Mike knocks on my door at 6am. Felix, our guide, knocks on the hostal door at 6:30am. We pile into a taxi, a stationwagon, that takes us five minutes down the narrow cobble to the Plaza San Blas. Our mini-bus is waiting. Peeling green paint beneath half a Toyota symbol. We shove our duffels and daypacks in the back, balancing everything so it won`t fall out when we close the hatch. There are enormous mesh bags strapped to the roof. A propane tank, a blue and white cooler, the Apus Peru logo. This is the name of our guide company, Apus Peru. Mike, Kelly and I squeeze into open seats. There are three unfamiliar faces. Two are Peruvian: our cook, Alfredo, and his assitant, Tigre. The other face is red and clean shaven with too much chin. He introduces himself as Eric, tells us he`s from Montreal. A late minute addition to the trek. Now there are six of us. The Australians, Kate and Patrick, meet us in the Plaza Armas. With the addition of their bags, the mini-bus becomes tight but bearable. It is a four hour drive to the town where we will start our trek.
When we arrive we are told to explore the village while our lunch is being prepared. From the cement and plaster hillside the frigid slopes of the nearest Cordillera reflect the lingering sunshine. The range is splayed out before us, creating a sublime setting for our icebreaking conversations. The Australians smoke cigarettes and wear dark glasses, but are friendly enough. As it turns out, Kelly used to know Patrick from her year of study abroad in Australia. He was a friend of her boyfriend at the time. This insane, small-world connection amazes all of us. As we eat sauteed chicken breast with french fries and white rice, we talk with Felix about today`s hike. His English is mispronounced and occasionally difficult to understand, but his vocabulary is vast. The hike today will take five hours. After about an hour of flat, we will be going mostly downhill. I ask for more mayonaise.
Mules pass us on the trail. They are loaded with our tents, duffels, food. Their grey haired flanks are soaked in sweat. They drag their toes, their hooves, over the dusty trail. We stand on the high side to let them pass. A tall narrow Peruvian with more gums than teeth smiles as he passes us, nods his head. The caboose conductor does the same as he shoos the mule train along. We follow after them at a much slower pace, avoiding the fresh piles of dung.
The valleys are emerald cities. At the base lies the white destruction of the Apurimac River. Purple lupins dot the edges of the trail. Long Agave cactus spill forth from orange chunks of earth. Our respective hiking speeds slowly seperate us. Eric runs down the trail in his street shoes, wearing headphones and carrying a single green walking stick. The Australians lag behind but never stop their deliberate pace. Mike, Kelly and I fill in the middle. Felix, also know as Gato, remains close behind or ahead of us, depending on if his shoes are tied. The two of us walk together for a while, talking in Spanish. He tells me about the corruption in the Peruvian national soccer team. He thinks that they may have a chance to get into the World Cup after this one. 2014. Thats a long time to wait.
At a rest stop, he points towards a snow covered mountain in the distance. It is an Apu. Apu means snow covered peak in the Inca language and he describes it as if the mountain is a grandfather. His words are full of respect, almost spiritual. Mike, Kelly and I split a chocolate bar, take some photos, continue descending. The constant rock-dodging wears on my feet. We apply bug juice to prevent miniscule black flies from feasting on our sweet European blood. Regardless, Mike and I have elbows speckled with red lumps. Kelly`s legs are glowing constellations. By the time we reach the campspot, the sun has hidden behind the towering hillsides. We stretch our weary muscles.
A heaping plate of popcorn greets us at the dinner table. The six of us devour it in less than ten minutes. We are also treated to tea or coffee and crackers as we wait for the main course. First we are served a steaming bowl of soup. Then a heaping plate of meat, vegetables and, of course, white rice. Everything is followed by another round of tea. We retire to our tents hydrated, full and exhausted. Tomorrow, we are told, will be the hardest day of the trek. I fall asleep anxious and excited.
We descend an hour to the edge of the boiling Apimurac. The apus of the Cordillera Villcabamba are no longer visible, only the steep, moss-filled rock and dense shrubs of the valley walls. We cross the river on a small orange suspension bridge that hangs high above the angry water. The power of the tumbling liquid is incomprehensible. Mike and I can barely hear each other`s words as we stare between our feet. “Imagine kayaking that shit,” I say.
“I can`t,” he replies.
The moment we step onto solid ground we are climbing. The trail switchbacks steeply for almost four hours. We are in Inca territory now. The river creates the separation between the outlying villages of Cusco and the realm of the final Incas.
Occasional clouds provide a respite from the sweat inducing sun. Droplets land on my shoe tops as I climb. For the first three hours, I am in a rhythm. Theighs churn over stones. Breaths bounce off the beats of my heart creating music that my entire body follows. This machine is efficient, but it is not sustainable. The packet of cookies and the banana that the cooks gave us to carry on the hike isn`t enough to keep me going. I begin stopping every few minutes to rest. Mike eventually catches up to me and we plod on together, discussing summertime in the Northwest, our future plans, the imminent return to Western society. It makes the time pass and we soon reach a grassy plataue where the mules are grazing.
Lunch and rest replenishes our energy. We are worried about Kate and Patrick. We have rested for almost two hours before Felix arrives and tells us that they are 45 minutes behind him. But they are making it, just going slow. We decide to continue hiking. Eric has already ran off towards the campsite. His speed, among other things, has earned him the nickname Puma. For us, this trek is not a race, and we have fun pointing out birds, flowers and butterflies to each other along the way. Still, the sun is high and we still have another few hours of hiking to go. We saddle our spines with shoulder straps and trudge on.
From the high ridgeline we have a perfect view of the terraces. Row upon row of woven rock. The terraces occupy the almost vertical walls of a narrow valley. One group of them is built up to the very edge of a completely sheer, thousand foot drop. High above the terraces, on a ridge across the valley, are the ruins of Choquequirao. Gable ends of rock jut from the flattened precipice. It takes us another hour of hiking through dense bamboo forests to reach our campspot.
We rest shortly, but the three of us are feeling fairly good. We decide to make the 45 minute hike to the ruins. The trail is muddy. We see Eric on his way down and are happy that we do not have to hike with him. His mannerisms and social conduct have already begun to annoy us. Mike, Kelly and I are getting along fine though, and we enjoy going slowly on this short uphill section.
When we reach the beginning of the ruins, we are amazed to find that there is no gate, no ticket to be bought, no one even there. The only other people we see are a group of Peruvian men cutting the grass. We are free to explore every corner of this place, to vandalize it, to steal rocks and take them home. The two days of hard hiking are prevention enough. No one who is willing to hike all that way would have the heart to vandalize a place like this. Although we are free to go anywhere and explore anything, we are running short on energy and on time.
The sun is descending towards the torn-paper peaks. We climb to a flattened hilltop that overlooks the ruins. The views are amazing. The few clouds that remain in the painted sky are wrapped around the knees of the endless mountaintops. We gaze out from the clearing of grass that is surrounded by a circular wall of stone. Moss grows where mortar should be. We imagine that this is where festivals were held, great celebrations. Perhaps the stone in the middle is where girls were once sacrificed, the blood pooling into the hollowed bowl and mixing there with grains of sand. What was once blue sky has now mixed with the blood of a dying sun. Only deep pink is left. The trail back to the campsite is illuminated by the color of rose petals filtered through the transluscent green of moist bamboo leaves.
After nine total hours of hiking, we are all ready for sleep. The Australians arrive just as the heaping plate of delicious popcorn is brought to the table. Kate is wearing a knee brace and from the way Patrick is walking I would guess his feet are blistered, but they are both in high spirits. We laugh and talk about tomorrow as we eat. We will have more time tomorrow to explore the ruins. Felix will be our tour guide. We are all looking forward to it. Dreams of lost gold and giant stones plague me in my sleep. Unitl I am woken, late at night, by the pounding of rain.
To be continued…