The Lares Trek: Living Like Locals in the Peruvian Andes [Part 3]

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It’s finally here: the much anticipated final part (3 of 3) of my Lares Trek through the Andes in Peru. Read on to hear first-hand what it felt like to hike high altitudes and suffer from mild hysteria due to lack of oxygen to the brain.

If you haven’t read the first two parts, here ya go:

Now for the new stuff…

Day 2: Huacahuasi to Patacancha and traversing a 14,700 foot pass

The next day, it took us hours just to get out of Huacahuasi. Not because it’s large (at all) but because it’s confusing.

The trail is so infrequently traversed that at times it doesn’t look like a trail at all. Plus, handmade huts are sprinkled throughout the land, making it almost impossible to tell whether we were hiking a common trail or invading someone’s private property.

We had to ask multiple people which way to go. They all pointed in the same direction, but we still couldn’t figure out how to get there.

Eventually, a local guy approached us and offered to show us the way. His name was Bartisto, and he was 20-something years old, just like us. He walked with us all the way out of Huacahuasi, and then we sat and chatted for a while.

We talked about the states, his life in Huacahuasi and how he worked for a travel company at one point. He said they saw a lot of people from Estados Unidos pass through their village, but he had never been there before.

Surely he had better things to do than escort a couple lost girls through his town, so I felt immense gratitude.

“¿Tienes una mujer en tu vida?” I asked.

Si,” he said. He was married with kids.

And since I had already given away my two spare pairs of shoes, I pulled out a beautifully beaded OneMama necklace and handed it to him.

“Este es para ella,” I said.

He accepted it with a gracias.

But when we offered him coca leaves, he declined. He pointed at his mouth, indicating that he had a toothache or infection of some sort.

Coca leaves come from a multipurpose plant that the locals use to soothe stomach aches and aide altitude sickness. But they’re also the source of the oh-so-popular drug cocaine, and therefore they aren’t legal in the US. Our sea level lungs craved them regularly, so we chewed them and brewed them often.

After catching our breath and methodically sliding into our overstuffed packs, we thanked Bartisto again and again.

“No lo podemos hacer sin tu,” I said.

Then we were on our way.

The trail remained virtually nonexistent as we trekked alongside another lively river that sliced its way through a valley in far-off mountains. We veered to the right and took the direction Bartisto had pointed us in: the same path the locals take every day to travel from village to village.

It wasn’t long before we were creeping across lips of earth on the sides of giant mountains. Level ground was scarce in these parts.

With every step higher the altitude took a tighter grip on our breathing. I started to feel like my heart was going to rip out of my chest. It was pounding fast enough. And my throat started to constrict.

Now I can say I kind of understand and simultaneously cannot comprehend how people willingly climb massive mountains like Mt. Everest.

“How do they do it?” I said out loud, before remembering that half the people don’t climb it successfully. Instead, they die.

Regardless of all that, we didn’t die. But before crossing the highest pass we’d ever traversed, we had to find it.

And there was no one to help us for miles.

No one except for llamas, alpacas, horses, and semi-wild dogs — and the occasional Quechua person dressed in traditionally bright colors: leggings under flouncy skirts, sweaters layered on top of sweaters, felt hats with colorful trim and multicolor carrying cloths slung across their backs.

The Lares Trek is also known as “Weaver’s Way” because you pass through small villages where creating garments like carrying cloths, clothing and other items is a big part of everyday life. This is how many Quechua people make money.

They wrap their handmade items in their handmade carrying cloths and carry them on their backs, looking for an opportunity to unravel the cloth and reveal their goodies.

If it hadn’t been for those carrying cloths, we wouldn’t have found gloves before the temperatures dropped to frigid. And if it hadn’t been for the occasional Quechua person, we never would have found the way.

We got as far as a plateau in the mountainous terrain where a swamp – yes, an alpine swamp – resided.

With no distinct trail to follow and certainly no trail markers, we were lost in the Andes again.

You see, there were many trails leading in many different directions because that’s how the Andean people get around. They walk for miles from village to village.

In fact, there are entire mountainsides terraced by foot traffic from the local people and their animals.

During our search for the right direction, we almost traipsed through someone’s field of crops. Their dogs barked and they called to us to walk around. You’d think they’d be pissed — these first world American bitches about to ruin their food supply.

Instead, they offered us papas, warm potatoes they grew and cooked.

Considering everyone accepted the gifts I presented, it felt wrong to decline. We didn’t want to take food from them when they probably needed it more than we did, but we also didn’t want to offend. So we ate a handful of the most delicious potatoes I’ve ever tasted at 13,000 feet.

And then another miracle happened: we met a teenage Quechua girl named Alicia who guided us toward the pass. We moved much slower than her, and she patiently waited every time we needed to catch our breath and regain a natural heartbeat.

Alicia was soft-spoken and shy and stepped through her mountains gracefully and with care.

She took us up, up, up ever closer to the top of the Ipsayjasa Pass and again we found ourselves grateful because we were sure we wouldn’t have been able to find the way without her kindness.

Once we had a good idea of where we were going, we thanked Alicia and said “esta bien,” she didn’t need to come with us any further.

I gifted her light purple nail polish, and we gave her 20 soles (approximately $7 USD). She seemed surprised and asked if we wanted her to keep going with us.

“Esta bien,” we said again.

Our pace was much slower than hers, and we knew we’d need extra time to acclimate. We didn’t want to take her entire day.

We stopped a lot on our way up — to chew coca leaves, to allow random bouts of nausea to pass, and also just to sit with our experience for a moment or two.

As we edged higher, I noticed my footing starting to fail me. I stumbled around the trail and tripped on my own feet. At some points, my vision got distorted and I felt entirely unbalanced. It didn’t help that the wind started to whip so rapidly I thought maybe I could blow off the side of the cliff like a less magical, more morbid version of Mary Poppins.

But as you know, that didn’t happen. We made it.

Getting to the top of Ipsayjasa Pass was a feat, and we were all smiles. We only took a few minutes for photos and to take in the view. The air was dry, cold and limited.

So once we took a couple of pictures in each direction overlooking the Andes for hundreds of miles, we started our descent.

Perhaps it was impaired judgment due to the altitude or sheer bliss that we actually did it and wanted to put it behind us, or perhaps a combination of both, but we flew down that mountain.

What took us hours to get up only took us about 30 minutes to get down. And at the bottom, we were greeted by a beautiful shimmering lake as the sun cast colors of dusk over the horizon.

A local man welcomed us.

“¿Donde duermen?” He asked.

We told him Patacancha, our next tiny village destination, and he looked up at the sky.

That wasn’t a good sign.

Later we found out that most groups with guides set up camp at Ipsayjasa Lake. If we would have done that, we wouldn’t have been threatened by darkness in unknown Andean terrain.

But we didn’t know that at the time, so we kept trekking. It was us against the sun, and the sun was winning.

To make matters even more interesting, we got lost again. We lost sight of the trail and ended up trekking on a locally traversed trail that led to a barbed wire fence.

We had two options: turn back around and retrace our steps, or pretend the barbed wire was a welcome invitation to keep trekking. We chose the latter. Maddison held the wire up as I ducked under and I did the same for her once I was on the other side.

The most frustrating part about this leg of the trek was that we could see Patacancha, our intended destination. It was right there… yet, it wasn’t right there at all.

And even though I’d already conquered the 14,700-foot pass, I was feeling more sick than at any other point in the hike. Again my chest was exploding and my throat closing.

We finally came upon an area with level ground, which was somewhat concealed by a large rock.

“Should we keep going or set up here?” Maddison asked.

There was a lot going through my head: what if we set up here, on someone’s land, that we clearly are not supposed to be on, and the landowner decides to kill us in our sleep?

Or alternatively: what if we keep going, darkness falls like a sheet of black, and we get even more lost than we are now? And still, we’d have nowhere to camp.

This time, we went with the getting killed in our sleep option. I simply did not feel well enough to keep trekking, especially in the dark with no real notion of where to go.

So we set up our tent on someone’s land, which I later read is punishable by death if you’re going by traditional Inca ideals.

Luckily, the only thing I suffered from that night was mild altitude sickness combined with what I can only assume was a panic attack.

My body rejected everything I’d eaten, leaving me consumed with chills so intense I thought maybe I’d go into hypothermic shock. Dogs barked in the distance, and I was sure they were alerting their humans of our intrusion. My heart beat so rapidly I asked Maddison to check my pulse.

Part of me truly thought I wouldn’t wake up if I closed my eyes.

We were camping at 13,700 feet (I could tell thanks to Snapchat, the only app I know of that tells you your altitude even when you don’t have cell service), which felt all too high for people who were accustomed to sleeping 13,700 feet lower.

Once Maddison confirmed my pulse was normal (note to self: traveling with a registered nurse has its perks), my discomfort slowed. And then eventually I decided I was too exhausted to care anymore.

And in time, I drifted off to a strangely deep sleep.

Day 3: Arriving in Patacancha and making our way to Huilloc, Ollantaytambo & Machu Picchu

The next day, we woke up alive without any death threats from the people whose land we squatted on.

Though I felt a bit better, every effort took double my energy: changing my clothes, packing my bag, breaking camp. It was all tiring in itself.

And then we had to walk another who knows how many miles to get to Patacancha.

It took well over an hour, maybe even three hours, which made me glad we didn’t keep going the night prior. Especially since there was more barbed wire and confusion to contend with. I can only imagine how challenging it would have been without daylight.

As you can imagine, arriving in Patacancha felt like winning a marathon. We cheered and congratulated ourselves, whooping and smiling as our packs swung with our final steps.

During the final miles of our trek, we decided we would be okay with ending in Patacancha and finding a bus to the next villages.

“In no way will I feel like a failure,” I said.

And I didn’t. Not at all.

Because we walked a good 15-20 miles through the Andes without a guide or any hired help, carrying upwards of 30 pounds on our backs, living without any first world amenities. We’d roughed it long enough.

And if we weren’t meant to take a bus from Patacancha, then tell me why a bus was just sitting there at the bottom of the town as if waiting for us to board.

When we took our seats, we looked at each other with eyes glassed over in gratitude. We were so thankful: that we made it out alive, that we found a bus, that we were on our way towards Machu Picchu and that our backpacks weren’t further chafing our already raw shoulders.

Maybe the reason the indigenous people of Peru were so kind to us was that we were doing it the right way:

Trekking miles upon miles and days upon days through the unrelenting mountains with the weight of a toddler on our backs.

Independent of a hired guide or any first world help (aside from the weight we decided to carry).

Living without heat, electricity or running water.

Sleeping under the Andean stars, traversing the same ridges the locals so gracefully walk every day.

Speaking their language and smiling through the discomfort, fear, pain.

Sure, there were times we thought we’d die and moments that brought tears.

But it was all worth it.

Never in my life have I felt more connected to land and to people that carry so much history, so much authenticity, so little and so much to give all at once.

If you ever feel so inclined to experience true cultural immersion in Peru, I highly recommend the Lares Trek.

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Translations:

Estados Unidos: United States

¿Tienes una mujer en tu vida?: Do you have a woman in your life?

Este es para ella: This is for her

No lo podemos hacer sin tu: We couldn’t do it without you

Papas: potatoes

Esta bien: it’s okay

¿Donde duermen?: Where are you guys sleeping?

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