Monthly Archives: April 2017


IMG_1749We are a novelty in Andahuaylas. As we walk the streets, there are whispers, and non-whispers, of “Gringos!” or “Miren a los gringuitos!” (Look at the little gringos!) Some say it as a sort of greeting: “Gringo!” We did catch sight of one fair-skinned person one evening, and we saw two more on the road to Sondor, but there are clearly not many here. One day in the market as Leticia was buying vegetables, the woman at the nieghboring stand said to Zeke “Iman sutiyki?” We’ve taken some Quechua classes, and so Zeke knew this means “What is your name?”, and he answered accordingly. The woman was so surprised that she burst out laughing, got the attention of the woman at the stand next to her, and repeated the question, and Zeke obligingly answered. They were both still laughing as we got out of earshot.


Andahuaylas, as seen from the courtyard of the Hostal Cruz del Sur

Our seven-year-old copy of Lonely Planet refers to the “long, rough road to Ayacucho” and says this region is for hard-core travelers only. This is less true now than it was in 2010, as the main roads have been paved, and many of the connections take about half the time they used to. Our trip to Andahuaylas took only three hours, but those were three long hours, as our the driver of the van we were in was prone to trying to pass big trucks on blind corners, tailgate small vehicles in attempts to get them to pull over, and generally scare the bejeebers out of us on these twisty roads with hundreds of feet of drop off to the side. Leticia took to asking him (OK, sometimes yelling at him) to slow down, take it easy, and it seemed other passengers were in agreement – one dodgy bit of gamesmanship had the whole van yelling at him. So we arrived, found a hostal, and found our first meal.

We stayed for six days, exhausting most of the eating options in town. The two best things about our time in Andahuaylas were

a) the Hostal Cruz del Sur, a basic place (we paid 60 soles total, about $19, for two double rooms without bathrooms) with a nice courtyard, wonderfully friendly owners, a place to wash and hang laundry, and, importantly, a kitchen we could use, and

b) the trip we made out to Sondor, a complex of ruins left by the Chankas, a group that was defeated and subsumed (sort of) by the Incas in the 1400s. It was a lovely spot.

Being the only gringos around meant having conversations with lots of people. We came back from a walk to a farther part of the ruins to find Zeke, who had gotten ahead of us, in conversation (mostly in Spanish, but a little in Quechua) with a whole group of folks up for the day. It was Good Friday, and there was a holiday atmosphere. Peruvians, especially in the countryside, have been so friendly. We chatted with so many, some local, some tourists from Lima and other parts of Peru. On the way out, we came up upon a band, a group of dancers, a video cameraman, and Anna already pulled into the dancing. Zeke was shy, but the rest of us all danced, I with a young woman with a “Flor de Pacucha” sash on her dress. We have seen these programs on televisions at markets (where the DVDs are being sold) – there’s usually a band, the dancers, and incredible scenery in the background. It pleases me that soon we may also be seen in the background of one of these.


There was (almost) a line of people waiting to take pictures with the young gringos

After some good cheap (and vegetarian!) food bought from women sitting outside the ruins, we walked several miles back to Laguna Pacucha, a lovely lake with lots of folks enjoying a day off, and eventually caught a van back to Andahuaylas.


Laguna Pacucha

We had several other good walks around town. Most fun was the variety of animals met along the road, both in and out of town. Dogs (of course, but not aggressive), a few cats, lots of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, a few ducks and geese.

And onward to Ayacucho…

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Off the Gringo Trail

IMG_1668We have spent most of the past two months in Ollantaytambo, where most people get on the train to Machu Picchu. That means tons of tourists come through, many for just a few hours. It’s a small town, though, and being around for this long, plus being part of the Casa de Wow community, means that we have become friends with lots of Peruvians. At the same time, there is a constant stream of travelers – most of them English-speaking, and so the U.S. doesn’t seem that far away.
The Plaza de Armas in the center of Cusco is overrun with tourists, mostly also just in town for a few days. They come from all over the world, and are followed around by people trying to sell them hats, shirts, selfie sticks, keychains, weavings, paintings, and all manner of other artisanal goods. Women with llamas (or baby llamas in arms) walk around waiting for you to take their picture for a few soles. On Hatunrumiyoc, the pedestrian-only street with famous Inca walls and a friendly guy portraying Pachacutec, I chatted (in Spanish) with a guy selling paintings. In the middle of the conversation, in English, he said “maybe some weed?” “Como?” I replied. When my mind is running in Spanish, I often have trouble parsing English words as such, especially in a Peruvian accent. “It’s good Inca weed, very natural.” So yes, we have spent most of our time on – or close to – the Gringo Trail.


On the road to Abancay

In early April, though, we left Cusco for Abancay, stepping quickly off the Trail. In the bus terminals, you’ll often hear people calling out destinations, and sometimes they will come over to you, ask where you are going, and try to get you on their bus. But we haven’t experienced anything like what happened when we left Cusco. We came in the doors, loaded front and back with our little and big packs, and a few people yelled destinations at us. Perhaps it was a mistake to say “Abancay”, for then we had two guys and a woman all trying to pull us to their offices. I went with the woman, who promised (falsely, it turned out) a bus leaving 30 to 60 minutes before the others. When I came back to share information with Leticia, the other guys were back too, and we had five different companies bidding for our business. This meant that the price came down from 20 soles per person to 15, then 14, then 13, and then they were all bidding 13, saying that their bus was newer, the seats were more comfortable, that driver over there was a drunk, and probably more we didn’t catch. In the end we rode with Ampay, which left ten minutes after the Bredde bus, and evidently before the others.

We had travelled the road between Cusco and Abancay once before, in February 2012 on the twenty-hour ride from Lima to Cusco, but we did it in the middle of the night, so the sights were all new. The drive starts like the drive down to the Sacred Valley, but at some point around Anta you head west instead of north. After a bit in the valley, we crested a pass and started our way down, the kind of descent where you can see the bottom of the valley, but don’t get there for half an hour. The bus was equipped with a sign displaying the current speed, and this never got above 70km/hour, spending a lot of time between 30 and 50 km/h. The bus assistant came through stamping tickets, reminding everyone that the bathroom in the back of the bus was just for pee. Once in the valley we rolled through Limatambo, even hitting 90 km/hour on a straight section, the fastest I saw all day. Near Limatambo we joined a rushing creek filled to bursting with red water. This eventually joined a much larger, cleaner (up until the junction) river that had to be the Apurimac, the largest river in the region. We followed the Apurimac for a while, then left it, heading up the south side of the valley. To the north were impressive snow-capped mountains, peeking between the clouds, and also between the curtains, the non-working (thankfully) televisions, the emergency hammer, and the head of the sleeping people across the aisle (hence no photos of the snow-capped mountains). Twice we went back down to river level and then hundreds of feet above it when the canyon narrowed, and finally we started up the far end of the valley, past Curahuasi, which looked like a fun small town to explore, past Sahuite, where there is a great carved stone, and past the turnoff for Cachora, where a French couple, the only other foreigners on the bus, got off, presumably to trek to Choquequirao, some impressive Inca ruins accessible only by two days of walking. Can you be mobbed by three people? From the window it seemed that they were, in fact, mobbed by three cab drivers, all wanting to take them the 15km to Cachora. With all the flooding in the north and on the coast, tourism is way down in Peru, which perhaps explains the frantic competition for any business at all.
At the far end of the valley we could look back and see the switchbacks we had come down over two hours before. There is a part of me that still holds the landscape of my childhood – the flat streets of Indianapolis and the cornfields of northern Indiana – as what the world is like, and it rebels at the verticality of this landscape. It seems…unnatural.


Street scene, Abancay

Not long after that we were over another pass, heading down toward a big-looking place that had to be – and was – Abancay. Our seven-year-old Lonely Planet says there are only 14,000 people in Abancay, but it has to be larger than that. We found a taxi, and found a hotel. After Cusco, which is overrun with hotels and hostels catering to foreigners, it is startling to find no hostels with kitchens, common areas, book exchanges and the sort of things foreigners like. Our hotel seemed mostly geared for business travelers and party-goers.


Math at Hotel Saywa

Because Abancay is a party town. The road up and down the hostel was lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs with strobe lights on as we walked to find supper, ice cream shops, a casino, liquor stores, and tons of pharmacies. It is about 3000 feet lower than Cusco, and so a lot warmer. We saw hardly anyone in traditional indigenous dress, and even a few tank tops and shorts. We went to sleep to a symphony of thumping beats and car alarms. We saw no gringos in two days there and none at the bus station on our way out.


And so we headed on, toward Andahauylas…

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Guiding Brazilian Travellers


Anna, Joy, Alice, Zeke, Carlos

On Tuesday morning during breakfast Alice and Joy asked if they could take me to Pachar and all was accepted so we went over to the hostel a couple of doors over called Hostal Patacalle (we’re on calle Patacalle) and they asked the owner what the place he had mentioned was called and it turned out that it was actually Pumamarka that they had been talking about.


Pumamarca from across the valley (different day, different hike).

So we took a taxi and at the turn off Alice said she wanted to go on to see some of the other towns so we went on through Pallata to Huilloq (also Huilloc, Willoq or Willoc) were we stopped and all the Huilloqueñas came over to us and lay out their blankets with all the textiles on them (llamas, bags, wallets, bracelets, things to put on your backpack, etc.) Alice bought me a thing to put on my backpack. After a while we turned around and went to Pumamarka. After a while at Pumamarka Joy and I headed to the trail that we would take back down on in a small drizzle and started down. In this I whole trip I started to learn some Portuguese like I was surprised that the Aymara word for popcorn is the same in Portuguese (pipoca).

On the way down we did some yodeling (after this) but this photo is of the “Mil Terazas” and the staircases are los “Mil Escaleras” or the “thousand Terraces” and the “thousand stairs”.


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Patacancha to Chupani to Lares, on foot

IMG_0801IMG_0795In mid-February we spent two days walking up in the mountains above Ollantaytambo. We went with Wither (pronounced “Weeder”), a guide we met after he took a trip with Bruce and Kaytlin, who were volunteering here at Casa de Wow. These Andean parts of Peru are changing; as roads get improved or electric lines get strung, villages can seem to hurdle from a timeless, traditional lifestyle into one in which cars come and go and people have smartphones in a matter of a few years. Wither likes going up into the villages where these changes haven’t yet come, and at the same time fully aware that gringos passing through do have an effect.

IMG_0785And so we got a taxi out of town, up through Pallata and Markacocha and Huilloq, stopping in Patacancha. We immediately took a path that led away from the road, running parallel to it but higher up in the valley. Our packs were loaded with sleeping bags, clothes for a variety of situations, food (both for us and to share along the way), and, heaviest of all, water.
We would pass folks from time to time, and Wither would often share greetings and a little bit of fruit or coca. A few hours in we stopped by a homestead where we spoke with a man and his daughter, sharing some bread (which is harder to get up there) and fruit. Toward the end of the conversation came the part that was to become familiar – the man returned with a blanket filled with textiles and crafts made by his wife. We did buy a little – these situations feel like the best way to be sure money goes directly to the maker – and headed on.
IMG_0791The views continued to be fantastic, but as we headed toward the pass the clouds lowered and a cold spitty rain started. We are staying at an altitude of 9300 feet in Ollantaytambo, the taxi ride to Patacancha got us above 12,000, and this pass is at about 14,100. It is colder there, and we hurried to get warmer and more waterproof layers on before we were shivering.

IMG_0804But that passed, and at the pass it was calm and dry. From there we headed down and down, rejoining the main road a few hours after leaving it. It turns out that carrying bread is also a good way to befriend-distract dogs that want to keep you away from their property. Finally, around 4pm we arrived in Chupani, our destination for the day. The house we were planning on staying in seemed deserted, though, which was a problem, since a cold rain had started again, and we were at a little over 13,000 feet. So Wither went off to figure things out while we bundled up again and had some snacks. The road ends in Chupani, and all the houses are connected by paths. (During our time there, we never saw a motorized vehicle.) There were cattle and sheep grazing here and there, kids playing a game with a stick and a hoop, women passing from one house to another every once in a while.

IMG_0793Wither came back a good while later, saying that the nieghbors had heard on the radio that he was coming there, but the family must be up at the other house (it is common to have a small house in town and another building up at the fields). We saw a woman go into a house nearby, and so Wither went down to talk to her.

He came back a few minutes later, saying we had a place to stay for the night. The house was made of stone, and had just one room, with a stone and mud stove – this means a place for the fire and stones above with pot-sized holes in them. The room had one single bed, a bench along one side, a few small stools, a ladder up to a loft, and another small part that seemed to be for storage and keeping the guinea pigs. The woman of the house was Juliana Yupanqui, who could have been my age or could have been 20 years older. She spoke only Quechua, and so Wither acted as translator. She set to work making tea from some roots and let us start peeling potatos and chuno. Peeling the chuno (freeze-dried potatos) was a little like whittling, and we were slow at it.
The house felt a little like a cave, with the end wall including some huge stones. The walls were largely blackened by smoke – there was no chimney, and the smoke seeped its way slowly through the thatched roof. (From outside, it looks like the house is smouldering.) The room was cold, and so we took turns sitting close to the small fire, which was fueled with a little dry grass but mostly dried llama dung. Another woman arrived and helped with the cooking. It was now dark, and getting colder, but they kept the door open until much later. There was a single light bulb above, powered by a solar panel outside the house – the only real sign that we were in the 21st century. The food was ready one course at a time – potatos, then llama meat, then a soup with potatos, chuno, llama meat, and a few herbs. It tasted so good, though. By then it was after 8pm, and cold. Senora Yupanqui and her relatives got out a large pile of llama skins (fluffy!) and laid them on the dirt floor, followed by a few woven blankets. We put our sleeping bags on top of that, filling up most of the living room, and with the family still bustling about, lay down and went (eventually) to sleep, lullabied by the dying fire, the sound of the wind (and later, rain), and the “cwee, cwee” of the guinea pigs (which is why they’re called cuyes).
In the morning Senora Yupanqui was up before us, making tea. It turns out that she is an aunt of the folks we had planned to stay with and has hosted trekkers before – not a surprise, considering how she seemed to take our unannounced arrival in stride and had everything she needed to feed and sleep us. We packed up and had breakfast up at the other house, the one we were originally planning to stay at. Breakfast was more potatos (with soft cheese) and more of the similar soup. I see why bringing fruit and bread is a welcome gift. Before we left there was the obligatory laying-out of weavings, and yes, we bought some. The one from the house we slept in still smells strongly of llama-dung smoke (not a bad smell, really).
The second day of walking started hard – up the valley out of Chupani – and we were slow, though the packs were a bit lighter. We kept moving, stopping before the pass to talk with a woman weaving in a lean-to outside her house. After lunch at the pass, we went down and down (did I say that about the day before), into valleys that opened into other valleys. Eventually we came down to the community of Tambochaca and followed the Lares river valley down to the Lares hot springs.
The hot springs are still above 11,000 feet, and it drizzled most of the time we were there. But the various pools of varying temperatures felt good, and we walked down the hill with Wither into the town of Lares for supper. The hot springs are mainly an attraction for Peruvians, and the town of Lares feels very un-touristed, even though it is probably the French Lick of the region.
We slept well, boys in one room, girls in the other. We had a good breakfast and then a wild ride over the Lares pass on a typical twisting Andean road. To Calca, then a bus to Urubamba, and another bus to Ollantaytambo, in about 4 hours all told. Thsis was the first time we´ve trekked with a guide, and Wither definitely took us to places and people we couldn´t have experienced otherwise.

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