, no hay’ Instead, as if in a dream, I hear her say, my mother wanted to sell hers, let me call her.
Her mother is an 88 year old Peruvian woman who is as small as child, but tough as nails and sweet as sugar. She says yes, she has a donkey, a female, who is made to carry things through the mountains, and she would like 250 soles for her.
Off we go with Felicity, not the 88 year old mother, but the daughter. She takes us down ‘just 15 minutes’ to the chakra where the donkey lives.
And the donkey is perfect. She is sweet, mild tempered, with healthy teeth, healthy feet, a good weight, and a clean, healthy coat of hair. I couldn’t be happier.
We work out the details with Felicity and head back up towards town. I expect it to be the end of it, but no. Felicity takes us into her home and makes us a delicious lunch from scratch. Canchita (peruvian toasted corn), a pea soup, and a vegetarian dish of veggies and potatoes over rice. During all of this she tells us about her life, raising a daughter by herself, making sure her daughter stayed in school. Her problems with monkey and her life struggles. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in Peru.
And after lunch? She has us help her herd her sheep down to the fields below town.
And that is how you buy a donkey in Peru.