Friday, 2 August 2013

Adventure Jeep Tour Across the Bolivian Altiplano: Day One

The White World of the Salar de Uyuni

Another day and another cacophony wakes me at daybreak: strains of an out of tune brass band, the pounding of drums and the startling bangs of fire crackers that ricochet round the street outside our hotel like gunshots. This was the second day in a row that a din had wrenched me from the arms of Morpheus: yesterday had been May Day, a good reason in socialist Bolivia for a major knees up. But it seems that the people of the dust bowl town of Uyuni find any excuse to have a parade – national holidays, saints’ days, strikes… This time it was a long procession of teenage schoolchildren marching behind a garishly decorated statue of what looked like the Virgin Mary, held aloft by poles resting on the shoulders of four boys. I guess there’s no need for an alarm clock in Bolivia

A few hours later we were standing outside our hotel – the Magia de Uyuni – which was decidedly short on the ‘magic’, down one of the dusty side streets of this one horse town, waiting for a jeep to arrive. On most days the wind blows in from the surrounding badlands, coating shops and half finished concrete block buildings in a fine white dust, lending the place an almost ghostly pallor. Cholitas clad in enormous pleated garishly coloured skirts, clashing sweaters and characteristic bowler style hats, hawk their goods in the marketplace, while umpteen stray dogs sleep in the shade of the dusty unpaved streets fringed with rubbish. Few civic buildings grace the skyline of this place, an exception is the reloj (clock tower), and the pace of life is slow - along with the internet, the hotel check-in, the service in the bars…
Uyuni grew up in the late nineteenth century at a major junction of four railways built by the British to export the region’s vast mineral wealth. But the demise of the railways – to which the rusting hulks in the aptly named ‘train cemetery’ on the outskirts of town attest – almost condemned Uyuni to ghost town status. That is, until tourism came along. For this town is the ideal starting point for adventure tours into the nearby vast Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on the planet, and the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, famous for its luridly coloured lakes, spluttering mud pits and stunning pink flamingos. We were among the 60,000 or so international tourists who visit Uyuni each year to take a jeep tour into this remarkable landscape.

We had booked a three-day, two night trip that would take us south through some of the most bizarre and inspiring landscapes on earth, before crossing the border back into Chile. There were four others in our group: a middle aged couple from France and a young Chilean couple and we all fitted remarkably comfortably into our rather battered looking jeep driven by Julio, a quiet man with a broad toothy smile and a shock of black hair barely contained beneath his baseball cap.

With all our luggage and a couple of barrels of fuel safely stowed on the roof rack, our tour kicked off with a visit to the Cementario des Trenes on the outskirts of town. We had already visited this place the day we arrived in Uyuni, walking along the parallel train tracks out of town as the sun slid low in the sky. The shattered shells of abandoned train carriages, barely recognisable rolling stock and old steam engines stare forlornly over an immense dusty plain littered with plastic bags that glared livid white in the low sun angle. Caught on the stunted vegetation and jagged rocks, they had been reduced to shreds by the relentless wind. I recalled how wandering alone amid this wreckage from the past, the wind whistling through the skeletal rusty remains turned almost blood red in the setting sun, made the whole place strangely unnerving. The sudden desire to return quickly to town became overwhelming.

From here we progressed at bumpy, breakneck speed across a dirt road to Colchani, a scruffy frontier type settlement bisected by a railway right on the very edge of the Salar. Here salt most definitely rules. Huge heaps of it awaiting export are piled up everywhere and even the houses are constructed out of neatly cut blocks of it. A colourful array of shops catering to the passing tourist trade line the main street. Here is a last chance to buy Alpaca hats, gloves and scarves, not a bad idea as it is impossible to describe how cold it can get on the altiplano.

Just outside Colchani we saw the salt being recovered from the Ojos de Sal (‘eyes of salt’: pools in the surface of the salt flat). Hundreds of small conical heaps piled up in the sun to dry were lined up like a vast army, their reflections cast in the shallow pools of water surrounding them creating perfect diamonds. Beyond, lay a vast expanse of whiteness gleaming like ice and patterned by a never ending series of hexagonal shapes, formed by the evaporation of the water beneath. Volcán Tunupa, a dormant volcano which gives the salt flat its indigenous name - Salar de Tunupa - could be seen to the north. Aymara legend relates how the volcanoes Tunupa, Kusku and Kusina were giants. Tunupa married Kusku, but he abandoned her for Kusina. Grieving Tunupa started to cry while breast-feeding her son and her tears mixed with milk to form the Salar.


Our jeep sped effortlessly across the crunchy surface of the salt as if it was gliding. Just below the crust, less than a metre thick in places, is a pool of mineral rich brine formed by the evaporation of a prehistoric lake. A dark smudge appeared on the horizon and we were headed straight for it. This was an island, once the top of a volcano, now trapped like an insect in amber in this prehistoric sea. The Isla del Pescado is so-called because during the rainy season the salar is covered by a film of water and the reflection cast by it resembles a fish. Here we stopped for lunch, along with most of the other tour groups, the jeeps lined up on the island’s shoreline as if in a car salesroom!

Regaled with a delicious meal of alpaca steaks, salad and quinoa, we spent a leisurely hour exploring the island, taking the path to the top. This is an environment as strange and bizarre as any you are ever likely to see. A forest of enormous prickly pipe-like cacti, some up to 12 metres in height, cover the island whose rocky slopes tumble down to the petrified sea which appears to lap at its shores in a series of tiny bays. The vast, gleaming salar contrasts with the impossibly blue sky; a series of volcanic peaks in endless shades of smoky-grey recede into the distance. Judging distance here becomes confusing, and the camera can play tricks...

Continuing inland after leaving the salt flat past herds of wild vicuñas and small farming settlements of adobe and thatch where campesinos herd llamas and coax crops of quinoa from the arid, saline soils, we stopped for the night in the settlement of San Juan. Everything at the ‘hotel’ was constructed of salt; it was basic, but comfortable enough and the food was tasty. As the electricity only came on for a few hours each evening, as soon as the lights went out we retired to our beds, with bases built, quite naturally, of blocks of salt!


Adventure Jeep Tour Across the Bolivian Altiplano: Day Two

The Lurid Lakes and Fancy Flamingos of the Altiplano

After the delicate operation of refuelling the jeep, which consisted of Julio standing on its roof and sucking on a pipe which ran from the fuel barrel into the tank, we set off into the semi-arid desert landscape of the high altiplano. Carefully crossing the railway tracks running from Uyuni to the border with Argentina, the parallel lines of which tailed away into a point far in the distance, we were soon passing brooding snow capped volcanoes in vivid shades of ochre, sulphur, vermillion, magenta and burnt sienna, picked out boldly against the deepest blue sky imaginable.

The jeep lurched this way and that to the tune of some very dubious 1980s disco music, as it sped at what seemed like breakneck speed across the dirt tracks of the Chuguana Desert. Every so often, a large rig would speed past creating a huge vortex of choking dust. Sensing our nervousness, Julio threw his head back and laughed, accelerating deliberately as if to show that he was totally in control. Doubtless he knew the terrain well, but I had seen him quietly checking one of the front tyres on more than one occasion; a blow out here did not bear thinking about…

We stopped to witness the splendour of Ollagüe, an active stratovolcano on the border with Chile, for the time being a slumbering giant emitting only small puffs of smoke and ash that drifted languidly away across an unblemished blue sky. Then onward, our jeep racing others to be the first up a rocky road leading to a plateau, where the next amazing part of the tour unfolds: a series of stunning lakes, home to some of the rarest flamingos in the world.

The first encountered is Laguna Cañapa, an unimaginably serene and beautiful spot. Here, flocks of James’ Flamingos lift their long legs gracefully as they feed on the algae contained in the shallow water, their pink bodies piercing the reflections cast by the surrounding snow crested mountains in the vivid blue water. As they lowered their heads to feed, they seemed to be kissing themselves, emitting a low cackling sound that must equate in flamingo-speak to an expression of unbridled happiness. I watched as one came into land, bearing the distinctive black feathers on the underside of its wings, before beginning a graceful dance across the water as it touched down. So tranquil was this place, I could have stayed there for hours watching these beautiful birds once thought to be extinct.

The next lake, Laguna Hedionda, lived up to its name alright, as it means ‘stinking’ in Spanish. It reeked of sulphur and the flamingos trudged heavily through the sludgy waters close to its shore. If you forget the smell and concentrate on the scenery, you won’t be disappointed as the place is picture postcard pretty. A swathe of sandy coloured ground cuts through the turquoise lake fringed by yellow reeds, behind which rise the purple-brown slopes of yet more snow-capped volcanoes.

After a hearty lunch of chicken, potato and pasta, we pressed on, passing the milky-green Laguna Honda and on to a vast, empty plain scoured by dust devils. We then ascended a rocky quebrada, following its sinuous route, at times a broad flat plain filled with deep deposits of yellow sand, at others a deep gorge surrounded by huge precariously perched boulders. Beyond lay the Desert of Sololi, a vast expanse of orange-red sand which looked for all the world like the surface of Mars, where herds of wild vicuñas graze on the sparsest of vegetation and the rocky outcrops at its extremity harbour populations of viscachas. A cross like something between a giant rodent and a rabbit, these cute furry creatures the size of a cat put on quite a display for us, hoping that Julio would throw them some bread, which he duly did.

It stands alone, the Árbol de Piedra, a bizarre rock formation rising from the surrounding sandy desert, looking for all the world like a stunted, petrified tree. A photographic treat, it was formed by the erosive action of the relentless winds that howl across the Altiplano. As we sped on, Julio inserted yet more coca leaves into his mouth, carefully nibbling each one down to the stalk before packing it between his teeth and cheek. The bag of aromatic leaves was passed between us. What the heck! I took my share of the pale green leaves and a pinch of ilucta (a substance made from the ashes of the quinoa plant that is used to break down the alkaloids in the leaves) and chewed contentedly until my tongue gave out a tingling numb sensation. In its natural form the humble coca leaf is no more harmful than coffee and has been used by the indigenous people of the Andes from time out of mind for all manner of things, including staving off altitude sickness.

Indeed, we were rising ever higher in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and that coca was welcome! Named after a colonel killed during the late-nineteenth century War of the Pacific in which Bolivia lost its entire coastline to Chile, an event that still collectively traumatises the nation, the reserve is doing its landlocked best to assuage that loss. There might be no Océano Pacífico, but Bolivia has the Laguna Colorada. This incredible lake which starts out blue and fades to blood red is mottled with brilliant white islands of borax, and is home to yet more flamingos: Andean, James and Chilean to be precise, pink dots that stud its mineral rich surface. The wind was bitterly cold by now and by nightfall it must have been well below freezing.

We stayed in a rather grim single storey accommodation block in a dormitory that accommodated the six of us in uncomfortable metal framed beds with thin mattresses.  After that experience, I truly understand the meaning of the words, ‘chilled to the bone’. Unable to sleep, Martin and I, dressed in our extreme mountaineering down jackets and alpaca hats, snuck outside for a look at the night sky: incredible, infinite, misty with stars, including the constellations of Scorpio and Sagittarius and the Magellanic Clouds, none of which can be seen from the northern hemisphere. Beneath this heavenly mantle, I suddenly felt very small indeed and, overwhelmed by a sense of my own mortality, I quickly turned tail for our accommodation block. 

Adventure Jeep Tour Across the Bolivian Altiplano: Day Three

A landscape straight out of Dante’s ‘Inferno’…

We were up before sunrise on our final day. The old adage, ‘the coldest hour is before the dawn’, held true as we piled into our jeep to begin the race with numerous other 4x4s to the Geysers Sol de Mañana. In sub-zero temperatures this geothermal field of wonders, sited at 5,000 metres above sea level, boasting geysers, fumaroles and bubbling mud pits, is at its very best. The golden orb of the sun erupted from behind a ridge just as we arrived at this incredible landscape. We alighted to witness a geyser shooting its white steam vertically into the deep blue sky for what seemed like miles, the long shadows of the curious seeming to dance on the ground all around it in wondrous servitude. The hiss was almost deafening. 

Beyond lay a scene transposed straight from Dante’s Inferno: a series of hissing, bubbling, spluttering fumaroles and mud pits, sending their rank smelling steam and gases wafting high into the atmosphere. Silhouettes of people moved amid this surreal landscape, momentarily obscured by thick clouds of vapour only to appear seconds later etched in vivid detail against a background of brilliant steamy whiteness. As you pass by the churning chasms of boiling steam and evil smelling spitting mud pits, you can feel the very vibrations of Mother Earth as she heaves and sighs.

We then proceeded to Laguna Chalviri, steam drifting like silken scarves above its mirror flat surface. Here are much fabled hot springs, driven by the same geological process that has uplifted the South American continent to form the altiplano, the Andes Mountains and that also fuels the geothermal field we had just visited. It was cold, bitterly cold. Ice lay inches thick around a steaming pool in which intrepid bathers were clearly enjoying the warm waters. Common sense told me not to remove any of my clothing in the icy cold atmosphere, but the once-in-a lifetime-chance of bathing in a hot spring at around 5,000 metres above sea level got the better of me. I striped off and darted across the icy ground before I had time to feel the cold, plunging onto the pool. The instant warmth was incredible, seeping into my frozen bones, finally banishing the bitter cold of an altiplano morning! Martin and I languished in the balmy warm waters for as long as we could. But a jeep was leaving for the Chilean border, so reluctantly, we wrenched ourselves away, bidding farewell to our fellow travellers from France and Chile.

Our new driver sped through the remote and dusty Salvador Dalí desert, an endless expanse of sand fading into dusty nothingness and fringed with impressive multi-colour mountains, pausing briefly to refuel a la Julio (fuel pipe in mouth) before speeding us towards Laguna Blanca, overlooked by the conical volcanoes of Juriques and Licancabur, after which we approached the Bolivian border post with Chile.

I was sad to leave Bolivia with its hard working, silently strong people, proud of their indigenous culture, who welcome strangers to their midst with a smile. These noble people are the descendants of those with whom my Cornish family lived and worked during the late nineteenth century and I will always feel an affinity with the Bolivians, whose border I was about to cross. Passport stamped and with a lump in my throat, I boarded the Chilean registered bus to San Pedro de Atacama. But my heart remained firmly in the land of eternal snows, where the penetrating, awe-inspiring silence, the preserve of high places, reigns supreme; a land where clear and starry skies arc above mountains that have been towering for countless ages above Technicolor lakes where pink flamingos dance. Bolivia had truly touched my soul.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, April 2013: Day One

Piscacucho to Wayllabamba

The minibus that had conveyed Martin and I, plus a middle-aged Brazilian couple and four young Argentineans, from our hotel in Cuzco, finally arrived at Piscacucho on the rail line at Kilometre 82, a village of small adobe built farmhouses hemmed in between the steep slopes of the Andes and the raging Urubamba River. We were met by a scene of hectic activity. Kit lay strewn about on large plastic sheets and porters from the company we were trekking with - Camping Tours – were rushing round almost tripping over fowls and piglets, readying equipment and supplies for our forthcoming 43 km 4-day trek. Between the ten of them, these hard working, polite, yet shy Quechua men from the highlands, carried impossibly large packs containing everything necessary for our group of eight to enjoy a comfortable 4-day trek. We hired ‘half a porter’ each to carry sleeping bags, pillows and personal items in a duffel bag. It’s wise to do this, as one of the Argentineans, determined to carry all her own kit, soon discovered to her cost how foolish this is. Although we brought our own, sleeping bags can be hired if required and good quality Thermarest sleeping mats were supplied by our trekking company. We also recommend that you keep clothing and equipment to an absolute minimum. Most people carry far too many unnecessary items.
We wore the same outer layers – woollen short sleeved base layer, lightweight fleece, and quick drying trekking trousers – and took along only a daily change of underwear and socks, a long sleeved woollen base layer to sleep in, one spare wicking tee shirt (for the last day), a Polartec pull-on for chilly evenings and a set of waterproofs (you can buy cheap plastic ponchos in Cuzco if preferred). A pair of comfortable Gore-Tex hiking boots are essential, plus a head torch, sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat. We carried our usual walking kit in a 35 litre Alpine rucksack into which a bladder (with electrolyte tablets to combat loss of salts) was inserted. Don’t forget a high factor sunscreen, loo roll, ear-plugs, microfibre towel, a First Aid kit and/or sanitising hand gel/wet wipes. We also carried a solar battery charger (attached easily to the exterior of a rucksack) to recharge our camera batteries, and used walking poles (rubber tips essential) which we found helped to maintain an upright walking posture making breathing easier. Anyone who is a regular hill-walker should not find this trek too difficult, but those who are not particularly fit are likely to struggle and will not be able to relax and enjoy the daily climbs and scenery on what is probably going to be a once in a lifetime experience for many. This is a trek at high altitude, so it’s wise to ensure that you have been in Cuzco for at least two days beforehand to acclimatise.
There was a palpable buzz in the air as we set off, swept along in a tide of colourful ‘fellow pilgrims’ from all over the world, a kind of modern-day version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales! At the entry post our tour guide, Elistan, a fresh-faced Quechua man with an excellent command of English, sorted out the paperwork for our group. You must present your passport and permit (covered in the total price paid to your tour operator), or entry to the trail is prohibited. You may get your passport stamped here as a memento. It is impossible do the trail independently. Numbers permitted entry each day are strictly limited to 500 persons (including porters and guides, so in reality there are permits for less than 200 trekkers) so booking your trek with a company several months ahead is therefore recommended. April to October are the most popular months as the weather is drier.

We then passed under the famous entrance sign to the Inca Trail, posing momentarily for the obligatory group photo, then crossed the suspension bridge over the foaming and seething Urubamba River. It was to be our companion for the first part of the trek along a dusty undulating route busy with mules serving local villages and running porters, eager to rush ahead to ready lunch for their trekkers. There are spectacular views of the Vilcanota mountain range, where the Veronica peak raises its snowy head with an arrogant nonchalance 5,832 metres into a cornflower blue sky and the first glimpse of an Incan archaeological site, Salapunku, an old resting place for travellers on the opposite side of the river. This first day is not hard, a 12 kilometre stroll with just 350 metres of ascent and there are several places along the way where you can buy cold drinks, snacks, coca leaves as well as walking sticks, hats and bandanas. The pace began comfortably but soon slowed as the Argentinean carrying everything but the kitchen sink began to lag behind. If you book via the Internet as we did (with a tour company named Intense Peru), you have no idea who your fellow trekkers will be or how large a group you’ll be in. We were easily the fastest and fittest in our group thanks to regular forays into our Irish hills! However, we were fortunate in that our group was small and Elistan, realising that we were both fit and experienced, did not hold us back, but over the course of the four days allowed us to make for camp at our own pace. A small group suited us, as we felt it might not have been as pleasant trekking in a group as large as some we encountered along the trial.

The route veered away from the river and began to gradually ascend towards Miskay (2,800 metres). Our group made several stops along the way to enable stragglers to catch up, or for Elistan to explain items of interest such as cochineal beetles, concealed within dusty white patches on prickly cactus leaves, which when crushed reveal their prized crimson fluid. After walking across a flattish grassy plateau we spied the fort of Huillca Raccay at the mouth of the river Cusichaca, perched high above an Incan town of some 115 houses which Elistan called Llactapata, discovered by American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, in 1911. Rising gently upslope from the fertile valley bottom near where the Cusichaca meets the mighty Urubamba, this terraced town that once housed a population of around 5,000 was strategically sited for Inca agriculture and trade and supplied many settlements with goods, including Machu Picchu. However, its actual name is Patallacta, and it was deliberately burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, who, retreating from Cuzco in 1536, destroyed many towns and villages along the Inca road system to prevent the Spanish from discovering Machu Picchu or any of its settlements.
Here, the cloud smouldering around the mountain tops which had been threatening rain finally delivered, and we were subjected to a steady downpour on the descent to the valley carved by the Cusichaca. It was a relief to get out of the rain when we stopped at a local farm, heralded by swirling clouds of blue wood smoke and ducks waddling along the muddy path. After a hearty bowl of hot quinoa and vegetable soup with thick chunks of bread rustled up by our cook, we left the relative comfort of the mess tent returning to the rain to begin a gentle ascent alongside the roaring Cusichaca River to the village of Wayllabamba (3,000 metres). Here we camped in a field by a rustic farm house for the night. Trekkers sleep for three nights under canvas so it’s wise to have had some experience of camping before attempting a multi day trek like the Inca trail, especially as the weather had turned inclement which, to pardon the pun, put a bit of a dampener on things! We hung our drenched waterproofs up to dry and arranged our kit inside the Doite tent supplied where everything must be safely stashed to prevent animals carrying off your belongings!

‘Agua caliente!’ became a regular and very welcome cry from the porters, and it felt good to have hot water supplied in a small bowl for a much needed wash. The facilities along the 4-day route are primitive to say the least, and unless you are prepared to brave freezing water, do not expect to shower! At least at Wayllabamba, the farming family whose land we camped on had a sit down flush toilet, albeit minus the seat! As darkness fell, we sat around the mess table listening to the rain gently pattering on the canvas, sipping coca leaf tea (which helps to stave off the effects of altitude sickness), enjoying getting to know each other a little better. In the silvery light of the gas lamp, we listened to Elistan telling us about the route we would follow the next day. After a delicious three course meal of soup, meat and vegetables, followed by fruit, we participated in the time honoured Andean ritual of respect: the alcoholic toast or challa to Pachamama, ‘the Mother Earth’, that consists of sprinkling some liquor onto the ground for a successful journey and safe passage through the Andes. We then retired to our tents where we enjoyed a sound night’s sleep. But others in our group whose bedding, footwear and clothing got wet, fared less well. A good night’s sleep is essential for the next day, the hardest of the four.

The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, April 2013: Day Two

Conquering ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’

Dawn heralded a beautiful fresh morning, the vegetation wet and gleaming from the rain of the day before. The jagged snow covered mountains all around, just catching the first rays of the rising sun, were set against an azure sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. After a wholesome breakfast of fruit, quinoa porridge and bread washed down with coca leaf tea, we set out to tackle the most difficult part of the trek, which consists of a relentlessly steep 1,200 metre ascent that stretches for nine kilometres to the first, and highest, mountain pass of the trail. This day sorts the wheat from the chaff. Despite finally hiring ‘half a porter’ and dumping the majority of her clothing and a pair of ancient trainers, the Argentinean who was already lagging seriously behind, dropped out just before the check point above Wayllabamba. It was a tough call and we all felt for her as she became tearful, knowing that her dream was over. We said our goodbyes; she was to return with a porter to the head of the trail and planned to rendezvous with us in two days time at Machu Picchu.
We proceeded steadily upwards in a long thread of climbers along what seemed to be an ever steepening cobbled and stepped pathway through cloud forest enlivened by rushing streams and bird song, dense with tropical foliage and exotically shaped and coloured blooms. The humidity was sapping and we were glad to stop at a clearing where local women wrapped in colourful shawls were selling chocolate bars, water and soda pop. I spied one dishing out gourd-fulls of cloudy chicha (maize beer) to a group of thirsty porters. At 3,680 metres and after about three hours walking, we emerged from the tree line into a meadow known as Llulluchapampa, hemmed in on all sides by magnificent golden-brown jagged mountains with snow crested peaks. Through the interlocking spurs of the mountains above, we finally spied Warmi Wañusqa ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ the highest pass of the trail at 4,200 metres, so called as it resembles the contours of a supine woman. But it was still some 1.5 hours away.


After all of our group arrived, we began the gruelling, lung bursting climb to the pass. Even the porters, cheeks bulging with coca leaves, burdened by loads almost as long as they were tall, seemed to be moving in slow motion as we relentlessly slogged our way upwards under an unforgiving hot sun.

Finally, the top of the pass! Here, a huddle of fellow trekkers, awe struck at the view of the pathway snaking its way down through the gaping valley just climbed, stood stunned into humble silence by the sheer grandeur of the Andes. Silken shrouds of cloud wrapped themselves round a tumultuous rapture of snow crested mountaintops for as far as the eye could see, deep shadows the size of skyscrapers scaring their rugged brown slopes. Few of the porters stopped, most continued on down the other side, loads swaying as they picked up speed.

Photos taken, we did not linger long either. Elistan had told us not to wait for the others but to proceed to camp, wise advice as our sweat drenched shirts soon made it feel decidedly chilly in a stiffening breeze. Climbing to Dead Woman’s Pass is not the only hard part on the trek; the 600 metre descent to the second campsite over uneven rocky steps is equally taxing. Moving as fast as we dared, we glided over these to spare knees and feet, taking care to avoid patches where seepages of water had formed slippery algal films. After an initial steep section, the paved pathway then undulates along the left side of the valley giving pleasant vistas of the grassy mountain slopes, exotic flora and eventually, a welcome view of the campsite nestled amid denser vegetation further down the valley. A gentler stepped section brings you to the camp perimeter which contains a rather smelly ablution block with pit toilets.  

The terraced camp at Pacaymayo is large and busy, bisected by a rushing torrent of water tumbling nosily down through the valley from a magnificent waterfall cascading down a mountain high above. Crossing this stream by a rustic wooden bridge, we then spent around 10 minutes searching for our designated camping area. Upon arrival our porters gazed at us in astonishment. They were still erecting tents and blowing up the sleeping mats, the mess tent was not ready and there was no hot water! Choosing a tent with a fabulous view over the yawning valley below, we quietly soaked up the scenery and were treated to the sight of an inquisitive deer, before dozing off in the warm afternoon sunshine.

We were eating a late lunch when the Brazilians entered the camp and it was dusk before the last Argentinean arrived. She was clearly exhausted and sat in the mess tent in stupefied silence, scarcely eating anything at dinner. One small act of kindness caused her to burst into tears. She had a headache, felt sick and the 11 km trek that day had nearly killed her. The altitude and her general lack of fitness had conspired to make the descent from Dead Woman’s Pass to the camp a nightmarish ordeal and she had been coaxed down slowly by Elistan and a porter who came to her rescue with hot coca tea. She disappeared sobbing into her tent with painkillers, more coca tea and copious sympathy.  

As the camp fell silent, we wandered up a nearby path to savour the night atmosphere. In the valley below our camp a thick carpet of white cloud glowed with surreal luminescence, leaving just the jagged snow capped mountain peaks exposed. The purple night sky was studded with stars the size of crystal apples, while the constant roar of the river filled the air with musical cadence. For a brief moment in time, we felt like we were the only two people in the world.