I often find myself writing stories in my head, piecing together words and pictures in an attempt to figure out the trajectory of an experience as it unfolds.
But as hard as I tried, this week I just had no idea how the story would end.
Because none of us had gotten to do a multi-day trek last week, Brent and I decided to extend our stay in Peru for a week, shorten our time in Ecuador, and head off into the Andes after my dad took off for home.
Our goals were lofty – 120 kilometers up and down mountainous peaks in 3.5 days, with little room for error. It may not sound like much, 30 km per day, but with the elevation change and the altitude, we knew we would have to push hard. We had read reports of strong hikers doing it in 5 days, but none shorter than that. We knew it would be a challenge. We knew it would kick our ass(es). We knew we might have to turn back.
But we wanted to try.
And so, with four-days worth of food, clothing, and gear on our backs (roughly 40 pounds each), we set off from the small town of Cachorro on Tuesday morning.
The trail started off gently enough – 12 kilometers of rolling hills on smooth dusty terrain – but when we reached the first mountain pass, we saw what we were in for.
Far, far off in the distance, on the other side of a deep valley, were the Choquequirau Ruins – the main impetus for the hike. The remote site, thought to be a retreat for Incan royalty, was only recently discovered. Only 20% of the grounds are excavated, and it’s only accessible by foot. There’s talk that in the next ten years, the area will be developed and roads will be constructed, so we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see it while it was still relatively pristine.
From that mountain pass, 20 kilometers stood between us and Choquequirau – 20 kilometers of steep, unrelenting switchbacks. First we would plunge down 4,000 feet to the river below, only to turn around and scramble up 4,000 feet to the peaks above.
Most people who tackle this route spend two days hiking to Choquequirau and then turn around to return to Cachora. We’d hoped to get close to the ruins that evening, and hike into the site the next morning. From there, we would continue on, up and down mountains, over the infamous Salkantay Pass (at roughly 16,000 feet), and out to a small town where we’d catch a bus back to Cuzco.
Back and forth, back and forth, deeper and deeper we descended into the rocky valley. The terrain was technical and the trails dry and dusty. Our quads began to shake. Our knees began to ache. And still we continued to drop.
When we reached the river nearly three hours later, I turned to Brent and said, “Can you imagine climbing back up that thing? That’s motivation enough not to turn back at the ruins.” He wholeheartedly agreed.
Famous last words…
After a brief rest, we began the ascent. We’d gotten a late start because of transport to the start, so it was about 4:30 PM by then, and we knew the sun would be setting within the hour. We had planned to stop for dinner at the first campsite, and then continue on in the dark to the mountaintop to set up our tent.
Twenty minutes into the climb, we came across a group of Israeli hikers on their way back down. “You’re only an hour to the first site,” they assured us, “and the top is just an hour past that.”
That was music to our ears. We continued upward, switchback after switchback, as the sun began to fall behind the mountains. By the time we reached Santa Rosa an hour later, it was nearly dark.
We pulled on our headlights and began to set about cooking our meal – pasta with mushrooms and canned tuna. Brent had decided that we should go with a new stove for this trip, made out of an old tin can and fueled by denatured alcohol. Problem was, we were unable to find denatured alcohol in Cuzco, so we took the advice of a local camp store and bought a bottle of something called Bencina. It was exactly the same, the clerk told us. We would have no problems.
No problems, indeed…
Brent poured the fuel into the small can and lit a match. Instantly, tall flames shot every which way. We tried to get it under control by throwing a pot on top, but the flames only fanned out from below. We had placed the stove on the bare ground, with nothing around it to catch fire, but the family who lived at the campsite looked stricken as we worked to figure out what to do.
Luckily, before we had a chance to come up with a plan, the Bencino burned itself off and the flames sputtered out in spectacularly underwhelming fashion.
So much for a hot meal.
The family at the site ultimately ended up letting us use their own stove, but we worried what this would mean for the rest of the trip, and whether we had enough cold food to sustain us over the remaining days.
At the end of dinner, we fed our leftovers to the dogs, thanked the family, and continued on our way – despite their best efforts to convince us to stay…
The internet connection is about to shut down… To find out what happened next – and to finally see some pictures of our own – check out Brent’s report!