Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ausungate Circuit

Ausungate Circuit:
(~42m or 68km)

4757m Abra Arapa
4850m Abra Apacheta
5165m Abra Palomani 
5068m Abra Campo 

The Ausungate Circuit is one of instant marvel, exceedingly quick in self-gratification, and a powerful burst of beauty in this world. I didn't have any tender moments with any locals, nor their cute and meek dogs. The circuit simply had me agape in the splendor of an intensely beautiful landscape. The wondrous scene crammed in so little miles, no wonder I had a huge smile on my face atop the first pass, Abra Arapa. 

Maybe I lied a little. A Quechuan older woman in traditional garb came strolling down the trail. In tow, a young llama on a rope leash, a shepherd dog, kind and with different colored eyes. Shortly before this we had stopped to take a quick break at a refuge. Some porters had arrived there before their clients and we chatted two of them up, a father and a young son of about 8 or 9. As Swami chatted them up I got the feeling they weren't telling us everything. It's not like we felt in danger of some sort, I think it was in regards to us being independientes rather than clientes. For instance, the bathroom was 'closed.' Not a big deal, I didn't need to go. Simply asking the question of using the bathroom can get you to determine how some of them may perceive us. We were non-payers of sorts. Despite what they might believe, we went about our brief journey not on any guided tour, rather one that any of them would take on their own. No prepared meals from anyone else other than in the villages, same creaky and bumpy transport, and the understanding of the meaning of mountains. 

Mountains are mountains----no matter where you're at. 

I breathed in that lush air, thick with an iridescent invisibility like the cold glare of a glacier. For some unknown reason, the air pops in the mountains, especially higher up. So, when the baby llama clumsily yet gracefully strutted up to Swami, her big eyes bulging out of a small triangular head, cute and precious, he startled back a bit as the llamita nosed her way to his hand, not quite yet relinquishing an open palm. But he did, and he smiled wide like a child, a glee and innocence only seen in the mountains. A charming moment, nonetheless. I felt tempted to continue playing with the llamita, however, the curiosity of where the woman came from, up so high, near 14,500ft, towing such cuteness, over came my playful spirit. Now, I merely wanted to walk, with my head looking up at Ausungate, and get to the other side of the pass to see what the woman saw, to see what her daily toil resembled.

After the Abra Arapa, a colorful Mars-scape, we traversed along a high mountainside, looking below small herds of horses and llamas grazed in what resembled multiple sunken pothole areas before the hillside plummeted steeply into the big pampa below. The sky darkened as night slowly crept shut like an old door loose on its hinges susceptible to a frail wind. We tramped down trail to a large lake, skimmed the grassy slopes and set up camp tucked at the head of a bowl. Through the night the local shepherd dogs incessantly howled and yipped through the night. I guess I can say the yowlings kept us up, but underneath two pointy and massive peaks drooping with a large glacier set between, I'd say even the yowlings couldn't disappoint us at that camp.

The next day, under a crisp and cool morning, we hiked by reflective lakes with oozing glaciers reaching the turquoise shores. Herds of llamas roved the hillsides grazing. Even as agape as we were, the morning was silent, and my mind fell in the visceral thought of 'silence is golden' and that cold, crisp air awakens you wholly.

Abra Palomani loomed over a reddish, brown-yellowish ochre landscape, yet dwarfed by the flanks of Ausungate. The seen: moonscape, reminiscent of an old worn red kerchief draped over a weathered and wrinkled face, a swarthy and sun-aged skin color permeated through the fizzled cloth, the nose the highest peak, the brow formed the edge of glaciated cirques, the chin looking down drainage. Imagine a drop dripping from this worn and chiseled chin in a faraway drainage to a body of ocean. Now, imagine a slew of kerchiefs, stacked upon each other, worn and torn and tattered, faded by the rays of the sun, eroded by rain and snow and wind, all slung over many faces lying close together, bodies splayed in all directions, eroding time and grit, red and a dingy yellow, stained brown from flakes of skin. This formed the giant Ausungate.

Hiking towards the massifs Hatun Uma and Ninaparaqu in a wide and long valley, a smattering array of earthy tones soothed the eyes. I felt incredibly small, like an ant in a confectionery dazzled by the sweetness with mountains of sugar to climb. We began a short steep ascent of Abra Campo before a gradual traverse on trail side-hilling barren slopes. Our pace quickened and I tried to keep a bit of distance from Swami. I didn't want him to see me welling up. I wanted this brief moment to myself----the enormous peaks flanked to my right, my feet grooving into the trail. I knew we would have a moment to share at the actual pass. But I welled up some tear-water flooding my eyeballs. I felt grateful to be alive for some unknown reason, an overwhelming feeling of being thankful for life. 

At Abra Campo we sat huddled apart against a windbreak of rocks under the stone talisman of many cairns, the stalwarts of Abra Campo. Spirits lived here, deep in the mountains...

Do I feel this entry displays an actual account of a trek on the Ausungate Circuit? No, but I think it portrays an account of the mountains, of a peregrination in the mountains that you can find anywhere. Of why we do what we do. We praise these mountains in severe humility drinking the cold and clear water of runoff and, coursing through our soul, the marrow of rock and dirt filtering our lives. We walk on into more.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Salkantay Trek

Salkantay Trek:

Mollepata to Machu Picchu Mountain*
(~60m or ~96.5km)

Mollepata to Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu 
(~65.5m or 105.4km)

•8/4: Mollepata-Soraypampa (~14m)
•8/5: Soraypampa-Salkantay Pass-Collcapampa-La Playa (~23m)
•8/6: La Playa-Llactapacta-Aguas Calientes (~19.5m)
•8/7: Aguas Calientes-Machu Picchu-Aguas Calientes (~9m) (~3.5m)*

*(minus descent from MP Mtn. and AC round trip from bridge)*

We waited on the dusty yet colorful corner in Cusco for the collectivo gather enough passengers for his minibus. After a few minutes, we left and, climbing up and over into the next valley, found other local riders. The road twisted and zagged, zigged enough to force a young Peruvian girl to vomit while sitting on her mother's lap. The land here, deep in the Andes, is rugged and the highways, whether paved or dirt, reflect this characteristic. The people, short yet have strong stems for legs, are resilient and incredibly kind. The land, these enormous mountains, in turn, reflect the people. After nearly 3 hours we reached Mollepata, a charming village hanging thousands of feet above the river below.

Swami and I were 'independientes,' rather we forsook the option of taking a bus about 20km to Soraypampa where most trekkers start the Salkantay Trek and decided to hike the dirt road all the way from Mollepata. Having this option enabled us to have a leisurely lunch with some coca tea, as well as having the unveiling of the massive valley and mountains in front of us in a clear perspective. Also, these crucial miles were training for our other upcoming hikes and acclimating at altitude with our packs on our backs was beneficial. Besides, hiking along with Swami----we couldn't wait to do that.

At Soraypampa we settled in for the night each under a grassy hut. We enjoyed an amazing Peruvian meal and muna tea from Andrea while chatting her up. Really quite lovely. Night sunk, the bright moon rose high and the harmony of the alpine night's noises reverberated under humongous peaks. I slowly sunk into a slumber and stirred my eyes open and meditated under the darkness. The humorous mix between city and barn ruckus intermingled in the alpine air. Cows grazed outside the hut, horses tramped along the corridor, a cat screeched incessantly, even a few birds croaked over head in the dark air, as well as the hobo-guttural thrusts and streams of vomit from a group-trekker suffering from altitude sickness, his hacking splitting the manger-type peacefulness of the crisp alpine air.
The next morning, streaks of pink and purple laced the sky above Nevado Tucarhuay resembling painted pastel brush strokes. We sat down for an early breakfast cooked from Andrean. Swami tried to learn some Quechuan phrases and Andrea tried to help. Her smile radiant, she had a calming aura about her. 

We left early somewhat in between the large groups of guided trekkers and under the Salkantay massif we passed hordes of trekkers. Salkantay glistened in the early morning air, a chill nipped briefly yet our hiking generated ample enough heat. Through a large, flat meadow, or pampa, I felt squeezed between 20,000ft peaks, walls and cliffs shooting straight up. In actuality, Salkantay Pass seemed fairly straightforward and easy. Scant of plant life save for an alpine short grass, the Pass laid bare with rock, glaciers drooped and hung from Salkantay savagely that beckoned one to reach out and skim the air and scene in front of you. 

We beat the crowds down, laughing and conversing the whole way. We had a couple breaks to sit, stretch, and most importantly gaze at the cascading drainage below us and the impressive serrated peaks above us, including a pyramid peak unlike any I have seen before.

I asked curiously to Swami, 'Maybe the porters get paid by the load?'

In an instant, he quick-tongued a response: 'Whatdya mean? Like gigolos?'

The whole day carried on like this as we went from the 15,000ft alpine snow globe world to subtropical jungle 8,000ft below. Laughter, excellent company, stunning views, and a constantly changing ecosystem. The day unraveled to feel like a plethora of days because of all the dramatic elevation change. 

In Collpapampa we had lunch of fried trout, rice, and potatoes from a mother and daughter run tiny restaurant. Chickens ran around, a nosy cat begged for fish scraps, and a little infant hung from the daughter's baby sling hidden from sight save for the punchy movements. We felt we lucked out on this find. Hostels and swank lodges for the area appeared every so often in the steep canyons. Truly it is hard to believe how some of these places were built into the hillside, but ecotourism has bloomed immensely in this heritage site. Sometimes it just didn't seem right. Seeing well-manicured landscapes and lodges catering to guided groups seemed a little anti-cultural, like having an expedited and convenienced local experience. This Andean landscape is vast and mysterious, hidden, beautifully wild. Seems contradicting to experience it in a posh way. But whatever, the local people have seemed to embrace it, although I have no idea how they feel about it. At least the trek and trail is relatively free of litter for the most part. Later on after seeing Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, it makes you wonder what's next for this area.

Anyways, I digress...

We kept on our own trying to frequent the lesser frequented places. Along the Rio Santa Teresa the trail dallied with an insouciant tendency. We passed fruit orchards, a five tiered waterfall, and the occasional farm, all along a thickly brush-lined and treed corridor. In the late afternoon, right before the last breath of daylight, we stumbled into La Playa. We found a place to camp in a terrace above a little store, the rushing current of the river clapping in the air. The store owner asked the neighbor across the street if he would make us a dinner. He gladly agreed. I guess I thought we were going to eat at a tiny restaurant but I was pleasantly surprised to roll into Justo's small kitchen and see two chairs under a small table. Justo made the food from scratch, his son, Justo Jr., providing assistance. All the ingredients were from his garden right in his back yard. His wife arrived, hyperactive and full of energy, I could barely pick out what she was saying at times because she was talking so fast. She bounded around showing us how they make their own coffee picked from a tree in their garden, the whole three week process right there. Justo Jr. showed us a conch, a certain type of Incan pot used for baking and grinding coffee. I smelled the fresh grounds of coffee in a plastic container. So fresh and aromatic. Justo kept at the meal and served us lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish, as well as some fresh yuca. 

I felt honored to be in their home, their kitchen. Justo's family is tight knit, their son wise behind his years; humble and simple, extremely polite and kind---this was culture, this is what life is about---living.

It took some time for us to leave Justo's house and family. But, eventually we did and went back to the terrace to sleep. Early the next mourning we had breakfast at Justo, although Justo was not there due to an early morning errand. So, his wife and son regaled us with homemade food like arroz cubano, platanos, yuca, and, of course, they're incredible coffee. We entertained the son, or rather, the son entertained us. We talked about action movie stars and wrestling. Justo Jr. seemed disappointed when Swami told him that American wrestling or Lucha Libre isn't real. At one point, the mother spoke to me and thought I reminded her of an actor. She couldn't place the name, so Justo Jr. chimed in and said, 'Chuck Norris!' This wasn't the actor the mother thought but Swami and I chuckled anyways.
Off we went through quaint and romantic coffee fields while on the ascent to Llactapacta. At the pass, we found a side trail going to some campsites and a viewpoint of Machu Picchu. Exhilarated, I scanned across the huge drainage and could see the ruins atop a craggy ridge. Fragments of light beamed from some of the visitors of Machu Picchu, the bustle of the ruins ever-present even from some distance away. I felt like we really reached a place. Not by bus or train...but by foot.

From here the Salkantay Trek dropped steeply down to the Hydoelectric Plant, a common train and bus stop for guided groups. Two hours away by foot along the subtropical jungle corridor and railway, Aguas Calientes buzzed with vibrant energy. Some call it Machu Picchu Pueblo, as this is the train stop to visit the selfsame ruins. Buses zoomed along the one lane road taking visitors to and from the town and the ruins. Massive amounts of people were in the pueblo. The crowds seemed strange, very theme-parkish, but I tried to keep an open mind. I enjoyed hearing Swami's stories of his visit some 20 years ago. Unbelievable how the town has changed. But it seems normal to me nowadays. Teems of tourists visit the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite, and rightly so. And Machu Picchu is no different. These places are unique and having something like the Park Service or making Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site is important, mainly to manage all the people. On top of Machu Picchu Mountain over looking the citadel, I tried to pick up my jaw from the ground. Other than the Grand Canyon I don't think I've really seen a special sight like this place. The setting is stunning, despite the mass of people. We spent the morning there, due to the time allotted to visitors, though I could've sat there all day just staring at the ruins. Such a sight. I'm not sure I really ever thought about visiting Machu Picchu, or do I think I'll ever get there again, but I am really glad I did. Maybe 20 years from now I'll make another pilgrimage to remind me of how special the past is, how important history is, and how much the land and the people shape each other.