A short, plump woman walked toward us. Her hair was braided into black pigtails that poked out from a brown fedora. Her smile revealed that she was missing her front teeth. At her side were two alpacas with coats so white they might have been bleached. The animals were the size of ponies and were adorned with pink tassels around their long, slender necks.
“Aw, they're adorable!” I exclaimed.
“That's the point,” Mathieu said. “She wants you to pay her for a photo.”
“Fair enough.” I handed Mathieu my camera and paid the lady a sol. She gave me the alpacas' reins and walked a few feet away to avoid being in the frame. One of the alpacas tried to follow her, but I yanked it closer to me.
“You ready?” Mathieu asked.
Before I could answer, I heard a sound like a man clearing his throat. I looked down to see the beast whose reins I had tugged tilting its head back with its mouth open, showing me its buck-teeth and gums. Suddenly, I registered what the noise was and I tried to turn away, but it was too late. A warm wad of alpaca phlegm splattered across the side of my face. Disgusted, I wiped the loogey off my cheek with the back of my hand. Laughter erupted all around me.
“You ready for that photo now?” Mathieu chuckled.
“Just take the damn picture already!” I snapped.
He shot a photo of me with the alpacas; two snickering local boys were in the background. As Mathieu returned my camera, he leaned in and sniffed. “Man, for some reason you smell like vomit!”
“Glad to provide you with some entertainment. Let's go find somewhere I can wash up.”
We walked away from the square and were soon heading uphill. It wasn't very steep, but I quickly found myself out of breath. I turned to Mathieu and saw that he was huffing as badly as me.
“This altitude...is crazy,” I said between breaths.
“Yeah...how about we...stop here?”
We were standing outside of a restaurant called El Ranchero. “I need...to catch...my breath first.” I leaned against the restaurant's wall and noticed a menu. Half of a cuy was the first item listed. “Do you know what cuy is?”
“Guinea pig.[*] I hear it's a delicacy in Peru. What do you say?”
[* Cuy gets its name from the guinea pig's squeaking calls. Though the dish is taboo in most of the United States where guinea pigs are considered pets, it is socially acceptable to consume cuy in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.]
I looked up the hill and saw that the cobblestone street continued to steepen. The unpainted adobe brick houses of the city extended hundreds of feet above us and I didn't want to keep walking. Guinea pig didn't sound appealing, but a few months earlier, while sitting at my desk and daydreaming of South America, I had pledged to try everything that wasn't illegal, immoral or life-threatening. “Yeah, let's stop here.”
We went inside and each ordered half a guinea pig and a bottle of beer. Then I went to the bathroom and washed my face and hands. When I returned to our table, Mathieu was thumbing through his guidebook. “I'm thinking of doing a trek after I get used to the altitude,” he said.
“I'm looking at the Santa Cruz trek. You spend four days walking in a mountain range called the Cordillera Blanca and camp at night. A travel agency supplies all of the gear and a guide. They have donkeys to haul everything, so you just have to carry your camera and a water bottle. Do you want to join me?”
I didn't think I could handle it. While planning my trip, I had stopped exercising, eaten fast food nearly every day and gained ten pounds. Trekking through the Andes would be a punishment, given how poorly I had been treating my body of late. What would happen if I plopped over in the middle of the mountains? There probably weren't any rescue helicopters there. Then there was my lack of outdoors experience. I'd had a brief stint in the Boy Scouts, but that was decades ago. I had spent most of my adult life in front of a computer screen. And what about the high altitude? After getting tired from walking a few blocks uphill, I wasn't sure I would survive a four-day trek through the mountains.
“I don't know, have you gone trekking before?” I asked.
“Sure, when I was in Ecuador. Are you worried about something?”
“No. I'm worried about a lot of things. For starters, is it safe to camp in the mountains?”
Mathieu studied his book. “This is the most popular trek in the area, so we'll be camping near other groups. Safety in numbers.”
“OK, but what about altitude sickness? Look at how tired we got walking here!”
“Right, but we went from sea level to three thousand meters last night on the bus. Don't worry, we won't leave for a few days. You'll notice a big improvement by then. And we'll have a guide who'll look after us if anything goes wrong.”
Did I make my pledge so I could eat exotic dishes, or does it go deeper? I came here for adventure. This is my chance.
“OK, I'm in,” I said as the waitress brought us our food. I had pictured guinea pig being grilled like a steak and served with steamed vegetables. But the chef at this restaurant had simply cut a cuy down the center and thrown it in a deep fryer, organs intact. Its eyes had boiled away, but its teeth were protruding in a smirk, as if even it were humored that humans would eat such a thing. It was served with vegetables – a handful of shredded lettuce, French fries and a slice of tomato, putting the finishing touch on the chef's presentation of this delicacy.
The guinea pig's organs were gruesome, but the lettuce and tomato actually scared me more than the deep-fried critter smirking at me from my plate. I decided to pass on them – they might have been washed in dirty water, which I had read was the most common way for travelers to get sick.
I tore off a chunk of meat and started chewing. It was so tough, I needed several minutes to grind it down. Then, with painstaking attention to detail, I tore the rest of the meat from the bones and took every bite with a gulp of beer. When I got to the cuy's liver and intestines, I had to order another drink to continue. Half an hour later, the skull, backbone, ribs, lettuce and tomato were all that remained.
Mathieu had given up much quicker than me and had watched, amazed, as I continued to eat. “You can have mine if you want it,” he said.
“No thanks. I don't think my stomach can handle more,” I replied, thinking: This is the last guinea pig I'll ever eat.
A few days later, Mathieu and I got up at dawn and walked to the travel agency where we had booked our trek. I took a daypack with my camera, sleeping bag, a change of clothes and a few other items I thought would come in handy in the mountains. The rest of my stuff was locked in a storage room at the hostel.
Carlos, the travel agency's owner, greeted us with his arms spread wide as he smiled. “Welcome my friends!” he said with a booming voice. “Let me introduce you to your guide.”
A skinny kid, about eighteen years old, was sitting in a chair on the other side of the room. His hair was cropped short and neatly parted down the middle. He wore a fleece jacket and jeans.
Carlos yelled, “Gregorio, come here and introduce yourself!”
The boy got up and shuffled toward us. He was slouching and only came up to my chest. “Hello my name is Gregorio,” he mumbled before reaching handshake distance.
“He's a little shy,” said Carlos, “but he's lived in the mountains his whole life. He'll take good care of you.”
Does this skinny, slouching kid know enough about wilderness survival to keep us safe?
Gregorio slowly grabbed our backpacks and crammed them into a large grain sack.
“Why is he putting our stuff in there?” I asked.
“For the donkey, of course!” said Carlos. “We already have the rest of your supplies packed.” He gestured toward the corner of the room where another grain sack was lying on the floor.
Great, I haven't even been gone for a week and I'm already living out of a grain sack.
“And before I forget, these ponchos are for you. In case of rain,” Carlos said, handing Mathieu and me each a resealable bag with a piece of folded blue plastic inside. “Now, let's get you guys on your way.”
A ten-passenger combi waited for us on the street outside the agency. The van's driver roped our gear to the roof and Mathieu and I squeezed inside with Gregorio and about fifteen of his fellow Peruvians.
“See you in a few days!” shouted Carlos as we started our drive toward the mountains.
Once outside the city, we passed a turquoise lagoon the size of a football field. Wild llamas grazed on the spiky ichu grasses along its shores. Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru, was on one side, surrounded by its smaller snowcapped siblings of the Cordillera Blanca. We slowly climbed the side of one of these mountains, wiggling around the gravel road's switchbacks toward the top. The lagoon got smaller and smaller until it looked like a puddle in the landscape far below us.
When we reached the top, we started down the other side, faster and faster on the unpaved road, around tight corners with no guardrails. I was certain there would be a blurb about us in the next day's international news. Twenty dead after bus plunges off mountain in Peru. One American, one French tourist among those on board. Mathieu and Gregorio didn't look scared, as if rides like this were a normal part of travel in the Andes. Against all odds, we made it to the bottom of the mountain intact and continued the rest of the way to the tiny outpost of Vaquería.
It started to drizzle as the combi stopped. Mathieu, Gregorio and I got out, along with a few of the local passengers. The driver climbed to the roof and passed down our grain sacks.
With our gear unloaded and stacked on the ground in front of us, Gregorio looked to the sky. It was filled with dark and menacing clouds. “Wait here,” he said, and ran off.
“What's going on?” I asked Mathieu. “Is he stealing our stuff?”
“Of course not. He's not carrying anything.” Mathieu sounded annoyed with my ignorance. “Let's wait over there.” He was pointing at a thatched awning.
We dragged the grain sacks under the awning and sat on them. While waiting, I dug out my poncho. It was just a sheet of plastic with a hole cut in the middle, but it was better than my cheap windbreaker. The rain picked up while we waited for the next half-hour. When Gregorio returned, he had a donkey with him. He hoisted our grain sacks onto the donkey's cargo saddle and tied them down. Then, without saying a word, he dragged the donkey by its reins along a trail. Mathieu and I shrugged our shoulders and followed.
It continued to rain as the three of us walked over muddy ground past a handful of adobe brick houses with clay-shingled roofs. Men worked in the fields while women tended to their goats and sheep. They seemed oblivious to the rain.
“Do the houses have electricity?” I asked Gregorio.
Mathieu added, “I went to a few villages like this in Ecuador. Even the people who can afford electricity usually only have a light bulb or two.”
“How about running water?” I asked Mathieu.
“Doubtful,” he answered. “Maybe some of them are lucky enough to have a well nearby, but most of these people probably drink river water.”
“But what about all of the animals grazing here? Aren't the rivers full of shit?”
“Yes, that's a common problem. Which reminds me, we should make sure Gregorio boils some drinking water for us tonight.”
I felt bad for the campesinos (farmers). We had a stove to boil our water. It looked like they would have to forage for firewood.
After leaving the village, we continued walking along the flat, muddy trail for the next few hours. We crossed paths with other backpackers on guided trips like ours, with donkeys carrying most of their gear. The rain died down before sunset and we stuffed our ponchos into our pockets. Soon we entered a lush green valley surrounded by snowcapped peaks. Gregorio suddenly stopped walking, untied our gear from the donkey and laid it on the ground. Then he tied the donkey's reins to a tree. The animal grazed on the plentiful grasses within its reach. Gregorio dug through one of the grain sacks, pulled out a bowl for the donkey and two pots for us, and took them to the river.
“That's it for today?” I asked Mathieu.
“Looks like it.”
With the last light of the day fading, the shimmering white glare that had been reflecting off of the snowy mountains dissolved into a dark blue hue. Contrary to what Mathieu's guidebook had suggested, no other campers were nearby, and the only sound was that of the river trickling near our campsite. Walking had kept me warm all day despite the rain, but with the temperature dropping, I soon was cold and wet. Still, I figured I would sleep well once I crawled into my sleeping bag.
When Gregorio returned from the river, he lit his kerosene stove and put on a pot of water. He didn't give us any instructions to help him. He still seemed shy, but he was in his element and I trusted him.
“Why don't we make ourselves useful and put up the tent,” Mathieu suggested. We dug through the grain sacks until we found the cheap Chilean brand tent the travel agency had provided us. It took a long time for us to figure out how to assemble it, and when we were finished, I shook my head. The tent's mesh lining was full of holes and the fly was faded from overuse. I questioned whether it would hold up in a quiet backyard in suburban America, let alone in the middle of the Andes.
There was another problem. “This tent only looks big enough for the two of us,” I said to Mathieu. “Where's Gregorio going to sleep?”
“I don't know,” Mathieu said. We walked over and asked him if he had a tent.
“I will sleep outside. I have a heavy poncho to keep warm.”
I thought: How's he gonna stay warm under a poncho? Is this is how he normally sleeps with his tour groups?
“You should drink your mate de coca,” Gregorio said, and handed us both a cup of steaming water with leaves in it.
“What kind of leaves are these?” I asked Gregorio.
“Dan, people have been chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea in South America for thousands of years,” Mathieu said.
“Yes. It takes a massive amount of chemical processing to turn coca into cocaine. Mate de coca is no more dangerous than coffee, and they say it helps you adjust to the altitude. Even if it's not true, at least it's something hot to drink.”
Gregorio put a fresh pot of water on the stove. We sat on rocks, huddled around the stove's warmth. I sipped my tea, and, like the coffee I'd had in Lima, the huge amount of sugar disguised its otherwise bitter taste.
“What's the plan for tomorrow?” I asked Gregorio.
“Tomorrow we cross a pass called Punta Unión.”
“Will it be more difficult than today?”
After the water started to boil, Gregorio added a package of pasta.
“For how long have you been a guide?” Mathieu asked Gregorio.
“Two months. But I have worked as an arriero, taking care of the donkeys for larger tour groups, since I was twelve.”
“Did you grow up near here?”
Mathieu and I asked Gregorio a few more questions, but we got only single-word answers.
I turned to Mathieu and asked, “Did you really learn English just by listening to your mom?”
“While I was growing up, yes. I also lived in England a few years ago, and that really solidified it.”
“Ah, now that makes sense. Did you go to school there?”
“No, I got a job at a television studio.”
“They had a stockpile of old French cartoons from the sixties and seventies that they wanted translated into English. I would watch television all day and make up different voices for the characters.”
“That sounds like a great job.”
“It was loads of fun, and I love that my voice is attached to these obscure French shows.” Not only was Mathieu full of travel knowledge, but he also had an intriguing life at home. I felt lucky to have met someone as interesting as him so early in my trip. Before I started traveling, I figured I'd mostly meet kids right out of high school.
When the pasta was done cooking, Gregorio drained it and added a can of tomato sauce. It was a bland supper, but full of the carbohydrates we would need for our long walk the next day. After we were finished eating, Gregorio walked to the river to wash and fill both pots. When he returned, he put one of them on the stove.
“Is that our drinking water for tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yes,” Gregorio said.
After boiling the water in both pots, Gregorio turned off his stove. Without its hissing noise and heat, I became more aware of our surroundings. The river continued to flow near us and the donkey occasionally brayed. I sat on the ground, leaned against a rock and gazed at the sky radiating from the light of billions of stars, most of which weren't visible in the northern hemisphere. The jagged silhouettes of the mountains still showed their intimidating presence all around us. Being in such remote wilderness made me feel insignificant.
The night air was far colder than I had anticipated. I thought: It'll probably drop below freezing tonight. I bought my sleeping bag for sleeping on beds in hostels, not for frigid nights in the mountains. I could get hypothermia here. I hope I can warm up a bit in the tent.
“Time for bed?” I asked Mathieu. I could already see my breath.
“Yes, tomorrow's going to be a long day. We should get a good night's sleep.”
We said goodnight to Gregorio, crawled into the tent and slid into our sleeping bags. Mine made a brittle crunching noise whenever I moved and it felt as thick as a cotton sheet in the freezing air. Besides being cold, I felt dizzy from the high elevation and nervous about the next day. I tossed and turned on my thin foam mat, unable to get comfortable on the hard ground. Mathieu appeared to fall asleep right away, but I was stricken with insomnia.
I thought: Why did I let Mathieu talk me into coming here? If I hadn't met him, I might still be in my cozy room in Lima, or maybe in some warmer place along the coast. I could sight-see during the day and party at night. Now I'm freezing, in the middle of nowhere. I'm in way over my head.
Uh oh, how will I get out of this one? Ready to find out?