Day 1: First Impressions

I already knew the way to Chillca. A few days before I began the Camino del Apu trek, I had visited one of the four eco-Lodges, where I met some native townspeople from the communities of Chillca and Osefina.

What I wasn’t familiar with along the way were the town of Checacupe and its church. It’s an old church, with really nice paintings on the walls. The fact that I could see relics of colonial times made this church special for me.

From Checacupe we continued towards Chillca, but before getting ready for the first leg of the 5-day trek, lunch was waiting for us at a quiet spot surrounded by eucalyptus trees. What the chefs of Andean Lodges can conjure up in the middle of nowhere is impressive. With lunch, we drank a lot of coca leaf tea. Slowly, we ascended to higher areas. Coca leaf tea or chewing coca leaves prevent altitude sickness, which you can get at altitudes of above 2,500 m. Because I already had lived in Cusco for three months, at an altitude of 3,400 m., I didn’t feel any symptoms of altitude sickness.

After lunch, we went ahead in the Sprinter. We were dropped off on a gravel road, and our adventure began right away.

Our guide Jesús assured us that the first day is an easy walk, and Juan Carlos, the manager of Andean Lodges, agreed. Fine, so I believed them.

At first, we hiked along a small stream and continued a few meters upwards. I realized that the air is much thinner than in Cusco. And here my breathing became heavier as I climbed rock stairs. At that moment we were at about 4,290 m. On this day the hike was only 3.5 km long and was perfect for access. After the short climb, we went downstream, between rocks and toward the huge pastures facing Chillca Lodge. When we reached the open area, we heard rumbling behind the mountains. Loud rumbling! I found this somewhat disturbing, as I wandered with walking sticks in hand along the open field, which was flooded. We were optimally prepared for a raging Andean storm. But I seemed to be the only one who was worried; all the others still radiated absolute peace. This reassured me, and finally, the first lodge was already in sight. We arrived there, thank goodness for dry feet. We spent the first night at 4,350 m.

For the welcome, there was a pair of lambskin slippers for each of us, very comfortable and warm and absolutely essential on the cold floor.

We moved fast into our room and then gathered downstairs with a cup of mate de coca in front of the fireplace as it rained outside. The mood was good and we all got to know each other a bit. We were a relatively mixed group. Six people from Lima, the manager of Andean Lodges (Juan Carlos), a Cusco-based German tour guide (Jan) and I, a tourism student from Bremen, Germany, with a passion for Peru. My passion would soon grow, despite the exhausting, but wonderful, trek.

There is no electricity at the lodges, and to enhance the coziness they lit a lot of candles. The first tasty smells out of the kitchen reached us. As we were sitting comfortably talking in front of the fireplace, the guys in the kitchen were already very busy. The food smelled so good, and it was so delicious.

The guys are really good chefs, and from conversations during my internship, I know that they really love their work and appreciate Andean Lodges. Andean Lodges works with both the communities of Chillca and Osefina. They’re partners in the company, which supports their traditional lifestyle. Andean Lodges ensures them good training, whether as chefs, housekeepers or guides. Traditions such as llama and alpaca herding, as well as textile crafts, are being preserved by Andean Lodges. How so? I’ll explain this further along in this report.

Back to the cozy lodge. After dinner, we went to bed relatively quickly, the amount of good food made us sleepy. Before bed, the local people offered us a small presentation of their traditional music.

In the rooms, they had put chocolates on our pillows, but even better… the hot water bottle, which was still heating the bed. The night was pleasant, and not as cold as I had imagined, maybe it was the super comfortable duvet.

Day 2: On the way to Machuracay Lodge

At 6 o’clock we were awakened by the gentle singing of the girls. I had never begun a day like this, I could get used to it.

At breakfast, I was overwhelmed by the selection of fruit. Also, there was really tasty, sweet quinoa.

After breakfast, we went outside for a short presentation, everyone briefly introduced themselves. After the presentation, we went to the llamas. They were packing our luggage. Here, I return to the topic of llama herding. Llamas have been used as means of transportation in the Andes for centuries. They can carry up to 20 kilograms. Unfortunately, this tradition is slowly disappearing. Andean Lodges works to keep this cultural tradition alive. So, the llamas carried our baggage, we just carried our daypacks; I was really glad about that. 

Before we started hiking we got our pre-prepared lunchboxes. The first leg was flat pastureland. My thoughts were: “If it stays like this, awesome”…but just after that thought, we began the first ascent, and it was not that easy anymore. At that moment, I wished nothing more than to be able to sit on our accompanying horse to enjoy the landscape without having to walk. But I didn´t do it because of my little fighting spirit. Also, the incredible views motivated me to continue on by myself. My group? They passed me by, talking cheerfully. Myself?  At that moment I wasn´t so cheerful. It was pretty hard for me to keep going uphill. The gentleman with the horse behind me, named Victor, with the patience of Job, was the last in line so that nobody would get lost. That would have been me, in any case. He cheerfully asked me whether he could carry my backpack, but my pride was too strong and I refused.

Finally, I saw the cabin where we had our lunch. I was happy about getting a burst of energy from a very tasty lunch. It started to hail, of course before I could reach the cabin. And I didn´t care. At the cabin, I was cheerfully greeted by the others. I was already so broken (exhausted?) that I quietly enjoyed my food.  

After lunch at the home of a Chillca native, we moved on. Meanwhile, the hail stopped, but the sun was hiding behind the clouds, so the grayish white of the clouds merged with the snow of the mountains, and the view was limited. The next leg to the second Lodge, Machuracay Lodge at 4,815 m., turned out to be an easy hike. But at that moment I had to struggle again. Juan Carlos was walking patiently in front of me, as I dragged one foot in front of the other. I felt like I was 90 years old. At some point, he turned around and said that the worst part was now ahead. Alright, I was about to resign when I saw the lodge behind him. Suddenly, one foot was automatically being placed in front of the other, and finally, my mind was free to admire the beautiful view of Mt. Ausangate. The lodge is located right at its foot.

I had made it, and I was happy with myself. So, I was able to walk the last meter with a smile on my face.

After a hot shower, everybody came down to sit in front of the fireplace with mate de coca in hand. It was so cozy! Slowly, the clouds cleared; perfect timing for the sunset. This time the sky was so beautiful, with llamas and horses in the foreground, facing the mighty Andes Mountains.

Day 3: Paso Palomani, a unique experience

The next morning, we took part in a ceremony. We thanked sacred Mt. Ausangate. It was very interesting for me, I´ve been to Peru four times before, but I never had the chance to be part of a ceremony. We prepared an altar of different grains and spoke to Apu Ausangate. Then, the altar was lit.

Then, we continued on to the highest point of the entire trek, Palomani Pass, at 5,100 m. This leg of the trek was “only” 1.3 km. long, with at 300 m. of altitude rise, but hey, the air is really thin up there.

So, I started off highly motivated. Really. Meanwhile, I really wanted to finish the trek without any help.

The chefs, llama herders and housekeepers cleaned the lodge as we walked slowly towards the pass. About halfway up, my group had disappeared from view.  The natives moved happily past me as I gasped again for air. As always, Juan Carlos and Victor with his horse patiently stayed with me and were able to pick up a few words of German, which I babbled in between efforts to keep my balance. Well, at some point we reached 5,100 m., and I was greeted by my group and the view really motivated me. It was really nice to know that I was not alone.

I left everything as it was, dropped my backpack and enjoyed this incredible view in total silence with the others. On one side the Ausangate glacier, on the other side a valley, which was shining in different colors. Red mountains, an ice-blue glacial lake, and a snowcapped slope. Awesome. Each meter hiking up here was worth it. And even better, I made it without the help of a horse.

But as slow as you go uphill, the way downhill is faster. In about an hour we made it back to 4,650 m., past the glacial lake, through alpaca herds and uphill again. Well, I knew it now and after the ascent in the morning, nothing could shock me again. And really, the ascent was easy, but anyway I was tired and started to get hungry. But because of the incredible landscape, this was no problem at all. We hiked through herds of shy alpacas, climbing around the green / red mountain, with a view of a valley that made your heart race. Even though my heart almost jumped out of my chest because of the altitude, yes, it beat even faster at the sight of such a landscape.

After about an hour and a half, we reached the place for our lunch. The guys set up a tent, and we scrambled into it as we saw the huge grey-black clouds looming behind the peaks. But after a short rain shower it was over, meanwhile, we enjoyed our super tasty lunch.

From here we were able to see the third lodge in the distance. Anantapata Lodge, located at 4,750 m. is a very special one for Andean Lodges. Not only is the construction different and special. Anantapata was financed by the Chillca community, and it shows that the local people want to share their land with Andean Lodges and the guests. Furthermore, they proudly present their homeland to visitors.

The last leg after lunch to Anantapata was flat. Or as they said, it was Andean-flat.  Which means it was not all that flat. So, once again I was the last to arrive at the lodge. But I was walking happily through alpacas herds and the green meadow. I had to smile a bit at the fluffy animals. I saw they had a blue coil of wool in front of their faces, so they looked like punky alpacas.

The hot fireplace and a cold beer were already waiting at Anantapata. Absolutely awesome! When they passed us a huge bowl of popcorn everyone was absolutely happy. We talked, played backgammon and thoughtfully watched the fire in the fireplace. I have no idea what the others were thinking, but I was still so happy. With myself, with the incredible opportunity of taking the trek. Everything was perfect.

That night was the first cold night. I slept with my hat on and clutched my hot water bottle, but it was still cozy because of the comfortable beds and thick down comforters.

Day 4: A Stunning Sunrise and Colorful Vinicunca

On the fourth day, we woke up at 4 o’clock, with the endearing singing voices of the girls. Today we wanted to start off early. We didn´t want to arrive at Vinicunca (the Rainbow Mountain) with all the day tourists. We had a fast, tasty, bracing breakfast, and at about 5 o´clock we left Anantapata.

The moonlight was so bright that we didn’t even need flashlights. Worth the experience. The ascent to the Warmisaya Pass was pretty heavy. It was really steep and I was thinking about snow and skiing to enjoy this beautiful mountain as if skiing downhill. But to hike up was also a really nice and a special experience. On this day it wasn’t so easy to leave me behind. I was motivated by the rising sun. I wanted to reach the pass before the sun was completely up. And I managed it, just barely.

Gasping for air, I stood there at 4,985 m. and watched as the sun drove the fog fields out of the valley. As if that were not magical enough, two more horses stood in the foreground. Perfect for nice photos.
When the sun fully came up we started off, how could it be otherwise, with a descent before going up again to reach Vinicunca. But anyhow, my motivation was huge, on the one hand, because I still was fascinated by the sunrise, and on the other, I really didn’t want to see all the tourists at Vinicunca. We nearly made it. There were just a few crazy people like us who had made their way to Vinicunca. I wanted to see the colorful mountain, exactly like this, with just a few people and Vicuñas, who fled down into the valley before the day tourists arrived.

We took a short break to take pictures and to enjoy the incredible view, we moved on to the red valley. Took another short break at Pururauccas, embedded between in mountain rock formations reminiscent of faces. From there we walked through the red valley, where we had a second breakfast at about 10:30. We all relaxed for a while in the sun before hiking the last leg of the trek today to the last lodge.
Huampococha Lodge, at 4,800 m., is close to a lake. This location topped all the places I had already been to. I hadn’t even imagined this was possible.

While we were sat once again in front of the fireplace playing Jenga, it began to snow outside. For me, it was the perfect surroundings, which brought me once again to my inner thoughts. I was sad that we had spent our last evening in this incredible world of mountains. The trek is overwhelming. And once again I recognized why I am fascinated from Peru. For dinner, the chef prepared a really good and tasty buffet served with Peruvian red wine. The perfect last evening…

Day 5: The Women of Osefina

The next morning the time came. We made our last ascent to a pass. Meanwhile, it was not that heavy of a hike up as at the beginning. When we arrived at the pass everyone enjoyed the final view before we pensively hiked the descent. From there we walked again through alpaca herds, and up to the ladies of Osefina. These women live making their traditional handicrafts. They explained how to dye and process the weavings. We had the opportunity to see how these wonderful weavings are made, and we could buy these unique items directly from the ladies. This is another effort to preserve an ancient tradition that is supported by Andean Lodges. After everyone had bought a small souvenir, we went downhill for our last lunch. Farewell by a beautiful river, surrounded by eucalyptus trees.

During the entire trip, as guests of Andean Lodges, we saw that the values and culture of the local people were highly valued and protected. Andean Lodges really takes care that the local people acquire sound training, but are not restricted in their traditional way of life. We were accompanied during the five days by an absolutely motivated team; everyone felt this, which made this unforgettable experience even more memorable.

Wistfully, we climbed into the Sprinter; nobody wanted to leave this wonderful place. The return to Cusco was relatively quiet, everyone probably lost in their thoughts about this unforgettable trek.

By Lisa Wehmeyer 

Bremen, June 2018

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