The stories of my Lares trek

From Cusco (about 3400 masl.), a rather large town, to Calca, a rather small town in the sacred valley, it takes 2 hours of mountains crossing by bus. From Calca, hop in a collectivo (a minivan that works like a taxi) that will bring you further in the valley, ask to be dropped off at Huaran, a rather small village, which is one way to start the Lares trek. I had been told this way was less frequented and more challenging, just what I was looking for.

As I left quite late that day, I started walking up the valley, meeting cheerful villagers on the way. Wherever I’ve been in Peru, people would always smile and greet me with a “Buenos dias”, sometimes we would small talk, often they would ask what I am doing here and where my husband/group is. Kids sometimes ask for “dulce” or “galetas”, candies or biscuits. About an hour after I had left, I met two young teenage girls, busy washing clothes in a stream. We chit-chatted a little bit, they asked me where I was going, “Cancha Cancha”, I answered, and carried on.

The sky was cloudy, it was almost raining at times. At 5pm, I decided to stop for the night, aware I wouldn’t reach the village before the night falls. Huaran is at 2800 meters above sea level, Cancha Cancha 3800m, 10km away. I spotted a nice grassy flat area by a stream and left the path to go pitch my tent.

A decent place to wake up in the morning

I didn’t wake up early the day after, just in time for the sun to shine above the high surrounding mountains. After a boring oatmeal breakfast, I was back on the trail. The higher I got, the cloudier it was. There were more and more alpacas around, such funny creatures with their arrogant look, smiling cheekily when looking at you, chewing in their disgraceful way.

“What you looking at?”

In the beginning of the afternoon, there I was, in Cancha Cancha. The village is tiny, just a few stone houses thatch roofed. The first thing that popped into my mind was how it really looked like the village in Astérix, but set in the Andes (we all have our references!). A sign says Cancha Cancha, 3954m.

Women walking through Cancha Cancha

It had been raining for the last hour, there was nobody outside. I had a glimpse of a nearby sort of shelter where I decided to stay until it stopped raining. Should I call it a day and pitch my tent somewhere or walk some more to get closer to the pass I will climb the day after, even though that promised to be a cold night?

The village, about 50 people live there. The football pitch on the left hand side.

I decided to walk some more, just to explore the area a little more. Ten minutes after that, I met a young girl walking with a baby boy. We started talking and I recognized her as one of the two girls doing their laundry yesterday. We walked together, she asked if I have a husband. “No I don’t” I answered. “That’s why you’re walking alone here then?” she said. Yes, well, no, but whatever. She asked me where I was going to sleep, “in my tent, somewhere around here”, I answered. She smiled and asked if I wanted to camp by her house. Well, why not. Her name is Nelly, she’s 11 years old. The child walking with her is Alfonso, he’s 3 and only speaks Quechua, since he doesn’t go to school yet.

We spent the afternoon playing games (she has a ball and a rope). Alfonso kept laughing while watching us play together. Then we went to gather the sheep as the night was falling. The house was one big room. There was a small door, no window; it was thus very dark inside. There was not a single piece of furniture inside. Only blankets and sheep skins piled up, a shelf with a cooking pot, some plates and cutlery. Next to the shelf, some branches coming out of the wall with cups hanging from it.

I watched Nelly light the fire under some sort of stove, to boil some water. We sat on stones, close to it. On the floor, nothing, the bare earth. I heard some noises coming from behind the stove. She put her hand in there and grabbed a couple of tiny baby guinea pigs whining. The parents would make an appearance some time later, they were big, but Nelly explained to me that they needed to be even bigger to be eaten.

Her father died when she was little, she lives here with her mother Dorotea and Alfonso, which is in fact her cousin. She has 6 other siblings, living in another village, I didn’t quite understand why. They are older, probably going to school or working away.

She said we should start making dinner before her mother returns with the alpacas. She lead the way outside, went around the house. From under a pile of straw, she digged out a bunch of potatoes. We went back inside and peeled them, we are making a soup. She added pasta and a stock. I took out some bread and avocado from my backpack, as well as some powdered milk and cinnamon that we drank, waiting for her mum. It was cold and the warm drinks were welcome. Some hungry chickens had joined us, jumping on each potato peel ending up on the floor, as well as a little kitten, all of them apparently peacefully living together.

At night fall, Nelly’s mother returned with the alpacas. She looks like the typical Quechua woman, with her colorful flat hat, two long plaits tight together, a couple of woolen cardigans, and the traditional skirts, two or three for the volume plus one on top, black with some patterns sewed at the bottom. On her feet, despite the cold, sandals. Nelly and Alfonso are wearing regular (at least to my eyes) clothes. Dorotea doesn’t speak Spanish, only Quechua. I introduced myself in Quechua, after practicing with Nelly in the afternoon. She smiled, but understood me.

We sat all four of us by the stove. I spoke Spanish with Nelly, her mother understood a little bit, Nelly translated in Quechua. At some point, Dorotea asked:

Dorothea : “Where is your mother?”

Me : “At home, with my father”

Dorothea : “Why isn’t she with you?”

Me : “I haven’t lived with my parents in a long time now”

Dorothea : “ah, and where is your home?”

Me : “In France, in a small village in the mountains”

Dorothea : “Oh, like here then?”

Me, smiling : “Well, not really, maybe a little bit, but very different”.

And so carried on the discussion. She asked me about my age (29) and the awkward silence when I answered “no” to “do you have a husband? Children?” made me feel like a freak, but also made me smile.

It was getting late (7pm) and dark and cold, good enough reasons to go to bed. It was slightly raining outside, so they invited me to stay inside. Nelly washed the dishes, there was a tap outside. Then she came back in and set up the bed she would later share with her mum and cousin in a corner. 2 sheep skins on the floor, and 1, 2, 3, 4, maybe 5 and 6 large woolen blankets. On another corner, she offered me a sheep blanket on the floor, where I was happy to lie down in my sleeping bag, which awoke Alfonso’s curiosity. We all went to bed, the fire was dying. They were listening to music on the radio, all in Quechua. I fell asleep in what could be 15 minutes or 2 hours later, hard to tell. I woke up during the night by the sound of guinea pigs munching what happened to be either my hiking boots or parts of my backpack. The chickens and the kitten were asleep.

I woke up in the morning by the sound of the now familiar Quechua music on the radio. It was around 6am, not too bad. Once again, Nelly was lighting up the fire and we’re making the breakfast soup, this time with potatoes and rice. I shared some cacao and biscuits I had brought, which made Alfonso moan with pleasure. After 3 bowls of soup, Dorotea mixed some boiling and cold water in a pot and started washing her bottom-long hair with some green washing powder. Then, she patiently untangled her hair with a comb, only to plait it again before putting her hat on.

It was almost 9am and I needed to get going. We were standing outside, about to say goodbye. I offered them some money and some sweets to the kids to thank them for their hospitality and sharing their meals and stories with me. I wanted to take a picture of them, but then they asked me for more money, that I didn’t have. So, no pictures. Dorotea shaked my hand and thanked me, and I left.

Nelly’s house, on the right hand side. The potatoes were hidden on the back, under the straw to protect them from humidity.

Luckily the weather was great that day. I started climbing up when a girl sitting on a stone warns me “hola amiga, you need to pay 50 soles to my dad to walk this trail”. I didn’t give it too much credit but Nelly had told me the same story the day before, when I said no to staying longer at her home. It took me no longer than half a second to actually recognize her, even though she was wearing a different sweater and faking another voice. I smiled and just answered “hasta luego Nelly”. She spoke some more but I was too far to hear and too focused on finding my way.

The one thing I had in common with Nelly is that Spanish was not our mother tongue. We come from two different universes and it was quite an experience sharing a common ground for a day. Whatever their reasons for hosting me were, I am very happy to have met them and lived those precious moment that I am not ready to forget anytime soon.  .

I was climbing up and up and slowly the valley was disappearing behind me.

Looking back at the valley I was leaving

A woman watching her sheep while spinning wool while walking. It is very common to meet women spinning wool or knitting while walking, quite impressive!

I was above 4000m and I felt it as my breathing went faster; I needed to slow down to adjust my speed to the steepness of the trail. After 3 hours, I had reached the pass. My elevation app said 4750m. The landscape was gorgeous. I was surrounded by snowy peaks, blue lakes turning turquoise in the sun, and lamas, who looked at me passing by, probably also wondering what I was doing here.

I wanted a selfie with the lamas but they didn’t seem very much up for it. I’ll try again soon.

A last glimpse over the valley

Snow field and snowy peaks caught in the clouds

Hello there!

There were way more lamas prints on the trail than foot prints. Very useful to find my way!

The next village, Quiswarani, was down the valley, 10km away. The way down was as always much faster and I got there 2 hours later. It was 2pm and not so much was happening.

Walking down the other side, towards Lares, here right before Quiswarani

I decided to walk further until the road leading to Larès, the final destination. I reached it an hour later. My plan was to hitch hike there but it turned out to be a rather bad idea since no cars were to be seen. I waited 15min by the road, realizing very quickly I should rather get going. Luckily enough, the road was all downhill since Larès is only 2500masl. After an hour and a half and a hundred turns, I finally arrived. It was 5.30pm, I had walked close to 30km and I just had time to pitch my tent before the night fell. But before sleeping, I relaxed and stretched in what has driven me the whole day – the hot springs, smoking in the coldness of a night in the Andes.

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Getting high in Peru

There are many reasons why I really wanted to go to Peru. Hiking in the Andes is the one that has been driving me, probably since I watched/read (can’t remember which came first) The Motorcycle Diaries (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318462/) some ten years ago. So when I unexpectedly left for Peru  3 weeks ago, I was thrilled to finally fulfil my dream.

I spent the first few days in the Ecuadorian Andes, but since the weather was clearly not on my side, I went down to Peru, straight to Huaraz after many hours in busses via Piura and Trujillo.

From Loja in Ecuador to Huaraz in Peru

The closer I was getting to the Andes, the more restless I was feeling to go out in the wild and explore. But no, you have to wait. Why? Because it’s pretty high up here, and you really need to acclimatize.

Acclimatize to what?

Many things, the dodgy street food you will have (and the stomach bugs you’ll probably catch at some point), the different cultures and languages (Spanish, but if you go to remote villages, people may only speak Quechua, although you’ll most likely always get by with Spanish), but most of all, the altitude, so you make sure you don’t get altitude sickness.

What’s altitude sickness?

The best way to find out is to climb a fairly high mountain (3000m+) straight after arriving and as fast as you can. DON’T DO THAT! Why? Because if you go straight from sea level to high altitude, your body won’t have time to adjust to the lack of oxygen that gets worse as you climb up. The best thing to do is to take it easy and stay a couple of days wherever you’re based at. You’ll need time to organise your hike and the logistic around it anyway. Then, go for a day hike somehere to check how your body reacts.

Most people are fine until 2500m and it seems that problems occur above that line. The thing is, the higher you get, the less oxygen there is. You will quickly feel that you breath faster and walking fast (particularly while backpacking) will be more of a challenge. I’ve met people in the mountains who suffered from altitude sickness which basically feels like being hangover: you’re tired, nauseous with headache. The funny thing is that it has nothing to do with your age or how fit you may be. The only way to avoid it is to give time to your body to get used to it. Don’t walk too fast and drink enough water, take it easy, and remember the benefits of slowlitude (https://audreyslangscape.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/the-apology-of-slowlitude/), particularly if you’re on your own.

Acclimatization in Huaraz

Huaraz is a lovely town in the Ancash region of Peru, some 8 hours away from Lima. It is already at about 3000 meters above sea level, which is perfect to acclimatize for a few days. Besides, it’s a really nice town, surrounded by high snowy peaks, without the hordes of tourists (at least in June when I was there) you meet in Cuzco for instance.

Plaza de armas, snowy peaks always hidden in the background.

Quechua women knitting everywhere all the time, selling their crafts either in the street or in markets. Knitted pair of socks (for about 2$) and other woollen (sheep or alpaca) devices highly recommended before you spend a night above 4000m!

There are tour agencies providing informations in Huaraz. Be careful and make sure you talk to different people before you decide on what to do.

What’s true: you do need a permit to spend time in the Huascaran National Park. It costs either 5soles for a day or 65soles for a month and you can either get it at the park office in town or at the entrance of the park.

What’s not true: Many people will tell you that you must hire a guide and arrieros (mule and driver), but that’s bullshit. If you feel like it and are confident enough, you can go independently armed with your map and compass, food and camping equipment (easily hired anywhere in town).

Acclimatization day hike : Laguna Churup, 4450m

The laguna Churup, some 2 hours away from Huaraz (by collectivo driving up on a path road), is a perfect day hike to check how your body is dealing with the altitude.

The collectivo (a kind of mini-van that takes up to 15 persons) will take you to Llupa or Pitek (which would save you one and a half hour of hiking).  There, the hike starts at about 3800m. At the beginning of the trail, a sign reminds you to “take nothing but picture, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time and mosquitoes”.  From there, it’s only uphill.

Slightly uphill, at first.

Then a bit more, with some fun rock-climbing sessions on the left side of the waterfall

After about 3 hours, we reached the laguna.

Which is really beautiful with all its shades of green and blue, ever changing in the sunlight.

beating my record for high altitude aeropress brewing!

Going down, after a long coffee-lunch-break-in-the-sun

A shepherd and his dog

And always those amazing peaks in the background, most of them are 6000m or more.

This was my first high altitude hike, I had never been higher than 3800m before. The only difference I noticed was that I needed to walk (even) slower than usual to not get out of breath. I felt I couldn’t breath as deep as I wanted to. Apart from that, nothing. I knew then that I was ready for new high altitude experiences in Peru…

A break from instant coffee in Lima, Peru.

It was one of those greyish day when you can’t really tell if it’s 6 in the morning or in the afternoon. I had arrived in Lima early in the morning after a night spent in the bus from Huaraz. My friend Matthew and  I were walking in the streets of Miraflores, looking for a hotel room to spend the only night we had there before getting back to the Andes, this time around Cuzco. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, we passed by a very red window where I had a glimpse of a familiar red machine with a silvery inscription on it:

I turned towards Matt and let him know, smiling: “we’re having coffee here”, following the logic that if a coffee shop owner invests in such a good (and expensive) espresso machine, he has to know what he’s doing. Matt didn’t question the glint of hope and enthusiasm in my eyes as we went in. We were straight away welcomed by two young ladies grinning happily from ear to ear.

I looked around and saw a bunch of other familiar toys and knew it was safe to ask questions about the different varietals of coffees and kinds of roasts they may be brewing.

Apparently happy that I asked, Ariana (the main barista that day) started talking about the coffee she was offering, a blend of red and yellow caturra, catimor and Typica from Satipo (in the center of Peru). Presenting us two samples of beans on the counter, she explained about the two different roasts she uses, a light to medium for the pourovers and a slightly darker one for the espresso, to lower the acidity and give more body to it. Delighted to meet such a passionate and knowledgeable barista, I ordered my favorite, a chemex, and Matt the usual cappuccino.

 We sat down in the café area and enjoyed the best coffee that I’ve had in South America so far. My chemex was as tasteful as Ariana had announced it would be and Matt (being a spoiled Australian cappuccino drinker) was delighted to have a taste of home.

The cosy café area (with books and board games) and the bar on the background

The menu, on the cover is the outside façade of the café.

Part of the coffee menu, either espresso-based drinks or alternative methods

Detail on the wall

Arabica serves coffee roasted by Biasetti, a roastery and café in a nearby neighbourhood where Ariana also roasts coffee (http://www.cafebisetti.com). The owner of the 2 places is the grandchild of an Italian coffee roaster. After spending some time in New York City, he decided to start a café in his own country where he couldn’t find the same quality. He sources the coffee directly from Peruvian coffee growers and all the informations are available to the customers.

We went there for a visit later that same day. It is a bigger café where people hang out with friends and/or laptops, it could just be in any capital city for that matter. Not as cosy in my opinion, but the coffee was excellent as well.

Biasetti café and roastery, Barranco, Lima.

La Marzocco and other brewing methods

La Marzocco and other brewing methods

Poster on a wall. Learning process.

Our coffee comes from families growing coffee from every areas of the country, in an organic way and respecting the ecosystem.
Once harvested and processed, this coffee is roasted by roast masters at Biasetti, District of Barranco, Lima.

A not too bad alternative is “café verde” in Miraflores, good coffee but not as dedicated folk.

Thanks Ariana and Anne for great coffee experiences. Make sure you visit them when in Lima, I mean, if you want a break from instant coffee.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Arabica-Espresso-Bar/30918627551?fref=ts