Hiking the remote Andes

Children flash shimmering snow-capped teeth upon our arrival and come running to see what we bring. It’s one of the most isolated indigenous communities in Peru, which only sees a trickle of tourists pass through its lush landscape shadowed by untouched and magnificent mountains that lead to the Inca masterpiece.

It’s still dark when we leave the unnerving mess of organised traffic in the ancient Inca capital of Cusco, Peru, and snake along the hairpin curves and dangerous drop-offs. We pass alpacas and llamas before merging into the lunar landscape with a group of three porters and a guide called Adolfa.

We’ve already had two days to acclimatize in the bustling city near the Urubamba Valley, at an elevation of 11,152 feet (3,399 metres), while drinking copious amounts of coca tea. The herbal tea is made from raw or dried leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America.

For centuries the locals have been consuming this plant used to relieve the various symptoms of altitude sickness by improving the oxygen uptake and blood flow. But chewing coca leaves or drinking the tea can result in a positive drug test for cocaine.

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My husband Terry and I are still bleary-eyed and confused come 5 a.m. We notice the young Canadian woman that would be accompanying us on this adventure – we met her the previous evening with our tour company Sam Travel Peru to go over the itinerary for the four-day Lares trek – had bailed.

There’s a tinge of unease on this acknowledgement, but Terry and I are still raring to hike the snow-capped peaks and meet the locals that raise llamas and alpacas, plant potatoes by hand, and weave traditional Andean clothes as they have done for generations. We are taking the lesser-known route to the Inca masterpiece, which is starkly different to the well-trodden Inca Trail that sees thousands of tourists each year and requires booking well in advance.

Guided by the moonlight, within the hour we pass the Sacred Valley and arrive at our first stop – the ancient remnants of Pisac Inca Citadel. Caracara falcons circle the sky as we step off the van and breathe in the crisp cantua-smelling air.

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Just as Adolfa finishes saying, “Pisac is named after a partridge and the sound it makes,” we hear the bird’s cry that cuts through the silence and echoes across the valley and sleepy modern colonial town that can be seen below.

He then motions, “The agricultural terraces also represent the wings of the partridge.”

This was customary in Inca architecture. Cities were built based on the figurative designs of animals. We continue to weave around the buildings perched on the crest of the mountain and created from polished stone fitted tightly together. They harmoniously blend in with the landscape. Caves and a stone gate catch my eye on the canvas that rises above the ruins.

Adolfa explains, “They were once the tombs of the nobles of the empire, but when the Spanish invaded they robbed the area of precious jewels, gold and personal belongings, and then discarded of the bones.” It’s a sad realisation as the site aligned with the sun is awoken with the first morning light.

Illuminated below are sweeping agricultural terraces. The man-made marks blend into the natural curvature of the land, which is prone to earthquakes as it sits on a seismic zone. We take in the panoramic views, and then climb back into the van that zigzags through the valley. I stare in awe at the rugged mountains on either side, while the notes from pan flutes float from the radio.

Eventually we pause for breakfast, which is served with a local family in a small remote village. Across the wooden table is a huge jug of coca tea, porridge, bread and a medley of fruit. I take advantage of the flushing toilet before we leave the humble dwelling and start the 40 minute drive to Huaran to meet our cowboy and his mules that will be carrying part of the supplies.

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When we arrive and unload at the foot of the mountain it’s cold and raining. We throw on our rain gear, backpacks and ponchos, with hiking poles in each hand and begin to climb. Terry and I are in good shape, but breathing the air is like trying to suck in wind. It only takes a few steps before we are completely exhausted and out of breath.

The path is laden with slippery rocks forcing us to snake our way up in order not to lose footing. There’s a gushing river on one side and a canopy of moss-covered trees that break into a lush green meadow on the other. We lug our backpacks full of water, spare clothing and snacks that feel like lead, while the fierce rain batters us.

“Slow and steady,” winks our guide.

But every step is just a tiny movement and massive struggle for me. I look at Terry, the feeling is mutual.

We hear the approaching sound of hooves as the mules clip clop past, along with the porters. The crew have been climbing for decades and are filled with optimism. The group will have set up the tents and cooked a hot banquet of a meal by the time we arrive.

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But tired is an understatement after six grueling hours of slogging behind our guide. We reach the camp located at Canchacancha by late afternoon, and by then my head is spinning and pounding as we step into the valley. I try to suck in a deep breath of air, but only a third of my lungs are filled.

Dotted in the valley are grazing llamas, a gushing river carving through the most magnificent towering peaks. Our guide then hops across rocks that peek through the river, and we breathlessly keep up the pursuit.

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There’s a group of children playing with a ball with humble shelters nearby. There are no vehicles or modern technology (lights just went up three months ago) in this isolated and self-sustainable community. It’s traditional to the core.

It feels like we’ve trekked into a bygone world, a more beautiful time that makes you forget all about the modern world and its rat-race of everyday life. I soak in the magical moment. The children are just as curious as us, these tourists on their jaunt, and stop playing and proceed towards us.

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I slide my backpack off, Terry does the same. I then tug it open and take out some toys and candy we had bought before the trek at a local market. I hand each child a toy and lollipop. Their faces light up revealing sets of shimmering snow-capped teeth. They then bounce away with delight. There’s a good feeling all around.

Our tent is already up. I pull off my boots and crawl inside, drink two litres of water and pop two pain pills. It’s beginning to get cold, but after resting, the meal is ready and I am feeling much better.

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There’s hot delicious vegetable soup, freshly boiled mugs of tea, then rice, vegetables and meat, followed by dessert. Our chef is excellent. After, we take in our surroundings; the llamas, the locals herding their sheep, and the daunting mountain in the distance partly hidden in the clouds. We will be climbing it tomorrow at 4,700 metres (15,419.95 feet).

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It starts to get dark and the temperature drops. Terry and I climb inside the tent and into our mummy-style sleeping bags while listening to the splashes of the river nearby. We have navigated the rocky footpaths that lead to the valley and acclimatized to the perils in the shadow of the mountain then we close our heavy eyelids.

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The porter wakes us with a steaming mug of coca tea. It’s still dark when I look through the open door of the tent at the lush beautiful valley. It was the perfect place to drop our bags, pitch our tents and catch our breath. I greet the day with a yawn and a cough.

We can hear the stir of pots and pans as the porters get packing eager to begin the new day. The chef prepares breakfast and the world slowly rises to life.

Terry had a rough night with the altitude and it’s going to be an intense four hour hike northeast. We will accomplish three high passes with the highest point of our trek called Pachacutec Pass.

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On the summit, our brains and bodies will be starved for oxygen, our heart rates speeding up, with temperature dipping to freezing, but we’d probably rejoice, snap selfies, alone and together, and then try to get back down to our next campsite.

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After a hot breakfast and a moments rest, we begin the trek. I’m already tired with the first few steps, but push on. Climbing is as much about the mind as it is about the body, and I am so grateful for our porters. They do a tremendous job.

We trek into the wilderness until the camp is no longer visible with the naked human eye. We pass more thatched dwellings and a couple of children dash to greet us.

I take out two neon-coloured Slinkies (a toy that’s formed as a helical spring), including lollipops from my bag and hand them over. The brother and sister attempt to interact in the Quechua language (Inca language), but no words are needed. There’s a universal understanding of “thank you.”

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A dog from the same thatched dwelling appears, hoping too for a gift. Terry tosses him a cracker, but no interest. He then tosses a meatier treat and the dog devours it. We continue to scale the mountain with our new canine friend, before he retreats back to his family.

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The wind picks up, penetrating our gear. We’re several hours in now and my hands are beginning to freeze. I take it in turns to shake my fingers free of the hiking poles and get the blood flowing.

“Slow and steady,” Adolfa reminds us, although his speed at this altitude is quite the opposite.

After another break, I ask if we are near the top.

“No, we’re half way,”

My heart sinks.

I crack a joke about how many more peaks we will be climbing today.

He laughs, “Just this one.”

And we plod on.

Exhausted, shivering and sweating at the same time, Adolfa gives us coca leaves to chew. But first we must follow the correct process:

“You take three coca leaves from your bag and bless the most significant mountain peaks around you in the direction of each peak. You then bite these leaves off at the stem and place them inside your mouth on the outside of your teeth and roll them into a ball.

“If you are giving coca leaves to a companion, they must receive them in two hands or in their shirt, never with just one hand,” he explains.

Coca leaves are sacred to the Andean people.

We pass rigid glaciers, blue glacial lakes, llama herds, rugged valleys that contain families of curious chinchillas hidden between the boulders of rock, and undulating farmlands. By the time we reach the summit the first thick snowflake has already fallen and now we are in a cloud of white.

The three of us waste no time in descending the slippery slope of thick mud and boulders, while rationing our drinking water. Terry starts puking with the change in altitude and slips, looking defeated, but there’s no going back. You either move forward or you get stuck. It’s mind over matter.

Eventually the storm breaks and for a moment the sun shines its warmth through the clouds. We pass another beautiful lake and come across a gushing waterfall. I can see in the distance a small village and my heart begins to rejoice. We are nearing the end of this grueling hike.

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We descend into the village when the clouds have lifted. There’s a larger group of fresh and clean trekkers that jaunt past. They are enthusiastically at the start of their trek. I can barely mouth a greeting, while coated in mud, sweaty and exhausted.

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After dinner, we pass out for the night.

It’s another early wake-up the following morning with coca tea, followed by a large breakfast, packing, and a climb of 4,200 metres. We’ve seen the many faces of the Andes and are getting accustomed to scaling these peaks.

After the five hour climb, we are welcomed into the natural volcanic hot springs to soak. I question the murky-brown  colour of the heated pools, but there are different basins with various temperatures to choose from and the scenery around is incredible. A long shower proceeds, either way, it’s been days.

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After lunch our chef and cowboy depart. We say our farewells and hand over a leafy tip, and then prepare for the ultimate experience.

It’s a van ride through winding narrow roads that climb through the wilderness to Ollantaytambo, a village in the Sacred Valley.

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The village is set with the backdrop of Urubamba River and snow-capped mountains. Terry and I browse the cobblestone streets and admire a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside.

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There are more archaeological sites that can be seen from the town, including a Sun Temple and the Princess Baths fountain. Here we have traditional dinner with Adolfa, before taking the train to Aguas Calientes.

It’s pitch dark, crowded and noisy when we arrive by train in the middle of the town. We race down the streets as cars whiz past to find our hotel, El Mapi. It’s late when we check in and our room has already been taken, so we are upgraded to a suite.

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It will be one restless night of excitement before the big day! It’s been an incredible adventure so far.

To be continued….