Sitting here in sunny, warm and comfortable Sayulita, the trials and tribulations of our treks in Peru seem very far away, but here we go. Taking you back to the end of November for our first trek:
Whilst most people think of the Inca Trail when it comes to trekking in Peru, it also has a lot of other mountains and trails to offer. We decided to start off with a hike considered to be not only one of Peru’s, but also one of the world’s best hikes – The Ausangate Trek. We chose to do a more extended version which allowed us to see more diversified and spectacular scenery.
We only had confirmation of the trek two days before setting off. The weather conditions in the area aren’t to be taken lightly and after a group went missing for 3 days, two weeks beforehand, the company we went with weren’t taking any risks. So though the extended version meant we were putting ourselves in a situation where things might come to a snowy halt, from Michael’s photographs here I think you’ll agree the risk was worth it.
Considered to be an Apu, or holy mountain, Ausangate mountain sits at an altitude of 6,385m amongst Peru’s Cordillera Vilcanota range, which meant we were living at a very high altitude the entire time. We were grateful to be far more acclimatised than most after living in Cusco but this trek definitely isn’t for the faint hearted on any level. The challenges of life and climbing the steep terrain (we had three high passes to conquer) in the thin air of 5,000m and more above sea level, was well worth it though as the scenery is on par with the Himalayas.
Before I go on with sharing all things mind blowing about the trek, let me set you up with images of the reality of trekking in this truly remote area where the only other people we ever encountered were a few locals.
Naturally we had to camp. I don’t know how I have gotten away with not having to camp whilst trekking up until now but it seems in Peru this is mostly ones only option. Well! I certainly threw myself into the deep end as a first time camper, experiencing camping at its most extreme. We had snow, hail and freezing temperatures a lot of the evenings. Then there was our very elegant toilet tent – an eight inch deep, man made hole dug out of the earth. ‘Am I really doing this?’ Was a question that ran through my head frequently. I’d say that Michael’s ‘Purge the Princess’ project is now complete.
These treks really do test what you are made of and put a lot of things into perspective. Hour after hour, day after day, we mustered up every single bit of will power in us to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The times that are meant for rest and respite, we were huddled up, sitting on an uncomfortable stool, with every item of clothing on in an attempt to remain warm.
Personal hygiene is a rather lengthy and laboursome process. Our approach was to methodically ‘wet wipe’ ourselves in the tent, being careful not to expose too much flesh at the risk of getting cold and not being able to warm up again. Bedtime is the only opportunity to completely take the load off the body, yet in that scenario we felt like restricted worms. Dressed in thermals and a beanie, inside our fleeces and sleeping bags, a few centimetres from each other in our cosy tent, trying to find a comfortable position on the one inch thick thermarest mattresses.
The lesson learnt time and time again is ‘acceptance is the answer.’ There really is no point in fighting the circumstances or conditions as that would leave one miserable whilst surrounded by immense natural beauty. Comparing your living conditions to the local people who live in such seclusion is another great leveller.
It took six horses and six people to get the two of us through this adventure! The horses carried all the camping and cooking equipment as well as food, then we had two chefs, two horsemen and two guides. We couldn’t complain about being hungry – the quality of the meals were exceptional coming from two little gas burners – or not feeling looked after as our only tasks every day were to wake up with the sun, pack all our gear in the tent (not as simple as it sounds funnily enough) and with our packs, walk for hours in the kaleidoscopic scenery. Most days we were fortunate that the sun eventually burnt through and warmed the earth for us after the freezing temperatures that came with nightfall.
The Ausangate Trek is filled with turquoise lagoons, fantastically coloured mountains, glaciers and impressive snow capped peaks. Then there’s the unique wildlife. As expected, llama and alpaca herds were seen every day but the real treat was spotting the rare and reclusive vicuñas. These fragile looking and typically very shy creatures are members of the camel family and live on the high, grassland plateaus of the Andes mountains. It was fascinating to see an animal in the wild that neither of us had ever encountered before.
Another cool and unexpected cultural experience we had was participating in a traditional offering before going over the Condor Pass – the highest one in our trek. Led by our horseman who was a shaman, he prepared offerings, chanted and then blessed us to ensure we would be protected for our crossing. As well as chocolates, sweets and corn, the famed coca leaf plays a crucial part in the ceremony as they are used when giving thanks and in the offerings we each made to the apus (mountains), Inti (sun) and Pachamama (earth). As is obligatory at the end of the ceremony, we did indeed chew on the leaves – for clarification, it is not at all a drug as many believe.
The grand finale after 6 intense days was a blizzard just as we approached our van that was taking us back to Cusco. Within half an hour there was three inches of snow on the ground. Talk about feeling lucky as we sat in the protection of the van, sipping our warm soups and looking back at our two horsemen who still had 3 more days to go as they rode the horses back to our starting point. Remember what I said about comparisons?
Twelve hours later we were off on our next trek. You’ll need to stay tuned for some superb Machu Picchu photographs!