My wife, Dorothy, had just collapsed, her legs had given out entirely. Even though it is extremely dangerous to ride the mule downhill, there was no other way to get her to the campsite.
Off she went, flanked by the guide and another man. It was dark. I’m on the side of a sheer cliff going back and forth downhill over a treacherous, slippery rock-strewn path.
My son Chris and his wife, Rocio, are shining a light in front of me and hovering around to keep me from stumbling and falling off the cliff.
This is just the first day. Seven more days to go. How did I get myself into this?
A little dubious
Every year, we plan a vacation with my son Chris and daughter-in-law, Rocio, who live in Madrid, Spain, and this year we had decided to visit Machu Picchu, Peru.
We like to get off the beaten track and away from tourists, so we thought a trek in the Andes would be a good compliment to the Machu Picchu visit.
The Inca Trail and the Salkantay trek are extremely popular and as many as 1,000 people a day embark on them.
Being in a crowd didn’t appeal to us, so we looked for less-crowded alternatives. Chris found a trek that looked promising, an eight-day trek from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu.
The trek offered the opportunity to visit another Inca city, Choquequairo, and only a few trekkers a year made the trip. Dorothy and Rocio were a little dubious but in the end agreed to go.
Most of the trek would take place at altitudes between 8,000 and 14,000 feet, so we were required to spend two days in Cusco at 12,000 feet to acclimatize and watch for signs of altitude sickness.
Cusco used to be the center of the Inca Empire until the Spanish came. Now massive churches built with Inca gold stand where Inca temples once stood.
Guinea pig dinner
One highlight of our stay in Cusco was a guinea pig dinner the first night. The Peruvians in this area eat guinea pig for special occasions, and we wanted to celebrate being in Peru, Peruvian style. Our choice of restaurant should have given us a clue to how things were going to be for the rest of the trip. The restaurant was in the highest part of Cusco, and we were in the lowest.
One of the things we learned about the Peruvian Andes is that everything is either uphill or downhill from where you are.
Huffing and puffing our way up the hill in the thin, 12,000-foot air, we finally arrived at the restaurant. The owner was a gregarious, barrel-chested Peruvian who seemed genuinely delighted to have us in his restaurant. Well, we were the only customers. We ordered baked and fried guinea pigs and alpaca marinated in Aji — a local spice.
The guinea pigs were huge, about the size of a rabbit, and the presentation of the cooked guinea pigs was priceless. They were presented as horses jumping a fence. The fence was a potato stuffed with vegetables, the pigs had bell peppers in their open mouths and they had a tomato hat with parsley sprigs stuck in the top.
After we applauded the presentation, the pigs were taken away and quartered for eating. The consensus around the table was that the alpaca was the best dish, followed closely by the fried guinea pig.
Meeting our guide
The next evening we went to the tour operators to meet our guide. Carlos looked to be in his late 30s and had the enthusiasm of a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader.
He later told us that he gets bored leading so many Inca Trail and Salkantay treks during the year and looks forward to the one or two of our treks that he guides. We were to be ready at 3:45 a.m. with our packs, no more than 15 pounds each.
At the appointed time, we left Cusco in fine Third World fashion, in an old van with a week’s worth of food, propane tanks and camping equipment piled on top. It looked so top heavy that a breeze might blow it over. The only thing missing was someone sitting on top or hanging on to the sides.
Along with Dorothy, Chris, Rocio and me were Carlos, the guide, and Evan, who was to be our cook. The assistant cook and the men who managed the pack animals would meet us later.
After about four hours in the van, we arrived at Cachora. You could tell it was a town because there was about 50 yards of pavement in what otherwise was a winding dirt road.
While the van was being unloaded, Carlos went in search of breakfast for us. For some reason, the regular breakfast place along the main road was closed. This was the first instance of what we came to appreciate about Carlos — he could adapt to any situation.
The “restaurant” was down a couple of flights of stairs behind a dilapidated old building. It had an open room with one table, a sliding window in the side of the adjacent house and a full complement of houseflies.
Carlos said we could have eggs but suggested the Peruvian breakfast. Being in Peru, we ordered the Peruvian breakfast, which turned out to be pretty much the same as the Peruvian lunch and dinner. Some sort of meat, vegetables and rice.
Armed with bug spray, sun block, water purification tablets, canteens and cameras, we set off. The trek brochure advertised the first day as “pretty easy, mostly downhill” and it certainly started out that way.
We were walking along a dirt road that wound its way back and forth down the side of a mountain when we heard Carlos say what would turn out to be the most dreaded word on the trek — “shortcut.”
While the road zigzagged, the shortcut was straight downhill along a narrow rock and gravel-strewn goat trail. Whenever the going got easy, there was always a shortcut to make things difficult.
Two hours later, we stopped at Capuliyoc, a pavilion on the edge of a cliff. Sitting at 11,000 feet, the Apurimac River down below us at about 5,000 feet looked like a silver string.
Still oblivious to our fate, we asked Carlos where we were going next. He took us to the edge of the cliff and pointed downward, you could barely make out a tiny trail snaking its way down the side of the mountain. We were to camp at the Playa Rosalina campground on the river below.
Conjuring a mule
To go 6,000 vertical feet down the mountain, we would have to walk almost 10 miles back and forth across the mountain along the worst kind of steep, rock strewn, slippery and narrow trail imaginable.
At this point, let me say that we had expected the trek to be difficult and Dorothy and I had been working pretty hard to prepare ourselves, but treadmills and stair-masters do not prepare you for 10 miles of steep downhill. After a few hours, the tops of our legs were on fire.
After about 9 miles, Dorothy’s legs gave out completely — she could not stand. Somehow, Carlos conjured a mule out of thin air and even though riding mules down this steep trail was dangerous, we had no other choice.
She, Carlos and another man set off toward the camp. I could hardly lift my legs and was just shuffling along. With Chris and Rocio watching over me, we walked into camp at about 7 p.m.
Crossing the Apurimac
While Dorothy and I rested in our tent, Carlos, Chris and Rocio huddled to decide what to do next. At the dinner table, Chris pointed out that today was the easy day and it had pretty much done us in. They suggested that we go back and visit the sights around Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
Tomorrow we were scheduled to reach Choquequirao, which was one of the main reasons for the trip, so even as dead tired as Dorothy and I were, we didn’t want to give up after the first day but we also didn’t want to end our Peruvian vacation in a hospital.
We had the foresight to hire an extra horse or mule in case the going got rough, which meant Dorothy would not have to walk to Choquequirao. Since most of my preparation had been on uphill stuff, I felt I could make it as well. We decide to reassess the situation when we stopped for lunch the next day.
The first challenge the next morning was getting to the breakfast table. It was as if we were learning to walk again with each painful step. Today was to be a mirror image of the previous day, crossing the river and hiking two-thirds of the way up the mountain. We crossed the Apurimac sitting in a basket suspended from a cable 10 feet or so above the water. On each end of the basket was a rope used to pull it back and forth.
The previous day had been dry, arid and dusty with cactuses and scrub brush; the trail today was through a lush tropical jungle. The mountains stop the clouds and rain so one side of the mountains is dry and the other wet. We alternated through desert and jungle for the remainder of the trek.
Finding a pattern
Once we started up the mountain, I soon fell behind Chris and Rocio; after an hour or so, the pack animals and Dorothy passed me.
We settled into a pattern. The group would rest and wait for me and when I caught up, they started again. I was making it up the mountain, but not fast enough to allow us to keep on the schedule.
Dorothy had bounced back dramatically and sometime late in the morning she started walking with Chris and Rocio while Carlos put me on the horse and took me a mile or so ahead. Carlos waited with the horse for Dorothy, and I used my head start to continue up the mountain.
An hour later, Carlos and the rest caught up with me and Carlos said, “Almost there only 17 more zigzags!”
At the campground during lunch, it was clear that we couldn’t finish the trek the way things were. We asked Carlos to try and find extra animals that Rocio and I could ride on some of the uphill portions.
I handed Carlos a wad of Sols (Peruvian currency); he said he would try. Even if we could get the additional animals, we would have to do all the downhill walking ourselves and that was still a major concern.
After lunch, we left to explore Choquequirao, a sister city to Machu Picchu and believed to be about three times larger. Hiram Bingham found Choquequirap on the same trip where he discovered Machu Picchu. We were following in his footsteps.
Choqequirao is not nearly so extensively restored as Machu Picchu because of the difficulty of reaching the site. The government wants to build a cable car system to make it more accessible but that won’t happen in the near future.
When we arrived, an Australian couple and their guide were just leaving so we had the whole city to ourselves.
Four main areas have been restored — the royal lodgings, the priests’ lodgings, the area for the common people and the area of the city administration. We would go through two of these areas in the afternoon and two in the morning before resuming the trek.
An eye for views
Like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is beautifully located. It is situated on a plateau about two-thirds of the way up the mountain on the rainy side with spectacular mountain views from every angle. Following Carlos around, half listening to his explanations, you couldn’t take your eyes off the view. There are not adjectives to describe how beautiful it was. Those Inca builders really had an eye for locations.
After the tour, we were left to explore by ourselves and take some pictures. Dorothy and I walked over to a rock fence on one side and rested for a few minutes. As we sat there and looked around, nobody was in sight, we were alone, sitting high in the mountains in the most beautiful place you can imagine, perfectly quiet and peaceful. It was enough to take your breath away.
Many people travel to Machu Picchu in the hope of some sort of spiritual feeling or renewal, but being alone in Choquequirao was much more magical than Machu Picchu in a crowd.
Back at the camp, we met Ian and Anne, the Australian couple who were taking a year off to travel and trek around South America. During the next few days, we camped and took meals together. They were the only other trekkers we saw on most of our trek.
The trek brochure said the third day was probably the most challenging. At dinner, we found out why. We were to climb to the top of the current mountain, down the other side to another river, cross it and back up the mountain to Maizal where we would camp.
In other words, we were to do more in one day than we had in the previous two days combined. If Carlos couldn’t find extra mules, we would have to return to Cusco.
When Carlos woke us the next morning with a steaming cup of tea, he said he had arranged for two more mules and they would be waiting up above Choquequirao. I think this was the point where we began to feel that we could survive the rest of the trek if we could make it through the downhill portions.
The early morning at Choquequirao was as awe inspiring as the previous evening had been. We watched the sun come up over a mountain and bathe the city in light. Again, we were all alone as we explored the portions of the city that we missed yesterday.
The Incas had built an aqueduct from a water source higher on the mountain, which was our “shortcut” to the area where the mules would be waiting. The aqueduct was about 3 feet wide with small rocks stair stepped on either side.
It went straight up at about a 60-degree angle. We followed Carlos up the aqueduct using our hands and feet. We were essentially climbing 100-yard ladder 10,000 feet above sea level. It was exhausting.
Meeting the mules
To our great relief, the mules were parked where they were supposed to be. The mules were pack animals not riding animals. They had a rudimentary saddle with no saddle horn, the stirrups had a crosspiece in front so only your toes fit and there was no bridle, just a leading rope around the mule’s neck.
Getting on was an undignified affair, using just your toes and a couple of people pushing from behind. Once aboard, you were cargo like a sack of grain and had no influence over what the mule decided to do.
With Rocio and I on our mules and Dorothy on a horse, Chris and Carlos walking, we started up the mountain. Traveling by mule went something like this; the mules would be plodding along until one of them spotted something good to eat, which was the signal for the other mules to stop and graze as well.
Carlos would prod the mule with a walking stick or throw a small pebble and the mules would put their head down and go 30 or 40 yards until they spotted the next thing to eat.
In this start-stop fashion, we made it to the top of the mountain and dismounted for the downhill walk to the river. Despite our concern, the rest of the downhill portions of the trek didn’t cause the same problems as the first day.
I’m not sure if our legs were stronger or we improved our technique. Even though the downhill hike on the primitive trail was tiring, it didn’t wipe us out like the first day.
After her rocky start the first day, Dorothy became the downhill master; we would all start together and soon Dorothy would be out of sight downhill. I asked how she was able to go downhill so quickly and she said she pretended she was skiing.
Carlos walked up to Chris and asked: “What’s up with your mom? I had to help her down the first day and now I have to run to keep up with her.”
All along the trek, we saw isolated houses and farms on the mountainsides, occasionally a small village with a handful of houses but there were no roads. All access was along the same trails that we walked.
The people relied on mules to take things to market or bring home supplies. Every day, several groups of pack animals and their drivers would pass us going up or down hill. We had to be careful to stay on the side of the trail near the mountain when the mules passed, otherwise they might crowd us off the side of a cliff.
We saw our first “Andean traffic jam” on the way downhill. Coming up the trail were five or six mules and going down the trail were about the same number of other mules.
When they came together, it was pandemonium; mules intermixing, turning around and going off the trail to nibble something. The drivers were trying to get organized and moving, but the mules seemed to be enjoying themselves and in no hurry to get back to work.
After about four hours, we reached the river and waited while lunch was prepared.
The meals were basic but filling. Usually for lunch and dinner we would have a soup then the meal which usually consisted of meat or fish, potato or rice and vegetables. For breakfast hot porridge, bread, fruit, eggs; one day, we had pancakes.
About an hour before dinner, we would have tea, which consisted of lots of boiling water for tea, cocoa or coffee and popcorn or fried wontons.
On to Maizel
After lunch, we boarded our mules and set off for Maizel. The mountains were so scenic that it was hard not to stop every 10 feet to take a picture. As it was between us, we took more than 1,000 photographs.
Maizel had been a residence until the threat of avalanches forced the family to move. Unlike the previous camps, Maizel had both a toilet and a shower. The shower was fed by a stream coming down from higher on the mountain so we knew the water would be cold but we were desperate and decided to try it anyway.
That water was freezing. The only way we could stand it was to stick an arm or leg under the water, pull it out quickly, soap it and stick it back under to rinse. When all the extremities were clean stepping in with our head and body was heart stopping.
Teeth chattering, we ran back to the tent and jumped in the sleeping bags to get warm. We decided to stay dirty rather than endure another shower like that one.
At dinner, we found out the next day’s plan. We would continue up to the San Juan Pass at around 14,000 feet then downhill to Yanama. We would have different animals after Maizel.
We didn’t know at the time but the new mules had come from Yanama, the place where we were supposed to camp that night. The owner had left at 2 a.m. to get the animals to us in time. During the trip, he surprised a Spectacled Bear near a small stream. These bears are the only bear species native to the Andes. We saw the bear’s footprints later in the day.
How Carlos contacted the man in Yanamal two mountains away with no phone service was one of the mysteries of the trip. The other mystery was how Carlos and the cooks always knew who was playing in the World Cup and the score.
While we were plodding along uphill, my mule suddenly took off down the side of the mountain. I had one hand on the saddle, the other pulling on the useless rope and yelling “whoa” and “stop” at the top of my lungs.
Carlos came running down the trail yelling “mullah, mullah,” whatever that meant, but evidently my mule didn’t speak English or “mullah” and paid no attention.
We finally came to rest on a little plateau with green grass, and the mule started grazing. Carlos came crashing through the brush and grabbed the lead rope; while he and I tried to overcome our panic, the rest of our crew was roaring with laughter.
Down to Yanama
Standing at the San Juan pass there was plenty to admire, you were literally at the top of the world. All around were majestic snowcapped peaks and sparkling rivers in the valleys.
More downhill to Yanama. Carlos called Yanama a town, even though there were only about 10 houses. As with all the trip so far, there was no electricity, just an occasional solar panel to charge a battery for an hour or two of light in the evening. At night when you stood outside the tent and looked at the mountains, there were no lights in sight.
Even though all supplies for the town had to be brought by mule, there was a small store with beer.
Behind the shed for the cooks, there was another shed with sunken dirt floors; in it, there were about 30 multicolored guinea pigs running about. We weren’t sure if they were for the personal use of the store owner or for sale.
Guide gives a lesson
This was to be our last dinner with Ann and Ian; they were going to another campsite the following night so at tea time, their guide sat with us and explained a little about life in the mountains.
First he taught us a game sitting around a table crossing hands with the person on either side, palms flat on the table. A person would start by tapping, then each successive hand would tap quickly until someone double tapped or closed a fist.
Double tap meant reversing direction and fist meant skip the next hand. When you made the wrong move, the hand was removed from the table. Since your hands are crossed with your neighbors, the game is pretty challenging.
The guide then explained the marriage process. When two people decide they want to marry, the man moves in with the family of the bride and spends a month trying to convince the future in-laws he is capable of caring for and supporting the new wife.
He works, does chores and anything to demonstrate his fitness to marry the daughter. At the end of a month, the family decides whether the marriage can proceed. If the man is judged acceptable, the couple moves into the man’s home and the woman has a month to prove to her mother-in-law that she can cook, clean and take care of her son.
If the woman is judged acceptable, then the two families have a big formal banquet joining two families into one. All of the Peruvians traveling with us had gone through this.
Since having several children can result in many interconnections between families, divorce or extramarital affairs are rare. Usually the only time divorce occurs is when after several years there are no children. The man and the woman can go to the city to find out which partner is unable to have children, and the other person can get a divorce.
Through the valley
The next day was one of the most pleasant of the entire trek. We traveled along the Yanama valley to the Mariano Llamoja Pass then down to the town of Totora. The Yanama valley was 10 or 12 miles long and 5 or 6 miles wide.
Our trail was gently rising along the mountain on one side. The valley was so beautiful it made you jealous of those who lived there. Well-kept farms and ranches dotted the valley, and violet hued flowers were everywhere. Many of the dwellings had thatched roofs and were so cute that you expected to see hobbits or elves instead of people.
Carlos warned us that the approach to the pass was very steep and treacherous. He was right.
The Mariano Llamoja pass is well over 14,000 feet and there was a glacier to our right. The wind was blowing, and it was very cold. Because of the cold and wind, we couldn’t spend as much time on the summit as we would have liked. After taking a dozen or so pictures, we started downhill to warmer weather.
We arrived in Totora midafternoon and had several hours of free time. Totora had a population of maybe 200 and a road.
In Totora, we saw one of the strangest sights of the trek. After tea, we went for a walk down the trail leaving the town and met three people walking toward town. Each man had a section of a coffin strapped to his back. Evidently an elderly woman in the village had died and they were delivering the coffin.
When we returned to camp, Carlos was sitting in the home of a friend and invited us in. The home was a one-room adobe with a tin roof. A young woman and her baby were sitting on a stool near the fire; there was no other furniture and Carlos was sitting on the dirt floor.
As our eyes adjusted to the faint firelight, we saw about a dozen guinea pigs scurrying around the edges of the room.
Catching a ride
That evening, we had to decide what to do the next day. We could either walk the 10 to 15 kilometers to Santa Theresa or hire a van and ride. We opted to sleep late and take the van.
The driver lived in Santa Theresa but had friends and relatives in Totora. While we sat in the van waiting, it seemed like the entire village stopped by one or two at a time to visit with the driver.
Finally, we pulled up to a house at the edge of town and a young woman with her baby got in with us. Along the road, we stopped for yet another young woman carrying a baby. The driver, Carlos, the four of us, two women and two babies arrived in Santa Theresa around 11 a.m. Santa Theresa was the largest town we had encountered since Cusco. More importantly, Santa Theresa has a famous hot spring.
The hot springs were wonderful after several days of being cold. The facility was in the valley near the river at the foot of a sheer cliff.
There were three concrete pools. The one on left was fed directly by the hot springs and was the warmest. The water then flowed successively into the two other pools and the last pool had outlets that cascaded down on some concrete benches.
You could sit on the benches and take a hot shower. It was almost too good to be true. A hot shower and shampoo. You can really learn to appreciate small things when they are absent.
We had the pools to ourselves for about 30 minutes until hundreds of young people arrived.
The very popular Salkantay trek camps at Santa Theresa and a large group had just arrived. We had no idea that Peru was such a destination for young people who mostly seemed to be between 18-25 years of age.
From here to the end at Machu Picchu, we saw more and more young people. At Machu Picchu probably 90 percent or more of the people were young.
The next day we walked 7 miles to Aguas Caliente, the jumping off place for Machu Picchu.
Aguas Caliente is your worst vision of a tourist town packed with hotels, restaurants and cheap trinket shops. Most people who go to Machu Picchu go through Aguas Caliente, so every day there are thousands of tourists walking around being accosted by people standing in front of one of the hundreds of restaurants.
This is what walking on any street in Aguas Caliente is like: “No thank you, no thank you, no thank you … ”
All the restaurants seemed to offer the same things — pizza, burgers, a smattering of local dishes. Even the trinket shops all offered the same merchandise.
We had a quick lunch with Carlos and went to the hotel for another hot shower and afternoon nap.
At dinner, Carlos gave us the bus tickets and tickets to Machu Picchu. We had to leave the hotel and get in the bus line at 5 a.m. so we could be one of the first admitted.
Even at 5 a.m., there looked to be hundreds before us but buses ran every 2 minutes so it didn’t take long. Machu Picchu opens at 6 a.m. and after we arrived, we had to stand in line for 30 minutes.
After being on our own for so long, the crowds at Machu Picchu were oppressive. Once the gates opened, we hurried to the principal places and Carlos explained their importance. Machu Picchu is so large that it took about an hour to get crowded.
A thousand people a day are admitted, so now more people are in Machu Picchu every day than ever lived there during Inca times.
After a couple of hours touring Machu Picchu, we said goodbye to Carlos, since this was the end of the trek. He was really a great guy and did everything he could to make the trek live up to our expectations. We were sorry to see him go. He said he was going to see his family, kill six or eight guinea pigs and have a feast.
We stayed at Machu Picchu for a while longer then got tired of the crowds and went back to the hotel to rest until our trip back to Cusco and home. We were sitting in the bar and noticed a sign announcing that the bartender, Morris, would give lessons on how to make his special Pisco Sour and offered two for the price of one. Who could resist an offer like that?
Pisco Sours must be the national drink of Peru. There were signs offering them everywhere. Pisco is an evil-tasting grape brandy made in Chile and Peru. The Pisco Sour was made with Pisco, lime juice, sugar water, an egg white and a drop of bitters then fluffed up in a blender. The first sip was pretty bad but by the time we finished, we decided that we needed another lesson.
Reeling from Pisco Sours, we made our way to the train.
The trek covered about 72 miles, up and down some of the steepest most treacherous trails imaginable. Chris and Carlos walked the whole way, and we probably rode the mules for 15 of the miles.
Had we known how difficult the trek was going to be, we wouldn’t have gone, but having said that, it was one of the most memorable trips of my life. None of us regretted the hardships and pain but Dorothy and Rocio have made it clear that Chris and I have no say in next year’s vacation.