Long time, no write. However, this isn’t an entirely bad thing as I was preoccupied experiencing the destination, and that’s kind of the point, right? I’ve been perusing for Peruvian perfection and have yet to be disappointed. But first…
1. Left the oceans and jungles of Costa Rica
2. Landed in mountainous Cusco, Peru
3. Found llamas everywhere
4. Became overwhelmed with llama themed souvenirs
5. Realized I was utterly underprepared for the temperature drop and altitude increase
6. Quickly obtained a pair of llama socks
7. And a llama hat
8. And a llama sweater
9. And another pair of llama socks
10. And one more llama sweater (It’s cold here okay..)
11. Saw Star Wars (despite its questionable storyline jumps and gaps I still loved it, especially Finn and BB-8!)
12. Visited a few Incan ruins
13. Celebrated the New Year in Plaza de Armas
14. Went on a camping (mis)adventure in the Andes
15. Started my new “volunteer” gig!
Phew – It’s been a busy two weeks! Where to begin… I’ll start with this devilishly handsome llama (or alpaca?) because, why not?
Moving on… We went camping along the Ausangate Trek, which at the time we did not know was actually called the Ausangate Trek, and it was a memorable trip. By “memorable,” I primarily mean that my legs still remember the grueling climb 3 days later.
First, I’d like to present our step-by-step guide to camping on this trail:
1. Decide you want to camp in the mountains
2. Figure out a place to camp (this step is up to interpretation)
Our version of Step 2 utilized the following pieces of information:
– A couple had said there was a great hike to a volcano and hot springs near Cusco
– This place started with a ‘T’
– It was a short word, maybe 5 or 6 letters
– It was near a large mountain
– The words “waka waka” written in a note*
*this turned out to have ZERO relevance whatsoever
So we did what all intelligent people do, we sought the guidance of the all-knowing Google. But wait… the all-knowing Google didn’t really know that much at all. Instead, we stared at a map and concluded that the city we were looking for was possibly Tinki or Tinta, both which were near some mountains and relatively close to Cusco. Plus, they were short words that started with a “T.” That’s a good starting point, right? After a little debate, a few more failed Google searches, and a lot of confused headshakes, we settled on Tinki because it was closer to a mountain than Tinta and it just plain sounded better (on what basis I couldn’t say, but we stuck by it).
…and with our clearly extensive knowledge on where we were going, we rented camping equipment, got some food and took off!
A bus, a taxi and a lot of kind locals offering directions later… we arrived at a sign saying, “BIENVENIDOS AL CIRCUITO AUSANGATE!” We took that as a good sign (pun intended), and although not 100% (or even 60%) sure that it was the place, we were happy it was at least a place. And with that we snapped a picture of the map and headed into the great Peruvian unknown. Luckily there were several locals that turned us into the correct direction (wherever that was) either out of sheer kindness or because we were standing in their yard; see photo above. Along the way we met traditional Peruvian families, came across herds of hungry alpacas, a lot of candy-hungry children, a bread-hungry kitten, several attention-hungry black dogs (there is no diversity of color, only black) and always kept the massive snowcapped mountain of Ausangate head of us. An undetermined amount of miles later (I said 7, he said 6, so we settled on 6.5, but really, who knows) we decided to ask a local where on earth we were and if we were remotely close to a campsite. This local was named Santiago and he said these blessed words: “You have arrived, camp anywhere here! That way are some hot springs and over there is the bathroom.” Yes. So there we were, essentially setting up camp in Santiago’s yard, where the ground was covered in a little llama poop (okay, a lot) and where said llamas stood on the hillside awkwardly staring at us with their judgey little llama eyes. No matter, it was somewhere and it was perfect.
The next day we took a little dip in the hot springs, hiked about 12 miles (also up to debate) closer to the mountain and back to our tent. On our journey we stumbled upon small lagoons, encountered snow, made friends with llamas, sheep, dogs, colorful locals and experienced pure Peruvian perfection. Ahead of us was the breathtaking mountain of Ausangate, to our side were smaller snowcapped Andean peaks and behind us were miles of green expanse which really put into perspective just how far we had come.
When we got back to Cusco I again turned to Google and found that we had apparently hiked along the Ausangate Trek, and just as my legs would agree, it is said to be one of the more difficult treks in Peru. Crazy thing about it is that we only did a small leg of it so I can’t imagine the challenge of completing the whole enchilada. Oh, and fun fact: Ausangate is also an Apu, or a holy and sacred mountain, so we essentially hiked South America’s version of Mt. Olympus. Well, that’s pretty neat.
More things I learned (shout out to Google and Google Espanol!):
– Ausangate is a 5-day trek
– Due to its difficulty level it is for experienced hikers
– Hired guides are highly recommended
– Ausangate is at an elevation of 20,945 feet (perspective: Mt. Rainier is at 14,409 ft.)
– You are constantly hiking at an altitude of 14,500 feet (at the low end) and should properly acclimate prior to the trek
– The hike is best done May-September when the weather is good and hundreds gather to camp and experience the mountain festivals
We hiked for 2.5 days, at a fraction of the cost, on our own, in the opposite direction, with no physical preparation or proper acclimation, at the beginning January. Oops.
So basically… we did it all wrong, which I know is completely shocking to hear since we had such a vast amount of knowledge regarding the area prior to setting off…
But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
And what is wrong with “wrong” anyway? We had the entire mountain to ourselves, save for a few hikers in a tour group that looked liked they had been trampled by a pack of llamas, plus we were completely self-sufficient, went at our own pace and got to experience the genuine kindness of the locals. Okay, so we only did a portion of the trek and subsisted on mangos and “tuna,” but I still think our way was pretty phenomenal and a perfect start to 2016.
Speaking of 2016… Ringing in the New Year in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas was absolutely fantastic! We were among a thousand others while the city and mountainsides lit up with fireworks and cheering. I will say that the fireworks are a bit on the sketchy side here, as in they light them from inside the crowd. Yes, seriously, I literally mean from inside the crowd. You would see a flash of light and suddenly a huge space would open up as people fled from the small explosion. So casual. Then, once midnight hit we did Cusco’s traditional run around the square, or more accurately the awkward penguin-stuck-in-a crowd-shuffle around the square. I may even be so bold to say that it was one of my best New Years yet!
I feel like I’ve already done so much in Cusco yet I still have another month here! During that time I will be bartending weekend nights at Hostel Kokopelli, a great place in the heart of Cusco, in exchange for a free bed, drinks, discounts on food and luggage storage (which is super handy when trekking around). During the week I’ll be off exploring southern Peru and soon I’ll head to the infamous of Machu Picchu. So far, it’s hasn’t been too terrible a start to the year!
Some extra tidbits…
Ruins of Sacsayhuamán:
My happy place: