Bulgaria’s Rila Lakes

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It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.

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The Balkan country of Bulgaria is most commonly recognized for one of two things: its dairy (in the form of yogurt and feta cheese) or its poverty. The country is the poorest member of the European Union, where a combination of Soviet legacy and lagging economy have driven nearly two million of its citizens abroad and cut the country’s population from  9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today, and this tends to be the only Bulgaria the world outside knows.

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And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.

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Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”

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As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.

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The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.

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Arica Day Tour Part II

I’m not a huge fan of day tours, because it usually involves cramming as many things to see in as little time as possible with not much thought given tho how enjoyable it is. You spend the day piling into and spilling out of a van, while someone explains things to you that (for me at least) don’t have enough context rooted in the area for you to remember it. This isn’t a criticism of day tours from Arica specifically, but my view of day tours in general.

BUT these tours do make for some gorgeous picture opportunities. So here is the second half of our photos from our Arica day tour:

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Chile’s “rainbow mountains” in Reserva Nacional Las Vicunas
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Wild burros graze in Reserva Nacional Las Vicunas
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A view of the many lakes in the region
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A viscacha hides from the midday sun
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A llama grazes beside an algae-covered pond
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A flamingo grazes at Lake Chungara
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The volcanoes at Lake Chungara are still active, and occasionally release puffs of smoke
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We stop for a rest on the side of the road
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A UV radiation index in Putre. Yes, it is “extremo”.
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Ridges in the Atacama desert resemble Martian terrain.
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We get caught in traffic on the way back to Arica. Freight trucks are the majority of users on this highway, traveling between Arica’s port and Bolivia.
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A fertile valley at the foot of a steep, sandy mountain in the Atacama desert.

The Salkantay Trek in 20 Photos

Here is our 4-day, 56 km trek along the Salkantay, for those who would rather have it in pictures than in words:

Day 1

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A fork near the start of the trail. The first day’s trail has several such junctions.
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Reaching Parador Horanda Pata, the first vista along the trail
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Hiking deeper and higher into the Andes
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A view of Salkantay Mountain overshadowing Sorayapampa, the first night’s campsite

Day 2

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A cow rests in the valley below the Salkantay Pass
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Campsite at Salkantaypampa on the way to the Salkantay Pass
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Switchbacks rising from the valley floor up to the Salkantay Pass
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The top of the Salkantay Pass on a rainy day
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The mists of the rainy season hang over the Andes on the other side of the Salkantay Pass
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The rainy season temporarily converts the trail down into a slippery stream. This is how I slipped and fell and hit my neck (but not where it happened, thank goodness, or I’d be much worse off).

Day 3

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A view of Salkantay Mountain over our campsite last night (Wayramachay)
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A turquoise river flows through the dense jungle next to the trail.
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Hiking mostly downhill today, a welcome change. I’m wearing a makeshift neck brace after yesterday’s fall.
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The Santa Teresa/Salkantay River at high levels from the rainy season
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A washout on the steep valley trail beside the river. This one was thankfully passable.

 

Day 4

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Operating the gondola to cross the river at our campsite (Winaypocco). We tried to venture further on this side of the river but encountered an impassable washout.
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Locals wait as a CAT digger clears a washout on the vehicle road. Rainy season brings washouts throughout the valley. Some (like the one above), cut people off from the outside world for several days.
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Hiking the hot, shadeless vehicle road just outside of Playa. From here, we took a car to Santa Teresa to find a doctor and make sure I hadn’t been injured from Day 2’s fall.
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The first hot meal after four days of trail food, after arriving by car in Santa Teresa.
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Reference stacks at the Santa Teresa medical clinic. We visited to make sure I haven’t seriously injured my neck. It all turned out fine.

Salkantay Trek Day 2: Water, water everywhere

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Cairns placed at the Salkantay Pass

This is day 2 of our Salkantay Trek, continued from Day 0 and Day 1.

The night was uneventful and after our twenty-something kilometer hike yesterday, we slept soundly. I vaguely remember waking up once to the sound of snorting and neighing near my head and spent a few moments afraid that the creature outside might test our tent for edibility. But it didn’t, and I was asleep again in minutes.

 

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Good morning!

We woke up on the second day of our hike around 9:00 am with everything stiff. Arms, hands, knees, ankles, feet, legs, hips-every part of us moved with an immense reluctance. We boiled water and ate a breakfast of powdered soup and bread, and then packed away our camping kit. Between heavy mist and rain showers in the early morning, the tent was wet. Our shoes were also wet, unable to dry from yesterday’s rain. And with the sky’s continued grayness and the Salkantay Pass ahead of us, it looked like stiffness and wetness would continue to be the theme of the day.

 

 

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A waterfall obscured by mist feeds a stream that runs into the valley. 

 

Our fellow hikers Ashley and Kyle were also packing up, and the four of us decided to hike together for the day. Since we got a late start to the day, we probably weren’t going to make the 18 km hike to the campsite at Chaullay, but Ashley and Kyle had notes on a campsite about 10 km away at a place called Wayramachay. They also generously let us borrow their Steripen to replenish our water supply, and then the four of us set off along the trail.

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Hiking buddies!

The first part of the trail was marked by gentle slopes as we trudged through the valley, making it easy for us to enjoy the scenery. The steep mountains on either side of us were verdant through the low hanging clouds and scattered rain, and water flowed through the whole landscape. It trickled off peaks to create waterfalls, flowing along the contours of the mountains down to a river that rushed besides us. There were also signs of human activity here; we passed wire fences, grazing cattle, and stone houses with farm plots.  

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A farmhouse along the trail

In a little over an hour we made it to Salkantaypampa 3.2 km away, and all four of us agreed that it was better we had spent the night at Sorayapampa. Salkantaypampa had only a small shelter and there didn’t seem to be a water source nearby. Excited all the same, we celebrated by taking pictures and continuing on.

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Salkantaypampa campsite is nothing but a small overhang; we couldn’t find any water sources nearby, so it was lucky this wasn’t our final destination last night.

The trail rose more steeply after Salkantaypampa, forming winding switchbacks climbing into the mountains. There were a few points of ambiguity along the trail where it was unclear which direction we should take-one path seemed to lead across the river and up the mountain on the right, while others seemed to lead along the river and still others led uphill on the left of the river. I remembered seeing hiking groups before us climbing the trails on the left and suggested we do the same. A few minutes later a man appeared over the ridge, jogging and driving several horses before him. We tried to ask him whether we were on the right path, but he was out of earshot in minutes and we were left alone again.

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A man drives horses down the steep trails

We pressed on, but as the trail became steeper our progress slowed. Kyle was suffering from altitude sickness, and my own body couldn’t seem to go any faster. I didn’t feel pain, but instead a dread refusal from my muscles to move any faster, to stretch any further than I was currently doing. I resorted to taking small, shuffling steps, waddling like a penguin up the trail.

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Switchbacks in the trail as it leaves the valley floor and begins climbing the mountains

The increasingly heavy rain also made going more difficult. What had started as a soft drizzle in the valley became a chilling sheet of water pouring down on us. It seeped into our ponchos and shoes making everything damp, and only our continued walking kept us warm. The rain also pooled along the trail, creating patches of mud that we either had to cross with caution or find routes around. In places where there was only gravel, the water simply rushed by, turning the trail into another stream rushing to join the river in the valley below. I was extremely grateful that I’ve never found being damp or wet unpleasant, and that I had done several hikes in the rain before. Stoytcho, who isn’t fond of getting wet while hiking, was having less fun.

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Stoytcho stands near one of the many muddy parts in the trail.
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Kyle hikes a trail that has turned into a stream from the rain.

Even with the foul weather and increasing chill from the higher altitude, life continued to flourish high on the mountain. We passed beautiful, brilliant wildflowers from plants that seized the opportunity of rain to bloom. Small, strangely shaped plants adapted for the harsh alpine climate flourished along the muddy hills and walls of the trail. And brilliantly-colored lichens bloomed on rocks, indifferent to the weather around us. The weather might have been terrible for us, but for the flora here it seemed to be a welcome chance to grow and thrive.

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A rock covered with lichen and moss
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Alpine plants flourish in the water brought by the rainy season.

Five hours after we started hiking, we finally reached the blue signpost demarcating the Salkantay Pass. This was the highest point in our trail, a steep 4.6 km above sea level and 1.8 kilometers above where we had started our hike in Mollepata. At this height, the clouds of the current rainstorm hung low and heavy, obscuring our view of the Salkantay peak and other mountains around us. With the continued rain beating down, our celebration at the peak was short before we started down the other side.

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We reach the Salkantay pass! Not pictured: the continued rain and chilling winds.

The trail down seemed less steep than the one up, though this may have been the illusion of going downhill (which I was incredibly grateful for). We still moved slowly, as the low hanging clouds made it hard to see more than a few hundred feet and the continued rain flowing from the mountains made the trail slippery. One small misstep and one of us might have suddenly been travelling far faster down the mountain that was healthy. But after an hour of heading downhill the rain lessened, and as a belated reward for our climb, the snow-capped Andean peaks revealed themselves. Grinning, Ashley pointed out the different kinds of glaciers to us. She and Kyle have gathered a wealth of knowledge in their extensive hiking experiences.

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The peaks of the Andean mountains covered in glacial snow.

We saw the first sign of human activity at around 4:30 pm, more than five hours after the last sign of human activity on the other side of the Salkantay Pass. Small patches of farm plots clustered on the other side of the river, becoming more frequent as the slope of our trail leveled. We found ourselves once again in a lush, grassy valley, but there was also a new sound: a faint hum hung in the air. It grew louder the further we walked, becoming the unmistakable sound of machinery. And as we rounded a bend, we found a small hut with three men busily working. They waved us over to look inside and explained the source of the sound: this hut housed a hydroelectric generator, which harnessed the water flowing around us to create the first electricity their village had ever seen. They pointed with pride to the first lightbulb glowing within the hut.

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Fields cluster along the river outside of Wayramachay.

  With excited voices, we congratulated them and asked the way to Wayramachay. They pointed further down the trail and said it wasn’t far, maybe half an hour. We continued on, and though the rain picked up again and poured down on us, we were in high spirits. We stopped soon after to replenish our water and I offered to carry a few bottles from Stoytcho’s pack, as his load was nearly twice mine in weight. I shoved the bottles into the top of my pack, which would have been a forgettable detail on our trip except for what happened next.

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I don’t have pictures of what happened next, so here are some lupines blooming in the Andean highlands.

We continued down the trail and on a small downhill slope I lost my footing. I collapsed forward, but used my hands to stop my head from hitting the ground. All of the weight of my pack also slung forward too, hitting me in the back of the neck and pinning me. I didn’t have the physical strength to push myself up with the added weight of the pack, so I just sat there on all fours, trying not to let the pack’s weight force my face into the mud and thinking “REALLY?! Come on, I can’t lift this?” I hadn’t realized my body was tilted downhill, so I was trying to lift myself and the pack at an unfavorable angle.

To the rest of the group, though, it looked like I had suddenly collapsed on the trail. Stoytcho rushed over and asked if I was okay. I couldn’t answer at first (see: not letting myself faceplant in the mud), so he started to panic. I managed to grit out “I…can’t…lift…the pack. Stuck…here.” He realized what was going on and gently pulled the backpack backward so I could sit up. Embarrassed, I pushed myself to my feet to show everyone I was okay. There were some scrapes on my hands and knees, but otherwise I felt fine.

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We reach Wayramachay campsite, 99.9% intact after today’s hike.

We passed through Wayramachay without further incident and encountered the campsite less than half an hour later. Nestled on the edge of a gorge, it was a beautiful place to spend the night. It also had water taps and space for preparing food and laying out our clothes. Since we were the only ones at the site, we pitched our tent in the covered areas to get out of the rain. We changed and hung our wet clothes on a makeshift clothesline, with little hope that they would dry. I washed up the scratches on my hands and checked my knee, but bleeding had already stopped. After eating dinner of soup and instant noodles which was inexplicably delicious, Stoytcho and I crawled into our tent, where we fell asleep grateful to be dry and sheltered from the rain.

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Andean peaks obscured by today’s ever-present rainclouds. Hopefully it will clear up tomorrow, but for now we’re at least out of the rain.

Salkantay Trek Day 1: Sorayapampa is how far?

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Salkantay, Salkantay, walkin’ along the Salkantay.

Today is Day 1 of our Salkantay trek, a four day, 60 km-long, 6.4 km change-in-altitude hike through the Peruvian highlands and lowlands to reach Santa Teresa and eventually, Machu Picchu. This is also the first through-hike ever for either of us. It’s like my labmate always used to say, “Go big or go home.” Right? I’ll leave off the second half he always followed up with: “Go too big and get sent home.” Hopefully that won’t happen to us. After all, we’re prepared and have had a good night’s sleep.

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We have totally made a good choice for our first thru-hike. Really.

We got our “early” 7:30 am start out on the Salkantay trail in the northeast corner of Mollepata, with the constant uphill path setting the theme for the day. The trail led through a wooded area for the first couple of hours, as we opted for the longer (but supposedly less hot and more scenic) “hiking” path instead of the vehicle road. Little blue markers with a hiking person led the way after that. Since we were heading out a little later than we had hoped, we scarfed down two granola bars apiece for breakfast with some bites of a giant, football-sized bread boule while we walked.

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The trail split between the hiking and vehicle paths. These little blue signs guided us along the trail the whole way.
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A butterfly drinks water off a rock along the trail.

Though we got a later start than we’d hoped on our hike, we encountered several others on the trail. We passed a group of European hikers chatting amongst each other and said good morning, overtaking them with our faster pace. A few minutes later, we passed another couple hiking the trail and exchanged good mornings with them as well. There were also several locals using the trail. A young man on a horse came down one trail and courteously gave us directions on an ambiguous part of the trail – in this section, there are many because locals have carved so many of their own paths. And a sweet diminutive abuelita we crossed paths with wished us safe travels. “Be careful,” she told us in lispy, toothless Spanish, “there are dangerous men who will cut your throat.” Then she was off down the trail, practically bounding down the trail we had huffed up moments ago.

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The path in the foreground of this picture is nearly vertical, but that doesn’t matter to Andean abuelitas.
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The most dangerous thing we actually encountered on the hike-these berries are probably part of the Solanaceae family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, and the deadly nightshade.

We didn’t encounter anyone for an hour after that, for better or worse—one of the benefits of hiking the off season. The trail gave way from trees grassy hills, and we wound up slopes so steep we were practically climbing. Then without warning, we were on a wide dirt road full of locals. Children played in the dirt while parents sat, waiting for a bus to somewhere else. They were friendly and pointed us to where the Salkantay trail continued. They also pointed us to a sign for the trail. In our two hours of hiking, we had covered 5.7 kilometers of distance and 500 meters of altitude. We had 14 kilometers and 530 meters of altitude gain to go. We were making good time, and might even make it to Salkantaypampa (the next campsite) for the night.

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IT’S A SIGN FROM ON HIGH! It says to…go higher.
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Families waiting for the bus to somewhere else.

The next part of the trail was a steep climb, but we only stopped for water and a few bites of our giant boule of bread (this thing was the size of my head). In half an hour we had covered another 2.4 km and reached the trail fork for Parador Hornada Pata, where we detoured up to get a view of the surrounding countryside and take a break. During the busy season, it looked like this area had water resources and bathrooms, but currently everything was locked. So we just sat on the roofed benches, resting and watching the cloud flow over the Andean ridges and valleys.

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Hiking up to the Parador Hornada Pata
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The view from Parador Hornada Pata

We went back to the trail only to find out the Parador had a path down rejoining the trail later (oops), and trudged along toward our next destination. This is the point where things started to go not-so-well, as I had an increasingly upset stomach and needed to frequently, uh, go. “Great,” I thought to myself, “I’ve also got some kind of food poisoning from yesterday’s meals. At least now we’re eating food so processed I should get better.” I chugged water to ward off dehydration, ignoring more of the scenery and my increasingly tired legs. Our progress slowed, and the couple we had seen earlier passed us, waving cheerfully. It took us nearly two hours to cover the 3.6 km to Mirador Chinchirkuma.

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The sheer scale of the Andes dwarfs any human activity (see settlement on the left)
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A small eggshell we found on the moss beside the trail.

Now came the final push, a mostly-flat 8 km stretch of trail to Sorayapampa cut into the steep Andean mountains alongside a narrow aqueduct. After twenty minutes of walking, we passed a trail marker spray painted onto the rock: 6.4 km! We had covered more than a kilometer and a half. It looked like we were picking up speed again.

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A trail marker spray painted onto a rock along the trail.

We passed the next trail marker half an hour later, in spray paint of another color. This one read…5.7 kilometers? That was odd, because we didn’t feel like we had slowed down any. We continued on, and next marker in yellow spray paint announced 5.1 kilometers; it was immediately followed by a marker in red spray paint that read 5.3 kilometers. It dawned on us that each of these different paint colors was a person’s attempt at marking the distance, explaining why they differed so wildly. Even more fun, the distance of a ‘kilometer’ within each paint color was inconsistent. These are the trail markers you get in the middle of nowhere. Deal with it.

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We have to wear ponchos now cause it’s sproadically raining. Don’t we look cool?
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Yeah, we look cool.

Things were colder and wetter, so we donned jackets and ponchos to stay warm and dry. We trudged on, trying to celebrate the trail markers that indicated the most progress and ignoring the ones that didn’t. We kept our spirits up as the hours passed, taking pictures of each other and of the scenery around us. The Andean mountains were enormous, dwarfing all human activity and forces of nature. Waterfalls were tiny trickles of water off of their rocky walls, and rockslides looked like nothing but dustings of gray across their faces.

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The Andean highlands. That tiny patch of sunlit green is our destination for today, Sorayapampa.
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Rockslides dwarfed by massive Andean ridges.

It was nearly 5 pm and long after I had decided that anyone who had marked this trail as 8 km was a terrible liar when we finally reached the edge of Sorayapampa’s settlement. We had descended onto a plain and emerged in a barren, rocky field, likely the site of a recent landslide. A four-foot wide torrent of water rushed through it. Someone had ingeniously or disingenuously placed a rickety ladder over this stream as a bridge, so we crossed it while hoping it could hold our weight. It held, and we got to advance not drenched in freezing water in the rapidly cooling dusk air.

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Stoytcho crosses on the bridge.

Finally, we reached the first human settlements, and encountered the couple we had seen before. They were setting up camp in a small clearing near the road. “Is this the public campsite?” we asked them. “We have no idea,” the woman replied, “but that guy over there said we could camp here. I…think he was drunk though.” We made introductions and learned their names were Ashley and Kyle, and they were here from Alaska to trek to Machu Picchu as well. After several minutes consulting Google Maps, the four of us decided to hike another kilometer down the trail, see what was there, and then come back if we couldn’t find a more reliable campsite.

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We reach Sorayapampa! Now where’s that free public campsite…

Thankfully Sorayapampa proper, with all of its campsites and grassy plains and emptiness (thanks off season) was only a few minutes away. We asked at a private campsite about the public campsite, and was told there wasn’t one but that they had huts available. We politely declined and continued down the road. One of us noticed a blue sign like the one on the trail, and we realized we’d found it. The public campsite was this big grassy plain fenced off with barbed wire and dotted with cowpies, and it’s our home for tonight. YES!

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I have never been so happy to see a field full of cowpies.
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Our neigh-bors for tonight. Get it? GET IT?

The next hour was the bare necessities of life as dusk and chill set in, pitching the tent, adding some base layers, cooking dinner while huddled over our gas stove, and chatting with Ashley, Kyle, and a couple other people camped there. The air mattress and sleeping bag were a welcome rest, and I hoped that whatever upset my stomach would go away. Oh, and that whoever lied to us about that final 8 km distance to Sorayapampa would COME AND FIX THEIR FRIGGIN TRAIL MARKERS.

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Goodnight, sun. Goodnight, horses. Goodnight, enormous Andean slopes covered in foreboding ice and fog. Tomorrow, I shall ascend one of you.