Trekking to Lares with the Willka Tika Staff
By Terry Cumes
Every year for almost 20 years, our head of Willka Tika staff, Antonia, has arranged something fantastic where every staff member participates and goes on a new outing. This year, we decided to go trekking to Lares. We walked straight up the mountains from Willka T’ika, to the peak at 13,800 ft, and then trekking down to Lares’ hot springs to relax some very sore muscles. Everyone, including our young Roxana participated; some trotted up the hill while others staggered. I kept my well-practiced steady pace and was grateful for the poncho my mother Carol had purchased from our beloved Q’ero, Don Benito. After a very long trek, we spent the night in Lares, ate a hearty dinner and enjoyed the baths before making our way home to celebrate Peru’s Fiestas Patrias, two days of national holiday.
Time & Inclination, July 2014
For those who have requested more color on the cultural and geographical landscape of Peru, as well as some insight into the staff of Willka T’ika, this blog entry is an extended one. Read according to your stamina……
We were gone for 36 hours, 13 of which were spent hiking up the Pumawanka valley to the pilgrimage site of the Señor de Torrechayoc and then trekking down to the thermal baths of Lares. Torrechayoc is the patron saint of Urubamba, and most of Willka T’ika’s 16 staff have walked up to the Abra de Sicllacasa in their youth to honor the Cross that stands atop this 13,189 ft pass. In an attempt to come up with a good team bonding activity, I’d suggested trekking to Lares together. I also wanted to check out the thermal baths.
We rose at 4AM on Tuesday and started our ascent at 5AM in pitch black. As the group charged forward joking and chatting ceaselessly in Quechua, I quietly tried to find a pace that would keep me warm but not too winded from the altitude. The others preferred to scamper ahead, waiting for me every half hour or so. At each repose, they would kindly offer me dried maíz, maté de muña, or a handful of coca leaves. A couple of the guys would also try to carry my backpack, which was weighted down with 3 liters of water and about 20 chocolate bars that Tristen and I had brought for the staff. This seemed like the right time to share my stash and I was surprised to see most of them choose the Peruvian Sublime chocolate over my exotic Skor, Milky Way and Snickers bars. Then again, these are the same people who proudly drink Inca Cola.
We continued like this for seven hours, stopping for a potluck lunch of sorts at 10AM in a grove of Qeuña trees and finally reaching the pass or “abra” at noon. I was shocked at how slowly I was moving, until I realized that we had climbed over 4000 feet, essentially doing two days of “Inca Trail” hiking in one. I later heard from Antonia, our head of staff, that there were some doubts and maybe even some bets as to whether or not I would make it at all.
Trekking down to Lares was relatively easier for me than for the others, who were subtly starting to show their fatigue as we navigated the rocky, almost volcanic terrain. The glacial tarns gave way to soft tufts of pampa grass but the steepness of the slope never yielded. If Livio, our guest services angel, hadn’t loaned me a hiking pole, my knees would have turned to jello. Mario, our chef, resident artist, and staff jester, played his pan flute as he skipped down the mountain. He stopped a couple times to fish for trout in the tarns and I could hear the others warning him that a group of tourists had been suddenly engulfed by one of these “lagunitas salvajes.” Mario took their warning very seriously and stuck his hook and a larvae bait a little pond instead, eventually emerging with a 3 inch trout. Arturo, our jefe de reservaciones, and I tracked down some viscacha in the rocks, which look like large rabbits with fuzzier ears and longer tails. I suppose if I’d ran out of power bars, or they’d run out of corn, we could have fed ourselves for a while at this altitude.
Needless to say, I was in good hands up there. With 15 staff and 4 of their relatives, we were the biggest group trekking to Lares. We saw only two other groups, one from England and a second from the States. I avoided the latter group, perhaps because Americans always seem so loud to me when I’m walking quietly. And also, because I was “going local,” pretending that my Q’ero poncho covering my back and the alpaca chullo covering my head would camouflage my gringo identity. The Americans, like most trekkers, were wisely doing this trail in two days so today they had walked 11 miles of mostly descent compared to our 17 miles of up and down. They also had mules to carry their load. Their “reserve mule” was resting at the back of the pack, tethered to a young Quechua woman in colorful market regalia. One of the guides of this group lingered back to check the mule, and when he saw that it was unburdened, tried to mount it. The woman warned him to be careful as this particular mule was a bit surly. I kept walking, not giving it much thought except thinking that perhaps the young guide was trying to show off to his American guests.
A few minutes later, I heard a loud collision and a muffled scream, The same mule had bolted ahead and collided violently into an American women who was walking innocently ahead. I turned to see the mule writhing on the ground with his saddle stuck around his belly. A few meters behind him lay the young woman in a prone position, still as a stone. The next few minutes unfolded like most emergency situations, especially those in Peru: mass confusion, people shouting incoherently in different directions, and an embarrassing lack of leadership. I approached the American gingerly and was happy to hear her mumble that she was OK. The mule had knocked her over, but she had not hit her head as I had feared.
Meanwhile, Antonia was yelling at me to watch out for the panic-stricken mule, which was trying to free himself from its saddle and sprint to safety. Antonia’s husband, Eulogio, was simultaneously screaming at the guide in a venomous mixture of Quechua and Castellano. I could just make it out: “This is your fault! You should not mount a mule if you don’t know what you’re doing! Shame on you!”
In a matter of moments everyone had surrounded us and the injured woman was now talking softly to her friend. I signaled to our group to keep moving. It was after 4PM and we had only just left the town of Cuncani. We still had about 6 miles to go and it would be dark by 6PM. Although we were all tired by this point from 11 hours of walking, the recent drama gave us something to chat about. Between the lot of us, we were able to put together the pieces of the story and unanimously convict the guide for gross negligence. Antonia half-joked that if the burly mule had trampled one of us, the guide would not have got off so easy. Even these gentle Quechua can show a trace of violence at times.
As we continued walking, the chatter died down and the reality that we were going to be trekking into Lares as night set in. I had my headlamp handy and wasn’t worried about walking another couple hours on gentle terrain. Like cowboys, we strolled into the town of Lares dirty, hungry, and tired. Antonia and her 13 year-old-son were complaining of sore feet and legs but none of the others would admit to any discomfort. It was now dark and the children of Lares were playing in the streets with their dogs. The temperature had dropped precipitously since it started drizzling. (The next day it would hail!) We winded our way to the Plaza de Armas and found the Hostal Lares where we had made a “reservation” for 19 adults. The señora del hostal welcomed us inside and found enough beds to accommodate us all. The price, however, was no longer the 10 soles that we had been quoted on the phone, but rather 15. Too tired to be annoyed, I gave her 285 soles, thrilled to be getting clean sheets and a wool blanket for $5 a person.
The next order of business was food. The same señora recommended the pollería next door where we were promptly given a bowl of chicken broth. While we waited for our “segundo”, all 20 of us stared at the TV in the corner and watched a “Do or Die” tutorial of how to put out a fire should your friend self-ignite at a gas station. The same dramatization was replayed for about 10 minutes, with the victim rolling on the ground while his friends tried to smother the flames with a blanket. A few minutes later we were served fried chicken and rice, and I broke my month-long vegetarian streak.
The thermal baths of Lares are about a mile outside town and everyone was too tired to walk there. I took this as proof that despite their pride, they had all been sufficiently challenged. True team building had thus been achieved! I splurged on a 20 soles shuttle to take us straight to the baths where we all soaked happily for an hour. I was the only one to enter the very hot bath (~44 degrees ) so at least I could take solace in having one physical advantage over the others. The baths were magic to our aching muscles and our cramps and pains seemed to disappear into the muddy pools of mineral water. By 10:30PM we were all fast asleep in our rickety hostel and by 6:30AM, everyone was wide awake, sipping caldo de gallina in the Plaza de Armas. Chicken soup never tasted so good.
After another soak in the baths, we took a colectivo from Lares to Calca, listening to loud Bolivian cumbia music for two hours and 200 winding curves. Thankfully, our driver was cautious, so I didn’t complain that he honked his klaxon every few hundred feet or that the seatbelt was buried under the seat. Crammed into the front seat with Mario, I watched the dust settle over the surrounding pre-Incan ruins and terraces as we climbed out of the Lares Valley. 3 hours, 2 vans, and 1 moto-rickshaw later, we were back in Urubamba. I found my wife, Tristen touring the gardens with some guests and handed her a sublime ice cream that I’d just bought her at “El A2” in Urubamba.“ Helado” is her first and favorite word in Spanish. She reached for the ice cream first, and then for a kiss.