The morning started early, around 5:30, when Nico brought us steaming mugs of coca tea. This not only warmed us up but woke us up, too. Coca tea tastes a lot like an herbal tea but definitely gets you going and helps with the altitude. Contacts in, yesterday’s clothes back on and a shuffle out of the tent and into my shoes and I was good to go, We all brought minimal stuff for the trail, a change of clothes, rain jacket, coat, hat and gloves, sleeping bag and walking poles—that was about it. What we didn’t carry went on the horse and that was limited to 12 pounds, everything else was stored at the Cusco hotel.
We also met the family that lives in the home, mother, father Pablito, two sons and two daughters and two grandchildren. The youngest is just two months old—Daisy Karen—and we doted over that precious baby all wrapped up and ready to go on her mother’s back. We spoke the universal language of baby admiration—aaahhhhhhh!!!! The little boy–Kevin– was not left out. He got treats and Alexandra picked him up and played with him. He informed her in quechua, “You are not my mother”. The ladies spread out Peruvian goods for us to purchase. We were happy to buy socks, hats and beautiful hand woven bags to carry coca leaves. We so appreciated their hospitality and enjoyed the intimate look at their lives so different from ours. Yet, at our core, humans have the same needs, food, shelter and love.
Nico cooked us a wonderful breakfast: first, quinoa porridge, then pancakes with strawberries, coffee and hot chocolate. All of our meals where cooked on his two burner stove on the ground connected to a propane tank. A few battered pots and pans, a knife and a cutting board on Nico’s lap completed the kitchen. It was amazing what he could cook for us, it was as delicious and complicated as any fine restaurant. So, everyone, no more excuses about lack of counter space or small stove.
The horses were saddled with our tents and supplies. We said goodbye and started walking, first up a steep hill then on to flatter ground. The barren land is beautiful and wild with high snow-capped mountains coming down to a gray-green valley. Well above the tree line we wouldn’t see a tree again until after lunch. There are no roads or power lines. The only signs of the inhabitants were low stone walls and an occasional thatched hut organically woven into the landscape. As we walked along children would appear beside the trail. I delighted in stopping and giving them treats. They were so gentle and beautiful. As quickly as they would appear they then would disappear back into the land to tend the sheep and alpacas.
The trail started to get steeper and Melissa handed out coca leaves from her new bag. Normally my drug of choice is half-caf coffee with cream. Sometimes, I go wild and have a Starbucks tall latte but 14,000 feet called for something a bit stronger. Just a few coca leaves in the side of my mouth were just what I needed for the altitude. It is everything you would imagine about having leaves and twigs in your cheek; bitter, earthy and not very comfortable. But it does work, I never had a headache and I was expecting a raging headache. Coca leaves also help with thirst, hunger and nausea which is a good thing because breathing pretty much took up all the emotional and mental space.
It rained some and then there was small hail. Melanie was struggling so one of the horses came back to get her up the mountain. The rest of us pushed on from one steep slope to the next. Eventually Lisa and I started to play the “rock game”. Choose a rock 15 feet ahead, slowly walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. When you can almost breath again, choose another one, walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. Three long steep slopes and we made it to the top, 15,000 feet! We were defiantly on top of the world and it was stunningly beautiful. Everywhere I looked was magnificent. Down below on the other side of the pass was a pristine mountain lake.
After a very short stop to breath, take in the view, eat some cookies and enjoy our victory we headed down the mountain. It was very cold at the top and we still had a long ways to go. Breathing is defiantly easier going down but the new challenge was making sure I didn’t twist an ankle on the large shifting stones. I walked carefully, stopping often to look at the lake and just wonder at the rugged beauty: I couldn’t believe I was there. Past the lake was another stunning mountain lake and this beautiful fence in the shape of a heart.
I was defiantly in the heart and arms of the Pachamama, the earth mother. This day was not about something humans had built like the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral. This was about walking with the Pachamama and the glories of our beautiful world. This was the special pilgrim moment I had come for, just this pristine, rugged beauty and the openness of my own heart. I had challenged myself to my physical limit which breaks down the barrier between the heart, mind and body. I had no choice but to become one with the Pachamama, the giver of life. I was on the road less traveled in the world and in my heart.
The kitchen tent was already set up by a wide swiftly running stream. There Nico was working his magic and lunch would be served shortly. Richard and Pablito were following Nico’s orders running back and forth to the stream for water and washing the pots. Most of us trekkers laid down on the tarp for a much needed rest except for me. If I got down I wasn’t sure I was getting back up so I sat on a camp stool by the water. Of course there was a lady selling treasures and so Alexandra bought some clean gloves and socks. The lady’s little girl was tending a lamb and quickly caught it so Alexandra could have an extended lamb fix. The lamb didn’t have a knit hat but Alexandra didn’t seem to care. She held that lamb until it totally objected. Alexandra is already planning her quarter-life crisis where she runs off to New Zealand and tends sheep for a year.
After a lunch of soup, chicken and vegetables it was more down-hill walking to get to the campsite for the night. I continued to be slow so Richard held back with me to make sure I didn’t get lost. We were finally down to the tree-line in a very narrow valley with a roaring stream. I trudged along on the slippery rocks. My legs were already wobbly from the climb so I had to be careful. I eventually got a blister on the side of my foot from the uneven rocks.
It was just getting dark when we arrived at camp. The tents were set up on a soccer field and the horses where munching on the grass nearby. The big excitement was a flush-toilet outhouse with tarp walls. Dinner was served in a rustic lodge next to the soccer field. There were tables and chairs and some drinks for sale thanks to the owners living next door. We bought three big bottles of water because we were very dehydrated and the stove was being used for cooking with no time to boil water.
Nico cooked us a special farewell dinner for our last night. Each dish that was served had some fancy garnish made from vegetables, including little hard boiled egg mice and tomato flowers. The final dish was a roast guinea pig splayed out with his feet dangling off the platter, complete with pepper in his mouth. I was hoping he wasn’t part of the choir from the night before, it was best if I didn’t know. Anne was brave and had several pieces and said it tasted a bit like duck. Melissa and Lisa tasted a bit too. The rest of us tried not to watch and focused on the pasta instead. Strange meat and snakes are somewhere long past my boundaries for adventure. I plan on tackling those challenges in another lifetime.
Time to crawl into our sleeping bags. 15 miles, 15,000 feet altitude and roast guinea pig—it had been a long but completely fulfilling day. Every moment was challenging and thrilling all at the same time. Our bodies were exhausted but our hearts and minds were filled with the love of the Pachamama.