Journey to the Living Descendants of the INCAS – Final
There I was, standing at 5200 meters (17,000 Feet) in altitude at the top the Peruvian Andes, the Apus / Father Mountains, embracing me with their radiant warmth. The cold wind whipped through my hair though, and I sucked in large gulps of air to get oxygen. Looking behind me I saw the steep and rugged mountainside I had conquered with my feet. I was experiencing sheer joy at making it to the peak, the highest point of our long trek and journey to date, and it was not due to the oxygen deprivation. I looked towards the horizon where our destination was not yet visible. Instead, I saw the untouched and rich green countryside of Peru spread out before us, beautiful and beckoning. The veins of the earth were bubbling up their life-giving water and blessing the earth and its people, as they flowed from the tips of the mountains into the valley below. We had just left the remote village of Choa Choa in the Q’ero Community after spending five days living with the descendants of the Incas. Now we had started the long journey back that would lead us to the bustling, vibrant and noisy city of Cusco. I felt quite apprehensive, but the journey was not yet over. Adventure still lay ahead of us!
We descended down into the lush, watery valley with an entourage of our tour guide Luis, our Incan host and High Priest / Paco Francisco, and two village men with their horses who were carrying our now depleted supply of camping essentials. We still had another 12 kilometers (7 Miles) of trekking through challenging mountainous paths, until we reached a settlement that actually had electricity and a car. While the terrain was breathtakingly beautiful, it was difficult to traverse! We were acclimatised to the altitude, but the abundant streams and tributaries flowing constantly and in many cases rapidly, made sure that I had to keep my concentration for every crossing.
In fact, there were two crossings that, had our guides not been there, I would have sworn were impossible to cross. The flow of water was raging at the second of these crossings with such force, that one wrongly placed foot, would have sent us immediately tumbling 300 meters down the mountainside in a torrent of cascading water. It was a long and tiring hike, (15 km / 9.3 miles in total), but I found that I enjoyed it immensely, even when the rain set in. The picturesque views were astonishing and looked as if they belonged on the cover of National Geographic.
As we wound our way through the rich neon green slopes of Peru, continually crossing over these small but fast flowing streams and occasionally spotting a blue cobble stone village from a rocky ledge, I felt as if we were in the opening scene of The Sound Of Music, only Peruvian style! I could almost hear “Climb Every Mountain” playing in the distance…
The morning slipped into afternoon, and as we trekked steadily back towards civilization, the sun had already forfeited its position in the highest point of the sky, as we caught sight of our first checkpoint. The small village was home to about 50 people and one car. Our objective was to persuade the owner of the car to drive us to the town of Tinki – from where we could make our way to Ocongate to catch a bus directly to Cusco. We stopped on the outskirts of the village to eat some of our snacks for lunch before Luis went to go haggle for a good price.
“We can always camp here if we can’t get a car!” said Luis enthusiastically. I looked at the damp, unfinished concrete building that was half-heartedly serving as our picnic lunch table. Its surroundings were soaked in mud and rain water. There were no walls or roofs. Luis had basically suggested camping in a ruin. Even Machu Picchu was in better condition. I laughed nervously and turned away. “He’s joking right!?” I said in rapid undertones to Dad.
“Don’t worry, he is joking!” Dad shrugged, but I could tell from a hint in my father’s voice, that he was saying this just to reassure me, and I started to face the cold reality that we could very well be spending the night in our tent in this unfinished building. It wasn’t the building really, I say cold reality because that is what it was. By now we were soaked to the bone from our hike and it would be very difficult for us to get warm here without building a fire, and there was no firewood this high in the Andes. The temperature was rapidly dropping too as the late afternoon started to set in. It couldn’t have been more than 10 ℃ / 50℉, and I could tell from the clearing skies that tonight the temperature was going to drop to freezing point. We waited biting our nails while Luis was away. You could never really tell what Luis was thinking, and he was quite the joker too. I was contemplating saying a prayer or two when I saw Luis return with an odd look on his face. It was neither joy nor sadness, more like hesitation.
“Luis,” he said to my father, “I’m sorry but….”
My heart sank, and I felt tears spring in my eyes.
“We got the car!” yelled Luis triumphant at securing the deal and scaring us to the point of hyperventilation.
While we were overcome with joy at not having to spend the night freezing in this less than inviting environment, our joy was immediately tempered by the realisation that this was where we had to say goodbye and thank you to Francisco, our kind and generous host, as well as to our guides and the horses that had carried all our goods. This for me was a bittersweet moment because, while I was so thankful for the opportunity to be accepted so warmly into Francisco’s home and the community of Choa Choa, at the same time I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that a part of me was also thinking of the first hot shower we would have in a week. Putting that second thought to the side however, and looking into Francisco’s eyes as we gave each other that final hug, I was able to see into the heart of a people who know why they live the way they live. When I say this, I mean, that they are not confused by the reason why they do what they do, and neither are they constrained by the choices they make. They do not feel compelled to do what they do; they live the way they do because consciously they choose to be close and in connection with the forces of nature that provide all they need. They are by no means perfect, but they are not lost either and I trust this insight might serve as a gift or legacy to our society, which hastens with such rapid and break-neck pace to a destination unknown and perhaps not too well thought-out either. A destination that probably many are unsure of, and one that may not provide the real sustenance or sustainability that has seen these people live happily and fulfilled for near on a millennium.
After we watched Francisco and the two men start to disappear in the distance back in the direction of their village, we noticed that a minivan heading from the far side of the village was coming in our direction. We loaded our things in almost record time and with all of us secure in our seats, sped off down the mud dirt road, spraying it up behind us as we skidded and fishtailed down the muddy mountainside. Once we were underway, I noticed the warmth of the van heating my body, which was a remarkably pleasant sensation.
We drove down the winding paths that made their way descending from the highlands, past angelic waterfalls and rivers, one more picturesque than the previous. After an hour or so on the road, we had our first taste of the ‘real world’ again. An offensively loud and noisy dirt-bike raced down the road passing us at an alarmingly dangerous rate. Even though we were inside the van, we all had to block our ears as it dashed passed recklessly down the mountain road!
After three hours or hair-raising driving, so close to mountain ledges that at times you would swear only the breadth of a hair kept us from toppling over the edge, we turned onto the first paved road we had seen in a week and soon we arrived at the town of Ocongate. Cars sped past us stopping only at the blinking street lights for a few seconds, as they anxiously awaited the green signal. A motorbike came dangerously close to our minivan and our driver rolled down the window to let loose a few Spanish curse words. Yep, we were back in civilization alright.
We drove a little further to the township of Tinki and Luis, Dad and Lalika went to go secure accommodation for the night while Mum and I began unloading luggage. Luis, Dad and Lalika returned and Dad had a noticeable grin on his face. “We have a winner!” He explained that this place had won out because they had a shower powered by a gas hot water system as opposed to the exposed electric wire system, which apparently had to be hooked up just before you showered in the wet tiled showering area, and the wires completely exposed, just inches from the flowing water while you were showering.
We entered through two large wooden doors that spanned the size of two driveways and looked more like a medieval castle’s doors. However, they entered into the pleasant courtyard of a typically humble Peruvian Hostal. After five days in a wet and rather cold tent, this was the Ritz Carlton in comparison. I almost couldn’t believe that we would be able to have a hot shower.
We deposited most of our camping essentials in the communal kitchen, which was really just a sink and stove slammed against the wall, and then made our way up the creaking dry wooden stairs and into a small room. The twin beds seemed foreign and unusual, almost as if I didn’t know what they were for and the shower seemed to be a strange contraption, rather unearthly, after bathing in the cold flowing waters of the Andes Mountains. In its way, it was heaven though. It really made me realize how much we simply take for granted. After this experience, I can say for sure that I will never look at running heated water the same way again.
It is amazing the relationship we humans have with hot water. Our next day was a blissful luxury, as we took a break from the constant non-stop adventuring and took a trip to the local hot springs to unwind. After nearly a week, the sun was out again heating our bodies. What an exuberant feeling. This was only topped by relaxing in the amber colored baths with the splendid views of Apu Ausangate simply a glance away. After our soak, we sat outside in the gardens with the glorious sun finally shining out on us. It was a sublime experience that still has me smiling at the thought.
I slept like a log both nights that we spent in our quaint little courtyard lodging. We were fully refreshed when the next morning we packed up our dried out belongings and called two camionetas (Peruvian Taxis), one for us and one for our luggage, to take us to Ocongate, just a few miles down the road from where we could board a bus back to Cusco. This simple little journey of only a few miles turned out to be an extremely comical experience that we still laugh about today.
When our second taxi arrived to transport us, we found two other bodies sitting in the back seat already. The camioneta being officially only able to hold five people would have already reached its passenger capacity limit with the five of us. ‘No matter,’ we thought, we can all squeeze in and indeed we did. Luis sat shotgun with the driver while Mum and Dad squashed into the back seat with the two other passengers. Lalika and I got the best seat of all: The Boot (or the trunk). We bent our heads and managed to fit into the very back of the car. ‘Ok,’ I thought, ‘I can make it to the town like this, no biggie.’ Little did I know it was about to get far worse.
Before we could clear the town, an old lady and a young woman joined us. The old lady sat up the front with Luis while the young woman hopped in with our parents. “Ha, Ha,” Lalika and I laughed, “we have the whole boot to ourselves while they’re all squashed to within an inch of their lives!” Soon the joke was to be on us, for in a short 3 kilometers we picked up six more passengers. A woman with her baby and toddler joined Lalika and me in the boot while the rest crammed further and further in. I wondered what those ride-sharing companies would make of this? It didn’t end there, and I do not exaggerate at all by saying that we would reach a world record of 15 people, when another two men jumped in with us in the boot along the road. I believe my neck will never be the same again, and it was pure relief and joy when we arrived in Ocongate and I could stretch my limbs once again. It’s a shame the Guinness Book of Records wasn’t there to snap the incident, but something told me that this record was regularly broken on this small stretch of road.
To those who ask the question ‘Why didn’t we simply hire the whole taxi exclusively?” My answer is “Why miss out on an authentic cultural experience?” As westerners, many of us are instantly dazzled by shining, clean, homogenized travel experiences, where we want to take with us and impose our cultural norms and beliefs, supplanting them into the environments we visit. In a way, this is no different to the conquistadores who came to this land before us, and I don’t want to repeat their mistakes. I am very wary of my thoughts, feelings and how I behave when we visit a place. I do as much research as I can about the places we are going to visit so that I can be open to and aware of the people and their beliefs, as well as understanding about the history of the places and cultures that we are visiting. This is one of the reasons why I also love writing because I love sharing these first-hand experiences.
We walked a short distance to the Plaza de Armas, where nearby, we were able to purchase bus tickets to Cusco from the station and water from a street vendor. We still had half an hour to pass before we could board our transport, so we passed the time enjoying natural Mora (Raspberry), Lemon & Dulce de Leche Ice-cream in the square. Soon, we heard the loud horn of the bus – the sign for the mad dash to get seats. A few moments later the sliding doors closed, the engine started, and we were off.
The journey back to Cusco is a hazy one for me, as I fell in and out of sleep numerous times, as the bus wound its way around the well-asphalted roads that snaked their way around the Andes Mountains. All I remember is the bus stopping at a gas station to refuel and then spotting the humongous city against the backdrop of a slowly setting sun. Once we arrived, Luis drew us aside, and we exchanged heartfelt thanks and goodbyes. Over the last two weeks, we had really grown close, and we would never forget Luis’ humorous and kind nature. Thanks to him, we had experienced a truly unique journey. Then with a final wave, we jumped into a taxi and headed towards our hotel, waving to Luis as our taxi pulled away from the curb.
We exchanged emails and telephone numbers with Luis but since the time we visited, we have lost contact with him. The email address we had for him bounced and the telephone number is no longer active. Also, the Hostal we stayed at in Cusco, Apu Wasi, shut down or moved out of town, and we have not been able to find Luis. If anyone knows of Luis Piñelo, Adventure Guide, from Cusco, and how we could get in touch, we would greatly appreciate your assistance in finding him and getting us back in contact.
As we stepped out of the cab and into the now familiar streets of Cusco I thought: We are back, back to noisy civilization, back to tourists crowding the Starbucks around the corner, back to WiFi, back to the hotel that charged absurd laundry fees. On the upside, however, we were also back to devouring the most delicious Pizza, and home-made lemonade in Cusco, from Bonna Pizza on Calle Belen. While everyone unpacked, I excused myself for a moment and went out onto the balcony. With gratitude in my heart, I whispered “Thank you, Thank you for everything!”
I would, however, like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped us on this journey. Everyone who made this journey a possibility and then a reality, in particular to Luis and the people of the Q’ero Community in The Andes. I want to thank my friends and family for supporting us through our travels and to Thank You specifically for reading this, my Travel blog, which is dedicated to sharing our experiences through the written word. Thank you!