TO ALL PARENTS AND OTHER PARTIES CONCERNED FOR OUR WELL-BEING: We are fine. This occurred about 6 months ago.
I thought yesterday’s fall on the trail had only left me with a few scrapes on my hands and knees, but I woke up sometime during the night with my neck aching and had difficulty swallowing water. Neither Stoytcho nor I could tell how badly I had been hit in the neck and how much worse it might get. Stoytcho helped me find a somewhat comfortable sleeping position by leaning me against one of the backpacks so I could sleep semi-upright. But we were both worried. If the swelling continued and made it difficult to breathe, we would be in serious trouble.
I woke up in the morning still breathing fine but with my neck still stiff and swollen, and we started to make plans on the chance I might be seriously injured. Stoytcho repacked the backpacks so he was carrying nearly everything; by the end I only had a few pieces of fabric, snacks, and our jackets in mine. Ashley and Kyle, who had some wilderness first aid training, also helped Stoytcho fashion a cushioned neck brace out of our inflatable camping pillows, a jacket, and a belt. And to pile on the problems, whatever was upsetting my stomach since day 1 hadn’t gone away. But on the upside, at least the rain seemed to have stopped overnight.
The new goal became to get to civilization and find a doctor to get me a checkup. While there was a road ahead, we weren’t sure where it lead and whether there would be anyone we could hitch a ride with, so we consulted with the map and decided we would try to get to Santa Teresa. We weren’t sure if there was a doctor there, but it was at least connected by road to Cusco, where there definitely was a doctor. I could walk, thankfully, so we started off down the trail at a comfortably slow pace.
After the Salkantay Pass, the trail seemed to go mostly downhill, heading further into lowlands full of life and greenery. The temperature climbed as we descended, and we found ourselves quickly removing our heavy jackets and rain gear to stay cool. Grasshoppers and dragonflies became frequent, flitting out of our way as we trudged down the trail. There were even my perennially favorite animals, jumping spiders. Signs of their webs clung to bushes along the path, and we spotted a few hiding among the foliage. No matter the situation, I think these little creatures will always bring me cheer.
The flora also became more tropical, basking in the day’s sun and casting new shapes and shadows in the greenery around us. The sides of the trail were a wall of greens, mosses and lichens layered with fast-growing annuals, clusters of woody bushes, and topped with trees that twisted their branches outward above all to capture the sun. The trees became worlds unto themselves, hosting hanging lichens, parasitic mistletoe, and bromeliads. Atop this sea of green we found bursts of color, with flowers of fantastic shapes and sizes blooming from plant and branch. Some seemed familiar, while others were alien to us, but all seemed intent on soaking up every last drop of the sun to flourish and thrive.
The rainy season also brought a second gift: fruit. Several plants we passed had branches full of fruit, much of which I could not identify. But some were unmistakably familiar. In one bramble, we found a massive unripe blackberry, flush red and firm. On another bush, clusters of unripe purplish berries that bore the same crown as blueberries—like Colombia, I would gess that Peru is a hotbed of blueberry diversity, and this could be one of several edible species. These fruits were not yet ready to eat, but there was one fruit we encountered that we did sample on the trail: strawberries. In some parts the whole trail was lined with strawberry plants, with hundreds of little ripe red berries hiding beneath the leaves. We picked a few and ate them, first a little to verify what they were, and then a few more. I still had difficulty swallowing, but the strawberries were delicious nonetheless.
Our leisurely pace enabled us to observe the fantastically tiny worlds that unfurled over every surface, nurtured by the recent rains. Mosses sprouted the pods they use to propagate themselves. Unlike other plants, they do not make seeds but spores in these pods, which are then dispersed as raindrops splash upon the plant. Less than a centimeter away, lichens were performing a similar act of reproduction, sprouting stalks to disperse their spores. These creatures are neither plant nor even a single organism; they’re instead a cooperative symbiosis of two or three different species – a fungus, a yeast, and a green algae. Together they can survive harsh conditions such as barren rock faces devoid of water for years, and a single lichen spore must carry all three to survive.
On a larger scale, people had also shaped the Salkantay trail here. There were signs of horses and footprints everywhere, suggesting this road was used frequently. We passed a blue trail marker proclaiming ruins stood in the adjacent field, but all that remained were foundation stones. The rest had probably been taken long ago by people to make homes and walls. We also encountered a homemade livestock gate that illustrated how brilliantly clever and adaptable the people out here are; lacking springs and hinges, it relied on two rubber sandals hammered on in places of hinges to snap shut automatically after opening. How’s that for a low cost solution?
It took us nearly five hours to reach Collpampa, the first major ‘town’ on our route. Vehicle roads reappeared here and we could see tire ruts in the mud. As we entered the town, we spooked a family of pigs who ran hurriedly away from us. All of the dozen or so town buildings seemed closed, including what looked like the town’s one-room medical clinic. And no one was around, save for two elderly locals strolling through in the opposite direction. We greeted them and tried to ask them whether there was a doctor nearby in Spanish, but they simply smiled and didn’t answer. It’s likely that they only spoke Quecha.
On the far side of town we stopped for lunch under some picnic tables shaped like mushrooms. I ate some nuts, hoping they wouldn’t pass right through me, and drank as much water as I could. I felt that if I could at least kick this food poisoning or whatever, that would be one less problem on the list. After snacking, I sat staring at the rest of the food for a while the others continued to eat. Idly, I picked up one of the granola bars that had made up the bulk of our on-the-go meals and started reading the ingredients, just to practice my Spanish. I got through wheat (triga), azucar (sugar), and chocolate (chocolate). There were a few words I didn’t recognize, and then…sorbitol. “Wait, sorbitol?” I thought to myself. “There’s sorbitol in these?” I flipped the granola bar back over and re-read the front. Weight loss bars. These were weight-loss bars, and everything has been passing right through me because I’ve been eating sorbitol, which has a tendency to cause loose bowel movements people. So there you have it; don’t use weight loss bars as trail food, folks.
After Collpampa, we hiked the vehicle road down to Rio Totora where we crossed the river by bridge. Ashley had here in her hiking notes that we had two options: to cross now by bridge, and continue hiking on the other side of the valley, or to cross later by gondola, which she wasn’t keen on. We walked the bridge over the river, which gushed beneath us in a wild torrent, fed by yesterday’s rains. I was glad that the bridge was sturdier than those we had seen yesterday; falling into this river would have been bad news.
The trail on the other side of the valley was considerably narrower than what we had trekked through before. It clung precariously to the steep slope, narrowing in some places to only a foot across. In some places both sides of the trail were walls of verdant green, trees in plants. In other, the downhill slope below us was nothing but a steep, barren dirt wall, plunging down into the river below. In places where streams fed the river, we traversed bridges made of nothing but thin branches placed atop a wider branch.
In other places, we weren’t lucky enough to have a bridge – a couple of parts of the trail had washed out and we had to find a way around. In most cases, we were able to follow a path already carved by others before us, climbing just above the washout and hopping to the other side. In one case, though, the washout spanned more than ten feet of trail. We had to backtrack a bit and pick our way higher through the underbrush, then walk forward and scramble down to the trail on the other side. Thankfully, all of us had adept balance and (at least Stoytcho and I) had faced things like this before.
In the late afternoon, the trail widened onto a small plain beside the gorge, and we again found signs that people lived nearby. We passed granadilla fields, with hundreds of unripe green fruit hanging from their vines. It was nearly 6 pm and it had begun to drizzle, so we were thrilled when minutes later we stumbled onto a farmhouse with a welcome sign. “Welcome to Winaypocco” it proclaimed, a place that was not on any of our maps. “Camping enjoy. Candy. Snickers. Twix.” Well, they know what we want after all the hiking. We went in and talked to the folks there, who let us pitch our tents for a grand total of 12 soles under an unfinished barn on their property. It was dusty, but at least we had a roof over our head to keep the increasingly heavy rain off.
Though I felt much better, I didn’t do much besides cook dinner that night. Stoytcho and Kyle went over to buy snacks and returned with some candy bars but brought sad news that granadillas were not available; they weren’t in season yet. Stoytcho had also found out that there was a doctor in Santa Teresa, and that we should be able to get a taxi or bus there from La Playa. The wife at the house came by minutes later with a few she had found that were in the garden. “Gratis,” she insisted smiling, and refusing to take money for them. After dinner and a dessert of fresh granadilla, I found a semi-comfortable position laying on a backpack and fell asleep. With any luck, we should be able to make it to civilization tomorrow.