With the workers and corn fields behind us, we turned left on a path that angled us into some woods. The day wasn’t hot, but the shade was refreshing. Tall, thin trees shot up from the valley below, passed us and stretched high above our heads. The path began to climb, and we started to surmount our first mountain.
Through the vale of flora, the fields of crops continued past us, washing down the valley in a flood of leafy green. Thin brown strips marked property boundaries and modest houses peppered the area around the village, but were more sparse farther down.
We found our way through the patches of woods. Felix stopped after a hill and asked if we wanted to take a break.
“No, we’re good,” we each echoed. Felix stopped anyway and began to tell us about a plant along the path. It was a sort of mint that, when the leaves were rubbed together and smelled, helped altitude sickness, apparently. It did smell minty. Adrian joked that Felix could have just made it up as an excuse to stop. Regardless, it was good to see even the veteran hiker needing to stop. Though, I suppose our enthusiasm was carrying us farther than normal. For him, the routine probably wore early.
Continuing, we walked along the path that snaked counterclockwise across the mountain. It wasn’t especially huge, but the steep draws and spurs were enough for me to crane my neck to take in. What was trippy was the cows and horses grazing on the slopes. How’d they stand up? Must have one set of legs shorter than the other.
After a time, I heard water in the distance. “Is that the river we’re going to cross?” I asked Felix.
“That? No,” he said, laughing.
A few minutes later I laughed too. The rushing torrent I had predicted in my mind turned out to be a modest stream, gorged with rain, plunging down a nearby draw, with a small 10-foot bridge crossing the small divide. The river I had anticipated was much farther away.
Eventually we started to break free of the forest and reached higher ground. As we rotated around the faces of the mountain, we saw more of the neighboring range. The valley fell away farther below us and blended into the distance. Clouds slowly marched through the range, hitting peaks and shifting.
Looking back, I don’t remember the minute-by-minute weather. That’s an unfortunate side-effect to waiting to write. Overall, it was perfect for hiking. The days usually started a little chilly, the nights cool enough to warrant the sleeping bag or long pants but nothing to cold. As the morning grew, there would be some drizzle, sporadic rain and mists. There would be a break around midday, with some clearing of the fog. In the afternoons there would often be another spell of drizzle, enough for a poncho on occasion. Then, in the late afternoon and early evening, things would clear off enough to see the landscape.
I do remember on day one wasn’t overly socked in with clouds. I fancied myself like an adventurer in Tolkien literature, walking and marching for days and weeks, passing the uncountable miles with just a song in my head. Then I fancied myself like an actual adventurer, soldiers or natives of old, traversing mountains and nations by foot. I was struck by how much of our lives is full to the brim with activity. That the prospect of taking days to walk somewhere is so unpleasant. The silence is a hard sound for modern man to hear.
There’d be some jokes, but a lot of the trek that day was left to each of us, our own thoughts and our own experience. I was relatively pain free that day–more would come.
Things began to get a little rocky. It was still relatively flat–obviously climbing, but nothing that drew too much heavy breathing. We got to a couple of lookout points, and Felix talked a bit about the apus and the worship of the mountains. The lookout spots had stone benches and covering, which we used to escape the drizzle and drink some water. Felix pointed to a very distant outcropping and said we’d stop there too. I could see the pavilion-type cover of another lookout point.
Centipedes. Lots of centipedes. They enjoyed the red dirt, apparently. They crossed the path every few feet. For the most part there weren’t too many bugs. Felix said there would be some biting flies closer to the river and our campsite, but that there weren’t too many bugs on higher ground.
We got to the second lookout point and stopped. Felix looked far into the distance and pointed out a stone wall, barely visible. “There. See that? That is Choquequirao. That is where we are going.”
Wow. I could see we were on the wrong mountain.
Looking ahead of us, I saw the path suddenly plunge in a series of sharply cutting switchbacks. Back and forth, back and forth, the dirt path cut a zig-zag swatch through the tall, waving grasses of this face of the mountain. It was serene, the breeze and the shimmer of silver from the lighter heads of grass as the wind sighed against the slope. The path eventually curved left and out of sight.
“There’s the river we will cross,” Felix said.
Sure enough I could hear it, faintly, as loud as the stream was when I first noticed the sound earlier, but, as we were much farther away from the river, I figured the sound would grow a bit louder.
Looking way down the river, I could see a tiny splinter of black crossing the water.
“Is that the bridge?” I asked.
“Umm, yes very far,” Felix said. “We will camp a little higher than the river, to keep away from mosquitoes. Then, tomorrow, we will climb down to the water and cross.”
I visually traced a path from where the bridge hit the far shore and noticed a similar dirt path, going in a zig-zag up the mountain, just like the pattern we were about to walk down on this side of things. I started to count the switch-backs on the far mountain. One, two, three, five, nine, 12, 17, 30. Then I lost sight. It’d be a ways.
We arrived at a small town, which sat on some higher ground in the valley we’d traverse later that day.
I don’t remember the town’s name—and probably never will, since I nearly got lost on the return leg and actually could have used that bit of information. And now, just like when you learn someone’s name incorrectly and forever have doubts whether it is actually “Mike” or “Matt,” despite seeing the poor nameless bastard seven or 20 times, now the small town’s moniker will be forever lost on me, recalled easily enough by my friends, but refusing to stick to my own gray matter.
Anyway, I’m ahead of myself. We pulled in to the town. Quiet. Not another gringo in sight. We were in a genuine Peruvian town. Larger than a village, there was a town center, complete with a church and huge tree that draped the center grass squares and benches in shade.
Several paved roads stretched in a small grid system. On several of the town’s central buildings, a relatively fresh coat of paint shone through the day-to-day accumulated grime. The buildings looked in pretty good shape. It was a town on the cusp of becoming a tourist spot.
We talked with Felix. “How long until XXXXXXX becomes large and built up.”
“Eeeeh,” Felix said, thinking and scratching his head. “Probably a couple years. Then it will be big.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Mmmmm. Both, maybe.”
He went on to talk about the jobs that would come, the money that would come, and left it at that. We could fill in the blanks on the rest: the trash, the peddlers, the cameras, the gawking white people, the removal of the genuine soul of the place.
But that was years away. For the moment, the four of us hung out in the bare-bones home and adjoining office/room/storage area/dining room of the indigenous workers of the trekking company we’d hired for our trip.
We walked around the town for a bit, taking some pictures. No one was on the streets, save for an occasional person with an animal. A few dogs slept along the streets. A kid sat in a nearby doorway, watching. There were a couple chickens too.
I prepared my pack. Got my bag ready for donkey travel. We’d really be pampered this trip. Our cook with his assistant would lead three donkeys with the supplies to the night’s camp site. We’d just have to carry our cameras, water and rain gear—a pretty light load, considering. We kept all of our clothes and extra stuff in the donkey bags. I had a small school book bag for my rain gear, my camelback water backpack, which rode on top piggyback style, and my camera bag at my side.
I also sported a wide-brimmed hat. As a veteran of a few harsh sun burns in my life, I was well averse to that damned fusion explosion in the sky, pouring all manner of life-ending radiation and hurt on the surface of the world.
After a light lunch, we piled our donkey bags onto a tarp and got ready to leave.
I was a strong supporter of walking sticks and Felix had brought two from his personal stash. They were nice—that kind that compressed a bit when you leaned on them. No one else wanted one, initially. Fine by me. I’d keep mine. Eventually, as we started off, Felix handed the remaining one to Adrian, who agreed to take it along. It would be an extra $2 a day to rent it—not a huge amount. Adrian, Sarah and Sean all agreed to shoulder the debt.
The trek started simply enough. We just started walking down the street. I guess I was expecting some sort of starting gun or banner. It seemed sort of anti-climactic to just start walking. But I suppose that’s how all journeys of a 1,000 steps start, blah blah blah. I looked back after a minute, then another, and watched my first reference point—our starting room, blend into the town, then the town itself to begin to shrink.
The paved road stopped, and we were among corn fields, which washed through the valley like a green, leafy river, following the contours of the surrounding mountains and lapping onto the stepper parts.
These Peruvians farmed seemingly impossible slopes, as I’d see much more dramatic examples of later. This stems from the relatively minute percentage of Peruvian land that’s “suitable” for farming, if you can call a 30 percent grade at 4,000 feet still “suitable.” Still, these crazy guys farm and farm.
Passing a gang of tillers, Felix stopped and said hello. There was a car parked on the dirt road with water, it’s hatch back was open and several gas cans sat around the back. Some men hung around the car, but most had their backs to us and they bent to their work, hand tilling the soil, working their way from the road across the large corn field to the mountain a few hundred yards away.
The work slowed as Felix chatted up the…well, I guess foreman, from the looks of things. We were a bit of an oddity—four gringos, especially Sarah, the blond, which even Fodor’s travel guide said was a rare attractive treat for Peru.
One of the men picked up one of the gas cans and poured a yellow thick liquid into a cup for Felix, then beamed as he offered another cupful for the rest of us to try.
“Mmmm,” Felix said, drinking. “It is okay to have only a little. It makes your stomach go…” and he gestured a swirling motion around his abdomen. Felix spoke English well, but he missed out on a larger vocabulary. The swirling gesture was enough to get the point across. “…makes you go to the bathroom,” he eventually completed.
We each took a turn trying it out. Again, I’ve misplaced the name. It wasn’t bad—sort of a corn chowder with vinegar. It was a fermented corn alcohol drink. The bitter metal taste of the cup added a bit of character. Definitely not palpable from a plastic bottle or in large quantities. It’s the sort of drink you need with 20 coworkers in the sweat of the day.
After a few more minutes of talking, we kept on and left the farmers to their chores.
The trek to Choquequirao was the highlight of the trip–the reason for going. Getting to Cuzco was so that we could get to the starting point for the four-day hike in the Andes.
Choquequirao itself was an Incan city built after Manchu Picchu. Whereas Manchu Picchu served as a city for the royal class and a religious center, Choquequirao was an army center in addition to having a royal estate and religious significance. It was built in the final days of the Incan empire, as the Spanish and their allies finished off the Incans.
We would set off from Cuzco on Sunday. Two days there; two days back. It was to be difficult. I’d brought my broken-in combat boots from Iraq–the most comfortable footwear I owned. The idea was that, since I could ruck miles and miles in the things, they’d serve me well on a more vertical hike. Eh. Not so much. More on that later.
A Sunday exit of Cuzco for the trek meant that Saturday night would precede–normally not a huge obstacle. We’d planned on facing it like every other night: by going to bed.
Little did we know the Loki hostel tradition of “80s night” on Saturdays, complete with costumes and good times (i.e. yelling, music and dancing).
It started out innocuous enough at 9 when we tried to go to bed. I dozed for a few minutes. By the time 1:30 a.m. rolled around, however, we had experienced every stomp, song and shout, courtesy of the bar directly above our room.
Four and a half hours of aggravated bed sitting was enough to frustrate me to the point of further insomnia even after the music died down. The eventual snores of my roommates let me know I was missing out on what little sleep I had left. Four forty five would come way too soon, but not so quickly as to curb the exasperated five minute spans between me checking my watch. I think I finally settled down enough to sleep around three or four. I awoke some 20 minutes before the alarm time. I was tired.
We each got up, bitching about the clog dancing they seemed to incorporate into the evening. We brushed by each other, packing the last few things, making sure all of the things we weren’t taking were stowed in our leave-behind bags.
The Loki people opened up the storage room for us and we stowed our bags. We’d be back to the hostel after the trek, made our reservations already. They were nice enough to let us keep our things there.
It was a little chilly. Although summer, the two-mile elevation pushed us up above the outright warmth, leaving residual hints at the season. It was perfect hiking weather–70s-ish through the day, some drizzles and 60s at night, enough for a light jacket. Morning still brought along some of the evening chill, and I was eager to get this thing started.
Eager and nervous. I’m a redhead, computer geek and theater guy, the complete antithesis of outdoors-man. I sunburn, am accident prone, attract mosquitoes like a Red Cross truck, and generally don’t like the prospect of encountering all manner of painful ailments. I also wasn’t a huge hiker. I could run, but I wasn’t conditioned for long-distance trekking. This would be a first for me.
The van that would take us to our starting point eventually appeared at the top of the hostel’s hill.
We hiked up with our packs to a small Hyundai van. The driver was a man by the name of Mario, who spoke a tiny bit of English. Adrian was able to chit-chat a bit in Spanish. Felix, our guide, whom we had met two nights before when he came to the hostel to brief us, was also there; as was Herbert, our smiling cook.
Herbert never spoke any English on our trek, but that man smiled every second of the day. Takes a man touched by God to smile that much, I’d imagine. It was more than just politeness, he hurt my face with his smile so wide. Crazy.
Our trip down the mountains of Cuzco into the mountains near Choquequirao was interesting. The pavement itself was in good shape for the most part. Mountains are temperamental hosts of roads, however. There were some washed-out parts and eroded holes that I said a prayer or two as we slowly plodded through in the laden van.
Three hours…and a half maybe, to the town where we’d meet up with the donkeys and such. Adrian, Sarah, Sean and I all caught naps on the way, taking in the winding hairpin turns up and down the mountains.
Beautiful. Words can’t say. Tuffs of clouds held back the orange wash of sun. Without it, gray light cast a pallid hue on the slopes of dirt and brush. Cacti sprouted up in the upper slopes. The valleys opened up below us in winding channels that wrapped around the mountain like a huge skirt. Rivers ran along the bases–unassuming powerhouses that sculpt the massive mountains. When the sun did burn through, it breathed life into the Andes. The dirt burned brighter and the emerald greens of the bushes, trees and fields also bloomed.
Farmers began to work the slopes. We sped through little villages and towns perched on the slopes along the road. Animals made their way to and fro at their master’s prodding. Life glided on.
(editor’s note: this entry is one of several composed during a recent trip to Peru.)
Jan. 11, 2008
After spending the first four hours of our Peru trek snoozing on the Lima airport floor, we flew to a high-perched clutch of South American culture.
Cuzco, a town in the southeast of Peru. Elevation: 11,000 feet. Very high. Makes Denver seem like the lowlands.
Nestled in the Andes, Cuzco is a city hewn from the hills. There are abundant spans of green—fed by the ample mists and light rains. That said, a lot of the city reminded me of Iraqi towns. The roads were a mixture of old and new, in various stages of disrepair. Dirt, broken curbs and stones collected in sports along the roads like twigs and leaves along a stream. Surprisingly, the roads themselves were pretty smooth and free of trash.
The buildings were a hodge podge of styles and quality—again like Iraq. Some had crappy walls, good windows, maybe a driveway. The mud and grime went up to every door frame.
Our taxi dropped us at the bottom of an impossibly steep cobblestone street. The hostel was up that way, the driver said. Understandably, the taxi would not be attempting the ascent. Common enough, though, a car would barrel down the slope to the intersection at the hill’s base—faith in brakes, I imagine.
The hostel was great. Stepping through the the small, in-cut wooden door of a much larger gate, we entered a lush, green courtyard that was framed by a two-story array of rooms. The far side of the courtyard led to a mirrored copy of this first half.
The whole complex was like a block-letter figure eight, with the center span’s second floor holding two common-area rooms—one bar and one dining room/lounge, the lounge windows providing quite a view of the entire city, as the hostel was so far high on a hill.
The staff was a mixture of locals, some permanent administrative types and several long-term guests, who worked a number of shifts in exchange for free lodging and a meal a day.
Our room was on the first floor of the center span. The bar was directly overhead—a fact that we didn’t mind at first, as things weren’t generally too loud. However, we’d regret out closeness to the party action in nights to come.