Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Choquequirao Part III: Down and Up—Again!

It rained most of the night and we awoke to a cloudy-foggy morning. When we looked out our tents, the clouds moved slowly below us and it looked like we were in heaven.

We were able to sleep until 6:00 am because the altitude meant that the day would be cool—at least at first, until we slipped down to the river later in the afternoon. We could start hiking as late as 7:00! Although the trail was muddy from the rain, it was not slippery and it was easy to walk back down to Marampata where Rebecca and I drank some more yogurt and restocked our chocolate supply for the day. Then it was down, down, down again. The rocks slipped against each other in the trail making it harder to go down than to go up in many places. By the time we reached our lunch stop at Santa Rosa, my knees were mushy and we still 1700 feet to descend and then 1200 back up the other side of the canyon to our campsite. Fortunately, Samm, our guide, was very patient with my slowness and walked along with me carrying on a lighthearted conversation. He was fascinated with my tales of the wonders of the desert Southwest US and I encouraged him to go there someday to see them for himself.

After several hours walking downhill, it was hard to look  at the switchbacks we were going
 to have to traverse on the other side of the canyon.

Our trekking poles were knee-savers and life-savers 
(almost literally!). I did not fall once while hiking in Peru!
We got another chance to ride the cable car across the river before beginning the ascent. 


We only had to walk another hour uphill before we found our resting place. The caretakers at the Chaquiska campsite had hens and chicks outside and a bunch of cuy (guinea pigs which they raise to eat) running around the floor of their kitchen. Santiago prepared another dinner which we ate with relish—we had burnt a lot of calories today! Again, it rained through the night, but by the next day, it was only cloudy and foggy again. We never had to hike in the rain—how nice of our guide to arrange that. 

We rose by 4:30 am again on the last day, but an early start was not so necessary since the day was cool. The fog lent a surreal effect on the desert vegetation.

However, the hike up seemed to get longer as we got closer to the finish. The last 15–20 switchbacks seemed interminable. I was stubbornly refusing to ride the horse and I made it to the top on my own—worn out but thrilled at the accomplishment. 

Our trekking group: Me, Rebecca, Anca, Ariel, and our guide, Samm.

Sunset at the top of the world

Choquequirao Part II: Images of the Past

Choquequirao means "cradle of gold" in the Quechua language. 

After another filling lunch and a rest, we started up the trail to visit the Choquequirao ruins. I won’t go into too much details here. You can read about Choquequirao here. But here are some of the images from our visit:

We decided to make the hike down beyond the main ruins to visit the Llama Terraces. These incredible structures were only discovered in 2004 and they were almost entirely intact, requiring no reconstruction. The walk down to see them is pretty steep and the steps that the Incan’s used to access them are even steeper. Walking down them and looking into the valley below gave me a bit of vertigo, so I only went a little way. We were lucky to see them—usually the 4-day trek does not include them because there is not enough time. The trade-off was that we walked back to camp in the dark—which meant that I walked even s-l-o-w-e-r! But dinner was ready when I arrived!

Looking down the steep steps next to the Llama Terraces.

Choquequirao Part I: Getting There

Since Rebecca arrived, we have been busy experiencing travel and I have to apologize for falling behind in my blog. Now, you may find that the posts may be a bit out of chronological order, but I am going to try to write about all of our travels together. Two weeks ago we experienced a long-awaited highlight of our trip: a trek to Choquequirao high in the Andean jungle, and I am anxious to tell you about our adventure there.

Almost everyone I have met—at home and here in Peru—has asked me if I would be visiting Machu Picchu. My answer has always been, “No!  Way too many tourists! Way too expensive!” Now I will admit that Machu Picchu is probably worth a visit, and I may go there if I ever come back to Peru, but I had already decided not to visit the famous ruins before I left home and before I learned about another set of Incan ruins at Choquequirao.  Choquequirao is considered to be a sister-site to Machu Picchu, but few people know about it. Only about 30% of the ruins have been uncovered from the jungle and some researchers believe the site may be even larger than Machu Picchu. A very difficult 4-day trek in and out is required to visit these remote ruins.

However, the government of Peru is planning to construct a tram to Choquequirao to be operational by 2015. This will cut the 4-day trek down to 15 minutes for tourists. The government is hoping to relieve the tourism stress from Machu Picchu. So this may be the last year that a mob-free trip to Choquequirao may be possible. 

Our original plan was to make the trek in 5 days—two days in, a day to visit the site and rest a bit, and 2 days out, but at the last minute two other people were able to join us (making it cost a bit less for us), but only if we could do the hike in 4 days. After a bit of discussion, Rebecca and I decided to go for a 4-day trek with the help of a hired horse for insurance in case the going got too tough for me.

We hired BioAndean Expeditions, an outfitter with an English-speaking tour guide, incredible cook, and horsemen and their pack horses to carry all the gear for us. As you will see, this was luxury camping at its best!

We began our expedition on Tuesday (April 22) when the van and our guide, Samm,  picked us up at our Cusco hostel at 4:30 in the morning to make the four-hour journey to the trailhead near the village of Cachora. On the way, we stopped to eat a traditional Peruvian breakfast of sopa de gallina (stewing hen soup) with potatoes, chuños (naturally freeze-dried potatoes), a piece of chicken, and a hard boiled egg complete with shell. 

As we were preparing to set out at the trailhead, we met Nat.  Since it was obvious he was from the States, we exchanged our “Where are you from?” inquiries and it turned out that Nat was from Portland, Oregon. When we told him we were from Vashon, he asked, “Do you know Bill Moyer?” We just laughed incredulously! Bill is a long-time good friend of ours! 

Ever, carrying his first aid kit, stuck to me
 like glue down the canyon on the first day 
and back up on the last day. He was the 
“insurance” horseman on the 
south side of the canyon.
The pack horses and horsemen met us at the trailhead and by 11:00 am we were off—mostly downhill—for 10 kilometers to go from 9,850 to 4,850  feet above sea level to our first camp at Playa Rosalinda right next to the raging Apurímac River. Ever (pronounced eber) was the very patient horseman leading our “insurance” horse on the first and last day. I was, by far, the slowest of the four trekkers, but throughout the trip, Ever stayed behind or beside me, just in case I needed to ride. He was so sweet and, although he is fluent in Quechua and Spanish, he did not speak any English, so we carried on fun conversations about how I needed to be careful and take care of my knees, whether I was married or had a boyfriend, whether he was married or had children, how long I had been in Peru, how incredibly beautiful the canyon is, etc.

Santiago prepares one of many delicious meals!
Our guide was Samm, an incredibly gifted young man of only 23 years, who could not have made our trip more wonderful. The crew of horsemen and a cook carried all our gear on horseback for us. All we had to carry was some water, camera, rain gear (just in case), sunscreen, and our snacks. When it was time for lunch, Santiago, our cook, had a full hot meal ready for us, including soup and a three-dish entree. Then when we arrived at camp in the evening, our tents were set up, complete with comfortable Thermarest mattresses. We could rest a bit before dinner was ready, which, again was a full meal, beginning with tea and popcorn and crackers or mini-cheese empanadas, followed by another delicious soup, a three-dish entree, and dessert. If we did not get enough to eat on this trip, it was certainly our own fault! Now the miracle of all this food was that Santiago prepared everything from scratch (to feed us and the crew!) on a little cutting board and a two-burner stove. The horsemen assisted him, and everything came to the table piping hot and fresh. Amazing! Santiago’s mushroom soup is the best mushroom soup I have ever had. 

Samm, our guide. Lower right: the cable car we rode across the river.
The Apurímac River lulled us to a very restful sleep. I was so tired that I barely moved all night. We were awakened at 4:30 am by a polite “Buenos dias” at the tent door from Santiago, who brought muña (a kind of mint) tea and washing water. What great room service! We had to get going early to beat the heat as we walked up, up, up the other side of the canyon. But first! We were treated to a lovely breakfast of omlettes, fruit, and bread to fill our tanks! We only had to pack up our personal gear. The tents were taken down for us—Ahhh, luxury camping!

Our first order of business on the second day was to cross the Apurímac River. Last year, the bridge was washed out and an oroya (cable car) has been set up. I was a little nervous at first, not sure if I would be afraid, but it was great fun. The car “falls” half way across the river and then Samm on the other side pulled us the rest of the way over. I was only sorry that the trip across was so short!

Now we would hike up from the river at 4,850 feet above sea level to our campsite at 9,950 feet. It was pretty difficult for this 60-year-old. I was glad that I was fairly well acclimated to the altitude. I decided that I take advantage of our extra horse to help me up part way for about an hour and a half. This would, hopefully, keep me from encountering overuse injuries that would make it difficult to finish the trip. Samm led the strong little Peruvian pack horse up the trail. These horses are not trained to use reins—only to be led. It was a good break.

We went from arid desert to high Andean jungle in a few hours and the vegetation changed rapidly.
About half-way up, we encountered tiny mosquitoes. I was a bit cocky about the fact that mosquitoes do not like me. In the past I have found that they mostly do not bite me at all, and I told everyone so. I really hardly ever saw mosquitoes around me on the trek. That evening, my fellow trekkers and guide were insisting that I had bites all over the backs of my arms and on my neck. I was still in denial since I could not see or feel them. HOWEVER, I was later to discover that these Andean mosquitoes are very sneaky! I did not feel them bite, did not see them, and they did not start itching much UNTIL I GOT HOME THREE DAYS LATER!! And THEN they made me miserable for about a week. My arms each had about 100 bites on the soft undersides where I could not see them. I felt like a kid with chickenpox! That’ll teach me to brag about how mosquitoes think I have “vinegre, no sangre” (vinegar, not blood).

We came to Marampata, Samm’s home village where his mother and sister live. This was a nice rest stop where we purchased apples, drinkable yogurt, and some milk chocolate from a tiny store. The only way in and out of this village is the way we had come—down to the Apurímac and back up via the steep trail, so it seemed so funny to find the store here. The chocolate came in very handy later in the day when my energy really began to flag. 

Now the trail evened out a bit as we walked the final three kilometers to the Choquequirao campsite—a couple kilometers below the first ruins. Santiago and his helpers had camp set up and lunch almost ready for us. This was amazing since they could not bring the horses from the other side of the canyon across the cable car. They could only bring the gear. Horsemen had led new horses down from the village of Maranpanta early in the morning to meet them and then led them all UP past us to have camp set up before we arrived. (Did I mention luxury camping yet? I felt like a queen!)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Return to Arequipa

I returned to Arequipa on Monday in anticipation of Rebecca’s arrival this week. I had a free day on Tuesday, so I went over to the central plaza to have lunch and to search for a special welcome gift for Rebecca. I had learned about a traditional pre-Columbian god of the Andean people, Ekeko, the god of good fortune. You see little (and sometimes large) statues of him here and he carries lots of “stuff” that symbolizes a comfortable life: houses, food, money, musical instruments, and, these days, cars and boats. He is sports a mustache and is always smiling. Historically, he is said to provide good harvests with an annual offering of grain, but at some point, people decided he liked to smoke and many of the little statues come with a hole in their mouth where you can place a cigarette once a year and light it to ensure prosperity for the new year!

I was looking for a tiny version of the Ekeko that I could put on a necklace to ensure that Rebecca have good fortune on her trip in Peru. I went from shop to shop, gesturing and asking, “ Estoy buscando por un Ekeko muy pecunio, por poner circa de cuello en un collar.” (Broken Spanish for “I am looking for a tiny Ekeko statue to put around the neck on a necklace.”) No one had one small enough and I eventually settled for a fairly small version from a key chain, which I placed on a cord.

While on my expedition in and out of tourist gift shops, I happened upon a couple women sitting in the street making and selling dolls. I had promised a friend for a couple handmade dolls for her grandchildren and I did not pass up this opportunity! The only difficulty was deciding which dolls to purchase. I finally settled on two different ones.

Rebecca arrived at the Arequipa airport on Wednesday after 25 hours of travelling from Kauai. She promptly took a shower and crashed in her bed until dinner time. But the next day we walked and walked. First, after a wonderful breakfast at Manuel and Adela’s home, we walked down the street to Lily’s Salon. When I have been in Arequipa, I have enjoyed having Lily wash my long hair every week. This would be the last opportunity to indulge in such luxury but  I got the opportunity to introduce her to Rebecca.

Most of our energy for the day was spent at the San Camillo Market, where Rebecca enjoyed pointing out the fruits here that are also grown in Hawai'i and taking pictures of many that we had no idea of how to identify.  The fruit displays reach for the sky and walking down the aisle is a sensory delight.

Oca (top) and
Oca Nigra (bottom)
Especially interesting was the oca nigra (black oca) that had such an interesting pattern on the outside, we just had to buy a couple. I really like oca so I am looking forward to trying this variety.  I also had a taste of  my first chirimoya, a very creamy fruit (almost like a not-too-sweet ice cream) . Another apt name is the “custard apple.” 

We picked out some strawberries, avocado, bananas, two kinds of olives, and grandilla (related to passion fruit). Rebecca passed a vendor of blood sausage and could not resist buying a piece. (I can easily resist blood sausage!)  This all would make a nice lunch back at our homestay.

We left the octopus at the market, but Rebecca managed to bring home a piece of  morcilla (blood sausage).

Rebecca also needed a hat to ward off this high-altitude, tropical sun. Many of the Arequipena women wear wonderful straw hats, so at the market we visited the “Sombrero |Seccion,” and although most of the selections were too small (we Americans are so large!), she found one that fits and folds down and can be packed, but is nevertheless, very cute on her. I have my suspicions that it is plastic, and not straw, but it is very practical for travelling.

We returned “home” to eat and rest. (Rebecca was adjusting to the new country, high altitude, and still recovering from her journey.)  Later we returned to central Arequipa for dinner in a nice restaurant high above the plaza and cathedral, which was magically lit for the evening.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Trueno Y Relámpago! Tiempo Real!*

* Thunder and Lightning! Real Weather!
Almost every afternoon or evening, we get a violent thunderstorm over the Lake Titicaca. When I was on Isla Amantani, every lightning flash felt like it was right overhead. Tonight, I took the opportunity to point my camera out my bedroom window and try my hand for the first time to capture some of Mother Nature’s power: 

This one looks like it jumped over the trees, but in actuality it was just a coincidence— the lightning was miles behind them.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Celebracion de 60 Compleanos en el arriba de Pachamama

(Or How I Spent My 60th Birthday)
For the weekend of my 60th birthday (March 22), I decided to take a little tourist jaunt to the island of Amantani. This is how I spent the second day there—my birthday!
We woke in the morning to a breakfast of fried bread. It tastes just like Navajo fry bread and I enjoyed it plain, although some people sprinkle sugar on it. Both the couples who shared my homestay only stayed one night and had to catch the return boat early in the morning, so they ate quickly and Mirasol escorted them to the port. Artemio soon left for a painting job in a nearby building. Meliza and Yheison and I went to the plaza. The children played with a ball and I walked around examining the buildings. There was hardly anyone else around.

I decided to pack my shoulder bag to take a walk around the village for an hour or so. I always carry my camera, water, sweater, and some food—just in case. I started uphill toward the walkways to Pachamama and Pachatata, the two highest  points on the island. Pachamama is the fertility goddess on whom the Quechua depend for good harvests.  Once I started up the hill, I decided to try to go all the way up to Pachamama, the higher of the two hills. The walkway was paved in stone all the way up to the top of each hill. The hillsides are terraced and planted with wheat, barley, quinoa, potatoes, oca, and havas (fava beans). This is the season for harvesting potatoes so many families were walking up to their fields, some leading burros which would graze all day and then transport the harvest down to the village.

ONLY three arches to go!
I was stopping to catch my breath about every 100 feet or so, enjoying looking around at the view. One old man (79 years old—I later learned) asked about who I was and where I was from as he passed me up with his burro. About halfway up, I was getting a bit fatigued and realized that I needed my coca leaves, but had left them in my room. The about 10 minutes later the same old man walked over and sat down with a bag of coca and offered me some! Amazing! He told me I only (!) had to pass through three more archways and I would be at the top. I could see them above me. We talked a bit more and I continued up the walkway.

The view at the top was worth the walk! The sun was warm, so I sat in the shade and dozed on a stone seat for a bit before eating the snack I had brought. I had not originally planned to walk so far, so I had to ration my water for the trip down. Not a sole was there and I remained at the top of Pachamama for about an hour enjoying the quiet, taking pictures, and realizing that I was celebrating an incredible 60th birthday!

View from Pachamama

Pachatata through an archway on Pachamama

Soon after I began my descent, I ran into a woman walking up. She jokingly held out her hand asking for help up. We laughed I took it and pulled her up the hill a few feet. She asked if I had any water and I offered her my bottle. I was surprised she did not have any since she was going to the top of Pachamama to harvest a special kind of potato there. But it was a nice trade for the coca leaves the old man offered me earlier. We talked for a while and laughed over the fact that she was 43 and already had 3 nietos (grandchildren) and I was 60 and had none. She looked to be about 30! 

A bit further down and I saw an old man harvesting potatoes. I called over “Muchas papas!” It was the same man who had shared his coca leaves with me earlier. He stopped and walked over and we talked a bit about potatoes and where I was from. His wife walked up and he introduced her as his senora. She looked even older than he did, but may have been a bit shy because she did not stop to converse. He introduced himself as Torebio and wanted all my contact information to send to a friend of his who lives in California.

A bit further down, I met a family coming up who knew my host family and we talked for a while. The father was delighted to talk. His wife would ask him questions in Amayra which he relayed to me in Spanish. (It is not uncommon for these remote Andean women to not speak much Spanish.) Their son was 11 years old and had such a sweet smile that I just had to get a photograph.

The little hour-or-so walk I had started ended up being a 3½ hour hike. Although it was only about 2.8 miles, at this altitude (4100 meters at the top), I considered it an accomplishment!

I got back to my homestay casa about noon and it was a good thing I did. Earlier in the morning, Artemio had told me that lunch would be at dos (two)—or at least that is what I thought I heard. He actually said doce (twelve)!  It may have been rude to show up so late. Mirasol and Yheison had gone to harvest potatoes and responsible little Meliza had lunch ready. Artemio came home for lunch and we talked for a bit while we ate our barley soup. I commented on what a good cook she was and said that if I bring my daughter to Amantani, they could cook together! She smiled and served more papas.

Altitude + Hike + Hearty Lunch = Siesta so I took a short nap before accompanying Meliza down to the port for her to buy drinks to sell in the family tienda (store). When we returned, Meliza told me to bring my knitting down to work on while she cleaned the store. She dusted all the shelves and merchandise and window sills and swept the floor and then sat down to practice spinning again with the Andean spindle and alpaca fiber I brought.

The tienda faces the plaza and there were some young men outside on the steps. Meliza and I moved outside to sit near them. I asked if they could spin. Freddie, sitting next to me smiled broadly and said yes and he started using the little Turkish spindle while his friend tried out the one that Ben made me. Both of them had made their beautiful chullos with colorful mariposas (butterflies) on them. Beautiful knitting they had done with the floats in back tied down perfectly. Meliza told them I was making a chullo, so I had to go get my flimsy excuse for color knitting to show them. (Lace is my specialty) I complained about how bad my floats looked and asked him to show me how he knits. He very patiently showed me the Andean method of knitting—running the yarn behind my neck and using my thumbs to wrap the yarn around the needles. (Unfortunately, I was not “all thumbs,” but “all fingers and thumbs” and very clumsy. I will need much practice to master this new method.) Freddie and his friends wished me “Feliz compleanos!” and went to play volleyball—a very popular game here.

It was getting dark and cold so Meliza and I moved inside the store. She worked on some math. (Math is her favorite subject.)  School would not even begin for two days and she was already studying her math! I told her that math had been my favorite subject in school, too. The store closed about 7:00 and we went upstairs to eat dinner. I told them that I only had room for soup, so Mirasol put the pasta in the soup! It really hit the spot—so warming and hearty! Again, we went to bed early. Mirasol had been working hard all day and it was apparent she was very tired.

While Mirasol cooked, little Yheison colored
in his Disney coloring book and then gave
me the page he had finished.
During both nights that I was there, we had violent thunderstorms, with lightening and thunder clapping right over our heads. But I went out to the bathroom after one of the storms had passed and the stars were brilliantly clear.

And that is how I spent my 60th birthday. Who could ask for more?