We left for our trek at 4:15am in total darkness, the lights of Cusco City’s hillsides twinkling as we wove our way down from the slope that our hotel was on, through Cusco’s valley and up into the highlands. Roving packs of dogs were virtually the only creatures up and about on the city streets at that time.
We came to a rougher area of Cusco on the outskirts of the city (see the photo below, taken on a different day, going through the same area). An area where people had flocked years ago to escape the Shining Path rebels, it is an area of extreme poverty, now run by remnants of the Shining Path who are into the cocaine trade. Full of unfinished, adobe mud brick buildings with sheet metal roofs, it is a dirty, poverty-filled place. A very dangerous area, it is not a place you want to stop in the day, let alone under cover of darkness.
With no explanation, our vehicle pulled to the side of the road, the window was rolled down to a weaving man on the street, an exchange took place, and the drunk man got into the van. We could smell the alcohol fumes wafting off him from where we were seated in the back of the van. There was a bit of quiet murmuring between him and the driver and we were off again.
We had no idea what was going on. With visions of Shining Path rebels and South American tourist kidnappings going through my head, I was very nervous and on high alert. Those fears were heightened by the fact that our driver and guide were not talking to us, not explaining anything. We just weren’t sure what was going down.
We drove him about 10 blocks until we found a taxi driver asleep in his car. Our driver hopped out, knocked on the window repeatedly to wake him up, gave him some cash and directions and put the drunk guy in the car.
Of course, as with most things in life, it wasn’t what it first appeared to be. There was no reason to be afraid. There was no nefarious plot happening. We found out later that first, our guide was a young guy and very sleepy and uncommunicative in the wee hours of the morning; second, our driver didn’t speak English so he couldn’t explain what was going on; and third, the driver was doing a very kind, altruistic thing. The man that he picked up was another driver for the company who, on his day off, had gotten quite drunk and wound up in the wrong place. Fearing for his safety (our guide explained later that they were worried he would get stabbed), they saw him at the roadside, picked him up, and then put him in a cab and sent him back home.
As the sun rose, and daylight began to open up the scenes unfolding before us, we found ourselves entering an incredible mountain pass on a road full of tight switchbacks. We passed many Quechua people on their way to the fields: very, very small people, they had, dark, cinnamon-coloured weathered skin and thick woolen clothing for the cold mountain air. The women wore woollen leggings, heavy woven skirts, brightly coloured blanket shawls and the strangest tall bowler-style hats. They were sporting machetes, baskets, pick axes or hoisting large, brightly coloured woven sacks on their backs. It felt like we had entered another world… and we were foreign giants in it.
When we got through the mountain pass, we were perched high above a steeply cut valley with a gorge on one side of us and a patchwork of brown, tan and rust coloured terraced fields on the other. Farmers were already out in the fields at day break.
It was such a beautiful drive The colours of the landscape, the pastoral scenes, the steep drop offs with the Rio Blanco far below and the hundreds of switchbacks we took set the stage for our adventure to come.
Once off the main road, our route took us on twisting and turning roads through the countryside that were at times wide enough only for the passage of one car at a time. To drive this, our driver went cautiously, honking his horn before every corner to warn oncoming vehicles that we were approaching. With no guard rails and steep drop offs plunging several hundred meters down, the road was bumpy and the twists & turns a bit nausea-inducing.
We took a break at a small mountain town called Mollepata (pronounced “moy-ya-pat-a”). There we picked up a few supplies, had a spot of breakfast, and met up with our horseman for the trek, who happened to live in that town.
A picturesque location, the town was high up in the mountains (2,900m or 9,514′) and the conditions were so arid that there were cacti growing along the roadside ditches and fence lines.
A woman in the main square of the town was selling grass for the guinea pigs. We saw this quite a bit in Cusco, and in the towns of the Sacred Valley. People throughout Peru raise guinea pigs for food, and they buy their guinea pig food from roadside vendors like this.
The road, a kind of dirt track, left the town and climbed higher and higher up switchbacks, heading toward the staging area where we would begin hiking, and pick up our horses. Some of the switchbacks required coming to a complete stop, cranking the steering wheel all the way to one side, and then maneuvering up the steep track. The skill of our driver was quite something.
As we drove higher, along a road that clung to the mountainside with edges that plunged down to the valley floor below, the air got a little thinner and the light became increasingly intense. This would be our reality for the next couple of days (we had terrific weather for our trek).
It took us about two and a half hours to get to our trailhead, leaving Cusco at 4:15 am… one of many super-early morning starts to follow. We were dropped off at the side of the road, and began hiking up into the hills. We would be hiking up from this road to a farm track and then to a trail that would lead us toward the trekking base camp at Soraypampa.
For the trek, we carried just day packs with whatever we’d need for the hiking through the day’s advntures (rain gear, snacks, lots of water, layers of clothing, camera gear, etc.). The horses would be carrying our extra clothes and gear and things we’d need each night, along with whatever food the cook would need to feed us 3 meals a day for 5 days.
Our initial trail followed an ancient Incan irrigation channel that is still used to this day by the farmers on the slopes below. It brings glacier water down into the agricultural channels, originally built by the Incas and still in use by the Mollepata-area farmers to this day.
It was a very gentle start to the trek. Being mostly flat, it allowed us to get our altitude legs, heads, hearts and lungs under us. The next day, we would be going up and over the shoulder of that snowy mountain in front of us.
Soon we dropped down into a quaint valley with stone fences and small buildings, rustic stick & barbed wire fences, and an incredibly dramatic mountain backdrop.
We arrived there at lunch, got settled in and then went out to do an acclimatizing hike. Day One was really our training day, the day where we tested our bodies to see where we fared in the game of high altitude roulette. You see, there’s no way of predicting how you will do at altitude: young or old, fit or unhealthy, thin or overweight, there’s just no telling who will succumb and who will thrive.
That afternoon, our acclimatization hike took us to a nearby mountain lake to try to get used to hiking up something steep, at altitude. It was a test of sorts for our guides to see how we’d do, exerting ourselves on a significant uphill, so that they could see what our pace and fitness level would be like for climbing up to the 4630m (15,190′) pass the next day… and whether or not we’d be one of the trekkers, having to do the “ride of shame” on horseback, rather than on foot, up and over the pass the next day.
A stimulant, coca is used in two forms to help you get through the effects of altitude on your body’s system: you can drink it as a tea, which is like a very mild, pleasant-tasting, Japanese green tea; or you can take about 6 to 10 leaves, put them in the pocket between your cheek and your teeth on one side of your mouth, let them sit there and soften for 10 to 15 minutes, and then slowly chew them.
Not at all unpleasant, you keep chewing them, and spitting out their pieces, a bit like chewing tobacco I would imagine. I’m not sure what there is in it that protects teeth and enamel, but according to some of the Peruvians we talked to, the reason elderly Peruvians have such fantastic teeth has everything to do with their habit of chewing coca leaves.
The immensity of the setting, the gigantic moraine piles, the gorgeous aqua and sapphire colours of the lake itself, set off by the colossal, dark cliffs and the thick, imposing glacier… it was like Lake Louise on steroids. Without the people.
While there, we sat and watched as clouds poured in over the mountain top, billowing and rolling and then disappearing before our very eyes into thin air. It was a magical moment. Far down in the valley, cows and horses grazed on the Andean grass in a primitive pasture with stone fences. From our lofty perch on the lip of that moraine, it felt like we were peering far back in time.
Whatever the colours are in this landscape, we just don’t have them in our mountains: there are combinations of black, gold, green and brown, combined with the haze of the altitude and the brightness and intensity of the light, the howl of the wind and the rippling of the Andean grass, it was like nothing we’ve seen before.
A successful training hike under our belts, we were ready to fuel up with food and sleep, and get ready to take on what would be the hardest challenge of our trek: summiting the Salkantay Pass on the next day’s hike.
When the sun set, the winds picked up and the temperatures plummeted. Boy did we need those igloos over us! Wearing all my layers, a wool toque, thick socks, down mitts and a fleece liner in my down sleeping bag, I was SO cold that night!
The stars at night were so fantastic, seen through that glass roof! It was a great end, to a long day. And we fell asleep very quickly, looking out over the valley that we’d be exploring the next day!
Trekking up a mountain’s shoulder, hiking through a flowering alpine meadow, snowshoeing through a dense pine forest, or taking in the 360 degree views from a ridge top vantage point make me feel alive. The experiences in these places give me a profound sense of space and place.
Travel does a similar thing, pushing me out of my comfort zone, exposing me to new experiences, new people and new ways of thinking; it also gives me that sense of space and place in this world.
I believe that life is lived in the contrasts: when you experience simplicity and complexity and life's ups and downs, whether they be physically in this world or mentally in your own personal inner landscape, you know that you are truly living.
The bigger they are, the more there is to explore!