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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.