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The Moonstone Trek: Part 3 - Heading for the Pass

Morning broke in the small hamlet of Chillipahua to the tune of whinnying horses and canvas flapping in a gentle breeze. I stepped out of my tent into the cold air to survey my surroundings. As the shadows retreated from the rising sun, our cooks began preparing what I knew would be another amazing meal, thus giving me time to collect my gear and my thoughts for the upcoming day.

This was day two of my Moonstone Trek through southern Peru, which began near Huaracondo and would end at the mountaintop citadel of Machu Picchu. During the previous day,

my team had climbed only a couple thousand feet in elevation during a relatively easy walk, despite the cold steady drizzle that turned our trail to mud. Though today’s weather was much improved, the route awaiting us carried its fair share of challenges. Our guide explained that due to the steep routes and thin air, this morning’s climb to Accoccassa Pass (15,170ft/4,625m) would be the most demanding of our trek. But he said it would also be one of the most beautiful, so I felt a mixture of apprehension and excitement as we made our preparations.

As melted frost ran in rivulets down the tents, our cooks circulated camp with warm water for team members to wash hands and faces. This was a simple but refreshing gesture after our frigid night. Once I had downed a cup of thick, black café, I set out to explore the area and meet a few of its residents.

Several villagers were already up and about, leading their horses across the pastures, collecting water from the stream, or observing us from across a frost-glazed fútbol field. A half-dozen dogs had wandered into our camp to establish a semicircle of tail-wagging onlookers outside the cook’s tent. I wasn’t sure whether they were strays or instead belonged to the young girl who stood nearby. She wafted through the camp, occasionally conversing with the cooks or muleteers, but I wasn’t sure if they knew her personally or were simply being hospitable. Since they all spoke Quechua (the ancient language of the Andes), I could not understand them. However, a sinking feeling in my heart told me they were negotiating her appeals for food. Watching her at play, smiling and laughing as she ran and cartwheeled through the grass, I felt humbled by her happiness, strength, and love of life. Despite the obvious shortage of food, clothing, education, and healthcare in her village, she radiated a joy that seemed to come only from being alive. I could not help but feel a bit ashamed then as I recalled how many times I have complained about trivial discomforts, while failing to understand the broader perspective about this time on earth that she appeared to grasp so well.

By and by, my thoughts turned to one of the scarce commodities in the Andes: clean water. In fact, many villages have only polluted rivers and streams to draw from. Since our team did not pack in our water, and were drawing it as we went, I decided to investigate Chillipahua's source. By traditional agreement, the villagers here do not dump their waste or allow animals to drink upstream of a specified point, beyond which clean(er) water can be drawn for drinking. But as I walked along the stream and passed this supposed boundary, I saw evidence that this tradition was not always followed. Several trash bags floated in the stagnant pools well upstream of our water pail. Allegedly, our cooks were purifying all water the drew by filtration and boiling; however, the previous night, when I had viewed my drinking in front of a lantern, I noticed a significant amount of “stuff” in suspension. Thankfully, I had brought iodine tablets to Peru, and I was sure to drop one in every bottle of water I consumed.

Of course, the local water was also used to prepare our food, so I wasn’t really “safe” from whatever nasties it contained. I tried not to think about this as I set down to a breakfast of papas fritas, bread and jam, and more coffee. Since the food was delicious (as usual), my thoughts turned back to more pleasant topics, like the trek before us. The chill had gone from the air when I stood and stretched my legs, gathered gear, and set out for the climb.

Our route out of Chillipahua led us up, up, up – past farms, fields, and agricultural terraces. During the first hour, we observed several traditional homes built of adobe and straw. My guide pointed out that many of the people here live according to the ways of their ancestors, virtually unchanged from the days of the Incas. However, I couldn’t help but notice power lines running to many of the structures, so perhaps life here is slowly changing.

We took plenty of breaks along the way, allowing me to catch my breath and snap pictures of this beautiful land. To the southwest, across a steep sided valley, I could just make out the hazy pass we had crossed yesterday during our visit to Huatta. The ribbon of trail we followed into Chillipahua cut diagonally across the distant hills. A couple hours later, we sopped for a midmorning snack, and I was introduced to a number of new foods, including granadilla, a fruit with a sweet, jelly-like pulp. Throughout the hike, I also chewed coca leaves – an ancient (and completely innocuous) Andean practice for reducing the symptoms of soroche (altitude sickness). Meanwhile, our muleteers caught up with us on their way to prepare lunch further along the trail.

Following in their footsteps, we resumed the trek and soon encountered a family harvesting potatoes. The entire family turned out to help in this timeless endeavor – grandparents, moms, dads, and little kids. Potatoes are an ancient crop in Peru, dating back thousands of years. By some accounts, between 1,000 and 3,000 different types are still grown here. I saw flocks of sheep nearby, which are relatively new to this land, having been introduced by the Spaniards a mere 500 years ago.

Halting again to catch my breath, I evaluated how far we’d come, and how far we still had to go to reach the pass of Accoccasa a thousand feet higher. In truth, I had only a vague notion of what lay ahead, and so the three peaks staring down at me took on an increasingly ominous character the closer I got. At the very least, they seemed distinctive enough to deserve a title, and our group declared them, the “Three Sisters.”

We stopped for lunch in a boulder field situated below reddish peaks at over 14,000 feet (14,430 ft/4,400m). It was considerably colder now, and I was looking forward to some hot tea before our final push. The surreal view took in a mixture of moss-covered rocks, snow-capped blue mountains, and fog. To our west lay the Huaynay Mountains. According to my guide, Mount Ausangate was also sometimes visible on the horizon, although I couldn’t make it out on this day due to the gathering cloud cover.

After finishing lunch, I strolled beyond the camp boundaries and up a rocky slope, finding an assortment of boulders that offered quiet respite. I set up a timelapse on my camera, and as I waited sipped tea and gave thanks for being in Peru – for the chance to experience one of the most beautiful places on earth. After years of research and longing to see this place with my own eyes, this journey felt almost like a dream. The connection between geography and history has always fascinated me, and as I took in the stony landscape, I wondered how many people had passed this way over the centuries. Had I once been among them, perhaps as a chaski or shepherd in a previous life?

At last it was time to head for the pass. The final climb only took an hour, during which I was too out of breath to do much filming. I simply kept my head down and put one foot in front of the next. The barren route was straight up along a thin path of crushed red shale that dropped off sharply to one side. Our caravan of trekkers began to stretch out as each member followed his own pace, engaged in an solitary battle against the mountain. Once, when I turned around, I saw that we weren’t the only ones struggling in the thin air. Even our local guides and their horses were having to work for this.

The muleteers soon passed me, as they always did, and immediately descended into the Chancachuco valley to set up camp for the night. I remained atop the ridge for another twenty minutes or so, taking in the spectacular view of the Urubamba range, knowing I’d probably never be here again. Several rock cairns marked the rim, built by others who’d come this way, perhaps long ago, who found the view just as impressive, if not sacred. At last, spotting a herd of llama on the slopes below, I grabbed my trekking poles and started the (much easier) downhill walk towards Ollantaytambo.

Originally published 12/18/2018 here. ©Beyond the Range. All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.

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