The Moonstone Trek: Part 2 - Huaracondo to Chillipahua
After leaving the market town of Huaracondo (click HERE to read/watch Part 1), my van threaded its way through the winding mountain roads toward the trailhead. I was excited to get out and start my adventure through the Andes Mountains to Ollantaytambo.
At the trailhead, I met my muleteers. These guys were amazing. They transported my supplies across the rugged land and cooked some of the most incredible food I tasted in Peru. Most amazing is that, three times a day, they broke camp after I hit the trail, passed me along the way, and had camp set up again by the time I arrived. While they made final preparations, I surveyed the terrain. It looked a lot like my home in Colorado, so I wasn’t too worried. But since the trailhead was at 10,000 feet, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me.
I set out with a light heart. The weather and views were beautiful, and my body was eager for the climb. I’ve always enjoyed hiking – the combination of solitude and exercise that puts me deep in my own head – which makes it somewhat of a meditational experience. But after years of studying Peru’s history, imagining myself here in the Andes – exploring this strange land and its ancient and mysterious past – my trek had taken on a spiritual quality, as well. After all, I was a pilgrim, of sorts – here to visit Machu Picchu, but also to fulfill a step of my own life’s journey – to find the traveler and storyteller within. And so, I decided to partake in a ritual begun many centuries ago.
Pilgrims to Machu Picchu and other important spiritual sites would carry stones, or apachitas, as symbolic burdens, which they would then lay down at their destination. I decided to pick up a few small stones from the trail and put them in my bag, a trivial sacrifice given the other gear I carried. But in my mind, they represented a token of my gratitude for being here – and a reminder that the journey of life involves not only picking up and carrying burdens, but laying them down, as well.
Our route followed an ancient Inca road, and given its grade and elevation, I couldn’t help but respect the foot messengers – known as chaskis – who once relayed information along these mountains paths. But what really humbled me was the sight of this mother and daughter – they were taking their pig to the market at Huaracondo some 15 miles away. Suddenly, my pack felt much lighter – and the symbolic burden that I carried all the more trivial.
After hiking for a couple hours, my guide pointed out the ridge we would cross after lunch. From where we stood, it seemed a world away: just a jagged line of blue and gray amongst the clouds and haze. Evidently, there was a pre-Inca fortress at the top, which we'd stop to explore after lunch. As I gazed up at the distant mountain, I noticed dark clouds gathering in the west. This was Peru's "dry season," but I had heard that rain (and even snow) were not uncommon this time of year. I kept my fingers crossed that the sunny weather would hold out.
We stopped around noon for lunch. Our muleteers had the dining tent set up and food waiting when we arrived. I've rarely eaten food so delicious and nutritious as during my time in Peru. Locally grown and traditionally prepared, the meals were unique, tasty, and lacked all the food processing effects that are so common in the United States. Another tasty treat served at every meal was a tea known as maté. It's made from the coca plant (yes, that coca plant), but contains none of the punch of its much harder cousin. Aside from a nutty taste and perhaps some added mental clarity, the tea seems little different then plain ol' green tea. Maté is perfectly legal in Peru, has been consumed for millennia by Andeans (it's even been found on mummies), and allegedly helps fight altitude sickness.
With full bellies, we hit the trail again, making for the mountain pass. The clouds had turned darker and the air colder. Soon, a light drizzle began to fall. But I wasn't complaining! After all, I was hiking the Andes Mountains, about to explore a 2500-year-old fortress! What could be more perfect?
We finally reached the ruins of Huatta, a pre-Inca fortress, situated along the crest of a ridge more than 12,000 feet above sea level. According to my guide, Huatta was used by the Killke and Wari centuries before the Inca built their empire. Its strategic value is immediately apparent: the fortress overlooks three intersecting river valleys, and steep approaches on all sides would have made an assault difficult. Huatta's architecture employs the "rustic" approach: rough stones jammed together or, in some cases, assembled with mortar. Several niches pepper the walls; they may have once contained mummies. I also spotted evidence of more recent spiritual activity; ashes (including a seashell) probably signify an offering to the local apu (mountain spirit).
The rain grew heavier as we trekked down the other side of the pass. Slipping and sliding along the muddy trails, I took in a geography vary different from earlier that day. Rather than barren, dry, sandy soils and scrub, the western side of the pass was filled with lush, green valleys. I passed several small farming communities before reaching our destination: Chillipahua.
Once again, the muleteers had camp and meals ready when we arrived. Dry clothes and warm food made my fatigue and aches fade away (that, and a bit of shame about how easily the muleteers made this trek seem). I slept well that night, knowing another adventure awaited me the following day.
Originally published 10/18/2018 here. ©Beyond the Range. All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.