This entry is a continuation of the story that was posted yesterday…
The corners of the tent are soaked. The last half of my science fiction novel is a fat sponge. The toe of my down sleeping bag drips, but I am warm and dry inside. The zipper on the tent fly pulls apart as I emerge from the damp cave. Mike is already awake, brushing his teeth with his rain jacket on. Pieces of mountains shrouded in mist are like a newly opened puzzle. Most of the tabs and slots are still turned upside down. Only grey cardboard with a hint of color here and there. We gather in the mess tent to warm our cores with tea and coffee. The pancake with chocolate sauce hardly fills the void, but today is a short hike anyway.
Felix leads us up an unmarked trail. This is different from the one we took to the ruins yesterday. I duck under spikey branches that catch my backpack as I pass. Felix points out yellow orchids and warped trees with papery bark: the chachacomo. He sings a love song in spanish about the spikey bush and asks me to translate. The composer obviously has a problem with his girlfriend because he describes her as a sharp plant that grows in the cloud forest. But the air is sweet from the dew-released vapors of the flora.
An hour of hiking brings us to the cleaved hilltop that we discovered yesterday. As we sit on the stone wall, Felix tells us stories of the Incan culture. There are too many stories to relate, but he provides us with different theories and perspectives, allowing us to form our own opinion of what happened. Still, he is very animated about certain points, the worship of pachamama–mother earth–and how that practice has all but disappeared. With every glass of wine or beer that Felix drinks, he pours a sip onto the earth, thanking pachamama as he does so.
We explore the ruins for three hours. We are happy that we made it here yesterday because, today, the same views do not exist, but as we start traversing around the nearbye peak, the sun pokes through the mist and bakes our plastic covered bodies in moist heat. We descend through buggy pastures. Hummingbirds with tails twice the size of their bodies, red tubular flowers, the buzzing of enormous blue wasps with orange wings, the smell of fresh green piles of dung where butterflies perch and pulse their petterned selves. We reach the campsite by lunchtime and play cribbage as we eat. We are happy to spend a lazy afternoon stretching in the heat of the sunshine.
Clouds like spilled milk disperse across the blue ceiling. We descend overgrown trails to another churning river. There is no bridge and every rock is encased with a film of rushing water. I manage to hop and balance my way across without getting my boots soaked. We watch the mule train cross the rapids. The leader, Jesus, sends the animals trudging through a deep pool. He takes three weightless bounds from rock to rock. It looks like he barely touches the water.
The next three hours of climbing pass like a glimpse of sun. After three days of hiking my legs are accustomed to the march. My breathing is steady and rhythmic. The distance between my footprints is always the same. The tread of my soles in the black mud, moments of thought last for hours, stinging leaves brush my shoulder and leave an itchy mark that I ignore. Mike and I reach the camp together and are suprised to find that Eric is not there. It turns out that he has passed the campspot and continued up the trail. He does not return until just before dinner.
Felix opens a box of Gato Negro and tells us about hummingbirds. He describes the tiny hummingbirds that look like insects, the ones with enormous tails, the ones with long beaks. Sitting in the mess tent listening to his stories, listening to the Australians laugh at my jokes, listening to the melody of the crickets, there is no other place I can imagine wanting to be.
Equinox. The sun passes across the equator. This was a very special time for the Incas. Their temples are built with windows that face the exact direction of the sunset on equinox and solstice. Here it is becoming fall. At home it is turning to spring. The trail is deep black mud mixed with the corn-husk green of excrement. Mike`s boots squish forward as he leads the way towards the pass. For a moment, it looks like the dry, fall sunshine will break through the summer clouds, but the mist only grows denser at 4200 meters.
The views, we imagine, would be grand from here. Icy pillars would be the backdrop to layer upon layer of lime valley walls. Condors would soar from ridgeline to ridgeline, never stopping on flat ground where their bulk would prevent them from taking off again. They can only soar, never flapping, an airliner that glides down from a cliff. The trail is cut into a vertical outcrop of limestone. It is like half a tunnel with the left side breached open by decades of erosion. Along the way, there are many short caves that delve into the mountainside, mines once carved to the depth of copper and lead. We peer in but can see no deeper than blackness allows.
We descend into a valley of rolling green pastures. There are houses speckled against the winding rock walls of farms. After being confused for half an hour by the web of trails, we spot one of our muleteers sitting on a far away ridge. He leads us further down the valley towards another white river. Our campspot is his lawn, perched on a plateau within earshot of the flow. We have trout for dinner and champagne to celebrate the changing season. The beating rain on the roof of the mess tent lulls us into lethargy and we retire to sleep before the last hint of color is expunged from the weeping sky of this first fall evening.
We have nine hours of hiking today. We begin at 7am by traversing gradually upward along the sides of the soft valley. Backlit peaks are silhouetted black against grey. The trail is long and gradual for at least three hours until we reach a short-grass basin where cows graze. Then we climb steeply up a rocky orange ridgeline towards a saddle between glaciers. The frigid wind reddens the tops of my ears and makes my fingertips numb. We reach the pass at 4800 meters and stop briefly for a photo. By the time we are descending I can`t feel the trekking poles in my palms.
After six hours of hiking and two more river crossings we reach the lunch spot. Spotted pigs oink as they rut in the corner of the field. Peruvian children play with plastic trucks then grab an axe that leans by the doorway and start chopping stringy wood. The pasta and sardines replenish strength. We are all looking forward to the hot springs that were promised to us tonight, so it is disappointing when we hear that a pipe is broken and that the hot springs are out of service. However, we are motivated by the fact that this is our last difficult day of hiking. In only a few days we will reach the town of Aquas Calientes, where we will be provided with hotel rooms for a night. The Lost City of Machu Picchu awaits.
Another three hours of hiking brings us to our campsite at the junction to another trail. The Salkantay trail is much more popular than Choquequirao, because it is shorter and less difficult but still more challenging than the traditional and widely traveled Inca trail. There is another group of trekkers at the campsite and we give them condescending glances as they filter into their tents. Upon reaching camp, the Australians immediatly buy enough beers for all of us, guides included. Upon reaching camp, Eric immediatly takes a shower but continues to complain about not being able to shave. He has a short crop of stubble. Mike and I scratch the dese forests on our chins.
At dinner Felix offers us “macho tea,” which is a mix of fruit juices, cold teas, and the local sugar cane liquor. The tea is strong but refreshing and the six of us drain two plastic jugs without noticing. We ask each other riddles and tell jokes all night. It feels like we have completed something, like we are celebrating the end of the trek even though we have three more days of exploring to do. As we stumble back to our respective tents, the light drizzle leaves a sprinkling of dew on our shoulders.
To be continued…