I woke at 5 am with severe stomach cramps and diarrhea and proceeded to spend the next two hours on the bathroom floor, chewing Pepto Bismal, suddenly dreading the upcoming 5-hour bus ride that would signal the beginning of our three-day trek through the weaving villages in the central Andes.
I had been acclimating with our group of eight women at the very comfortable Paz y Luz spiritual retreat center in the quaint village of Pisac, Peru. Located at 9,000 feet altitude, Pisac sites at the base of soaring mountains on the side of which a vast complex of Inca ruins lies. From the top of the ruins, one has a tremendous view of the Sacred Valley and the Urubamba River.
Our trekking guide met us with a large van in Pisac and gave me a worried look as I boarded and assured him that although I was quite pale, I’d probably be okay. Our journey into the high country started in Calca, where we stopped at the local market to buy coca leaves, snacks and bottled water.
I spent most of the bus ride up the winding, steeply climbing, narrow mountain road with my head pressed against the seat in front of me willing the contents of my guts to “Be Still,” sort of like how Max tamed the Wild Things with that trick of his.
After 4 hours, we stopped at the weaving outpost of Accha Alta. A couple dozen women, a few children, and one man sat quietly in the courtyard on the ground weaving on hand looms, spinning yarn, or crocheting. The building was absolutely remote and still, surrounded by high peaks and a few grazing alpaca. Finding these Quechua weavers in their traditional dress sitting so quietly working was like walking 500 years into the past, except now their woven goods are sold in Cusco to tourists rather than brought to the storehouses of the Inca Empire.
We purchased beautiful, rough feeling textiles that smelled of dung smoke fires and wool and took lots of photos for which we made a contribution to the general fund. We were lucky to find the weavers at home this day as most days they work in the fields. The peaceful, quiet weavers smiled and seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors. We conversed through our Quechua trekking guide and learned the signals for singles seeking partners: if a woman’s hat is titled to the left, she is single (and to the right, married). I quickly scanned the group and was surprised to discover that many of the young girls in the group were married. The only man present was single as indicated by his fetching hat with long ribbons dangling from it.
One hour further along the road, we arrived at Lares (10,100 ft elev.), a natural, volcanic springs used primarily by the locals given its remoteness. I grabbed my thermarest and slept on the grass beside the springs, so glad to not be moving.
Our porters set up our tents beside the pools, and we had our first dinner “on the trail” inside the “dining” tent. I’ve done a lot of backpacking, and this was definitely gourmet: having my tent set up for me and a wonderful meal of fresh fish and potatoes cooked poolside! Wow!
We soaked and relaxed and turned in early. Around 2 am, I woke confused about the time because men, women and children were sitting in the pools, talking, laughing, drinking and carrying on as if there were no tomorrow. Apparently, a holiday at the hot springs is a time for celebration. No sense wasting any of it on sleeping!
The next morning, the members of our group complained bitterly about “Julio.” Confused, I asked, “Who is Julio?” No one knew. They guessed he was an errant child who could not be reined in by his parents and disturbed the sleep of all by forcing his family members to yell, “Julio! Julio!” all night long. Groggily, we packed our gear which was loaded up on several horses who would accompany us along with three porters, a cook, and our charming guide, Domingo. We crossed a small bridge over the river besides the hot springs and officially began the first day of our trek.
Along the trail, we passed through many outcroppings of stone houses among the numerous potato fields with ubiquitous lama and alpaca. We ran into a few boys pushing inner tubes with sticks and two girls walking hand-in-hand down a steep hill. Most of the homes in the valley were built using uncut stone and thatched roofs and were incongruous to the perfectly manicured soccer field nestled in between the potato fields.
Our first day of trekking took us about 2.5 miles to the small weaving village of Huacahuasi at 12,300 feet. We camped near the village and bought more hats, gloves and other weavings and headed out early the next day in the golden morning sun to hike over Huacahuasijasa Pass (14,765 feet elev.). The going was sloooow as several in our group came from sea level and struggled with the altitude. Compared to Colorado, it wasn’t too hard for me, and chewing coca leaves seemed to help with energy.
We were greeted halfway through our day’s hike by three young women at the side of the trail who appeared out of nowhere (two wearing their hat to the right and one to the left) with an assortment of Inka Cola, lemon Fanta, and beer along with woven goods. I purchased one large tapestry and relaxed sipping an Inka Cola and talking to the two married girls (ages 14 and 16) while the rest of the group caught up.
Just before the pass, a storm came in, and we were whipped with wind and rain. Lightening and thunder bounced off the nearby cliffs, and we hustled as much as one can hustle up a 15K pass. Two women got on the horses, so we could avoid getting stuck in the storm. At the top of the pass, we were greeted by the stunning view of Laguna Aruraycocha, a large glacier fed lake. We descended quickly and made it down just a hail storm cut loose above us.
We rounded the lake and descended to the beautiful Laguna Millvococha, where we camped at 13,900 feet. The night was cold and windy. I wore all of my clothes and shivered all night long. In the morning, we celebrated the last day of our trek with a cake baked by our cook. A cake! Baked at ~14K feet, with meringue frosting! We all felt a bit light headed and were eager to get down.
We descended through a rare Polylepis forest which is now protected by conservation efforts in Peru. Only 10% of the original forests remain. In the Polylepis forest there are 20 evergreen tree species that are characterized by gnarled shapes as in the photos above. The trees have a thick and dense laminated bark with small green and gray leaves. Loss of high mountain forests is considered the major cause of water scarcity in many parts of the Andes. The trees grew symbiotically with other plants growing in and around them including Peru’s national flower the orange Cantuta.
We finished our trek at the village Yanahuara, where we had a quick lunch besides a field of cows. We climbed aboard a van and headed to one of the many Chicherias marked by a red flag hanging on a stick outside the front door or window indicating that the chicha (a fermented corn drink) was ready to drink. The chicheria offered a variety of popcorn and drink samples, and we placed a few bills in a container (payment is by way of love offering) and hustled onto Ollantaytambo where we would catch the Vista Dome train to Aquas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu.
Read the next step in my Peruvian journey: Pablo Neruda’s Machu Picchu.