Mushroom hunting in Australia’s pine forest

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

My box full of pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus).

We’ve been trying to find things to occupy our time (besides catching up on the nearly 50-strong backlogged blog posts), and last week I found out about a foraging and wild food workshop led by Diego Bonetto. He offers tons of plant foraging workshops, but the one that caught my eye was a mushroom foraging workshop—the first of Australia’s season, thanks to the overwhelming abundance of rain in the last two weeks. I signed up and got my wicker basket and kitchen knife ready.

I board the train in the pre-dawn darkness to be at the meeting point on time.

The workshop takes place in state forests two hours outside of Sydney, so Diego offered transport to those of us without cars. I’m up at 5:30 am to catch the train to the meeting spot at 6:45 am. Diego meets us cheerfully, and all of us pile into a van and drove out of Sydney on the M31 highway. After half an hour, the city gives way to countryside. Diego points out plants from the car. “That’s fennel. It’s a good food and medicinal herb. Those trees there are wild apples. They grow from discarded apple cores.” It’s amazing that he can recognize the plants at a glimpse from the highway.

Chestnuts that Diego found on the ground within minutes of arriving.
Diego cuts the first mushroom from the ground.

When we arrive at our first foraging ground, we meet the rest of the attendees and gather around a table to begin the workshop. He first gives thanks to the original Aboriginal tribe who once inhabited the land and acknowledges previous generations who carried the knowledge of the environment to the present day. “Knowledge doesn’t belong to one person, or one group. It belongs to everyone. That’s why I’m sharing it with you,” he told us. Then he gives us the first assignment: go into the woods and pick everything we see that looks like a mushroom, put it in our baskets, and bring it back to the table for show and tell.

Finding a tiny jumping spider along with the mushroom.

I experience a brief pang of trepidation at the thought of putting any mushroom into my basket. Many species are inedible or poisonous, and the thought of them jostling around in my basket isn’t a comforting one. Still, we trudge into the forest and start picking mushrooms—a slimy orange-capped one here, a lemon yellow one with brown “fur” there, and a thin-stalked tiny thimble over there. In fifteen minutes I’ve gathered at least 10 different species, and I’m still finding more. The prolific rain has produced a bounty.

Near the end of my collecting I stumble across what appears to be an all-too-familiar mushroom – the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. I’m hesitant to cut one and put it in my basket. A. muscaria shares a genus with the famously deadly Amanita phalloides, the death cap, and Amanita bisporigera, the destroying angel. A single mushroom of either of these species is often enough to kill a person. While A. muscaria is nowhere near as toxic, it can still induce nausea and vomiting. And as one of the most cosmopolitan mushrooms in the world, it would be a good one to teach others. I cut three specimens in various stages of development and place them in my basket.

Our mushroom finds, spilled out onto a picnic table.
A mysterious fur-lined mushroom cap, potentially Tricholomopsis rutilans, also known as Plums-and-custard. Don’t try to eat it.

Back at the table, Diego instructs us to put the mushrooms we’ve found on the table. “Pick out the unique ones, especially ones not on the table yet,” he suggests, as we pile dozens of mushrooms before him. Once most of the mushrooms are out, he begins sorting them into groups based on similarity until we have more than a dozen piles of different mushrooms. He points at two piles and says “Look at these two. These are the two species that are edible and you want to collect. This one,” he gestures to a pile of dark, slime-capped mushrooms, “are Slippery Jills. Edible and good. They’re usually later in the season, so we won’t find many now. And these,” he gestures to another of orange-white capped, hearty mushrooms, “these are the saffron milk cap, also called the pine mushroom. Also edible and delicious. This is what we’re here for today.”

Our mushroom collection, after Diego guides us in sorting it.

One of the attendees pipes up, “what about the rest of them?” Diego grins and responds, “What about them? I don’t know them, and I wouldn’t trust myself to identify them safely enough to eat.” Then he picks up a saffron milk cap and a similar-looking orange mushroom and asks, “What differences do you see?” We spend several minutes examining our piles of mushrooms and I realize how brilliant this exercise is: it teaches you not only the mushrooms you’re looking for, but also how to distinguish them from other mushrooms around at the same time of year. It’s a physical exercise of the mushroom forager’s mantra “When in doubt, leave it out.”

Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric. It’s mildly poisonous, although there have been some reports of use in traditional medicine and even as food.

We pile back into Diego’s car and drive down to our main foraging ground: Belanglo State Forest. While historically known for more sordid things, Belanglo is primarily planted pine forest and so ideal for finding pine mushrooms. Around this time of year it becomes an epicenter for Polish visitors because of the huge number of pine mushrooms that sprout every fall. When we arrive at the forest, we find campers there already busy with collecting.

Diego prepares pine mushrooms for frying.

Diego sets up his cooking equipment at one of the picnic tables and sends us into the forest to find mushrooms. If we had any worries that we would have to compete with the campers already there, they disappear as soon as we step between the trees: hundreds of pine mushroom caps dot the landscape, as far as you can see between the rows of trees. They intersperse with clusters of fly agarics and a plethora of other mushrooms I don’t recognize. I ignore these and focus on collecting only the best quality pine mushrooms: firm fleshed and not wobbly (wobbly means the inside has been eaten by insects), brightly colored with no bruising. With the panoply of pine mushrooms at my feet, I can afford to be choosy.


Pine mushrooms poke their caps through the pine needles on the forest floor.


Unloved: a pile of pine mushrooms past their prime, dumped by someone else. At least they return to the ecosystem here.

I fill my basket half-full with mushrooms, reluctant to take more than I can eat in the next few days, and return to the picnic table where Diego is frying a few pine mushroom caps. In the meantime, he passes around a pickled version of pine mushrooms for us to share, and someone starts slicing bread. We stand around eating pine mushrooms and share stories. We talk about what it is to forage food from the wild. One person is here to learn about the land. Another is an aspiring chef who worked in a wild food restaurant and got hooked on the idea of foraging his food. Others are people who just want to know, to have the knowledge of their surroundings.

The picnic basket.
We listen to Diego talk about pine mushroom recipes and the significance of foraging.

Back at home, I clean the mushrooms and prep them for cooking. I’m personally a fan of drowning them in cream and serving them on pasta, but there are so many that I’ll have to branch out. I cook a hearty serving of the aforementioned creamy mushroom pasta, then turn the rest into a tomato and mushroom stir-fry known in Turkish as sucuk. It’s all delicious (and, regrettably, I photographed none of it). As I’m cooking, I remember one of the things Diego mentioned at our communal meal: “The food here isn’t free. You’re taking it from nature, and even if it sounds hippie, you should give respect and thanks in your own way.” I have my own ritual of giving thanks – bowing three times and remembering where my food comes from.

Pine mushrooms, with kitchen counter to scale.
And now, more up close and personal.

Plants along the Salkantay Trail

One of the best things about the Salkantay Trail is that it takes you through at least five* different Andean habitats, each with its own unique flora and fauna. And while everyone wants to spot the animals, you’re much more likely to see plants along the trail because 1) there are more plants than animals and 2) they don’t move so they don’t flee when you come down the trail. So it can be far more rewarding on a hike to take some time and admire the plants.

Below are some of the plants we encountered on our hike along the Salkantay Trail in January 2017. There’s an abundance of plant life everywhere on the trek, from the familiar to the strange, and the rainy season meant a plethora of flowers in bloom and in some places, fresh fruit. I’ve tried to identify species where I can, but if you have any info please feel free to comment below.

Alpine Habitat

This ecosystem stretches from Salkantaypampa to a few kilometers after the village of Wayramachay and includes the Salkantay Pass. Plants here grow low or spindly, battered by cold and high winds on the mountainside.

Small, stunted lupines (Lupinus mutabilis) grow near the Salkantay Pass
We thought this might be a type of dandelion, but on closer inspection it looks closer to wood avens (Geum urbanum). However, that’s a Europe/Middle East plant, so this could be a close relative or an invader.
I’m guessing this is an actual member of the dandelion family, from it’s cheerful yellow flower to the shovel-shaped leaves that grow in a cluster.
The radial leaves of an unknown annual crowd surround a tuft of moss along the trail.
Unripe wild blueberries growing along the trail, identified mostly by their small, leathery leaves and the unmistakeable crown n the bottom of the berry.

Tropical Highland Wet

The alpine region gave way to a hot, humid, and much more tropical-feeling region that included an abundance of plant species. Plant size ranged from tiny mossess and small annuals to huge brambles, shoots, and trees. Some species even eschewed dirt and grew on other plants.

An unripe blackberry grows along the trail. Judging by the size of the fruit and the location, I’d guess it’s the eponymous Andean blackbery (Rubus glaucus).
I’m not sure what this flower is, but I’ve ruled out fuchsia and cantua. My best guess is Alstromeria isabellina, but even that doesn’t seem quite right.
Young leaves of a native bamboo (probably Chusquea spp.) still wet with morning dew.
The strangest plant we saw on our trip; I couldn’t find any leads on it online.
A native orchid known as Wiñay Wayna in Peru. It’s scientific name is Epidendrum secundum. We also saw a similar plant in a New Zealand garden, so you might be able to get this orchid species commercially.

Tropical Highland Semi-arid/Disturbed Habitat

As we walked along the vehicle road to Playa, there air seemed to be hotter and drier and the dirt appeared to be harder packed. This may be an actual change in climate, or just be the case on the day we were hiking. Either way, this ecosystem is different than the one along the trail; the plants are different, probably because the area is disturbed by frequent human activity.

A yellow-flowered legume along the trail, perhaps of the genus Retama. You can easily identify legumes by the presence of pea/bean-like pods and the hooded flowers. You could also dig up the roots and find they have nodules, but that wouldn’t be very nice.
An unknown, rather fuzzy plant growing along the trail.
A wild bee or wasp pollinates an unnamed wildflower. I couldn’t get any leads on this one, either.
A giant wild taro plant grows alongside the trail.

Again, if you have info on any of these unidentified plants, let me know in the comments! Cheers,

– Natalie

*There are probably more than five habitats, but this is what I could identify on the hike: conifer forest (may be manmade), grassland/pampas, alpine, tropical highland wet, tropical  highland semi-arid

Salkantay Trek Day 4: Back to Civilization

Farmland and settlements in the valley on our last day of hiking (the stretch between Collpata and La Playa)s

This is day 4 of our Salkantay Trek, continued from Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

TO ALL PARENTS AND OTHER PARTIES CONCERNED FOR OUR WELL-BEING: We are fine. This occurred about 6 months ago.

I slept soundly through the night and woke up feeling a lot better, well enough to wander around the farm in the morning. We started boiling water for breakfast, and then Ashley and Kyle pointed out some birds they could identify from their guidebooks. The birds were lovely, but impossible to photograph. Stoytcho made an inquiry to one of the family members about buying toilet paper, and they embarrassedly said they couldn’t spare any, something being low on supplies. I wandered down to the trail and watched as the elderly grandmother of the family cross the gorge on the gondola, probably heading into down to stock up for the family.

The family’s grandmother pulls herself across on the gondola like a seasoned champion

Further along the trail I found some easier subjects to photograph. A fat caterpillar was starting his day, and still covered with dewdrops it crawled up toward a plant’s leaves for breakfast. I watched it chew away parts of the leaves, lean back to find a nearby stem, and repeat the process. The caterpillar wasn’t the only one enjoying a good meal, either. On a nearby plant, a jumping spider had caught a massive fly for its breakfast. Twice its size, the fly obscured most of the spider and made it a bit hard to photograph. “Enjoy your breakfast,” I told it.  I went back to our camping spot and helped pack up, adding more things to my pack now that I felt better. I still wore the neck brace, but I felt more certain the injury wasn’t life-threatening. All the same, we kept our goal for the day as the town of La Playa, where Stoytcho and I would catch transport to Santa Teresa and see a doctor.

Good morning, caterpillar. I couldn’t identify this one.
Nice breakfast you got there, jumping spider. I couldn’t identify this little guy, either.

We continued along our trail for less than an hour before we encountered bad news: there was huge, fresh washout that seemed impassable. We tried finding our way in the forest above, but this time the brush seemed to dense to push through without a machete. So we were stuck with two options: either backtrack to the bridge we crossed yesterday and then take the vehicle road, or return to the farm where we had slept and take the gondola across. Option one would take several hours of backtracking, leaving option two as the only viable choice. We hiked back to the farm to take the gondola across, the very thing we had hoped to avoid by crossing the bridge over the river yesterday.

The high ground: attemping to find a way around the trail washout in the forest above proved impossible with our equipment.

Back at the farm, we clustered around the gondola and with the help of the farmer’s daughter got it working. The mechanism was simple enough: if the gondola was on the other side, you pulled it across to you. Then you loaded yourself into it, traveled by gravity to the middle of the line, and then pulled yourself across the rest of the way by pulling the hanging loops. Kyle went over first, then pulled me over. Then Stoytcho came; he was supposed to be alone but the farmer’s daughter tossed all of our packs in as well. “It’s fine,” she said, apparently amused and a little annoyed we were taking so long, “We normally put everything and everyone in at once.” Ashley came along last, braving it for the sake of progress.

Stoytcho pulls himself and our gear along in the gondola.

We found ourselves back on the vehicle road that we had encountered in Collpampa yesterday, which was wide and easy to traverse. In about ten minutes we hiked past the point where we had been stymied earlier on the opposite bank and got a look at how bad the washout actually was. Steep and spanning more than 20 feet, this washout looked truly unsalvageable. It looked like the next travelers would have to cut a brand new trail above it, something we were entirely unequipped to do. I was glad we had taken the gondola instead of trying to cross.

The trail washout we encountered earlier (middle right wall of dirt), viewed from the opposite side of the river. It’s probably about 30 feet across.

The vehicle road was an easy hike, although incredibly hot. We made good time as we moved, but stopped often to snack, drink water, and take photos. We also got the chance to forage a bit, as wild avocado trees grew along the trail. Hunting around the base of the trees, we were able to pick a few avocadoes off the ground. And although they weren’t in the best condition, I desperately wanted to eat them. That’s what happens when you’ve run a calorie deficit for three days straight. (At this point, I was also talking nonstop about what I wanted to eat for my first meal when we got to a restaurant, which was pretty much everything. “Lomo Saltado! And rice! Beans! A slice of pie! Beef stew! Wait, and PASTA!”)

Beautiful orchids along the trail; these are Epidendrum secundum, also called Wiñay Wayna around here.
Mm, wild trail avocadoes. (Spoiler: they actually weren’t that good)

As we hiked further along the valley road, signs of human activity became increasingly frequent and abundant. We passed houses and fields on both sides of the gorge. Some farms were tiny, one field affairs, while others were multi-building estates that seemed to stretch for a whole hectare. Tire ruts were also cut into the road in many places, and we crossed several sturdy, manmade bridges meant for vehicle traffic. In fact, the only thing that seemed absent from the road were the actual vehicles. There were also few people, none except those we passed working in the fields. It was oddly quiet.

Our trail is oddly quiet despite being the only road to several towns and villages.

We found the cause of our quiet road in the early afternoon. Rounding a bend in the path, we found several locals sitting around, waiting. One woman had a portable stove going and was selling hot vegetable stew, despite the day’s heat. We asked her what was going on and she responded that there was a washout in the road ahead.

A CAT digger attempts to create a passable road from a massive washout. So that’s why we had the road all to ourselves.

“Washout” turned out to be a bit of an understatement. A whole section of the road, bridge and all, had been washed away by the recent rains and was now nothing but a rocky, raging torrent of water. It was currently impassable by foot, let alone by car. But a regional authority had already dispatched a police officer and construction machinery to tackle the issue: a huge CAT digger precariously perched in the rapids moved mud and rock downward, re-creating a passable trail. In a few minutes, we were able to cross by hopping from rock to rock with the officer’s help, and continued on the way to La Playa. We later learned that this washout blocked access to the area we were in for a few days, so we were incredibly lucky we got there just as they were fixing it.

The heroic officer who helped us cross.

From here it was less than an hour before we made it down to La Playa, where Ashley and Kyle parted ways with us and continued on to Llacapata. La Playa didn’t have any open restaurants, so we couldn’t celebrate the end of our time together with a celebratory meal; instead we exchanged contact info and agreed to meet in Cusco. Stoytcho and I asked around for a bus, but most locals said that one probably wouldn’t be coming today, since their normal route included a path through the washout. Instead, someone arranged a ‘taxi’ for us, which was basically a local guy driving us to Santa Teresa in his 1990’s sedan for 10 soles, or roughly $3 USD. He was friendly and told us what it was like to work as a taxi driver out here. Though it was far, this area was still pretty well-connected to Cusco and other towns, and it sounded like life was good.

TRAIL BUDDIES!!! We’ll miss Ashley and Kyle.

We had three priorities when we reached Santa Teresa: a meal, a doctor, and a place to stay, in that order. I didn’t care how bad my injury was; I wanted first and foremost to have a hot meal before anything. My reasoning was after hiking 20-some kilometers, putting the doctor’s visit off another hour wasn’t going to kill me. And if it was bad news, I wanted a meal in me to deal with it. We stopped at basically the first restaurant we saw and ordered an avocado and chips appetizer, lomo saltado, and spaghetti with meat sauce. Pretty much all of it was terrible food, but we stuffed our faces anyway.

The first meal back in civilization. It was pretty bad, including what I can only assume was canned cubed beef bits, but all my brain could think of was “FOOD FOOD FOOD YES FOOD.”

After eating, we walked over to the medical clinic and at first the office looked closed, but we followed a path around to a modest building in the back and found nurses working. Using broken Spanish, we explained to them that I had fallen on the trail and had some difficulty swallowing, so we would like to see a doctor. The nurse listened patiently and filled out a form for us. Then she asked us to wait and busied herself with finishing the form and carrying it off. The whole time, she had her toddler tied to her back in a sling. The kid occasionally made whining or giggling noises, but was otherwise entirely unobtrusive. We would never see this in the U.S., but it must be less expensive and stressful for a new mother to just bring her child to work.

The nurse sent us next door to wait for the doctor, and within ten minutes we were called into an office. The doctor on call listened to our story, then put pressure on various parts of my neck and back and asked if there were any sharp pains. At the end, she said I was likely fine and had just stressed my muscles with the blow, which tightened them and caused the difficulty swallowing. “I recommend a neck brace for a week,” she said, “and get an X-ray just to be safe. Are you going to Aguas Calientes to see Machu Picchu?” We responded that we were and asked if it was a good idea. “It should be fine,” she responded, “and they have an X-ray machine in Aguas Calientes.” Phew, what a relief.

At the doctor’s office, we learn that I haven’t horrendously injured myself. The doctor didn’t even have to pull out one of these reference books.

The doctor pointed us to a pharmacy across the town square where we could buy a neck brace, so after a few minutes to revel in the relief that I wasn’t horribly injured, we headed over there. To our surprise, our doctor was there to ring up our purchases. Given how few people are out here, I guess it’s not surprising that she does double duty as the doctor and the pharmacist, though it may have also been a bit of self-favoritism.

We stepped outside into the dusk and were immediately greeted by a pack of dogs fighting each other in the street a few meters away. Three were actively biting each other, while another dozen looked on and barked furiously. We skirted them and decided to find the nearest hotel room, just in case they decided either of us might be worth biting (although we’ve had our rabies shots). The first hotel turned out to be just off the main square, an unfinished building with exposed rebar and dark hallways. For 30 soles, we bought ourselves a room and climbed the uneven concrete stairs to the third floor and into an equally concrete square with a bed and a semifunctional bathroom. It could have been worse—at least we had running water.

Oh, our room also came with a FREE SCORPION! Thankfully I’m not bothered by stuff like this so I trapped him and put him in a garden outside.

Although we were exhausted, we had heard a rumor of hot springs in the area and asked the woman running the hotel about it. She told us it would be a 20 minute walk, and that she could order a taxi for 8 soles, but we weren’t sure if it would be more self-favoritism. We started walking to the hot springs with our flashlights, got picked up by a taxi for one quarter of the quoted price halfway through the walk, and got to the hot springs in minutes. The hot spring were more lukewarm than hot, but an artificial ‘waterfall’ they had created was the perfect place to sit and feel the water rushing over you, cleaning you off, and massaging every aching muscle.

Meal two of the day was significantly better than meal one. It also consisted solely of an avocado the size of my head doused with salt. Life is good.

So we did it. We hiked the Salkantay Trail as our first multi-day through hike. We did it in the rainy season, covering a distance of 54 km over four days. We met some awesome fellow hikers, met the locals, and saw how people out here lived in contrast to the comforts of Cusco. And we faced pouring rain, steep slippery trails, and trail washouts that helped us develop our skills of assessing risks and alternatives out in the wild. Were there miserable times? Yes. Did we face danger? Yep. But it was totally worth it.

We’ll miss you, Salkantay. Maybe one day we’ll hike you again, preferably when we have more than four days and can bring trail food from the U.S.

Salkantay Trek Day 3: From High to Low

We hike into the lowlands after the Salkantay Pass

This is day 3 of our Salkantay Trek, continued from Day 0, Day 1, and Day 2.

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.

Morning over the Salkantay Peak

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.

Sporting the new neck brace AND a strawberry I found

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.

The river goes from crisp-clear alpine to blue-green tropical here

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.

A dragonfly along our path
A jumping spider hides in the shade of a leaf.

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.

Bromeliads and lichens hang from a tree along the trail.
Butter…balls? An unusual flower along the trail that I couldn’t identify. UPDATE: It’s Calceolaria tormentosa, a species of Peruvian slipperwort, and yes, you can buy it commercially for your garden.

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.

An unripe blackberry along the trail; fingers for size reference
A strawbery growing along the trail

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.

A miniature world: mosses, hornworts, and mushrooms grow together on a patch of dirt
A lichen grows alongside a plant in a bed of moss.

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?

Not much to see here; only the foundation rocks remain of this ruin
Local ingenuity: this rubber sandal hammered to a gate takes the place of an automatically-closing hinge.

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.

We spook some pigs in Collpampa.

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.

Sorbitol is terrible, so here’s a picture of a bee instead.

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.

Swollen by recent rains, the river’s current is now fast and rough and not great for falling into if you want to survive.

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.

Yep, that’s the bridge we crossed. That’s mostly loose sticks piled on top of bigger branches.

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.

A large washout on the trail: one of the risks of hiking during rainy season.

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.

Unripe granadillas hanging in the field
Welcome to where we’ll be staying tonight.

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.

The river rages on below us, fed by rain. Hopefully there won’t be much more rain and we won’t encounter too many more washouts.