A long walk to a mountain and a citadel

Trip Start Sep 25, 2013
Trip End Apr 15, 2014

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Flag of Peru  , Cuzco,
Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Writing about the places on earth that restore my heart and feed my soul is like telling you the prayers I say when no one is listening, like sharing the whispered conversations my lover and I have late at night after love-making has washed our hearts clean. I fear you will dismiss me as a romantic, a tree-hugger. And I will confess, I have hugged a few trees over the years, have pressed my body along their strength and felt the tremor that runs through them when the branches a hundred feet above are tossed in the wind while the roots stay loyal to the ground that gives them life. The body learns what the eye cannot see- that even when they appear to be standing still, inside the trees are dancing." -- Oriah Mountain Dreamer from THE DANCE

I got my days mixed up. I mistakenly thought I was leaving for a trek on Wednesday. I was wrong. It was Tuesday. I found out from a call the night before at 7:30pm at my hostel, wondering where I was for the briefing. Whoops. Not a good way to begin. Maybe I have been away from schedules a bit too long? Up until midnight in a packing scramble, my two alarms set- I was ready for my 4:30am wake up. Didn't hear the alarms. Damn. Thankfully, the night shift hostel employee woke me at 4:45 with a rap at my door, with only fifteen minutes to go until my ride was due. And there I was, bright-eyed and duffle-packed when my guide, Joel, came to the door. Whew!

Again, I was lucky in scheduling as only one other couple was going along on my 5-day trek to the mighty Salkantay mountain, with the finale being the revered Machu Picchu. I never even considered the Inca trail to Machu. When I heard of the crowds on the famed trail, I looked elsewhere. I found a small, family run, local company that takes a less-traveled route, was rated highly for its service, and offers fair pay and treatment to its porters. If you book a trek in Peru and the price sounds like a steal, someone is getting shorted, and you can bet it's your porters! So, I swallowed the expense and booked it. The decision made easy with the promise of well paid porters and a night spent in the moonlit shadow of a mighty Apu(protector).

A few things to note about camping with a crew:

You don't have to carry all of your things! A mule or horse carries them for you(we were allowed one duffle with a weight limit, of course). The crew sets up and breaks down camp, prepares your tent, rolls out your bag, and even supplies a pillow! You are greeted at your tent flap door each morning with a hot bowl of water, a hand towel, a bar of soap, and some coca tea and sugar. Oh my. And they even COOK for you! Unbelievable. The one caveat- there is a toilet tent. A hole dug daily in the ground to do your business. Yep, that's right. For those that shudder at a communal hole in the dirt, you may want to rethink a trek.

For me, this was luxury camping! Not having to set up camp, not hauling the bulk of my things
(only a day pack) and not having to set up a camp kitchen-nor having to cook- was purely decadent, and frankly, not really camping as I know it. Pushing guilt aside, I settled in to the comforts.

We stopped to pick up the couple from Tennessee that would be joining me on the trek- Tom and Anjelica. A nice, adventurous couple with charming accents. We drove for several hours to a small town called Mollepata. Here,we had breakfast and stocked up on alpaca hats and gloves, and then proceeded up the road to the start of the trek. The crew provided us with giant blue ponchos for the rain splattered journey. The plan was to average 7-10 miles a day with our highest elevation point being 15,250 ft. Good thing I was acclimated to the altitude! The horses were packed and we were off!

A few words about my guide, Joel. He has a spiritual nature, a deep love for his mother and the Pachamama (Mother Earth), and is conscience of how he walks through the world. Daily working to be a good man and a good person. He and I got on well and had a matched pace on the trail. I was extremely touched when he invited me to his family's celebration at the cemetery, to visit his fathers grave for the Day of the Dead celebration on November 1st. He also offered to help organize and to take me trekking in Huarez for his one vacation of the year. He and I will remain friends following this journey.

We slowly climbed through green, valley-like landscapes as we ascended into the mountains. The mist hung over us as we climbed, making me grateful for my poncho that was large enough to shelter a whole family. Hours later, as we neared our unexpectedly snowy camp for the night, a decision had to be made- do we hike on over the pass and into the cloud forest or set up in the snow? My mates were done for the day and so the decision was made to set up camp in the snow. The air had turned bone-chilling cold (the first night is infamously cold on this trek) but the sky was clear with the lowering sun and the over-seeing Salkantay. We settled in to the cold, layered all that we had brought in our duffles, and huddled in the food tent to drink hot coca tea and cocoa. One of my favored moments was this time in the tent following dinner. It was just Anjelika, Joel, and myself (Tom was tuckered out and had gone off early to bed) and Joel was discussing how lucky we were to experience the mighty Salkantay, what the mountain means to him, stories about the history of the Cechuan people, and of his own life. Several times I teared up, feeling grateful for being in this moment, with these people, and in this country. Anjelika wandered off to her tent as the evening wore on, and Joel and I stayed up and told stories about, both the spirit that resides in my home, and the fabled stories of the spirits on the mountain. Not really the best idea before retiring to your tent and knowing that you would need to get up to pee in the middle of the night. Joel's last words (said with a smile) before bed, was a warning to not leave my tent in the night. Oh, great. Regardless, I later rose and braved the cold to make my way to the bano tent, sending positive juju to the mountain spirits as I crunched and slipped over the snow. I was greeted by the bright glow of the reflection of the moon off of the snow and the stars peeking at me from the scattered clouds. I quickly forgot the cold and the spirit warnings as I stood, staring at the sky, feeling the stillness, and being in awe of where I was.

The next morning we woke to frozen tents as we had gotten some freezing rain in the night. Nearby avalanches had rumbled throughout the night and continued into the daylight. We rallied after a warming breakfast and made our way to the Apu Salkantay pass. The clouds danced around the peak of Salkantay as we climbed, passing random cows and wild chinchillas on our way to the top. Joel had asked us to gather special rocks or tokens along the way to offer to the mighty Apu when we reached the top. I had found two-one for my girls and one for myself. When we reached the pass, the clouds cleared and Salkantay shown above us in all her glory. We were surrounded in a sea of apachetas (offerings or cairns) from the local people. We gathered around Joel as he pulled special coca leaves from his bag for each one of us to hold-three each- all with a special meaning (in Peru, coca leaves are read). We held them together, pointing them towards the mountain while Joel spoke of the power and meaning of the great Apu. He asked me to point my leaves towards the mountain and to chant after him, blowing my breath through the leaves after each verse. With tears streaming down my face, I then laid my offering while making three wishes for my life and my loved ones-giving the wishes over to the Apu. Joel then asked the three of us to circle around our offering site and to wrap our arms around each other. We took a moment to think about our wishes to the world while Joel played his flute. It was beautiful and powerful, and something I wont soon forget.

Quietly, and each deep in our own thoughts, we continued on, descending into the cloud forest below, walking beside iron-rich rocks along the white river that flows through this glacial land. As we walked, our horsewoman, Louisa, followed discreetly behind us. Louisa's job is to lead or ride the emergency horse in case one of us needs a lift out. She lives in the mountains and is extremely shy. My goal for the trek became to see how many smiles I could coax from Louisa. She would gather medicinal plants along the route as we walked, stuffing them into her bag. I asked Joel if he would interpret for us if Louisa would show us at camp the plants she had acquired and explain their purpose. I snuck random pictures of her along the way, which I later showed her, to her shy delight. She would chat quietly with the local women when we would stop at a village hut long the trail to purchase one cerveza for the finish to our day. Lukewarm, but surprisingly satisfying after our long day!

The second night was spent in a small village, without electricity, on the grass of a family's yard. Here, we had the joy of a propane heated shower, chickens in the yard, flush toilets, and warmer weather.

The next day took us into tropical climates with colorful butterflies guiding our path. I have this belief that certain butterflies following along (and some landing gently on me) are the spirits of lost loved ones following me on my journey. This may seem silly to some, but it makes for a lovely guided walk full of thoughts of past moments and loved ones.

Following waterfalls and passion fruit trees, we eventually made it to our van that would take us to our third overnight at a small, family-owned coffee plantation. Here, we were met with roosters, pigs-and mosquitos! We also met a lovely couple from Santa Barbara and their guide, Freddy, who later, around the table, told us many stories about spiritual quests in the Sacred Valley and different levels of enlightenment. Again, camp was set up in the grass, and we enjoyed a wonderful lunch and a tour of the coffee plantation. I learned several things on this tour...such as organic farming is so much more difficult than I imagined! To see the diseased trees on this tiny farm that could be helped with pesticides, was heartbreaking. Knowing this young farmer worked so hard to make a living at harvesting organic coffee and to see the trees suffering, was difficult. While we were there, a rep from an NGO was visiting. This NGO supports the locals in helping them to establish their own businesses and to create a life for themselves. We plucked baseball sized avocados and coffee beans and took them back to be enjoyed. We processed the coffee fruit through a pitting machine that produced the sweetest pair of beans, roasted the beans over a flame with orange peel and sugar, and then milled the beans to a course grind. We then enjoyed a fresh cup of organic coffee-delicious!

To my horror, while I was touring the fields in my long shorts, stupidly thinking my legs were safely sprayed with repellent, I realized that the small gnat-like bugs surrounding my legs were mosquitos. Not the big 'ol obvious West Coast kind of mosquitos. No sir. These wee ones were deceptively more sneaky and hungry. I ran to change into long pants, but it was too late. I later counted 47 bites just on ONE leg from my knee to my ankle. Lesson learned. My legs later swelled, bruised-and lets just say-it wasnt pretty. Still isn't pretty. Shorts are not in my near future.

The next morning we began our final walk to Hidroelectrica where we would catch a luxurious train to Aguas Calientes-the gateway town to Machu Picchu. Here, we would stay our last night before visiting the famed citadel the following morning. We walked through a soccer field, past a school, and literally onto the Inca trail. We climbed and climbed. Nearing the point where we would begin our descent, we came to a clearing in the trees. It was here that I first caught sight of Machu Picchu. Nestled quietly across the river, in a lush green valley, was the lost village. I get chills typing these words, even now. My hair stood on end and my eyes filled with tears. This vision is what I will remember about the discovered citadel. Not the multi-colored ponchos the following day, or the guides all vying to tell their historical stories to a crowd of foreign travelers in the cold and rain...but this. A surprise encounter and an intimate moment with a mystical hidden fortress.

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