Hops and Skips

Trekking Peru, Part 1: Entering the Sacred Valley

At the tail end of our Grand Travel Adventure of 2014, we did a four day-three night trek through Peru’s Sacred Valley, a region of the Andes once home to Incan civilization. Today, it’s where tourists can visit many archaeological remnants, including the infamous Machu Picchu, as well as several modern rural towns. There are a few trekking routes by which visitors can explore the area, and an endless number of tour operators can be found in Cusco, the one-time Incan capital city and present-day tourist hub. For our journey, we opted for the Lares Trek, a route that promised more indigenous culture and local village life than others, and booked through a locally-owned company called Inca Trekkers.

When you’re about to embark on a trip’s most planned excursion, you hope and pray the travel gods permit you a good night’s sleep just beforehand, especially when that activity promises to be a strenuous multi-day trek through unknown mountain terrain. Fortunately for us, the eve of our adventure through the mountains of Peru’s Sacred Valley was spent at the quiet Intro Hostel (a much-rejoiced upgrade from the party hostel of our first night in Cusco), permitting a restful night before our journey began at dawn the following morning.

For your more free-wheeling travelers, the shift to a guided tour can be jarring as your independence is suddenly limited. Couple that with an overwhelming location – such as the never-ending wilds of the Andes – and suddenly the dependence you feel towards your guide approaches alarming. As we wound through the valley by van, escorted to our trek’s starting point near the town of Calca, I felt out of my comfort zone to a degree I never had before. Here we were in a foreign country, in a region that speaks an uncommon language (Quechua, not Spanish), in a landscape so vast that we’d likely never be found if lost, putting our trust entirely in the skill and expertise of strangers… 

All I could do was take a deep breath, cross my fingers, and hop out of that van with enough faith to begin an adventure without any real idea what the next four days would look like.

Our trekking party was this: us two, semi-fit 20-something American tourists; our guide Victor, who spoke both Quechua and Spanish and led the way; one cook, Johan, who puts to shame any gas-burner meal you’ve ever made while camping; and one horseman leading three horses and all our stuff far ahead so that, by the time we reach a stopping point, camp is already set-up and food is waiting.

The mountains here offer an unreal level of vast, majestic scenery. At such high elevation (all upwards of 11,000 ft.), the air is thin and the weather constantly changing. It’s cool and cloudy with a constant threat of rain, but if the sun comes out, it’s so strong that you begin sweating immediately. You trudge on, clammy under your rain coat, with a constantly fluctuating body temperature. 

Our three-day route promised three major passes, and one of them had to be climbed this first day before lunch. This first leg led us through the Mantanay Valley, alongside farming communities and waterfalls, reaching a 12,000 ft. summit (via what Victor calls “switch-backs,” though I would call it a “straight-up vertical climb”) before ravenously devouring our 3-course lunch of stuffed avocado, vegetable soup, and chicken and vegetables. The rest of the day’s journey led us slightly downhill towards Cuncani village where we set up camp for the night. As dinner was being prepared, Victor took us through the community where we were invited into the home of some local residents after they’d brought the goats in from up in the hills.

We entered through what must have been the kitchen; it had a stove but its design was primitive at best. The floors were dirt; there was hardly any light and nowhere to sit; the space was barely stocked with cookware or food supplies. The two young children that welcomed us in had arrived home that afternoon from school, an hour’s walk away down in the valley, well before their parents made it home from working in the fields. It was their job to tend to the home and prepare the fire for the evening. 

We shared a snippets of our lives through Victor, our translator, witnessing the vast differences, understanding just how varied our definitions of “survival” would be.

As we settled in for the evening, Johan prepared another big meal for dinner – soup with garlic break, Bolognese sauce and potato pancakes, chocolate pudding – that seemed downright decadent compared to the lifestyle we had just seen. The next day promised to be a tough one with two major passes on the agenda, and rest and recuperation for the night were required. But before succumbing to sleep, we were left with visions of this place in which we rested our heads, overwhelmed by the infinite ways by which people live. 

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