By Timothy Scott
The next leg of the journey is along what may be the most dramatic drive in Peru and one of the best in South America: from the Ankasmarca entrance to Lares. Our guide tells us the road builders were paid by the meter, so this is a long and winding road of many switchbacks. For those of us not behind the wheel, however, it's a wonderful trip for just staring out the window and letting the peaks and waterfalls glide by.
Some in the group decide to go straight to Huacahuasi Lodge to relax, while the rest of us head in the other van to Cuncani for a hike over the Cruzccasa Pass. After passing cute baby llamas and hiking to 13,780 feet (4,188 meters), we have a boxed lunch at the top to recuperate. The horse one of our helpers brought along goes galloping off for home back down the mountain. It takes the man a half hour to go fetch it again, but we're in no hurry with this view of clouds drifting across the lake. We walk downhill for another hour and a half, lost in our own thoughts. It's so peaceful here my mind can wander like it hasn't for months. I compose the outline of an entire novel in my head, complete with all the main characters.
We arrive on foot at the lodge and the local ladies in full traditional garb are a welcome sight. As we sip herbal tea and look out at a waterfall cascading down the mountain facing us, I feel rewarded for a job well done. Below us on the dirt road, others backpacking on the Lares Trek are starting to get rained on. I imagine a few are staring up at the lodge in envy, not relishing their evening of camping by the river in this weather.
That night we dine on local trout on a stack of peppers, tomatoes, and cheese from the region, with a deep purple jam sauce adding more color. That dish and the apple tart with passion fruit sauce that follow make me wonder what the staffers think of these aliens in their midst. What must they tell their families back home about our fancy food, our strange shiny clothing, and the strange rituals that come with the bottles of wine we're asking them to pour for us? The jobs these lodges provide are good ones for these communities though. In this town at the end of a dirt road, there are not many options besides farming, weaving, or working as an Inca Trail porter.
Guests on a longer Lares Adventure stick around for a while here and do local excursions. We set off in the morning, however, walking through a village with no stores and waving at kids with no underwear. Here in river valley Huacahuasi, alpacas outnumber people. The views are divine, pointy peaks covered with snow in front of us, with wispy clouds dancing between them as we head right toward a high pass.
Walking Into the Clouds
It's a long climb over several hours to that goal, with occasional stops to rest where locals have laid out woven purses and belts for sale. Most of the merchandise is not exactly designed for international appeal, but it looks great on them. In the carpet of green and brown all around us, these villagers shine like multi-colored lights on an evergreen tree. Other times we're alone with the sound our panting and the smell of wet earth. Thankfully the excrement from llamas and alpacas doesn't give off a strong odor. The animals are always a fixture around us, occasionally running with tinkling bells when we get too close to their route.
Our group gets spread further and further apart as we climb higher and the village is just a speck. We then round a bend and it's gone, with nothing but streams, boulders, and animals chewing on grass. Occasionally we see a lone house on a hillside, a place with rising chimney smoke that probably never stops in this high-altitude climate.
As the first of us reach the Ipsacocha pass at more than 14,500 feet, the crowd starts getting grumpy. The light mist has turned into an outright rain. Thankfully we see a large tent in the distance. There tables and chairs are set up for our lunch. The poor souls serving it have to keep walking back and forth from the kitchen tent to the dining one, but we get to avoid the rain for a while.
After a surprisingly good lunch topped off by whole pears in a red wine sauce, we have to face the fact that our only way down is a few hours of walking in the rain. The sky is solid gray over the lake that was supposed to make for a scenic lunch break spot. We trudge down on muddy paths that wind around undulating mountains, avoiding the small streams that are forming.
Here's where I depart from the "natural is better" stance that has been a hallmark of the food along the way. When it comes to clothing, science has done wonders to prepare us for days like this. After an hour in the deluge, I realize I'm quite comfortable, all things considered. My pants are a bit wet, but the rest of me is completely dry. I'm protected by a waterproof jacket with a hood and the Gore–tex in my hiking shoes is working like a charm. Since the camera case has a pull–out rain cover, that's doing fine as well.
We don't talk much in the van at the bottom as we look forward to a hot shower and dry clothing at Hotel Pakaritampu in Ollaytantambo. The arrival there is a bit of a shock though after days of hardly seeing another foreigner. The coffee shops, pizza parlors, and ice cream stands serving packs of tourists is a stark contrast to our quiet, contemplative spots far above the valley.