Willka T’ika Staff Hiking in the Sacred Valley
Hiking up the Sacred Valley to the “Las Ruinas de Perolniyoc”
By Terry Cumes
Every time I come to Peru I try to take Willka T’ika’s staff hiking in the Sacred Valley. Considering 18 people’s work and vacation schedules, it’s hard to find a day when everyone can join. Fortunately, this last week had been particularly quiet at Willka T’ika so we were able to agree on Thursday, August 2nd. The 2nd also fell just after the “Día de la Pachamama” making it an extra auspicious time to celebrate the staff and their vast contributions in making Willka T’ika a nature sanctuary in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.
After doing a some scouting hiking and biking in the Sacred Valley and then consulting with the staff, we decided to hike to “las ruinas de Perolniyoc.” Antonia, our head of staff, organized a local bus to take us to the mountain community of Socma and also invited a local farmer, Marco, who claimed to know the trail. Strangely, not one of our locally-born staff had ever been up to these nearby ruins and nobody, including our own hiking guide Silverio, knew the route up the Sacred Valley. I did some research on-line and the Peruvian Tourism Board had been promoting the restoration of these ruins since 2014, but with the exception of a few tourists on horseback and the residents of Socma, few people seemed to have explored them. It seemed like the perfect adventure for us and everyone was excited to spend the day hiking and to discover something new right in their back yard.
Thursday at twilight, my alarm went off at 5AM. We needed to leave early before the road construction work around the town of Pachar blocked our access to Socma. I woke Tristen up with a cup of maté de coca and we packed up our day pack with gloves, hat, sunscreen and water. We tied a few extra layers around our waists, knowing that the high altitude winds could turn our sunny day hike into a frigid trek. I grabbed a box of Sublime chocolates and a couple bags of galletas to share with the staff. By the time we got to the meeting spot, it was close to 6AM and everyone attempted to find a seat in the small bus. The driver, Yon, wanted to take the group in two trips but we convinced him to allow us to pile in. The overloaded bus lurched forward up the dirt driveway, and after a few failed attempts, gained purchase on the main road towards Ollantaytambo.
We drove up the windy dirt road to Socma. It only took 30 minutes which was somewhat disheartening to me since it had taken me over two hours on my bike a few weeks ago. We filed out and began hiking just as the sun was coming up. The sky was clear and the air was heating up earlier than usual. Pachamama was smiling upon us! After weeks of a remarkably cold winter, she was promising us a welcome warm day.
Immediately the staff began to split into small groups based roughly on fitness level. Those who worked in the gardens and doing construction charged ahead. Led by maintenance workers Leo, David, and Jesus, who jogged up the trail, followed by the gardeners: Julian, Juan Carlos, and Ivan. The housekeeping staff was next: Julio, Guido and Marta. At the rear, keeping Tristen and me company were the office and kitchen staff: Antonia, Roxanna, Livio, and Mario. Fabian and Moises also stayed back with us. Almost the entire staff was in attendance, except for Florencio, Arturo, and Angel who all had to stay home for personal reasons.
The climb up to the Cataratas de Perolniyoc was steep and muddy and Mario and I helped Tristen with the slippery, rocky steps. Mario would not leave Tristen’s side the entire day and we soon coined his new nickname “bastón” or “walking stick.” Despite the steep grade, it took only 45 minutes to get to the waterfall and everyone was happy to stop and pose for photos in the cool mist, feeling the force of eighty meters of falling glacier water. I was surprised to see everyone using their phones, taking selfies, and sending WhatsApp messages to their families at home. It wasn’t that long ago that not a single staff member had even a fixed telephone in their home. Yet over the last five years they’d all acquired iPhones, mastered texting, and opened Facebook accounts.
We continued to wind our way up towards to ruins, which were now visible above us. As we continued hiking high above the Sacred Valley and I began to feel the humbling effects of the altitude. Perched at 3,645 meters (12,000 ft), las ruinas de Perolynioc loomed down on us, After an hour, we approached the first set of ruins, aptly named “Raqaypata,” or “Crying up top” in Quechua. Fortunately Tristen and I weren’t ready to “cry up high” just yet, as the ascent was now gentle and we were reasonably acclimated from over a month of living and hiking in the Sacred Valley.
The ruins of Raqaypata were empty so we enjoyed the quiet, peaceful vantage and gazed out to the Sacred Valley below. Everyone eagerly opened their chocolates and snacks and a few of us pulled out the wads of coca leaves stuffed into our gums. Chewing coca and posing for photographs do not go well together, I soon realized. We took a group photo up against the rocky ruins and I made a short speech to staff about my plans for Willka T’ika. I explained that Tristen and I would be spending a good part of the year in Peru to help grow the business as well as to give my mother a much-deserved rest. I thanked everyone for the hard work and passed out envelopes containing the tips that had accumulated since I’d arrived. In true ayni fashion, we split the propinas evenly among the staff, emphasizing that everyone’s contribution to Willka T’ika was equally important. Several people smiled when Mario said that this was the first time he’d ever received a tip at such high altitude!
As we pulled ourselves up to start hiking, Tristen’s alarm went off on her phone. When I explained that she only wakes up at 8:30AM, everyone starting laughing, since most of them are at work by 7AM. The agrarian Quechua always wake up with the sun. Waking up today at 5AM to go hiking felt like (and was) a holiday to them. We proceeded to climb up the pass and I noticed that Antonia and Roxana were looking a bit tired. I asked them when was the last time they had been hiking and they confirmed my suspicion. It was when I had taken them to Lares four years ago! Clearly winded, they were still smiling and kept saying how much they enjoyed being outdoors and hiking. Pachamama was such a part of their being that even if they’d become sedentary, they were always in their element in Nature.
By 10:30AM we reached a field of pampa grass, a perfect spot for a very early lunch. After four hours of hiking, we were all ravenous. Thanks to the culinary skills of our staff and the recent offerings to Pachamama, everyone had brought an impressive amount of food. Antonia reached into a huge casserole dish and scooped fried chicken and rice onto a plate for us. This was the first meat Tristen and I had eaten in weeks and it was delicious. As if competing with his sister, Fabian then heaped bowls of warm pasta with chicken and potatoes onto our plate. He then offered us a thermos full of sweet coffee, made from the coffee beans from his farm or chakra in Quillabamba. I had forgotten that before Fabian had become the head of facilities and construction, he had once been Willka T’ika’s chef. Everyone was a cook in this crew and I felt a bit embarrassed with my meagre avocado and cheese sandwich. At least I had the chocolates to share!
After lunch, the trail began to level off and we hiked along a spectacular ridge line, looking down onto Socma and the valley below. Soon the trail started to descend slightly and I realized that we were no longer heading towards the summit where the actual Ruinas de Perolniyoc were located. I located the guide Marco and asked him where exactly we were going. “Vamos o Ollantaytambo,” he assured me. Although that was indeed the planned return route, the goal had always been to reach the ruins way up top. “If we try do that,” he explained in rustic Spanish, “it’s another three hours up and one and half hours back down.” I realized that there would then be no time to do the three hour descent to Ollantaytambo and we’d have to go back to Socma and find another bus to drive us home. Fabian, Antonia and I deliberated. We all wanted to get to the top but we knew that some of us might not be up for it. Also, half of the group was far ahead at this point and it would be very hard to track them down and get them to turn around.
I decided it was more important to stay together and have an enjoyable day, rather than complete a heroic march to the summit, which is what we had done in Lares years earlier. Also hiking down the ridge above the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo seemed much more interesting than going back the way we had come. So we kept walking and only caught up to the group an hour later at the last plateau overlooking Yanahuara on the right and the first view of Ollantaytambo on the left. We took a few more photos and zipped up our jackets just as the wind began to make an appearance.
It took us almost two hours to walk down the pass to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. The sandy path was full of scree and it was hard to walk down without slipping. By now we had cell phone reception so I was able to call Livio and tell him to let the vanguard know not to wait for us at the bottom. They were already at the Vilcanota (Urubamba) river by now and would probably prefer to head home rather than to wait for us. It turned out that most of them went into Ollantaytambo to explore the famous ruins. Being locals, they received free admission and I was happy to see them taking advantage of it. Those of us in the rear guard staggered into town and stopped at the first “bar de esquina” we could find. We ordered a few big bottles of Pilsen lager and shared stories about Willka T’ika. After just enough beer to take the edge off our knees, we hopped onto a colectivo (shared van) and were home by 3:30PM. Everyone appreciated being home early and especially before the cold Andean air crept back. Even though we did the “short” route we still clocked in 12 miles and 29,000 steps. It was a great day for all of us. Pachamama had kept everyone smiling.