If you haven’t read Part I, you should.
As the wind gathered more force and the hail intensified, Jesse and I ambled on in meditative silence. The storm wasn’t so miserable. It wasn’t raining, so we weren’t wet, and it wasn’t all that cold. Nevertheless, we wanted to reunite with Dave, the sole member of our party with a map.
In the distance, we spotted Dave’s red jacket hunkered in the shelter of a large rock. One cannot exactly scramble at 4,800 masl (16,404 feet), but we gave our best attempt. Upon reaching barely audible screaming distance across the roaring river and through the howling wind, Dave instructed us towards a bridge across the river. You can imagine his boosted ego having been caught in such a storm. Fortunately for me, we couldn’t hear a word he said and hiked up and over and around until we found a bridge to which Dave may or may not have referred.
Having awaited us for 45 minutes, Dave had found and spoken with an arriero (a porter) who happened to have his horse along. As the fluent Spanish speaker of the group, I went in search of the arriero, who had gone off and chatted with several porters awaiting a group of hikers.
I inquired about the weather, and in true Peruvian form, I received varying answers from three different guides. One told me we should return, as it would continue to snow. Another insisted that we should camp there, as the snow would continue over the pass. A third said the snow would stop three kilometers after summiting the pass just ahead.
I returned with less information than I had when I went in search of our arriero. As I walked back to my companions, thunder cracked across the sky. I shuddered at the sound. Thunder works in the snow and cold?
Twenty minutes later, we spotted our arriero, Juvenal sauntering over a nearby hill. He said he wouldn’t charge us and only asked for a tip in return for his efforts. I asked why he was there and he said that he goes there waiting for poor souls like us.
With our bags loaded on our horse, Ballo (as in caballo, the Spanish word for horse), we understood that Juvenal would lead us the two kilometers to the pass and then two more kilometers down where we could stay in his family’s hostal. As we made our first steps, the hail puttered to a stop and in the distance, the skies began to clear. Whew. We would survive this storm after all.
Dave, still with his turbo boost on, kept up with Juvenal and Ballo, while Jesse and I lagged behind, taking photo after photo of the stunning scenery surrounding us. From every angle, mountains stood before us, jagged peaks with rocky hillsides spilling into the canyons below. Glaciers rested atop mountain valleys like a shawl. This was my happy place.
Two hours later, we found ourselves at the summit of Tampa Pass, which greeted us with vistas of the Cayangate Peaks that seemed within reach. Knowing we had only a short distance more to cover, we took a long break standing in awe of the beauty in front of us.
It was then that our guide informed us that we needed to walk fast, for we still had at least another hour and a half of walking ahead. Two kilometers turned to seven. The sunlight was fading fast and we knew the cold would settle in soon.
Jesse and I resolved to refrain from snapping photos as Dave stuck with Juvenal and Ballo. I cursed my inept trekking poles as we began our descent.
We passed the initial point of our turnaround, had we continued with our plan to make a loop back to Chillca. Jesse and I pondered whether we should ask Juvenal to drop our gear here, right in the shadow of Mt. Ausangate herself. I couldn’t stop staring. I walked with my head turned to the side, glancing forward every few steps to avoid rocks. Standing at 6,372 masl (20,926 feet), Ausangate lured me toward her, beckoned me to pitch my tent in her meadows.
But our gear was well beyond my shouting distance and the sun was quickly inching its way below the horizon. We had to continue, but first, we had to take some photos.
After a snack and water break, I had fallen far behind Dave and Jesse. I felt the onset of numbness in my hands and wondered if I would even make it to this supposed town. I began to panic. I envisioned myself having to find shelter and survive beneath a rock. I had no idea where we were headed or how much farther I had to go. It would be dark soon and I had no light. I had no water and no food. I was starving and my throat was parched. I was going to die.
Just as the sun ducked behind the tall Andean peaks, I spotted Dave in the distance coming toward me with a headlamp. He informed me that Juvenal said we’re “close”, it’s just around the corner up there.
I saw no corner up there.
I walked like I hadn’t walked before, my stupid uneven poles clicking along the rocks jutting out on the trail.
Finally. Finally, we arrived at the town, 45 minutes after Dave found me on the trail. Our 10km day somehow evolved to a 26km speed trekking adventure.
Juvenal had taken our bags and carried them to our room – a rectangle to which one arrives by ascending a steep ladder attached to the drooping balcony with a few rusty nails. The room was filled with five single beds with concaved mattresses, covered in musty wool blankets, and a tarpaulin ceiling that breathed every so often as a it caught a breeze. It was perfect.
Juvenal knocked on the door and lay a platter of popcorn on the bed in front of us. It was beautiful. Fluffy and white, airy and salty. The most delicious popcorn I’ve ever tasted in my life. Then, Juvenal asked if we wanted dinner. Brought to our rooms. I began to explain our vegan diet, but he finished the sentence for me and said he could make spaghetti with soup. Oh, and then he mentioned the hot springs just steps away.
He sat with us after we finished our meal and began telling us about his three-year-old daughter. He said she would be at the house the following day and asked if I would be willing to cut a piece of her hair. It seemed a rather odd request, but something within my capabilities, so I obliged.
We all slept like rocks, unmoving throughout the night.
In the morning, our hosts called us down to breakfast – bread and jam, American pancakes and mate tea. The women bustled around us, tromping up and down a set of rickety stairs in the room in which we ate. They brought out costumes and moved around with energy. Dave and I snuck pieces pancake to the cats and dogs.
As we finished, Juvenal asked if we were ready to cut his daughter’s hair. He wanted all three of us to participate. I asked the meaning behind the ceremony. He said that by cutting a lock of hair from his daughter’s head, it means that they consider us a part of their family.
We stood up to begin the cutting of the hair and the girl’s mother stood before me holding out a traditional Quechua skirt – a pollera. She and her mother wrapped the cords of the thick black pleated skirt around my waist and fitted it to body. Next, they hugged my shoulders with the jobona – a bright woven jacket outfitted with patches and finally, set atop my head the montera – a large disk-like hat decorated with colorful sequins and strings. As I was dressed, the men approached Dave and Jesse with a giant colorful shawl – filled with patterns and fray of all the colors of the rainbow – and an equally colorful woven hat. All dressed up, we were ready to begin.
I asked the girl her thoughts on strangers cutting her hair. At three years old, she didn’t have much to say, she just smiled at us shyly. A pair of silver scissors lay on a plate behind the girl, who sat at the table at which we had just eaten. I picked up the scissors and snipped a small lock from her hair. Dave followed, and then Jesse finished with the last piece.
We weren’t sure whether this was part of a show for the gringos, or whether this procedure really did hold some sort of meaning for the family, and it didn’t really matter, we had been invited to participate in their culture and felt honored to do so.
Grandma was ready for us outside with her handicrafts displayed in a small patch of grass. The loom on which she worked stood just a few meters behind her. A rather persistent lady, she picked up each item and asked if we wanted to purchase anything. I gave in and bought a beautiful square of blue and green, with the Quecha symbol for Ausangate embroidered throughout.
After some photos, the three of us readied for a dip in the thermal pools. Just a little over $1 per person. We sunk our aching bodies down into the hot water, which lay in the shadow of Ausangate. The weather gods may have cut our trek short, and in exchange, they gave us an adventure.
How Do I Get to this Hike?
Well, I shall tell you.
Getting to Chillca
From Cusco, take the bus to Sicuani and get off at Chacacupe. Whether or not you can bring your pooch depends on the driver, but buses leave every 15-20 min, so chances are high that you can find a bus. Cost to Chacacupe should be about S/.6
Once arrived in Chacacupe, either take a bus to Pitumarca and then find a taxi to Chillca. We were lucky enough to find someone to take us all the way to Chillca for S/.60. From Pitumarca, the cost should be somewhere around S/.55, and you could probably talk the driver down to S/.50.
Return to Cusco
From the town where Juvenal took us, which I think is called Pacchanca, to Tinke, a taxi will cost from S/.50-60. You’ll have to have someone call the taxi for you. From Tinke to Cusco, the bus should cost S/.5-6 Again, it’s up to the driver to allow your dog.
Hire a Guide
We learned that Juvenal doesn’t just hang out in the bad weather waiting for stranded hikers, he and his family also run a tour company. We can’t attest for their guiding skills, but we can comment on their hospitality, generosity, knowledge of vegetarian diets, cultural immersion, and ability to carry gear over the trail.
Juvenal Crispin Turpo and his father-in-law Enrique Manudra Merma offer arriero services (remember, that means donkey or horse) along the Ausangate Trek. Services include local guides who speak English and French, as well as meals, and tent setup.
To contact them call or Whatsapp: 944 511 739 or email [email protected]