The setting is Cusco, the time is 6:30pm the evening prior to a five day hike, via the mountain of Salkantay, to Machu Picchu. We participants had been informed we were to attend a briefing at the headquarters of Alpaca Expeditions, the agency in whose charge we had placed ourselves.
Most uncharacteristically, I arrived late (6:31pm) to find, even more uncharacteristically for a South American country, that the briefing had started bang on time and was already a minute in. Nine punctual faces looked up at me as I announced my arrival, apologising for my tardiness. They were gauging whether I would be a good addition to the group, judging whether my arrival was a net positive or net negative. And, in exactly the same way, I scanned faces, judging them.
As I took a seat, a hand was proffered. “David”, said the owner of the hand, in a familiar accent. Further hands appeared. “Jamie”, “Michael”, “Christabel”. Same accents. This foursome clearly knew each other well. I learned from chatting to David (henceforth Dave) that they were all from Manchester. Jamie and Michael were BBC producers who had been working in Rio for the Olympics and he, a best friend, and Christabel, Jamie’s fiancée, had flown out to join once the production duties were completed. Got it? Good. Next:
In between Jamie and Michael were sitting Chuanshun/”Call me Eric, it’s easier”and Na/”Call me Na”. These gents were qualified doctors from Shanghai currently studying in US universities. Still with me? Great!
To my left was Cassandra/”Call me Casey”, an American from Maryland and the only other solo traveller of the group. Further American voices came from a father and son team who introduced themselves as Tom (the son) and Jerry (the father). Noticing my double take and stifled chuckle they obliged with a stoical, “Yes, Tom and Jerry”.
For a long time we thought that was it until, rather sheepishly, a couple emerged from an adjoining room where they had been waiting for the briefing to begin. The latecomers had names worthy of supporting characters in a Xena – Warrior Princess episode: Vlad and Mixelle. They were New Yorkers, bringing the US contingent to five.
Last, but by no means least, was our guide, Wilson, an immediately likeable Peruvian man with a broad smile and an obvious enjoyment of what my granny might have called “horseplay”. Wilson let us know that we would be collected from our respective lodgings at 4:30am the following morning. With this horrific news ringing in our ears, we said farewell and shuffled off to get as much sleep as our childish excitement would permit.
4.50am – our not-quite-so-merry-due-to-lack-of-sleep band departs in a minibus. The first hour and a half was devoted to dozing. In stark contrast, the next hour and a half had us wide awake as our driver, Peruvian cousin of The Stig from Top Gear, flung us round hairpins on gravel roads inches away from certain death.
When we finally arrived, we were all a pale green colour but the aroma of a long-awaited breakfast soon helped us to forget the ordeal.
This was our first experience of our chef, Alberto’s, cooking. During the course of the trek we ran out of superlatives for the food that this man produced with nothing but a gas stove and oodles of talent. Highlights included a pear flambée, stuffed, deep-fried peppers, chicken ceviche and yuca chips. On one occasion the presentation even reached levels of post-modernist genius…….
After breakfast, our duffel bags were packed onto mules which were handled by local villagers: Geronimo, Carlos and Francisco.
We slung our daypacks across our shoulders and put our best feet forwards. Game on!
The literature we had received about the hike had dubbed day 1 “the hardest”. The literature was not lying. We continued our long and laboured ascent into the heady heights of the Salkantay pass where oxygen seemed to have taken a leave of absence. We stopped occasionally for Wilson, our guide, to monitor our heart rate and oxygen saturation levels to ensure no one was doing themselves a mischief. We were a pretty fit bunch so no one’s readings were too alarming.
As we climbed heavenwards, Wilson kept feeding us with information about Peru and its history, both ancient and modern. These tasty morsels were the intellectual equivalent of Alberto’s food.
After what seemed like two eternities, we reached the acme of our ascent, a dizzying (quite literally) height of 4600m above sea level. Here, strewn around, were small piles of rocks, balanced by human hands one on top of the next. Wilson told us that this custom was in reverence to the Pacha Mama: the Inca version of Gaia or Mother Earth. Central to Inca culture was to live in harmony with Nature and to hold it in high esteem, so there are numerous rituals and customs that relate to the Pacha Mama. My personal favourite was the habit of splashing a drop of water onto the ground before drinking oneself as a way to remain conscious of one’s dependence on Nature.
Now, those of you that know me as a cynic and skeptic might be inclined to think, at this juncture, that I am getting spiritual. I’m not. It is simply very refreshing, on occasion, to strip away the layers of human influence and modernity and appreciate Nature for its beauty.
Instead of building a rock pile, Wilson encouraged us to form a heart out pebbles and wish for something. We then hugged and said something affectionate to each member of the group and, no matter how far outside my reserved, stiff-upper-lip, British comfort zone this was (and it really was), it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
With limited daylight left to make campsite we left the summit behind and marched on, delighting in the gentle downhill slope.
The great benefit of having a retinue of helpers supporting us was that, when we finally arrived at the campsite in the half-light of dusk, or tents had been pitched and Alberto’s latest masterpiece was already well underway.
Sadly, the end of the day’s exercise also spelled the beginning of a throbbing altitude-induced headache for a number of us so bed followed hot on the heels of dinner.
As dawn broke the next morning we were able to appreciate the view in a way that had been impossible in the gloom the night before. It was stunning.
After a sumptuous breakfast of banana and quinoa porridge with French toast, we were introduced to the rest of the support team: Juan-Carlos, our junior guide, Cubedal, assistant chef, and Cecil, Federico and Justino, who seemed to assist with anything and everything in a cheerful and efficient manner.
Wilson explained that the day’s hike, all 18km of it, would take us from the chilly heights of our mountain campsite down into the tropical cloud forest below, where it would be significantly warmer. We packed our day bags accordingly and set off.
The weather was blissfully warm after 45 mins of descent and remained so for the rest of the day. Spirits were high and conversation flowed. I mentioned this blog to Michael as we strolled along, to which he replied “So, is it an online blog then? Or……” None of us knew what he was planning to say after “Or….”
This was not to be Michael’s last our even worst gaffe of the day. As we walked alongside a ravine, Wilson suggested a game to see who could throw the furthest across the precipice. All performed well but special mention goes to Michael who succeeded in dislocating his shoulder and still losing. Luckily Eric, one of the Chinese doctors, was on hand to help relocate it because we were a long way from a road, let alone a hospital.
The only downside to our day’s hike was that the dry weather had left the path like something from Mad Max and, by lunchtime, we were seeking inventive methods of washing away the dust. After lunch we continued much as before until something very amusing happened…..TO BE CONTINUED.