Patacancha, Peru

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They wore clothing was as intimidating as the warning clothes hunters wear. Underneath their brilliant orange hats and thick wool pullovers were weathered faces and mouths revealing only a few good teeth. As I surveyed them from top to bottom, I could see that these people had lived tough lives. Yet a constant good nature filled their spirits, and they were always laughing or seeking the next reason for a good joke. Regal in their own way, I was surrounded by the purest of Incas left on the Earth.

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They were nearly eighty percent Inca by blood, the other twenty per cent coming from the savage Spanish who ruthlessly invaded their lands for gold in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They waited patiently for my bus to arrive from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, and in Inca-time, they thought I was prompt, though the bus was 30 minutes late. With me was my guide, Uber, who spoke Spanish and Quechua, the native mountain language that had originated in the area over one thousand years ago. Uber had climbed up the ladder over the years from porter on the Machu Picchu trail to certified guide, so in terms of the Inca culture he was considered on the fast track. Our shuttle bus, a flatbed truck with three sides of slats, was "Inca to Inca" as we bounced over the four-wheel drive narrow road for the next two hours. Our final destination was Patacancha, a small pueblo in a river valley nestled in the Andes Mountains. I stood smiling and made embarrassing attempts to speak what little Quechua I know. From the other side of our truck, Uber heard me and razzed me enough to speak more.

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My limited dialogue lasted about one minute, but to me it felt more like ten, as I rattled off what I knew and ended with: "Yuyunus y siqui," or "tits and ass." The entire crowd roared with laughter. I was surprised that something I learned in junior high was such a hit and even funnier than before. The icebreaker had even woken a few out of their deep sleep. I thought it was impossible to sleep on this ride, yet napping in the bus was an everyday occurrence for the Inca, who felt it offered a nice resting place after an early morning of work.

My nostrils flared at the odor of burnt lama dung. I was accustomed to this smell, and after returning the second time to Peru, it was as comforting as the thick wool blankets used to keep warm. It excited me for my upcoming adventures surrounding Patacancha. Brisk, cold air passed through my layers of clothing and chilled my inner core. In the weeks following I would end up in bed recovering from a nasty flu that undoubtedly entered into my body during this trek. I cursed myself for not remembering the severity of the cold in the Andes.

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As our bus continued, we stopped only occasionally to let off villagers from neighboring towns. A short time had passed, and a quick look at my altimeter revealed a huge climb in elevation. Our bus stopped and we had made it to our village of Patacancha. My altimeter read twelve thousand two hundred fifty as I stared at Patacancha's valley and the hills and mountains that towered over the town. They had to be at least eighteen thousand feet. Patacancha held about forty adobe homes, a small glacier fed-stream called Rio Patacancha and a soccer field. Talk about remote -- Patacancha sees viewer than 50 backpackers a year. There are no frequented trails or trekking routes, only carved footpaths made by farmers herding cows, sheep and llamas. The area was nboth pristine to the visitor but dirty in villages as the natives haven't learned how to dispose of their trash. Some of the major peaks around the area like Chicon have rarely been climbed since the 70's and 80's. Most hardcore climbers want a long trek among these peaks, over a three week to month-long visit. Topo maps are extremely hard to come by, and the ones that do exist are not as accurate as American maps. This was something I was accustomed to, and the use of a guide was always a necessity.

Uber and I unloaded our gear, and for the two of us had more than enough food, water and equipment to last. It was mid-September, and the sun disappeared over the mountain at four thirty, leaving us little time to set up camp. The children from Patacancha crowded around us as soon as we stepped foot on their village, and it was hard not to unload all of our candy on them at once. The adults were as curious as the children but hid it better. From afar, my chosen camp site looked like one of the flattest places to set up camp, truly the best around, but in the morning my back told me differently. I had probably passed out two pounds of suckers, sweets and other hard candies and yet the children stayed. It was fortunate, because Uber needed them to help set up the tent in a strong wind.

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The sun in the morning felt like desert heat after the cold night, and my best hours of sleep were when the sun had hit the valley in the early morning hours. Uber was up before the sunrise and busy with breakfast. I had the entire day planned, but I hadn't let him in on it. There was enough in his mind. The zipper squealed in pain, and the tent shrugged off the cold as I crawled out. My head was heavy, and it took me the better part of an hour for the fog to lift.

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Uber started rattling off about the day's plan, and I lazily pointed up the steepest mountain adjacent to Patacancha.

"What about this way?", I mumbled.

"I don't know that way", he countered .

"That doesn't look too bad, let's go check it out."

"You want to go that way?"

Over the years I became immune to that, the second or third repetitive question that was common in the Latino culture.

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An hour later, we closed up camp and ascended into unkown territory. It is always exciting, that first hour of hiking away from base camp. Frequent yelps and comments about freedom -- I can't remember how many times I have had this feeling of anticipation and the same conversation before embarking on an outing. Still, I never get tired of it.

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There was really no technicality to it. We were two unroped free-spirited trekkers who loved the mountains. Uber was as strong as the porter he was, and we ascended a very steep two thousand foot-hill in a little under two hours. Slowly we could see our blue tent, now occupied by curious defiant native children, disappear into the surroundings. The land was beautiful and reminded me of the long tundriatic grasses that covered Alaska. Few flowers combed the mountain side, and Uber demonstrated a flower that was sensitive to the touch and closed up after a minute of touching it. Erosion had claimed one small grouping of rocks close to the furthest edge of the mountain. We could see a lean in the tectonic plating that shot out of the ground as if it were sharp jungle spear. The eroded walls looked like the pyramids trekkers put together after reaching a summit, in the Incan culture attributed to Pachamama, or mother earth. Upon closer look this natural creation of nature couldn't have been better constructed by human pyrmiads-builders. The views were of mountain peaks ripping out of the ground.

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From our view, it was clear upon this rim that if we continued north we would soon require equipment we didn't have as it shouldered one of the sides of Chicon. Moving forward would have required ice and climbing equipment and at least twenty-four more hours.

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We were satisfied with the day's plan, our incredible location and the tight views. Our final destination, a smaller mound at sixteen thousand nine hundred feet, gave us a 360 degree panoramic view of the majestic and dangerous peaks that surrounded us. It was a humbling feeling. We had spent the day traveling due north of Patacancha over small hills that had chalked up four thousand four hundred feet of vertical before lunch and another five hundred after, putting most of our day between fifteen and sixteen thousand feet. My feet were weary, and I knew the trip back would be demanding on my toes.

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Hiking home I remember imagining these hills with snow and being able to ski home. At that moment, it was as if Uber read my mind, and showed me a way to make a sled out of the long grassy tundratic brush, that would soon have us ripping down the mountain with our legs to stop us. "These hills would make some of the finest chute skiing around," I spoke aloud. I was in my happy place and could feel my tastebuds water for thoughts of a big feast upon return. A few bumps and bruises on our siqui's forced us to stop about halfway down the slope. But soon we would be talking about the day's sights and route.

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A friendly Inca family invited us into their home to cook, and I obliged, supplying them with left over food and feeding everyone with my special "sore foot spaghetti." We slept like rocks and prepared to leave the village at five in the morning so that Uber could guide another group on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Uber and I rolled our eyes and demonstrated that even us, the younger generation, knew that Machu Picchu was old news and a sustaining highway of tourists. Still the Inca trail and Machu Picchu are an amazing architectural feat, and we both knew that. But there was is much more in the Andes Mountain ranges. Uber agreed it was the best trekking day he had ever had.



Pristine area, outside of Ollayntambo. 

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