Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu

Day One

It started with a 5am pick-up. We joined a car with at least fourteen others and drove two hours toward a mountain sunrise to a small town for an overpriced breakfast. There, we met the group: a Belgian couple, two Spanish couples, an Italian family, two German flatmates, three Australians, a Brazilian, an Austrian, a Canadian, a Danish, one other American from Portland, Maine, and our fearless leader Enrique. Once we introduced ourselves, I learned that our group contained three Monicas. I have hardly been in the presence of one other Monica, so two at once felt like fate. We drove another hour on a bumpy, dirt, cliffside road until we reached our starting point. Most people separated their day pack from their bigger pack, which a group of horses would haul ahead of us, but I could not bring myself to contribute to the horses’ discomfort (especially after volunteering at the farm!), so I opted to carry all of my things and mostly convinced Naman to do the same. Of course, this made the five days much harder, but I often make things harder on myself than necessary.

When we started walking, it was immediately uphill and immediately beautiful. In about three hours, we reached our campsite, which was nestled beneath stunning snow-capped mountains. We took the most scenic siesta of my life, and then we had our first provided meal: a satisfying and vegetarian-friendly buffet lunch. Since our afternoon hiking would be from and to our campsite, we began that portion without our backpacks. And it was probably the most difficult portion of the whole trek—straight uphill for an hour and straight down (which is always worse for me because I sprained my ankle twice in the last four months) on the way back. But the payoff was yet another breathtaking view, this time of a turquoise lake. One of our German comrades even took a swim in the glacier-temperature water. Back at the campsite, we enjoyed tea time with popcorn and animal crackers, then an hour later a buffet dinner. By eight, it was freezing and we hurried to our tents to bundle and rest for the most important day ahead.

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Arrival at the entry point.

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My good friends the horses.

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Just your typical view ten minutes into a hike.

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Siesta/sleeping campsite.

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En route to the lake.

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Mmmm, mountains.

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11/10.

Day Two

The most difficult day, the longest day, and my favorite day. The rooster woke us up at 4:30am and the guide at 4:40 with coca tea in our tents. I emerged from complete cover under my sleeping bag, dressed in layers, and joined the group for a sleepy and shivering breakfast. By 6:30am, we were on our way up, my hands got so cold I added a second layer of gloves, and I felt grateful for my ankle brace and the trekking poles my mother strongly encouraged me to get before the trip. Enrique periodically stopped us to share stories of treks prior, like when one man wanted to ride a horse all the way up (which is normal for those struggling with altitude sickness or otherwise) and down (which is not typically allowed because the terrain is dangerous for the horse) and they both slid off a cliff and died. Motivation! By 9, the sun was up and we reached the top of the fabled “siete serpientes,” a series of switchbacks. A short siesta, and then another 40 minutes down a bit and up a bit to a frozen lake, where we took a real siesta and Enrique told us about some Andean history. Then, the final 30 minutes to the “top,” which was not the top of Mount Salkantay but was at 4600m (15,000ft) and did offer panoramic views of the mountain. Worth the price of the whole trek and surreal.

Then, the hard part: descending. We trekked an hour down sliding rock/dirt to yet another siesta, then 40 minutes more to our lunch destination. Easily the best meal of the trek and intensely appreciated after a five-hour morning. After lunch, we witnessed a stunning change in scenery and climate—within an hour, we transitioned from sparse mountain atmosphere to a cloud forest, full of greenery, valleys, and mosquitoes. After three hours of mostly downhill and many blisters forming, we reached our campsite and immediately purchased the most delicious beer of the trip, which prompted just about everyone in the group to follow suit and purchase their own beers. That dinner, we were all in great spirits and bonded over the feat we had collectively accomplished. And we all slept gratefully.

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The mountain glowed all night.

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Early risers.

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First views of the day.

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Past the seven snake switchbacks (look closely and see that Naman broke his backpack!).

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More siestas.

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Next to the peak.

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The highest we’ve been in Peru!

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Casually skating on the rock.

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Impossible to capture.

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Siesta #4328

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Filtering water to save the big $$$

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And suddenly it turned green.

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Even greener.

Day Three

Again, we woke before 5 because Enrique wanted to beat the heat. At breakfast, he told us that by the way, this campsite definitely has tarantulas but he waited to share that until after we slept. We forgave him and continued on by 6, trekking both up and down toward yet another climate, rain forest. We followed a river, picked maracuya (passionfruit), and only hiked for three hours before icing in the river and hopping in a van for another hour of those lovely cliffside dirt roads. We had lunch at our campsite, which was located within a shop/bar, and then a long siesta. At 4, we journeyed to hot springs, which were quite crowded and not hot enough for us spoiled Americans, so we found the vent with the source and stayed there for almost two hours. Back at the campsite, dinner followed by a fiesta! Almost everyone purchased drinks, we all took free shots of “Inca tequila,” they turned on the disco lights and music, built a campfire, and we danced and partied until midnight. A welcome reward after a difficult and sore three days.

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Early morning river.

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Fruit!

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Green!

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Spot Naman on the “mini-zipline.”

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The trail even has shopping centers!

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The parrot that says “hola” and tries to escape.

Day Four

We slept in until 7:30 (!), Naman felt unwell, and we separated into three groups: zipliners, bus-takers, and “super-hikers.” I almost decided to zipline, but I was ultimately too scared and it would cost an extra 100 soles each, so we took the least popular option: walking almost three hours to our meeting place, Hidroelectrica, where the bus-takers would arrive in 20 minutes and the zipliners after several hours. From then on, our bags would be carried by vehicles and not horses, but my stubbornness meant I continued to carry my bag. The walk was along a dusty cliffside (surprise!) road, scenic but not gorgeous, and Naman hated every step. But we made it, waited another hour for lunch, and heard from the zipliners that the experience was mostly average. After lunch, a three-hour walk along shaded train tracks, during which I slightly regretted our non-essential morning trek, until we finally reached Aguas Calientes, the town beneath Machu Picchu and the location of an actual hostel with an actual bed and hot shower. Bliss, dinner, sleep.

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Going the right direction.

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The trains we were not riding.

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Machu Picchu town!

Day Five

This day, we slept in all the way until 2:40 and met in the lobby to leave promptly at 3:30 to walk the 15 minutes in the dark to the checkpoint below Machu Picchu. We started the line waiting for the 5 am opening that grew to include several hundred, if not a thousand, people by the time they checked our tickets and passports at 5. But we still had another 40 minutes and 400 meters straight up a series of staircases in the dark, which I found quite fun (I had nothing to carry! So light!) but everyone else found grueling. Then, we started the line into Machu Picchu, which would not open until 6. The first bus up (there were $12 buses up! But we walked!) arrived around 5:50 and we all silently judged them for not walking like us. Then, the semi-mad dash inside, more stairs (surprise!), and the big reveal, the main event, the glory of the fallen Inca empire: Machu Picchu! It was better than I imagined, more beautiful than all the pictures, and witnessing it before it flooded with tourists was truly special. At 6:30, Enrique gave us a tour, including its history, which he says is 50% speculation and other other 50%…speculation, at 7:00 we watched the sunrise over the surrounding mountains, and by 9 he bid us a bittersweet goodbye, the end of the tour. But most of the group banded together and we visited the Inca bridge, a 30-minute walk alongside the highest and most narrow cliff trail yet to a “bridge” connecting a smaller-than-single-track and unreachable-for-tourists trail through a treeline.

Then, we separated again, because seven of us were cheap when we bought the tour and did not spend the extra 70 or 80 dollars for the train from Aguas Calientes, and instead had to return (via that same three-hour walk along train tracks) to Hidroelectrica to catch a bus. We did not know when we chose the cheaper option that we would have to walk three hours! We just wanted to save a few bucks! But alas, we finished our tour of the ruins and headed down around 10:30, where we traversed the steps in the opposite direction, retrieved our bags from the hostel, and begrudgingly began the grueling and exhausting trek back to Hidroelectrica. We made it in under 2.5 hours and after a quick beer emerged into the chaos that was the “bus station.” Dozens of vans scattered about, the drivers yelled names, tired and angry tourists did not understand why there was no system in place, Naman somehow found us two spots in a van, and 45 minutes later we began the six-hour journey back. The first two hours were (again!) dirt and cliffside (it goes without saying that every single second we drove on these roads terrified me), and when the dirt became real road with lines and sometimes even lights, I felt saved. But we still had four hours, and I spent the entire ride wishing we had purchased the train instead (which would only be one hour on the train and then a three-hour car ride, but would not include any dirt roads and four hours is a lot less than six) and trying to sleep on the impossibly uncomfortable seat two rows up from Naman. We reached Cusco at 10pm, I devoured a salad (vegetables!) and smoothie (fruit!), and we landed in bed fully exhausted, but finally done.

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The line at the entrance.

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First signs of light.

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First look!

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Making friends.

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Enrique!!!

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Sunlit.

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Mountains all around.

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The Inca bridge! Look closely and be afraid.

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Inside the ruins.

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Fabian!

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The Condor Temple (the rocks are the condor).

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Llamas added for effect.

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Posing.

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Dogs sleeping on the steps back down.

Farewell to Chucuito

We have officially left the farm and landed back in Cusco, Ciudad de Todos. Tomorrow, we get picked up at 5 am to start our five day/four night Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Today, we celebrate the access, variety, and vegetarian-friendliness of all kinds of eats. We got here with transportation eons cheaper than our reverse Cusco-Puno route: a bus for 40 soles ($12) each. I was a bit worried about this transportation choice (“Every fourth bus goes off a cliff,” my dear father said semi-seriously before we left), but the route was mostly flat, the driver was safe, and the chairs were huge and plush.

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The route between Cusco and Puno is breathtaking both directions.

Our last days in Chucuito were spent mostly alone. Anja, Santiago, two locals, and the only other remaining volunteer journeyed to Pocoyo for three days. Pocoyo, we learned, is yet another property of theirs, but there they house cows and mostly wild and free-roaming horses in a location full of wilderness. They drove the 70 km there with the infamous truck, which only fits three people in the front so the other two simply rode in the back. Meanwhile, we became in charge of all twelve horses. Three times a day, we trekked to each location to let the horses out, provide more water, or bring them in. Naman also found a local medical clinic and spent a few hours every day shadowing the doctor and his patients, who only spoke Spanish but he somehow understood. The first day was rough, our timing was off, and we ended up at Occupampa in the dark and frazzled. We worried that the electric fence at Chojo Chojo was not working because on several different occasions, Valiente bit the top string with his mouth and almost pulled it apart. At the same time and for the whole week, Ratty was in heat so anywhere we went, hordes of dogs followed her and us. When we went out to lunch at a local restaurant, a dog peed on my ankle. By Thursday, we established a solid routine, but we also expected our comrades to return in the morning. When 4 pm arrived and they were not yet back nor had they communicated with us, we brought all of the horses in once again, an almost two-hour process. They finally arrived that evening, we said our bittersweet goodbyes, and we were off at 6 am the next morning.

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Maru, the ruthless but irresistible mother-to-be, and Jantor, her abusive but stoic stall-mate.

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A glimpse of the Occupampa stables, a building like others in Chucuito that always seem to be in-progress.

In Cusco, as aforementioned, we have mostly been eating. At Organika, our favorite goat cheese salad full of vegetables from their organic farm in the Sacred Valley (!!!). At Tacomania, enchiladas and burritos and beer. At Qucharitas, homemade Andean mint ice cream with mango, strawberries, brownie, and chocolate chips. At a random bar, my first Adios Motherfucker (tequila, gin, rum, vodka, blue curacao, and sprite…surprisingly, it was pretty weak). Now, at Chia (a vegan restaurant!) a creative smoothie, Andean chaufa, mini ceviches, and “sushi” rolls with mango and strawberry wrapped in coconut.

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Naman’s artsy shot of the side of our reed boat on Lake Titicaca.

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Our boat and helper on Uros back when we did the overnight tour.

And, because this week has been quite calm, a forgotten story from Chucuito:

On our second day there, a volunteer invited us to Puno for a pizza dinner before she traveled to Cusco for a week. We agreed to go with another volunteer, who knew how to get to Puno via colectivo so we trusted her. She is also 20 and fearless, but we learned that later. Around 6:30, in the dark (it’s winter here), we walked to the main road, the Panamericana, and attempted to hail a colectivo. But none were stopping, until finally a bus pulled over. She asked the driver the fare, which would be 1.50 soles (50¢), the same as the colectivo, so we hopped on. We emerged into a scene of mostly local and traditionally-dressed women holding bags of all shapes and sizes, illuminated by overhead blue lighting. We sat and waited, but when ten minutes passed with no movement and we realized that they were loading the bus with stacks of eggs and probably a lot more, our comrade got impatient and we hopped back off.

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This alpaca probably knew better than us.

Once back on the street, a random car pulled over and asked if we needed a ride. The driver was male and we did hesitate, but he had two children—one quite young—with him so the volunteer (again, far more experienced than us with Chucuito-Puno transportation) led the charge inside the car. Had the young child or Naman not been present, I would not have agreed, but alas, we really did ride in this random car all the way to Puno. At one point, the driver stopped suddenly on the side of the road, got out of the car without explanation, and just when we feared the worst, he opened and closed his hood, got back in, and kept driving. We made it to Puno just fine and took an auto taxi to meet the traveling volunteer. I know that my mother will vehemently and passionately disapprove this decision, but what could we do? We were noobs! Followers! Baby volunteers! We wouldn’t have even found the street without this volunteer! Anyway, we were and are fine, and we haven’t done anything nearly as stupid since!

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See! Nothing can touch us!

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Live music above some ruins in Cusco.

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Giant white Jesus (Cristo Blanco).

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Naman’s new best friend.

And tomorrow, we go up up up.

Manual Labor and Fencing Failure

In this tiny town, it has been quite the wild week. Not a day has gone by without an increased heart rate. Anja hired someone to complete all the maintenance—a job I’ve grown to appreciate and even enjoy—so our jobs vary each day. On Tuesday, our first day back, we spent all four hours of the morning moving hay. Two of us carried armfuls of the scratchy, invasive stuff through a wet patch and up a small hill to a large truck, where Naman received it and packed it into the back. We tried ropes to compact it, but only Naman’s force was reliable. It took 2.5 hours to stuff the truck, then we three lay on top of the hay, at least 30 feet off the ground, while the truck’s owner drove us down to Occupampa. Of course, the ride was slightly terrifying, but I’ve experienced worse transportation (motorbikes in Vietnam). Next, we spent 1.5 hours unloading the hay into a small room next to the horses’ stables. Again, Naman received the loads and compacted it into the corner with enough space on one side that one particularly mischievous horse, Martin, could not nab extra. We ended the job at 11:58, all of us relieved that we would not need to move hay hopefully ever again. Our clothes hoarded enough hay in every crevice that we have been constantly reminded of the job since.

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Occupampa at sunset.

On Wednesday, we hoped for a nicer job. Instead, we (now four of us) received an assignment on par with the hay: shoveling the poop pile into that same truck. This required more strength and seemed more systematic, so I preferred it, but we were also entirely in the sun and the truck was high and deep enough that we could not simply shovel the poop directly; we needed to fill either a wheelbarrow or a tarp and transfer it. But alas, within the first thirty minutes, our biggest and strongest comrade complained of something in his eye, and when no DIY methods worked to get it out, he left us and (eventually) travelled to Puno to see an opthamologist (but had to wait until 5 pm for relief). So, the three of us that remained did our best to complete the task, but ultimately we were too ill-equipped and too few to succeed. Luckily, the day was not all bad—it was Santiago’s (the co-owner) birthday, so we all ate lunch together and indulged in tres leche cake for dessert.

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A wedding in the Chucuito plaza = nonstop dancing for two days.

The next day, we all expected to repeat this job, but because we would not be able to complete it, we welcomed a much better task instead: leading the horses, one by one, away from the field and back. Because their herd tendencies are so strong, this is important to build both independence and trust. Of the four that we led, two (the mares) had very little issue and two (Martin, a stallion, and Wichyflor, a 1.5-year-old) felt nervous and whinnied or stopped constantly on the walk. While leading Wichyflor, a small and challenging child also showed up and attempted to help us, which only exacerbated Wichy’s confusion. But the exercise ultimately worked because that evening, the horses followed us to their stables without issue. A bit later in the morning, I helped Anja and another volunteer to measure and feed de-worming medicine to the horses. That also worked; their poop the next day had plenty of worms in it. Yum.

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Ratty, the most agile/athletic dog I have ever met, who technically has other owners who put a dress on her to “send a message.” Pobrecita.

Friday, a volunteer informed Naman and I at breakfast that we would again be moving hay, but a different and allegedly worse kind. Dread sunk in and we climbed inside the truck expecting misery. But when we reached the bottom of a bumpy hill and the truck’s driver managed to turn it around, we saw nothing but two medium-sized piles of what looked like straw. Once we learned the carrying method for this material—bunching it together and holding it with rope—we loaded the truck in under an hour. But before that, while we all stood watching, a mouse scurried from the pile and the driver chased after it to catch it in his hat. “Ratón!” he grinned. Then he put his hat back on with the mouse inside, still smiling, and left. We still don’t know what happened after that, or why it happened at all. When we finished, we had a bit of time to waste on a lovely view until we were driven back to the casa, where we unloaded the straw with tarps. Like the first few days of the week, it was certainly physical/manual labor, but I appreciated the system and did not mind the work at all.

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Queen Nefertiti and her babies.

Real disaster struck early Saturday morning. I have gotten up before six every day this week so I can read (Anna Karenina, which is a very fitting book as a lot of it describes farming life) and recharge my introverted self. So, when Anja asked if Naman and I could do the morning shift on Saturday, which entails feeding both sets of horses at 6 am and leading the Occupampa group to the field, I thought no problem. When we got to the Occupampa field, not all horses cooperated at once and we had to take them in pairs. But Merlin, the youngest and the halterless, did not immediately go in the field. When we managed to get the rest of the horses inside and I went to get Nefertiti, Merlin’s mother, to coax him in, I saw a horrifying sight at the other end of the field: Merlin, Wichyflor, and Venezia all grazing together with no proper fence in sight. For reference, their fencing consists of metal poles strung together with electric wire; a bit flimsy, but when the electricity is on, it does the trick. My first thought was that Wichyflor had kicked the fence down, and I immediately panicked. As I got closer, I saw that the entire back half of the fence was on the ground, but the front half stood; the remaining four horses grazed there and did not notice the lack of containment, but I worried about what would happen if they merely glanced in that direction (luckily, food takes up most of their brain space so they are not often perceptive). After running to grab Venezia and Wichyflor, I threw their ropes at Naman so he could hold on to them while I fixed the fence. Except there were no metal poles. They must be lost in this insanely tall grass, I thought. “I can’t find any fucking poles!” I told Naman, wild-eyed. Remembering the old location of the field, where they had grazed up until a week ago and where three wooden poles still stood, I leapt over a small hill and extracted the poles, running back to the field. But they would not stay standing and I could not both tighten the electric wire around them and make them stable, so I ran back to Naman.

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The opposite of how I felt on Saturday.

“I don’t know what to do!” I exclaimed for the millionth time. “We need to put the horses back!” He, meanwhile, seemed unfazed. We barely managed to grab all the horses (four of them; three were expected to follow) and lead them back to their home base field, but not without a lot of coaxing and pulling (which is forbidden here, but I was in distress and the horses were too confused to listen to me without some push). Then, we again tried to build the fence with the wooden posts, but it was doomed to fail. Finally, around 7:45, with all the horses safely in the home base field and the doors to the extra food shut, we walked the fifteen minutes back to the casa in shame (me) and fatigue (Naman) to tell Anja. Our comrades sat at the breakfast table, tranquilo as ever, and we rushed past, only sharing bits and pieces of the problem, so we could get to Anja.

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The closest Naman will get to the horses (kidding).

When we explained everything, she said, “There were no poles? Ah, then they were stolen.” Stolen. Naman had suggested it back at Occupampa, but I thought it had surely been one of the horses and we were too lacking in perfect vision to find them. But alas, the poles have been stolen before, and we had been too sleepy-eyed to notice the lack of half the fence when we originally put them in. We (I) had spent nearly two hours panicking over something in which we had no role. Relief. But of course, it was not yet over. Anja blessedly told us to eat some breakfast, then instructed one of us to stay and do the maintenance at Occupampa and the other to meet her in Puno (a 25-minute colectivo ride away) so she could buy more poles and send them back with us. After some discussion, I volunteered to do the maintenance because I craved the physical effort after such chaos and because I constantly miss running (I ran once here, for ten minutes, and it was not worth it at this ridiculous altitude) and any tiring physical activity makes me think about running less often. I finished in less than two hours, Naman returned with the poles twenty minutes after that, we repaired the fence, led all the horses inside the freshly fenced field, and returned to the casa by 1 pm, gratefully, for a large quinoa/vegetable/eggs lunch.

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The Plaza de Armas in Puno (the nicest part of Puno).

Sunday, we kayaked. Which is a lot more difficult than I remembered. I thought I had been building arm strength with all this labor, but kayaking is only arms, and without help from my other muscles, mine are pretty useless. Our guide, a friend of Anja’s, gave us a three-hour tour of some mysterious Lake Titicaca sites, including two sets of giant green-tinted rocks with an eerie history. According to him, locals avoid the area because the rocks themselves are native to an area 40 kilometers away and no one knows how they could have ended up on an island in the lake. At certain times of the month, at night, the rocks are said to emit a green glow and even, in some cases, to activate a portal to perhaps another world. On Google Earth, if one connects all three sets of the giant rocks, it forms a perfect triangle (I have not verified this). He also told us a lot about his spiritual involvement, mostly in alternative (to western religion) spiritualities in tune with nature, the cosmos, and energies. Before certain ceremonies (including but certainly not limited to ayahuasca), he makes sure people are prepared physically, mentally, and spiritually. A huge part of it, he says, is to simply do good. This I could get behind. The rock portals and other new-age-veering theories, I’m still undecided.

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And, because it’s Chucuito, a lamb riding the colectivo.