Highlands of Peru July 1- July 16, 1998

A Wilderness Travel Adventure

Written and Photographed by Alan Grinberg

Go to the Photos

It is quite difficult to summarize an intense 2 weeks into a few pages. Photographs can help, and have been posted on our web site. Go to the Photo Index > Peru.

Our first 3 days in Cusco were a total cultural immersion. Cusco is the old center of the Inca empire. The descendants of the Incas talk Quechua; Spanish is their second language, hence very little English is spoken, except in the more tourist type hotels and restaurants. We relied on our daughter Kita (18) and son Andrew (14) for some translation, also with help by Mary.

In Cusco the buildings are made of stone or mud and grass bricks. Many buildings are built on Inca stone foundations. All roofs are tiles. The entire city of 350,000 is brown. The streets are generally narrow. There weren't many cars for a city of this size, but those that were there would honk at every corner to warn the pedestrians to get out of the way. There were no stop signs, few traffic lights, and no pollution control. We saw work being done on the streets, all by hand chiseling of rocks. There were no city sounds of jackhammers or police whistles.

We stayed in the Royal Inca II Hotel, and the Plaza de Armas was our central hang out place. We would constantly be approached by street vendors selling postcards, Alpaca sweaters, shoe shines, candy, carved gourds, cigarettes, et al. This provided an easy way for us to try our conversations with the locals, and led to some very interesting interactions. We learned about the seller's homes and schools, and sometimes tried trading postcards of San Francisco for the local's goods. The kids know that Washington DC is the capital of the USA, and that Bill Clinton is President and Hillary is his wife, and that they are very rich. They usually did not know of other parts of the country. Mary bought a carved Gourd (18 Soles, $6) from a Quechua woman, 42 yrs old, 4 kids, lived in Chinchero. She taught us some words in Quechua: TaiTai for father, MaiMai for mother, and WaWa for baby.

We visited some churches (The Cathedral), and the Coricancha (Santo Domingo church), the Inca spiritual center of Cusco. We were amazed to see the integration of the Inca culture with the Spanish culture forced upon the locals by Pizarro's conquest. Some recent earthquakes had uncovered some more Inca ruins that had been covered by the Spanish. The town has a definite agenda to reveal the Inca culture and all that it has contributed to the modern way of life.

One of the neatest walks we did was to follow a street up the hill and out of the city. It quickly became residential, some intersections with a corner store. There were kids playing on the streets, and a llama tied to a rock. The houses were generally behind walls, but as we climbed we could look down into the courtyards to get a better view of the local life. The street quickly turned to steps; made us feel at home (Harry St.).

On day 3 we went on a river raft trip on the Urubamba River, in the Sacred Valley. This is about an hour drive north of Cusco. There were 2 Rubber rafts each holding 6 people and a guide. We wore life jackets and helmets. The river was a class 3, mostly small rapids with 2 quite long and very technical big runs. Our guide, Mateo, spoke some English, so of course we asked a million questions. He was also good at explaining to us the technical side of rafting and the hydraulics of the river. At the end of the day we stopped at Ollantaytambo, one of the last Inca strongholds. We didn't have time to climb around the ruins, but the small town was very interesting, and we purchased a textile ($35).

We would walk randomly through the town, and one time came upon a local market that was off the beaten track. In addition to the hundreds of fruit, vegetable, and meat stands, there were vendors selling white gas, haircuts, household supplies, coca leaves, and various innards of animals. That afternoon we visited the main market in Cusco (against tourist advice of rip-offs and pickpockets). It was many times larger. We ventured lunch and a fruit drink, and survived quite well. We also bought locks for our luggage. The main Plazas in Cusco have lots of tourists; in these markets we were the only Gringos.

It was great fun being by ourselves before meeting up with the Trekking group. It enabled us to explore more freely and to make discoveries on our own. Although on the downside there was no one that could answer our myriad of questions.

We met up with the trekking group in the Hotel Libertador, considered one of the best in Cusco. The group was organized by Wilderness Travel in Berkeley. This was to be their first run of this itinerary in over 6 years. Over the past years tourism in Peru had dropped off considerably due to reports of violence by the Shinning Path guerillas. Our tour leader, Rick Schiller, had hiked the route many years before. He currently lives in Lima and administers his father's school, but had managed to take off a few weeks to lead this expedition.

On Monday we left Cusco with the group, and visited some very impressive Inca ruins at Pisac (the famous mortarless stonework, unable to be duplicated today). We had a very scary bus ride (one lane, rough dirt road, 2,000' drop-off) to visit a salt "mine", which was really a spring in the mountain side bringing salt water out to open ponds terraced on the mountain. Each small pond was "farmed" by the locals in a nearby town. All the salt was taken down the mountain side by foot or by mule.

We visited Ollantaytambo again, and this time had a chance to explore the ruins. There are 3 different types of Inca stonework, with the finest being reserved for the most sacred sites and buildings. Spent the night at the hotel Posada del Inca, in the Sacred Valley. The hotel was on the site of an old Spanish church. Neat place.

On July 7 we had a long bus ride to Mollepata, up steep winding roads. We saw Cochineal being "farmed" on cactus. This is a small bug that is used to make red dye. Our Bus broke down in Mollepata, so we transferred to the back of a pickup truck for the last bit of ride, and then walked some to our first campsite (Cruz Pata, at about 7,200'), a beautiful spot on a ridge. There was a farmhouse nearby, and roosters started crowing at 2:30 in the morning. The land in the high Andes is all communal; there are no "No Trespassing" signs or barbed wire fences. It was exciting to see the Southern Cross for the first time.

There are no maps of this area (although I suspect the CIA has some!), so all distances and elevations are estimated. The trails are ancient, and it requires the knowledge of the locals to know which way to turn when there is a fork in the road. Since this is an area little traveled, we had 2 guides hired from Wilderness Travel, plus 4 other locals (cook and camp hands) traveling with us, plus a team of 20 mules and mule skinners to carry the gear. We carried only day packs with warm clothes, snacks, and cameras.

The next day we hiked up and up, towards a large flat plain in front of Salcantay (20,574'), called Salcantay Pampa. There were people living here, at 13,000' feet. They were mostly ranchers. All houses were made of the mud and grass brick, with grass thatched roofs. We were there in the dry season, so bricks were out drying, ready for repair or to make additions to the homes.

We walked into camp about 5:45, 15 minutes before sunset. Our mule team had passed us on the trail and the camp hands had set up the tents and started cooking dinner, so all we had to do was collapse. The altitude made it tough, plus we walked many miles (10 -12?). The campsite was right in front of Salcantay, on the South side (the cold side in the Southern Hemisphere!)

The Quechuans, the high Andean Indians, have combined their traditional religions with the Spanish Christian influence. That night we watched and participated in a Quechua ceremony honoring Salcantay. The Quechua leader made a package of over 20 items, including rice, beans, cookies, corn, candy, alpaca wool, sugar, llama fat, deer fetus, wine, a metal cross, coca leaves....., and then burned it late at night. We all took 3 coca leaves and prayed to the mountain for a safe passage. This was a real treat, as this ceremony is done rarely, and was performed this night because the big pass next to Salcantay had not been crossed in some time.

Next morning we were up in the cold. Drank mate de coca (coca leaf tea), as usual. The ground was frozen, and we packed up to climb over the pass between Salcantay and Huamantay (19,239') at 15,300'. It was slow going, extremely tiring, but very exhilarating to be in the presence of such a large mountain. The glaciers were blue, that water runoff was cream colored, and the mountain was so big even my wide angle lens could not get it all in. A large packet of coca leaves in my cheek (wrapping a lime rock) helped, although I couldn't tell if I was high from the leaves, the mountain, the altitude, or the exercise. Each of us placed a rock we had collected on the trail at the top of the pass as an offering to the Mountain - it was an emotional moment.

We walked miles descending from the pass, into a tropical forest. The transition was fascinating. High altitude life gave way to hummingbirds with 4" beaks, Orchids, Palms, and Passion fruit trees. Again we passed houses, some for ranching, and as we got lower elevation there were farmers; passion fruit, bananas, and ?.

This was such a long way to walk we did not get in until after dark (Colpa Pampa, 7,800'). In fact, the group was so spread out, and the cloud cover blocked out the almost full moon, that we had to sit down on the trail and wait to be "rescued". It was quite eerie. After an hour of dark one of the camp hands came with a horse. Mary rode, and I ran behind. Soon another horse came for me, and I rode in the dark. That was quite an experience, although neither of us felt afraid.

I was quite disappointed that our hiking days were so long and that I didn't have time to do photography in my normal meditative manner. It turned out that we had to make good time because there were some unknown conditions up ahead and we had to allow extra time for unforeseen circumstances.

Next day we continued our descent into the tropical forest. The vegetation changed, the smells changed, and the bugs came out. There were a number flimsy bridges crossing rough white water. We had lunch at 2 pm next to a river, and hiked another 45 minutes to our campsite, located in the soccer field of a small town (Misca Bamba, 6,000'). The place was overrun with kids, about 40 of them, and they were all extremely interested in who we were and what we had.

Kita brought out her bubble stuff, Andrew got his frisbee, and I showed my pictures of our houses in San Francisco and Cape Cod. It was an intense time, trying to communicate, practicing our broken Spanish on these kids, aged 2 years to 14 years old. Later some teenagers would show up, and Kita worked with them on some language projects. Some of the mothers watched from their houses on the sidelines.

We visited the local school, which was bare. There was 1 map of Peru on the wall, and the rest of the material was all made by the kids. There were no books, just desks and a blackboard. Each student had a bound workbook. I looked at a 5th grade Math workbook, and the students were learning Boolean Algebra. Mathematics is a universal language, and these kids were no dummies.

The next morning 2 of the members of our group, Cyndy and Darby, gave a lesson to the young kids in color names and geography. It was very moving to see these children's thirst for information. We gave to the school Andrew's frisbee and our Spanish/English Dictionary. I wish we had a map of the world to leave behind!

This town is at least a 20 mile walk from the nearest road or train. The people are very poor and have almost no medical care. Mary gave her antibiotics to one boy who had an infected arm (left instructions with the teacher). Fujimori, the president of Peru, has mandated that all children attend school through the 8th grade. This seems to be working even in these outlying areas. The town had electricity put in 3 years ago, but a recent landslide wiped out the power plant that supplied the juice, so the overhead wires were useless.

We walked for a few hours, past some very poor homes. As we lost elevation, the land became wetter, and the plants became larger. There were banana groves attended by the locals (I have never tasted such sweet bananas). The roofs of the houses were corrugated tin weighted down with rocks. Much of the trail near the houses was covered with trash, and often smelled nasty.

We arrived at a modern bridge over the Santa Teresa River, ate lunch and bathed, and then waited for a truck to take us on the next section of the journey. In January there were reports in the US press about the effects of El Nino on Peru. A town North of Machu Picchu, Santa Teresa, had been totally destroyed by a landslide. Up river, the sides of the mountain had landslided into the river, and the river carried a wall of mud and rock over the town. Only 17 people were killed (I think they heard it coming), and over 450 homes were destroyed. A few weeks later another landslide destroyed a major power plant that served Southern Peru, and wiped out the train link to Santa Teresa.

A half hour open air truck ride brought us to Santa Teresa. We were the fourth group of foreigners to visit this (ex) town since the disaster. People still lived there, in tents and makeshift shacks. The destruction was awesome. Where the main town stood was now rock and mud. A few rough bridges had been built to cross the river, but the only buildings left standing were on the outskirts of town. The power of nature was immense.

The truck could go no further. We disembarked and started walking again, through the ruins and over the rocky river bed. We passed the end of the train line, which was now a twisted jumble of tracks and some derailed train cars. We turned up an adjacent river, which had also been filled with landslide material. This was the old path of the train, and the river that had the power plant on it.

The hiking was difficult, as we picked our way over stones, and tried to follow the unmarked path. Coming into Santa Teresa were hundreds of people, women, men, and children, all carrying goods for life; food, boxes, brooms, beer. They were carrying these things from the end of the train line. 6 months ago they did not have to do this.

Sometimes the trail would leave the river bed and climb the steep mountains on either side. I am not sure which was worse, the steep up and down or the rough trail of rocks. While on the mountain side, the trail seemed to disappear at one place. We had to scramble on hands and feet up a very steep and loose slope. It turns out the previous day a landslide had wiped out this section of trail. Ever active mountains. After negotiating this section we came to a semi-level spot, where a local family had set up living quarters and an outdoor restaurant. (not what you imagine!). We purchased drinks, and rested on a bench of logs. it was almost a scene out of the movie Apocalypse Now.

Hours more hiking and the trail ended at a lake edge. The lake was a new feature, created by a natural dam from the landslide. The power plant was under the lake. You could see the outlines of some of the buildings under the water. There was a shuttle boat to ferry us across the lake, then we had a short hike up the hill to the train station (Kilometer 122). There were families camped out on the side of the train tracks.

We were planning to camp on the sand bar that created the dam, but the power company said that was not allowed. The backup area was next to the train tracks, but that area was occupied. Gonzalo, one of our leaders, managed to negotiate for some rooms in the power plant worker housing complex that had not been destroyed. That night we slept behind a barbed wire fence, with guards, in real beds. There was a swimming pool (cold), and the eating facility served us a fine meal of pink trout, rice, and purple corn pudding.

Next morning we waited around to catch the 1:00 o'clock train to the Machu Picchu station. The train rolled in and hundreds of people got off with loads of goodies, and instantly the station turned into a market. People from Santa Teresa and other nearby areas had hiked the trail to buy supplies at this daily market. It was their only link to the outside.

We boarded the train, and sat there for an hour, watching the market. Rick (leader #1), noticed that the train operators were sitting around drinking beer. He asked them what the delay was, and they said they were waiting for more people and were going to leave at 4:00. Gonzalo (leader #2, who is also a lawyer in Arequipa), pulled out a pen and paper and asked for their names, as he was going to report them. The train left in 5 minutes.

It was a rough ride to the Machu Picchu train station, where we were the only ones who got off the train. We were met by a bus that took us to another bus that drove us up the hill to Machu Picchu. We were to spend the night at the only hotel next to the ruins, but the hotel had rented out all our rooms. (looks like double booking is quite common in Peru). Well, Rick was going to take care of that, so we went off to see the Inca ruins.

Passing around a bend in the mountain, the first view of Machu Picchu is stunning. The place is far bigger than any photograph had led us to believe. We walked, sat, watched, and just felt the power of the place. The site is unbelievable.

Set our alarm for 6:00 am the next morning, in order to catch the sunrise over the ruins. It was totally foggy out our window, so we went back to sleep. We were up by 7:00, I visited the ruins (in the fog) while the others had breakfast. I walked up to the Intihuatana, the Hitching Post of the Sun, also know as the sun dial. Watching the neighboring mountains break through the fog and the early morning light shine on the ruins was easily worth missing breakfast (which I had later, anyway).

At 11:00 we met a local guide, Fernando, who gave us a tour. He used Archaeological terms such as "Analogy, Analysis, and Comparison", and showed us physical evidence, to make his case that that Machu Picchu was a spiritual center. It seems that there are as many different theories about this place as there are tour guides and archaeologists. There is certainly a movement to make the public aware of the contributions of the Incas, and to take great pride in their ancestry. The Incas developed the potato, which was later exported to Europe, and they had a very advanced system of farming that took advantage of microclimates. They had an incredible opportunity to develop farming techniques as the huge vertical world they lived in provided for a wide range of climates to test their farming techniques.

We caught the 2:00 pm bus down the mountain. Could have used another day at the ruins. Got on the tourist train to Cusco; very posh compared to the local train. Rick says the tourist train subsidizes the locals' train.

Next day was free in Cusco, devoted to shopping. We also visited San Blas church, home of one the finest woodcarvings in the world, a magnificent pulpit carved of Cedar. The San Blas district is also known for its artisan shops and workshops. We saw a weaver's shop, clay workshop, music museum, and many stores selling local crafts. We purchased some textiles, ceramic plates, old dolls, and some colonial style paintings in the "Cusco School".

Lunch was in a local restaurant. We asked for the menu, and that apparently meant the meal of the day, for 2 Soles ($1.00). After the soup and beans we declined the rest.

That night we had the farewell dinner at "Meson de Espaderos". Andrew and I split a Roasted Guinea Pig (Cuy), which is considered a delicacy. Many of the homes have Guinea Pigs running around the kitchen, and are cooked for special occasions. There was not much meat on the animal, but it tasted very good and strong, sort of like a meaty duck.

Next morning we flew to Lima. Mary was up all night with some type of tourista, although she did not eat anything different than the rest of us. We could see Veronica and Salcantay from the air. The nature of the Andes is so different than that of the Sierras of North America. The Andes have widely scattered giant mountains, and all the hills in between each mountain are extremely steep. On the whole there is very little usable land in the range.

Spent part of the day at the Gold Museum in Lima. This is a private collection of Pre-Inca artifacts. Along most of the coast of Peru it never rains. Recent archaeological discoveries have uncovered vast amounts of ancient gold, copper, and textiles. Plundering the sites for personal profit is common, and there are too many sites to be patrolled by the government. The owner to the Gold Museum has been buying artifacts from looters in order to keep the objects in the country.

The collection has hundreds of thousands of objects, all on display. I enjoyed seeing everything, as opposed to having some curator decide what was important. I felt it gave a better feel for the civilization. The top floor of the museum was all textiles, about 2,500 years old, extremely well preserved. Included were the famous feather garments of the pre-Inca civilizations. Some textiles were even tacked to the ceiling. This is probably the largest collection of ancient fabrics in the entire world.

Then off to the the Lima airport. We bought some toast for $3.00 and a hot dog for $6.00. Compare this to a four course lunch in Cusco for $1.00!

To leave Peru we had to pass about 8 stations where officials inspected our passports and visas, rubber stamped some forms, punched some tickets, and waded through security measures.

We were scheduled to wait 7 hours in the Miami airport, but managed to get an early flight. Taking off during sunrise, we had an incredible view of golden thunderhead clouds, one with a rainbow inside.

Andrew and Kita were great travellers. This must have opened their eyes as much as mine, to the variety of life on this planet. The day after we returned we pulled out some maps to try to figure out where to visit next. The Alps? The Himalayas? Tierra del Fuego?.....

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