By Timothy Scott
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Into the Clouds of the High Pass
Everyone is quiet at breakfast on day three, just mumbling an omelet order or asking someone to pass the bread. It is pouring down rain outside. Nobody is thrilled about hiking 12 kilometers through wind, water, and mud. Fortunately, we were warned while still in Cusco that we should stock up on any missing rain gear. Everyone is prepared with waterproof pants in addition to good hiking boots and waterproof jackets with a hood.
Throughout the day there is some drizzle, even a short bout of small hail, but the bigger challenge is climbing up and over the 4,650-meter (15,000-foot) pass. One guest ends up needing to ride "the emergency horse" part of the way up the steep switchbacks. Another needs 10 minutes of oxygen at the top. Our guide Pepe, on the other hand, is smoking a cigarette.
At least we're not carrying much. On this trek, mules are carrying all the supplies and our luggage. We just have daypacks with the daily essentials like water and a camera. The mules are certainly used to this route. To build the next lodge where we will spend the night, the owners had to send all of the materials and supplies over this pass. With a few setbacks along the way, it eventually took more than 6,000 mule trips to complete. These small lodges are far from basic; they are nicer than most city hotels.
An hour downhill from the high pass, a lunch tent is set up for us. Inside it's warm and dry while the rain continues outside. There is corn soup with salsa, a quinoa stir-fry with mushrooms and vegetables, and instant coffee, hot chocolate, or coca tea from dried leaves.
After a stop in the lunch tent to refuel an hour down from the high pass, we descend the rest of the way to the Wayra Lodge. Clouds drift by at eye level, with an occasional view of the misty mountains on both sides of us. With huge boulders and bright green grass, there's a vaguely Scottish feel at this elevation.
When we arrive at the lodge, the rain gear and boots come off in the drying foyer as mugs of coca tea are handed out. Hot showers, wood fireplaces, and warm welcomes make the sore muscles easier to bear. I can't imagine holing up in a tent in this weather.
Afternoon snacks by the fire lead to the evening briefing and dinner: pizza, soup, tender beef, and dessert under a candlelit chandelier. Then bedtime is calling. Almost nobody is drinking any alcohol at this altitude and we all need a good rest.
Peru's Andean Cloudforest
As we set off after breakfast to descend lower, clouds part now and then to show the pointy peak above, glaciers encroaching down the sides. Wet sheep with matted wool wander by. Streams are running every which way from the rains the night before.
This is a day of mostly downhill hiking. We don't get rained on at all, but are seeing the effects of the rain on the trail. With all the animal deposits in the mix, I am feeling really grateful for my waterproof hiking boots. The scenery more than makes up for the trail conditions as we proceed down into the valley below Salkantay. At one point I spot six waterfalls on the steep mountain walls opposite the trail.
Down lower, we enter a cloudforest ecosystem and go from barren to lush, from short grass to ferns. Bamboo and trees now hem in the trail. The layers come off as the humidity level goes up and there is noticeably more oxygen in my deep breaths. The river we saw in the morning has progressed from a small stream to a roaring powerhouse of water.
We cross a thin wooden bridge, hike up a steep hill for ten minutes, then once again arrive at a lodge that has seemingly been dropped onto the finest patch of real estate available. With a panoramic view of the river, the Andes Mountains, and local villages, it makes all of us adopt wide grins. We settle into wooden lounge chairs under palapas and drink in the scenery.
In preparation for the afternoon's lunch, the crew has been heating stones over a blazing fire for hours. After we arrive, they spread out one layer of hot flat stones and start placing meat on top: lamb, chicken, pork, and cuy (Guinea pig). They alternate hot stones and meat, eventually covering the whole affair with cardboard, plastic, and then earth.
Forty-five minutes later, the feast is ready. The succulent meat joins a buffet table already laid out with corn, beets, cabbage, various salads, three kinds of potatoes, and more. (The one guest who doesn't eat red meat gets a whole trout that was wrapped in tin foil and thrown on the top level of stones.) It's a grand buffet that leaves all of us ready for the whirlpool out front or a nap.