Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Exploring Peru - Trekking in the Andes Mountains II

I hope you've enjoyed reading about our recent trip to Peru. You can read previous posts HERE and HERE if you have not yet and want to catch up.

Also, I've posted more pictures to my Peru set on Flickr that correspond to this new post. See them and previous pictures HERE.

Waking up after a good night sleep, we knew that today held a loop hike up to and returning from the Humantay glacial lake. Essentially, this was another acclimation day, but the hike would prove a challenge none the less.

After a tasty breakfast in the lodge consisting of eggs, bacon, fresh bread, fruit, juice and local coffee, our group strapped on day packs, put on our kinking boots and filled our water bottles for the day. Exiting the building, a number of people picked up locally made hiking sticks topped with hand knitted characters. I've never found walking sticks to be useful for hiking myself, so I passed on taking one. But, I did take a picture of them.

As we strolled around the side of the lodge, we exited the shade and entered the brilliant Andean sun and bathed in the spectacular view of both the Salkantay and Humantay peaks. Walking in front of the lodge, several llamas grazed. A few jerked their heads up to see just who was ambling by. Satisfied that we were not a threat, they each went back to their gentle business.

Humantay Lake
And with that, the day's hike commenced in earnest. The first part consisted of a slow rise away from the lodge and up past some rock-built huts that some locals lived in. Soon were swung to the left and started a consistent uphill section that took us along a small river valley and provided us views of the meadows on either side. Horses, cows, bulls and a few condors soaring majestically overhead provided interesting distractions as we huffed and puffed our way up. Our occasional stops for water and to catch our breath offered ample opportunity to take in the view, see the details of the landscape and really enjoy our surroundings.

Over the course of the next hour or so, the meadow-y terrain gave way to more rocky and alpine surroundings. Eventually we came to a roaring stream cascading over a series of rocks as the water rushed away from the glacier above and down, down, down. Our trail skirted this feature and once we were up and around it we came to an open spot in the valley that revealed a spectacular view of the impressive Humantay Mountain. Time for another break.
After that respite, the group turned its attention to the final push up the next ridge and to the lake. After a while, the steep incline started to flatten out such that we found ourselves again in a wide flat spot, but this time Humantay was even more directly ahead and over us. A few paces later, and we could see the first glimpse of the turquoise blue waters of Lake Humantay. Next we had hiked down from the ridge and to the shore of the lake. I could write quite a bit about this, but you know...nothing does this place justice more than just seeing it. So, here you go...

Descending from Humantay Lake
We lingered at the edge of the lake for about an hour, enjoying the sun, snacks and - of course - the view. Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to this beautiful spot and head back to the lodge. Going back, we took a different route down - mostly a straight shot over the fields vs. any type of switch backs. As we rambled along, you could see the lodge in the distance as we got closer and closer. Off to the left, we could also see the adjacent valley we would be hiking up the next day that led directly to Salkantay Pass.
Hot Tub, Cocktails and Offerings
Arriving back to the lodge about 2 p.m., our group was offered a choice - take the rest of the afternoon off or go on a horseback ride. Most of us opted to clean up, rest up and take a dip in the hot tub. A few more hardy souls among us decided to ride the horses. We were in the former group. Hitting the water at dusk, we were joined by some of or own group members and a couple from another tour group. Situated in front of the lodge with a HUGE view of Mount Salkantay, we enjoyed the conversation and a nice glass of Peruvian red wine. OK, here's my review of the wine: Was it the best red wine we'd ever had? No. Was it much better than expected? Yes. Were we sitting in a hot tub in the Andes looking at a majestic mountain at dusk...drinking a nice red wine? Heck yeah! Big thumbs up. The only problem was that once the sun goes down up there at 12,000 feet, it's COLD! We scampered into the building and right to a hot shower. 

Later, the group gathered for dinner and then two additional fun activities. First, we learned how to make the national drink of Peru, the Pisco Sour. The bartender asked for volunteers, and when everybody hesitated for an uncomfortably long interval, Diane jumped in and said she'd do it. After donning a Peruvian knit hat and a bartender's apron, she was shown to all our benefit how to create the drink. It's pretty simple: 3 parts Pisco, 2 parts lime juice, 1 part simple syrup and 1 egg white...put it all in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. You then pour it into a glass and add 2-3 dashes of bitters. Done and ready

Miguel Performs the Offering
Next, we went out into the cold night, now replete with a blanket of twinkling stars to learn more about the ancient Inca religion. Our guide Miguel proceeded to enact the traditional offering ceremony that consisted of placing a prepared package onto roaring fire. The package looked like a Christmas present, but it was not filled with a single item. Rather it was packed with lots of small items - food, tokens, icons, paper and more. All of these things - Miguel described - are symbolic to the wishes, desires and needs of whomever is making the offering. As the package settles onto the fire, it is slowly consumed. At this point, the ceremony calls for a ring of water - or any liquid - to be laid down around the perimeter of the fire to ensure it remains pure. This was done. From here, the ceremony proceeds by the smoke increasing and inevitably floating up into the air and presumably (and to the point) up to the very face of the mountain. Via the smoke, the wishes and prayers of the people are literally delivered to the mountains so revered and seen as gods in their own right. Finally, with so many stars visible, Miguel showed us many of the constellations - many we did know, but then also a few that were more special or particular to the Incas. Thus ended our event. Off to be we went to get a good night sleep, for surely we would need all our energy for what tomorrow held in store.

Getting to 15,000 Feet: Salkantay Pass
Arising early, we again filled up on hot, fresh breakfast and saddled up for the big push up to 15,000 feet at Salkantay Pass. Leaving the lodge for the last time, we said our goodbyes to the nice staff and, a few minutes later, as we walked away from the building we bid adieu to the llamas patrolling the front "yard." The first 10-15 minutes of today's hike were the same as the day before. However, we then veered right and up and adjacent valley...the one leading to the pass. I'd say that no one part of the hike was super steep or daunting on its own. Diane and I have hiked much steeper trails around the Cascade foothills near Seattle. However, two things differentiated this (and other) alpine hikes in Peru: 1) The altitude. The thin air quite simply makes inclines that at sea level would be no problem, difficult. 2) The view. Just not like anywhere else. In fact, check out a couple shots I took along the way up to the pass...

Trail to Salkantay Pass
We took several breaks along the way of course, a couple of which were longer stays to eat snacks, refill on water and recuperate for the next section of the hike. Usually, these extended rests were in meadows or clearings with their own impressive view. In a couple places there were local highlanders selling their hand made knit hats. How could we resist? We didn't and bought one really great, unique hat featuring a condor pattern. Eventually we reached a section that the guides called "the snake" because the aggressive switch backs looked like a snake slithering up the side of the mountain. This proved to be the most difficult portion of the day for me...doable, sure...but the one steep section combined with altitude made it a heart pounder. Soon enough, we were up the snake and within eye shot of the summit. Now, another thing about altitude is that it turns short distances into longer walks. With your eye, you can see that your destination is only 200 yards away, for example. But, you start walking at a crisp clip up a hill at 15,000 feet and, well, you have to take short rests every now and again...and so it takes longer than you'd think to go those 200 yards. But it's worth it!

Check out these pictures from the pass....

Prayer rocks at 15,000 feet
Here, we also were told by the guide that locals practicing the traditional religion take three of the all-sacred coca leaves in their hands, hold them sequentially in each of the north, south, east and west directions while making a wish or prayer...and then placing them in a stacked pile of rocks for safe keeping up on the mountain. That's what you are seeing in the picture at the right. With such spectacular and expansive views, the group lingered at the pass marveling at what we were seeing, but at some point we needed to move on and start our decent towards lunch and then the next lodge for the evening. The trek down off the pass put is in a different sort of terrain...more rocky, more heather, streams and closer valley walls. Also, some clouds and fog settled in, making the feel of the place different or even strange. We plodded along for quite a while, still interested in what the next turn the trail might reveal. Some time later, we arrived what appeared to be a campsite, but we know otherwise. Indeed, this was our lunch spot for the day. A large tent in the center of the area was our dining hall and the other tents were the kitchen and quarters for the cooks and attendants. We filed in and took seats at the long table, and soon enough hot bowls of corn soup, fresh bread, a grilled lunch and then desert were all served. Very civilized. After eating, the sun had come out some and we were invited to lounge about the area in some nice chairs - digesting, resting and taking in the view. Here is a picture I took of our group doing just that. See immediately below.

Resting over, we moved on along the last segment of the hike for the day, culminating in our arrival at the second lodge of the trek. Now, if you've just spent an entire day hiking up to and down from 15,000 feet, what's perhaps the first thing you going to want to do? Maybe...take a shower? Right. Well, upon arrival at the otherwise very nice lodge, we learned that, well, the hot water heater wasn't working. What! Right. We were told that they'd fix it and tell us when it was working. In the meantime, what were we to do? Hit the bar. That's right. Hit the bar. Or, at least after a cursory face wash and change of clothes. Settled into the lobby lounge with some ice cold beers, we were soon approached by one of our fellow trekkers, Josh, who suggested we play Scrabble. We did. Hilarity ensued. Eventually the hot water heater was fixed, and we retired our room to get clean and rest up some before dinner. As we did, darkness fell and the beautiful view out our window turned to black. We gathered for dinner, but didn't eat until we received another well presented session on Inca religion and festivals from Miguel. That's one of the things that's great about a tour like learn new things all the time as you make your way day to day. And then we ate.

And that was pretty much it for that day. Get up early, hike to 15,000 feet, eat lunch on the mountain and get to the lodge. Done and dusted. We were zonked and turned in early.

Check back in a week or so for the next installment of this series where I'll get us all the way to Machu Picchu and back to Cusco - along with more pictures of course.

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by or belong to Marc Osborn. No use of these pictures of any type is permitted without permission from Marc Osborn.

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