Getting high the old fashioned way: Peru, Day 3

Wednesday, 20 June 2012, Cocoalpanya, on the Salkantay Trail, Peru

Today was the first “real” day of the trek. It started out early enough. We had met out guide, Alex, last night at the worldwide HQ of Quente Tours, incorporated, a pleasant enough office suite off of one of the main drags in the old part of Cusco.

Right off the bat, I  wasn’t all  that impressed with their organization – It turns out the extra day Mark had asked them to book in Aguas Calientes (the town right below Machu Picchu) hadn’t been booked, and instead our train tickets were for coming back the same day we arrived in Macchu Picchu. We discussed trying to book the extra day and move the train tickets but in the end opted against it.

They also insisted they had sent a driver out to the airport that morning to pick me up and charged me the 15 Sole for the  trip. I wasn’t about to argue, but I had looked at each and every sign being held up outside the airport that morning, and none had said either “Qente” or “Nick Wilde” or “Mr Wilde” or “Wilde” or any recognizable variation of any of those.

No matter. After a short briefing on the trek and what to expect we were cut lose with the instructions to be ready at 6:30 AM the next morning – a driver would pick us up at the hostel.

We set our alarms for early  the next morning, intent on taking one last hot shower before we hit the trail. Mark went first (only one shower in our section of the hostel), and I followed. When I got out of the shower at 6:15, Mark informed me Alex and the driver were already here and ready to go. Huh? 6:30 is 6:30, not 6:15. Never mind. I’m pretty much set to go, so I stuff the remaining items in my back, gather up a few extra items I won’t need on the trail into a garbage bag to give the hostel operators for safe keeping, and headed out the door.

Sure enough, Alex and the driver (who would also be our cook) were waiting. We hopped into a minivan and headed out, stopping on the outskirts of Cusco to pick up a porter who was going with us.  About ½ hour outside of Cusco we stopped in a small town with a market to grab some breakfast. The market seemed much like the central one I had visited in Cusco, sans the more touristy elements. This was mostly a food market for the locals.

We sat at a counter and Alex chatted with the woman behind the counter, who apparently he already knew. Breakfast consisted of fresh cheese, bread, and butter for me, and bread and jam for Mark, who is vegan. Coffee was hot water into which you poured a concentrated coffee syrup – kind of like instant coffee. It was hot and caffeinated, and at this point in the day,  that was all I needed.

Back on the road, it turns out Alex doesn’t have our tickets for the Inca trail yet (you need a permit to hike the trail), so we have to stop in another town, Limatambo, at an Internet Café, for Alex to download the tickets from his email and print them out

The café must have the world’s slowest connection, because it takes quite a while for Alex to get the tickets. It’s a pleasant morning, the sun is shining, it’s warmed up a bit, and being tourists, we don’t really have any sense of urgency about us, so we chill by the side of the road waiting for Alex.

After getting the tickets, we turn off the main road and start driving up a dirt road – up, up, and up we go, the road becoming smaller and smaller with each hairpin curve. Good thing we don’t meet anyone on the way up – I’m not sure how we’d manage to pass. After what seems like an hour of climbing and hair pin turns, at what appears to be near the end of the road, we come upon a farmhouse with some pack animals – horses and mules, tethered outside. Apparently, these are our pack animals. Alex, the cook, porter, and the man from the farm all busy themselves with organizing the gear and lashing it to the backs of the animals, while Mark and I (and eventually everyone else) sit down to a hearty early lunch of chicken soup (for me – I don’t remember what Mark had) provided by the lady of the farm.

And with that, we’re off. They’re still organizing the gear, but Alex assures us they’ll be along shortly and heads out on the trail, with Mark and I following. The trail goes up fairly steeply from here, but not outrageously so, and it feels good to be out of the car, stretching our legs and actually walking somewhere. Across the valley we can see the town of Mollepata, just a little below us. Mollepata is at 3K meters, or just under 10K feet. We must be right at about 10K feet in altitude, then, and we’re planning on spending the night at 4100 meters – almost 13,500 feet – so we have a little hiking to do. It’s still a little cool out here, so I’m happy to have my new alpaca sweater to wear.

The late morning passed pleasantly enough, with the sun out, and the trail moving steadily upwards. Just after noon time Alex pointed out a sunny meadow just a little ways across the valley from where we were, apparently, we’d be turning a corner fairly shortly, coming up on this place, and that would be our lunch spot.

When we got there, the pack animals and porters, which had passed us earlier, were already encamped. At tent was up with a table and chairs for eating, the horses and mules were grazing, and the cook was busy making lunch. A bowl of hot water each was already waiting for us to wash our hands and face in. Civilized! And this ritual would be repeated pretty much each day on the trail – we would leave before the porters, and by the time we got to the stopping place for the evening  or for lunch they will have arrived ahead of us and set things up. Now, *this* is the way to hike.

After lunch we rest in the sun a bit before heading back out on the trail. Another few hours of hiking and steady elevation gain, going up the valley into the hills, arrives us at our destination for the evening. I’m told that tonight might be one of the chilliest of the trek.  I’m feeling pretty good though have a bit of a headache from the altitude – probably nothing a good night’s sleep won’t help.

Things I learned  today, on the trail, from Alex:

  • Columbia and Bolivia used to be the #1 and #2 exporters of Cocaine in the world. Not anymore. Thanks to the US’s war on drugs the trade from there has slackened, and now Peru is #1.
  • There are some 700 foreigners in Peruvian jails, mostly  for drug smuggling.
  • Peruvian jails are *not* someplace you want to spend  the night, if you can avoid it.

Well, OK then – I will definitely keep  that in mind.