“We want to go somewhere off the beaten path” – we said to Miguel, an independent guide we met at the South American Explorers Clubhouse in Cusco.
We had been staying at the (sadly now closed) club for a few weeks while taking Spanish lessons. We considered the traditional Inca Trail but wanted somewhere with less crowded and it was booked up anyway! Miguel took us at our word and suggested we hike from Lares to Ollantaytambo and then take the train on to Machu Picchu.
A few days later we had hired Miguel as our guide and he had organised everything from the tents and supplies to the horses to carry them and off we went on a succession of buses and collectivos to the start of our hike in Lares. 5 hours later we were sitting in the hot springs, contemplating the 3 days and 40 kilometres of mountain paths that lay ahead of us and thinking the hot springs may have been better placed in Ollantaymbo at the end of our our hike!
The first 10 minutes of any trek are always the worst, but soon we find our rhythm as we walk the steep path out of the valley towards our first campsite at Huaca Huasi. A couple of hours later we are sitting on the banks of a stream where we met up with Juan the cook and Alberto the horseman who have set up the kitchen, table and chairs ready for lunch.
An invigorating cup of Coca tea is followed by a delicious three course lunch as good as anything we have eaten in the restaurants of Cusco. Juan had even donned chef’s whites and hat for the occasion!
We are joined by some local children on their 2.5 hour walk home from school. We chat and play with them for a while and give them out some notebooks, pencils and tooth brushes we had bought in Cusco market. The kids are delighted.
As we continue our hike uphill to Huaca Huasi we feel the effects of the altitude a little, but taking it steadily it is not too bad. We find ourselves stopping regularly both to catch our breath and to take in the glorious views of the Andes. Really glad we spent couple of weeks in Cusco acclimatising!
Late afternoon we arrive in the village and our tents (including a kitchen/dining tent) are all ready for us. The family from the nearby house come out to say hello and to show us their handicrafts they have for sale.
Juan prepares a pre-dinner “snack” of freshly cooked popcorn and some delicious grilled tortillas filled with cheese. No sooner are the snacks finished than another delicious three course meal is served up; freshly prepared vegetable soup followed by grilled chicken, potatoes and fresh vegetables. All prepared on one small gas stove!
It is 7.00pm, dinner is finished, it is dark and very cold – time for bed! We slip into our thermal underwear, zip ourselves into our sleeping bags and settle in for the night. It is very cold and the ground is literally rock hard, but wrapped up and exhausted, we sleep like babies until woken with a cup of Coca tea at 5.30.
After breakfast more of the villagers call around to say hello. These truly are some of the most delightful people we have met upon our travels. A young boy demonstrates his skill with his spinning top.
We reward his efforts with some writing materials and a toothbrush. As we are about to clean our teeth he also gets a squirt of toothpaste which he seems to like a lot as he immediately runs back to the village vigorously brushing his as he goes!
Today we hike to the Ipsay Pass. Apart from a few tiny villages, the only company we have are alpacas and llamas and some “local traffic” on the in the form of Quecha people leading horses or mules laden with goods from village to village.
Halfway to the pass we bump into some friends of Miguel. They exchange a few words and the lady immediately bursts into tears. Miguel had already told us the story of her daughter who was 7 months pregnant and had been involved in a car accident where she fractured her spine. The mother was distraught, not knowing whether her daughter and her unborn child would live or die and, if she did live, what sort of life was ahead of her. Tragic!
As we continue to Ipsay our rest stops are become increasingly frequent as the altitude affects us. To deal with the altitude we chew Coca leaves which taste OK but our mouths feel numb like the after effects of a trip to the dentist. It makes a difference. Breathing becomes a little easier and we seem to get an energy boost as we push on to the top of the pass. At 4550 m this is the highest point on our trek. The exhilaration is tremendous -the snow-capped Andes are all around and, as we look back down the valley we have just walked up we feel on top of the world. Looking the other way we are more than a little relieved to see it is all downhill from now!
As we take the downhill path to Lake Ipsaycocha, in the distance we can see see in the horses tethered by the lake and Juan and Alberto, setting up camp for lunch. Miguel has his fishing rod and is intent on catching trout for our dinner. An hour or so later, Miguel’s trout remained safely in the lake!
Juan the cook however, has taken a different approach using his bare hands! After a few minutes we heard a delighted yell, followed by a lot of splashing and saw a gleaming trout flying through the air onto the bank. Five minutes later he repeated this extraordinary feat! Trout for dinner after all!
After lunch Juan, Carolyn and I set off to continue our hike, leaving Alberto to sort out Ronaldo the horse who was lying down, seemingly on strike. Miguel was still busy with his rod, determined not to leave without a trout.
Late afternoon as we approach Juan’s home village of Patacancha. We hear someone calling from across the valley. Juan’s nephew comes hurtling down the hillside to meet us like a bat out of hell. We sat awhile and chatted with Juan’s nephew, a great kid of 6 years or so and so lively.
As we sat chatting Miguel appeared and started to tell the tale of the 5 massive trout that got away….
We continued to walk down hill until reaching Patachanca at 3800 metres . We camped on a piece of ground next to Juan’s family’s house and all the family came out to meet us and to share yet more popcorn and snacks. After dinner (trout AND chicken!) we were invited into the family house to meet the rest of the family, including the resident Guinea Pigs – yum, yum!
We then go to the community radio station which broadcasts to the area in Quecha. We were both asked to say a few words over the air – can’t recall what we said but it was translated into Quecha.
Another early night and we are woken equally early with the obligatory Coca tea by Juan’s mum, a lovely lady and mother of nine! After chatting with her we pack up and head off on the last leg of our trip down to Ollantaytambo.
For the last 15 kilometres of the trek we follow the dirt road to Ollantaytambo, passing through small villages along the way. Now very tired but we resist the temptation to cheat and jump on a passing collectivo for a ride into town.
As we approach Ollantaytambo we start to see the Inca fortifications which surround the town.
Arriving in the Plaza de Armas we sit outside his favourite restaurant, Hearts Café in the is right in the corner of the main square. We order a couple of beers and sit down to watch the world go by. We have made it!
We took this trip on our first trip to Peru in 2008. we have returned several times since and in 2013 tried to hook up once again with our guide Miguel Jovens at the SA Explorers Club. we were saddened to learn that Miguel had died a few months earlier, killed by a rockfall when riding his horse in his beloved mountains. He was a great character and became a friend as well as guide. He did so much for the desperately poor communities in the mountains around the Sacred Valley. He is missed by many.