Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hiking the Lares Trail

Today we awoke at a modest three a.m. in the morning order to catch a four o'clock bus to the beginning of the Lares Trail. We couldn't eat breakfast until we arrived at the beginning of the trail for fear of an increased chance of altitude sickness. Walking out the door at a few minutes to four, we saw the smiling face of Daniel, our main guide and we briefly met our crew for the trip - Donato the cook and his assistants Isidro and Cristosomo (forgive any spelling errors please) - before boarding the bus and promptly falling back to sleep. 

After about an hour and half the bus stopped in a small town so that we could buy any necessary snacks or ponchos and go to the bathroom before heading off onto the winding, unpaved mountain roads. Over the next few hours we drove out into the Andes, circling a valley where groups of alpacas and lamas were already up searching for food. The road itself slowly zigzagged up the side of the mountains, and to the untrained eye the bus appeared dangerously close to the edge. However, our bus driver William was in complete control and delivered us all to the beginning of the trail safe and sound. 

Well, almost all of us.

No, nobody fell off a cliff, but unfortunately Alyssa and Beth weren't feeling well enough to go on the trek. After such a bumpy bus ride, the two of them decided that the combination of car sickness and altitude sickness would only get worse if they went on the trek, so they opted to return to Cusco and meet up with us later before starting the Inca Trail at a lower altitude. We bid them farewell after breakfast which, might I add, was very good, especially considering Donato and his assistants set everything up and made the meal with limited supplies in such a short period of time.

After checking all of our gear one last time, covering ourselves in sunscreen, and getting a quick tutorial in how to use walking poles from Daniel, "Team Gringo" as we were affectionately dubbed by Connor, set off. 

And here is our view from the beginning of the trail, about 8:30 in the morning.

Now a little further along the trail, if you count the three peaks (two hills, one mountain) on the left of this picture, we hiked up to the left waterfall and turned in behind the second peak. 

As we passed by a small group of houses by a lake, one of the women living there came out and gave us some fresh potatoes to eat as a snack. 

It was at this point that we suffered another casualty courtesy of the altitude, and Dr. Khawar set off for the lunch site on horseback. 

As for the rest of the hike up to lunch, they say a picture is worth a thousand words... 

At around 1:00, lunch, like breakfast, was delicious. It's amazing what you can turn out at 14,500 feet. Not to mention the view was once again fantastic. There were some large glaciers consuming the mountainside, and we even  heard the rumble of an avalanche.

After lunch we climbed the final 500 feet up to our max altitude of  15,000 before beginning our descent to the campsite for the night. Just as we came over the top of the mountain, the clouds began to roll in. 

After a slow ascent to the top of the mountain, the descent to camp went by much faster as the air got easier and easier to breathe. 

We reached the campsite at four in the afternoon, which had long since been setup by our cook, assistants, and horsemen (Guillermo and Gregorio), who had trotted by us much earlier on the trail wearing just sandals on their feet while we struggled in hiking boots and walking poles. We took a well deserved nap before dinner, and then ate in the main tent. After such a long day - our two day hike on the Lares Trail is usually done in three - we were all dead tired after dinner and retired to our tents for the night. 

We were woken up at seven the next morning to cups of hot coca tea. With breakfast at 8, we were presented with a huge surprise. For our grand effort the day before, Donato had made us a cake for breakfast. Now, keep in mind this man is baking a cake in the middle of the Andes without an oven. As you can imagine, we were all amazed by this display of apparent witchcraft, and the theories about how he did it began to form:
A.) It was pre-made and he secretly packed it in with the other food so none of us would notice.
While plausible, it tasted so gosh darn fresh and looked so pristine that it's hard to imagine it was in a box for even an minute. 

B.) A personal favorite of mine. The moment we went to sleep, Donato ran back up the mountain, down the other side to the small town of Calca where we started the trek, picked up the cake, and ran back to our campsite in Cancha Cancha all in complete darkness. 
This one is likely to go down in the great tales Andean folklore for years to come. While it would be near impossible to cross the mountain range in the pitch dark, if anyone could do it, it would be Donato.

C.) The "Real Explanation" according to Daniel. He cooked it in a big pot of water, surrounding the batter with tin foil to act as a makeshift oven. 
Wildly implausible. I can't believe Daniel would try to lie to us like that. 

Whatever theory may be correct, (certainly not C) the cake was delicious and put us all in a great mood for the second day, which, funny enough, would be a "piece of cake" according to Daniel. This time he was most certainly telling the truth. We reached our campsite just outside of the town of Huaran by 2:00, just in time for lunch, with everyone feeling much more alive than after the previous day's hike.

On the way, just after leaving our camp for the first night in Cancha Cancha, we passed by several other towns where people still work and live similarly to Incan tradition. Daniel told us that many of the people in these towns farm during part of the year and then go into the cities the other half of the year to work as construction workers, carpenters, or other similar jobs. During the growing season, many of the people will save some of their crops for their own consumption, and the rest of their crops they carry for two hours over the mountains in order to trade in the larger towns. 

In order to officially own the land they work on and get a government claim, the farmers in the mountains have to show proof that they've worked on the land for at least five years. After that, they legally own it. Many of the farms are built up into the mountainside rather than in the valley as they continue to expand their land claims.

Although the overwhelming majority of the people that live in the mountain villages would not choose to move into the city, even if they did have the money to do so as they are very poor, problems do arise with illnesses. Many people die every year because quality medical care is so far away, and medical professionals only visit the mountains a scarce handful of times each year. 

Continuing on past the villages, we began to see just how rapidly the climate in Peru changes. Of the 140 microclimates in the world, Peru has 80 of them. Before we knew it, were frantically unzipping our heavy jackets to get down to t-shirts and shorts. The vegetation on the mountainsides also rapidly changed from short, rather prickly grass as we found out, to lush vegetation such as fruit trees, thick grass, and cacti. We passes by a few groups of alpacas and lamas grazing, and watched two large bulls lock horns in competition. The trail followed a river down the mountains, passing over several smaller waterfalls, which fed life to more patches of farms and people washing their clothes and food. 

This continued for the majority of our downhill trek, as the trees were reaching higher and higher above us, and the hills went from rocky and snow capped to green. Just off the trail we got to see a patch of Quinoa that was almost as tall as me. 

Nearing the end of the hike, we passed through the town of Huaran, which was much more modernized than those a few hours back up the mountain. At the campsite just past the town, we rested for a little while before eating lunch. 

A few hours after we ate, at around four we set out in search of fire wood for a bonfire. No dry branch escaped our search. Team Gringo would wield the power of fire that night. 

By the time we had gathered all the firewood, (and it was quite an impressive collection) it was nearing dinner time. Before we ate, Daniel showed us a card game called Strategy, that proved to be incredibly addictive. 
After that it was time for dinner and some sad goodbyes. After eating, our cook, assistants, and horsemen came in to say goodbye because there would be no time to do so the next morning before heading off to the Inca Trail. Donato, Isidro, Cristosomo, and Gregorio, (Guillermo, the second horseman with Gregorio had already left) all gave us a warm farewell and wished us luck on our journey. 

Finally, we set up the bonfire and sat around it sharing stories and singing old summer camp songs, with Daniel chuckling in the background. We packed our bags for the next day and went to sleep, eagerly anticipating the Inca Trail. 

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