Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Gormanka and Warmi Do Salkantay

Peru was an endless adventure with my friend Katie Gorman and absolutely the most fun I have ever had on a trip or a trek to date. I’ve been pretty overwhelmed thinking of how to approach writing this post because there is just so much to be said, so now it is incredibly long and I still know I’ve left out quite a bit. Grab a cup of tea and settle in, here’s a go!

Flying over the Andes alpenglow, Mendoza to Santiago
The adventure started before we’d even left Mendoza, thanks to customs and the Argentina visa system not having it’s act together. My study abroad program had us start our student visa process in February, but we haven’t heard about it since. As Katie and I were getting our passports checked out, we learned that our 90 days of tourist time was expired—we’d been in the country for 92 days. We got rerouted into the customs office and had a rough conversation with a rather mean officer that ended in us being labeled illegal immigrants and having to pay 300 pesos (about US$60) to leave the country. We had really no choice in the matter even if it was a 2 day difference, and paid the fee to leave. Upon returning I have learned that this was not the
Sleeping in the Lima airport, take one
same fee for my student visa, so I have to pay another 300 pesos for that, and that the fee we paid in the airport is rarely, if ever, enforced. Plus, I finally got my notification to pick up my student visa now, upon returning to Argentina. Talk about awful (and expensive) luck.

Afternoon light on the hills of Cusco, from the Plaza de Armas

I was quite surprised by how much we liked Cusco. The city is most definitely a city, but I felt far safer than I have felt in my time in Mendoza. This is most likely because the centro is absolutely crawling with tourists, even in the pre-high season window we visited in. We spent hours just wandering along the steep hills of the city along the cobblestone streets, looking at the whitewashed walls and deep indigo entryways that seem to not just be a trend but a requirement. The architecture was not nearly as European as Argentina and quite clearly a confluence between Incan style and Spanish colonialism. This was much more apparent in the last town we spent time in, Ollantaytambo, but Cusco still had beautiful Spanish cathedrals to boast. Katie and I spent an entire afternoon perched in a café balcony drawing the Plaza de Armas followed by sitting on the sunny cathedral steps, where we ended up meeting quite a few Cusqueños.

Cusco day one after a 6am arrival
Peru is debatably the friendliest South American country I have visited thus far, and we had a great time talking to just about anyone, thanks to both of us speaking Castellano. We spoke with almost every Peruvian guide who passed us on the trail and made a point of talking to as many folks as we could. We were very proud of our continued “cool gringa” status throughout the trip and met some truly interesting folks, from the very first taxi driver teaching us basic Quechua (warmi means woman) to the woman in La Playa who survived and continued to live in the valley after a 1970s landslide wiped out the entire city to the bunch of Brazilian ragamuffins in Ollantaytambo who have lived across the globe in pursuit of mountain biking. Every single person we met was nice and helpful beyond compare. My personal favorite was on our fourth day of hiking, when Katie and I collapsed in a grove of banana trees on the side of the road to plan our next move. A super adorable old woman had been sitting outside her small adobe house across the street and disappeared for a moment inside while we were talking, before reappearing outside to observe the comings and goings. When we got up to continue walking, she came to the front of her small garden and handed us a partially green mandarin orange without a word, and then returned to her perch. We were shocked and so thankful, and we ate it right there. I could not stop thinking about her kindness for the rest of the day.

Hitchhiking ride #1 approaching Nevado Salkantay
I was fairly nervous to leave Cusco since information on finding a ride to Mollepata is spotty at best, but we got some help from two Cusqueñas on the street, who tracked down the van stop with us the day before. We were in a taxi to drive us right to where the minivan rides leave Cusco at the end of Avenida Arcopata by 4:30 in the morning (it was around the corner from our hostel, but early morning robberies of walking backpackers are common), miraculously found two spots in a van, and were out of the city by 4:45. We started hiking from Mollepata after the two hour van ride for our first day that was bound to be very long to Soraypampa.
Campsite night one, Salkantaypampa at 4,100m
After quite a few kilometers, we decided to opt for hitchhiking and ended up in the back of a truck with a guided group of gringos and their mountains of stuff, which got us to Soraypampa well before noon. Good thing, because the road from Mollepata to Soraypampa appeared to be quite a bit longer than we planned, although beautiful nonetheless. Considering we’d been feeling great at altitude, we decided to ascend 100 meters more than planned that afternoon and ended up being the lone tent on the beautiful pampa of Salkantaypampa at 4,100m, just below one of the most magnificent mountains I have ever seen in my entire life. It was so cold when the sun dipped below the peaks at that altitude that we ate dinner by 3:30 in the afternoon and were in the tent no later than 5, reading Game of Thrones aloud in absurd British accents and trying to keep our toes warm.

The best lunch spot around, just below the pass
This was when health status began to deteriorate, although not for altitude reasons. Actually, altitude-sickness-wise, both Katie and I were completely dandy for the entire trip by taking ibuprofen regularly, drinking plenty of coca tea, and being responsible about not ascending more than 500 meters per day between campsites. Nonetheless, I got violently sick in the middle of the night and didn’t sleep at all, right before our second and most difficult day. The next morning I still felt it best for us to go for it, and we took our sweet time ascending the 4,600m pass. This was definitely a difficult hike, but the views made the pain and low oxygen worth it. I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful this entire landscape was in words, but we decided it was a confluence of what we imagined Ireland and the Himalayas would look like together. With speckled lichen covering the rocky pampas below the intricate masterpiece of Nevado Salkantay (Savage Mountain, 6,271m) and glaciers perched precariously on its snow-dusted slopes, it was almost as difficult to hike the pass as it was to tear your eyes away from the view and back to your footing as we ascended. We stopped for lunch just below the pass after reaching it in order to enjoy the landscape and listen to the rumble of distant avalanches as the clouds began to flood in. By midday, we were the last group of trekkers to reach the pass, but this was understandable—during our entire five days on the trail, Katie and I were the only trekkers we encountered carrying all our own gear. Literally every other non-guide on the trail was part of a paid tour group and had pack mules carrying everything other than their extra layers and during-hike water. I was pretty surprised by the lack of other solo hikers, but we still got mad respect from every guide group we encountered. Mountain woman points to the max, indeed.

Campsite night two
The second night campground was hands-down the best tentsite I have ever had and probably ever will. By mid-afternoon of our pass day, we settled on an unnamed pampas probably slightly below our first campsite altitude and both collapsed on our sleeping pads right in the open amongst the grazing horses for the last hour or so of sunlight. It was a warmer night and we were actually able to sit outside our tent in our layers as the peaks above us lit up in alpenglow and the stars began to peek out of the dark sky. It was truly the most beautiful place to just sit with our coca tea and dehydrated potatoes and stare in awe at the landscape, hoping to catch sight of the avalanches we heard. Our next morning, we passed through a pampas below our campsite that I now regard as the most beautiful place I have ever been. Between the pass and that pampas, I cannot fathom spending time in a more beautiful place and I am so happy to have been able to enjoy it for our first few days on the trail.

Nevado Huamantay, from campsite night two
Now the hiking was much easier, with the altitude descending and the temperature rising as we passed into the Peruvian jungle. This was a complete shock to me—jungle? I had been so focused on the highest altitude I have ever hiked that I completely didn’t think that the lower altitudes are indeed a banana and avocado tree forested land of bright flowers and lush jungle. We now started encountering small and isolated towns, plus guided groups and even a trio of mountain bikers who whipped past us at one point. Our plan to hike from Andenes to La Playa was already a long haul and we learned that we had camped about two hours before Andenes. The problem was, a campsite before La Playa would have to be a backyard along the road we were now hiking from the town of Collpapampa. Two motorcyclists offered we could pitch our tent at a friend’s house up the road—good, now we had an option. 

One of our fellow passengers
Soon after, however, we managed to catch a hitchhike that will forever put my few other hitchhiking experiences to shame. Instead of a guide group in the back of the truck, this time Katie and I smooshed ourselves standing in the back with four bull cows, the closest of which tied up on its side and allegedly sick for a reason we never really figured out. Despite driving slowly, the ride was still an hour-long fear of having our legs crushed or impaled by the bulls getting jostled around in the truckbed or the sick bull occasionally thrashing violently. We used our backpacks as protection between us and the horns and clung to the overhead bars for dear life. A few minutes in, we passed the friend’s house previously mentioned: turns out the “friends” were no less than 20 Peruvian construction workers. After seeing that, we both whole-heartedly took the ride with the bulls over the night staying with twenty construction worker men. I am still thankful beyond belief for catching (and surviving) this hitchhike.

Fernandito the camp cooking kitten
We ended up in La Playa after the ride with the cows, which made our final two days on the trail much more possible. This campsite was at the end of the town and owned by a very nice woman who sat and talked with us during dinner. My favorite part of this camp was the kitten that came with it, who is officially the best camp cooking cat around. Fernando was a loving terror who attached himself to Katie and me. In the middle of the night, we both woke up to a kitten silhouette on the side of the tent as Fernando attacked the side of our tent wherever we moved. He even jumped up on top of the tent (luckily not collapsing it or getting his claws stuck) and eventually let us be after much whacking on the sides of the tent and calls of “Fernando! Get off the tent!” by us. I can officially say now that I did indeed get attacked by a puma in my tent while in South America, although that puma was a feral yellow tabby kitten.

Banana trees all over the place
Our fourth day of hiking was a calm, hot, and slow plow along a road through the jungle that we filled with plenty of singing and fairly ridiculous lengths of speaking in absurd accents just because we were kind of out of it by this point. All was well until we reached Santa Teresa, the low-altitude alternative to our itinerary, when we ended up out on this hot and shadeless wasteland of a roadway in search of fabled hot springs. This was probably the closest to genuine collapse we came, but alas, the hot springs appeared in the shade of a distant cliff!
Santa Teresa aguas termales
And man, they were gorgeous pools of the clearest water and absolutely perfect for nearing the end of our trek. We bartered a ride back to town to avoid the wasteland return and ended up in another organized campsite with a bunch of gringo trains. Katie and I both wanted to meet other travelers and actually avoid our grandma tendency of being asleep no later than 7pm, but now it was Katie’s turn to get violently sick. By night four, we had officially swapped places: now I was the motivating friend who felt great and she was the sick and dying friend trying her absolute best.

But we continued on! After half a day of walking along a railroad through the jungle below Machu Picchu, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the town born entirely for tourists. There is a phrase, buena onda, in Spanish that is used rather often that basically means “good vibes”—Katie and I could not get past the really unsettling onda that reeked in Aguas Calientes. It was unnervingly fake and uncomfortable to realize that hundreds of tourists pour in on the Asian-corporation-owned train, stay for one night, and then cart up to Machu Picchu for a few hours before fleeing. We unfortunately spent two nights in Aguas Calientes, the first in the absolute sketchiest hostel you can even imagine. Take note that there is a 30% tax at least on all food in the entire town, in case you ever travel here and want to avoid the unwelcome surprise we got.

Daybreak view from Machu Picchu
Getting tickets into Machu Picchu proved to be an all-day ordeal of desperately attempting to prove ourselves as students in order to get a 50% discount from the incredibly expensive entrance fee. Thanks to Alfredo, one of the ticket representatives, we eventually were granted the discount: we were up and outside in an absolute torrential downpour at 5am the next morning to catch the bus up to Machu Picchu. The way the mountains in this region are formed as huge, rounded, and jungle-covered spires, the climb to Machu Picchu is outrageously steep but meant that all the clouds of the heavy rain were settled in the valley, making for a very cool mist covering of the ruins for our first few hours. It was eerie and beautiful to float among the rooms of this ancient city without being able to see past the sheer cliff face on all sides. To add to the beauty we had seen on the trek, we found a perch to watch the dawn sunlight waft its way through the clouds and illuminate the landscape very slowly. It was quite simply unreal. Just absolutely beyond my imagination, of the clouds among these incredibly strange mountains seen from ancient walls.
Panorama of my painting subject after the clouds lifted

The central plaza of Machu Picchu
Katie and I spent a few hours in the midst of the day to just wander around on our own and draw in our sketchbooks, one of the many reasons why we are such compatible travelers. While I was painting the same mountain view we had watched at dawn, I unintentionally got a few visitors asking about what I was doing, including a pair of Chilenos who asked to take a photo with me and ending up as a Japanese tourist spectacle.
Near the cliff face into nothing
Something to check off the bucket list, I suppose, but it was very nice to just take my time to enjoy the place we had worked so hard to get to and truly commit the views to memory. Machu Picchu is a beautiful city and clearly built by a brilliant culture with skill in precise cutting of the soft stone found in the area, innovative irrigation methods still used in cities such as Mendoza, and a very intriguing sacred region of the city also used for celestial observation. After a solid eight hours exploring and petting llamas, Katie and I headed back to Aguas Calientes.
These guys are crazy

Our final day was spent taking the train to the ancient town of Ollantaytambo, where the streets and many of the buildings themselves are original Incan ruins that are still occupied.  We hiked up along a bluff to some ruins to just explore and get a beautiful view of the valley, and had lunch in a local haunt recommendation from our hostel owner that clearly never gets gringo customers, based on the looks we got from the chefs. That evening we were surprised to find that Ollantaytambo was the base camp for a week-long international mountain biking competition called Inca Avalanche. We were right on time for the results ceremony, followed by a couple of professional mountain bikers doing insane jump tricks for a few hours. I now understand why things like the X-Games are so intense—those guys are crazy, but impressive.

View overlooking Ollantaytambo from some of the ruins
O hai.
Leaving from Cusco the next day for another return itinerary of sleeping in the Lima airport and a really great movie selection (not dubbed in Spanish!) on one of our LAN flights, we were sad to leave Peru but content. We survived, thrived, and I even did it all on trail running shoes I’d bought two days before leaving, thanks to stupidly forgetting my perfectly broken-in boots in Patagonia. My friend Mauricio graciously mailed them to me a few months ago, but it appears the Argentine mail system has gobbled them up. It was truly an amazing trip with wonderful company and returning to Mendoza spurred some interesting thoughts on the concept of home. It is great to be back here with my wonderful host mom and the familiar, tree-lined streets of what is now very late fall. The beauty continues.

Much love from the Peruvian llamas, Emilia

PS- Alternate blog title that Katie and I came up with:
Gormanka and Warmi Eat Savage Mountain For Breakfast [and Then Barf It Back Up]. We thought it was hilarious. And sadly accurate. Oh well.


  1. I don't know if we can be friends anymore. You're too cool.

    But really, these sound like killer adventures and I'm super jealous and can't wait to hear more and look at more of your gorgeous photos. I especially like your panoramas. And kudos for your hitchhiking exploits-I fully support it, and am glad you were not gored by bulls.

    Happy Mountain-barfing!

    1. Oh dear, that's just false out the wazoo, coming from the woman who has already rocked field research in the tropics this year and meets with the King of Bhutan fairly regularly while living in his home country before running around the organic farms of Europe just because you're so cool and you can. You're pretty much the bomb-diggity yourself, m'dear!

      Unfortunately I'm gonna have to lower the definition of all my other panoramas to have them load properly, but I cannot wait to hear about all of YOUR crazy stories! (Yup, definitely a talented Mountain-barfer, haha)