7 July 16
I am conscious next of the sounds of wings flapping and a rooster crowing. It seems like a pretty energetic bird until I realise that it’s Henry prowling our tents clapping his hands and crowing. It is a very good imitation and I can picture a rooster standing on tip-toes, at full stretch, wings beating and at full throttle. I laugh despite the fact that it’s 0530. The day lightens quickly to reveal what was not so clear last evening as we arrived in camp. We are tucked up on a grassy terrace above a deepish gorge, with tall timber all around. Chickens scratch around geraniums and a small tin shed, in which we had our meals (dinner and breakfast). As we have breakfast mules are driven and prepped for other trekkers who are camped elsewhere around the base of this ridge. There are hostels scattered about but we are in our tents, doing it cheap and adventurous. Or so we assure ourselves. But today we are no longer using mules, but are having our gear picked up by a small bus. Either today or tomorrow we have to farewell our mules as they are not allowed near Machu Picchu. So I guess it might as well be today.
Unusual for this time of the year is all the rain that has fallen yesterday and the small showers we got overnight. We learn that the pass behind us is now closed, such is the volume of snow that has fallen. And today promises more rain. That means Henry has to make a decision. Do we walk up the valley along a track which has some dangerous sections on it thanks to mudslides eating away at the track and which drop directly into the gorge below? A fall down there could be lethal. Or do we follow the road on the other side of the valley? Given the amount of rain Henry elects to walk up the road. He tells a story at one of our breaks later in the day about trekkers he had with him who ignored his advice on the track and an accident ensued. We deduce that there may have been a fatality. Whatever the scenario, Henry is reluctant to let us on the track, even though we espy trekkers through the canopy on the other side every now and then.
We break camp at 0715. It’s dry. Not a spot of rain. Down through forest, a short step across a boiling river, back up the other side, pause to adjust gear. Still not a drop. Along a gravel road with plenty of small cars and buses doing the early morning run from and to goodness only knows where, snake down towards the valley floor and then start walking, roughly following a contour, making for flat walking. Below us the Rio Santa Teresa boils away, though it is a modest channel when I think back to the Gandaki Gorge, that dragon that roared day and night at us in the latter half of the Nepal trek. But by mid morning the rain has set in. Steady, soaking stuff that is both beautiful and a bit inconvenient, the latter for the fact that my North Face over-pants continue to leak at the seams and, while they keep the water out for most of the day they fail in the end. My consolation is that the weather is not as cold as yesterday. We walk at our own pace along this road, dodging the occasional vehicle, and wandering cow or two. Flowers and vegetation and birds keep me distracted and I enjoy what is a very scenic and green valley. Waterfalls drop out of the clouds here and there to add to the picture. By mid-morning we started to encounter more and more farming, in particular passionfruit and avocado plots along the more frequent flats that appear alongside the river. They are rudimentary farms that hint at a slash and burn approach, cut out of the forest but with direct sowing rather than clearing all the timber off. Maize and other plants grow up through fallen logs and piles of rocks. Mind you, the first hint of passionfruit were not the trellised farms but masses of vines spilling over the forest and the lure of fruit hanging just within reach, which of course we had to try. Lewis slides down a grassy embankment while I anchor him, and with a large orange fruit in hand Hamish’s pocketknife comes in handy to divide the spoils. (We discover later we could have easily cracked the shell, this variety having quite a brittle casing). No one else is keen to sample what looks like frog eggs in slimy jelly so Lewis and I enjoy the passionfruit pulp, standing in the rain on a mostly deserted road in the back blocks of Peru. We pause a bit later in the middle of all this horticulture at a closed shopfront, a crudely constructed thing that is closed on our arrival. It is really the home of a farmer eking out some sort of living at the base of this mountain. The shop might be closed but he had a small shelter under his house which we used, along with other travellers, to shelter from the rain. Between the house and the muddy road screened by passion fruit vines and papaya is a mango tree, its shiny lustre in contract with the lighter coloured vegetation around about. Tied to the mango by her back leg, and scribing a semicircle of rooted up earth is a very healthy black sow who pays us close interest even as she shovels through the soil and humus. It will be this farmers prize animal, and next to the broken Honda motocycle, possibly one of his most valuable possessions.
We step back out onto the road and continue in the rain to La Playa which announces its presence by the sound of excited shrieks of kids playing and shouting. I wonder at that since it is still raining. If anything the rain seems to be pouring on a bit more than it has been in the course of the morning. The track comes around a gentle curve on a ridge and we glimpse buildings ahead of, and below us in the misty cloudy rain. A number of hostels have been appearing on the other side of the river and they eventually all seem to link up here at what appears to be a sizeable establishment. And through the screen of sodden green we can see a school, with ant like figures running off the field into classrooms. The noise we heard from La Playa was from these kids and their soccer game. The track dips back into the forest, turns left and we are suddenly in a dripping wet main street with shanty buildings lining ‘Main Street’. A cat sits out of the rain, curled up under a broad leafed plant, watching us. Chickens ignore the water and pick about in the debris of recently sawn lumber. Kids run about as the always do. We nod to a couple of women and their families standing behind a wall of water showering onto the street from a tin roof, and then notice Henry silently pointing us down a lane way. We follow his direction past small huts and out into a large tin roofed structure set up with multiple tables. It’s the local feeding station for trekkers. There are small kitchens (I am being far too generous describing the concrete revetments as kitchens) where the cooks and their assistants prepare meals for the trekkers under their care. We step to another tin roofed shed, sans walls and drop our sodden packs and drop a layer of gortex. But there is a breeze and those of us who are wet or even slightly damp feel the chill. But there is nothing to do except wait for our cooks to deliver lunch. We sit and shiver in anticipation. Dogs prowl under our tables hoping for leftovers, while the rain hammers on the roof and makes conversation difficult. Puddles turn into small lakes even as we wait and the breeze stirs down the valley cooling us even more. At other tables familiar faces appear, trekkers we have met on the track over the last couple of days. The father and her daughter take up seats at the other end of the shed. They seem none-the-worse for their experience on the other side of Salkantay. Finally the cooks serve up ceviche and I wolf it down, along with a second helping. Then the ‘mice’ appear, boiled eggs decorated to look like mice on a bed of vegetables. They vanish too and soon our lengthy lunch break is over and we are piling into a bus. All fifteen of us, plus our cook and his two assistants. (The cook is nicknamed ‘Vin Diesel’ by Henry though he looks more like Happy from the line up in Snow White).
We roll down the track to Santa Teresa, a stop not originally planned in the itinerary but I am happy to trust Tullio and Henry on this. The track increasingly passes through a canyon of tight green banana plants, and coffee and other more jungle like scenarios present to us than the forest we have been walking though. We enter Santa Teresa through what are clearly the less well to do suburbs, climbing through raw cinderblock dwellings up above the river and pulling into a ‘rustic’ hostel. Santa Teresa walls boasts its coffee growing prowess on various ‘billboard’ advertisements as we enter town but there is no coffee in this hostel. Lots of free flowing booze, but no coffee. However there is a garden which is thoroughly pleasant, and the turf that springs under my feet as I help the cooks set up our tents encourages me to think I will sleep well tonight. I take the time to suggest some alternate spots for the tents as the cooks seem oblivious to the obvious evidence of pooled water across the lawn. The campsite is an orchard of breadfruit, oranges, limes, banana and avocado and that’s what I can canvas by standing in one place. I’m sure there will be more types if I hunt around for them. While we have set up tents in the garden the majority of others using this very cheap place have set up their tents on the concrete floors of the incomplete four story building. And when Kavitha asks if she can buy a hot shower the enthusiastic affirmation came at the expense of some one else’s ensuite. Our hostess shrugged and said the boys (it was clearly a boys room!) had not been seen for a few days. Hostel operators are a different breed, and Peruvian operators are a different breed again.
The rain has stopped. Hooray. In fact it had eased up and pretty much stopped as we drove along the road from La Playa. We want to make the most of the afternoon, so by 2pm we rent some towels for 4 sols apiece from the hostel ‘store’, bundle into a van and drive to the hot springs. Santa Teresa sits on a high shelf of stone and shingle above the confluence of the Rio Santa Teresa and another river that tumbles over strewn boulders in its eagerness to make the meeting. In this mess of shingle and boulders hot water boils to the surface and we make the most of the therapeutic heat. The pools are full of other trekkers but everyone is well behaved and we enjoy the heat while we can. But I have to confess that I feel we have done so little work we barely deserve the reprieve. The hot springs are a reminder that these crowded trekking routes are not my ideal adventure. The allure of Machu Picchu is great and that retains a powerful appeal for us as well as the others we amble with – to touch an icon is a seductive thing. But the cost is a carnival air that drives any introspection and serenity out. Completely.
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