The Trans Ozogoche bus left Alausí at 10:30, or rather it left its spot on the high street, turned a corner and picked up another 6 passengers. Why couldn’t they just get on with everyone else? In any case we were soon up above town on the Panamericana heading south to La Moya. The passengers had grunted hello but were quiet. However by the time we turned off for the 15 km climb to Achupallas I had been befriended by a guy called Rodrigo who insisting on offering me shots of Zhumir while offering his guiding services (but only if I stayed in Achupallas overnight, long enough to give him time to sober up).
I was trying to enjoy the views out the window to avoid eye contact with Rodrigo (eye contact meant another shot) and was surprised to see this insignificant track was part of the government’s emergency road resurfacing programme, until Rodrigo proudly explained that the Attorney General and buddy of the president, Washington Pesántez, was a native of Achupallas.
As we entered the village I got talking to the driver, Gilberto Sarmiento, who was a bit of a local tycoon. As well as driving the bus he also owned a shop and organised mules, horses and guides for the Inca trek. He invited me for lunch with his family; his wife, 2 daughters and between 1 and 3 sons (2 may have been boyfriends and didn’t actually sit down with us). We had a potato soup with pasta and cheese followed by seco de pollo. All the family were generous, intelligent and friendly and it was a shame to leave them to start the trek, especially with my stomach full to bursting.
So at 1pm I started to plod up the street leading out of Achupallas, struggling to deal with the Zhumir, the rice and the altitude. Couples sat outside dark mud brick houses, acknowledging my greeting with a wave. The track curved uphill and I turned off onto a stone path next to a little gurgling stream whereupon I was passed by four kids running, herding 10 sheep. The eldest girl couldn’t have been more than 14.
After passing the last house the land opened out into a valley and I crossed a bridge and followed the path to the left of the stream, heading for a niche in the rock ahead. It looked like a forbidding barrier of boulders but I clambered over them and found the little hole, just small enough to squeeze myself up through it with my rucksack.
I had entered a long U shaped valley covered with wild grasses. A guy trotted past on horseback on the path above to my right. I jumped the stream and scrambled up there. I was surprised by how much I was missing my wife and son and I took the opportunity to call them from my mobile before the signal faded. I felt happy to be in the wilderness but also lonely and lethargic. I trudged on a bit and found a better rhythm as the valley curved and opened up. I walked for a couple of hours before stopping to pitch my tent on a dry patch of the marshy valley floor, next to the stream. After about 30 minutes a family came down the hillside with their animals, returning home for the night. After that I was alone. I cooked, washed and settled down to rest. I thought I would sleep immediately but for some reason I was awake for hours.
When I woke up the second morning the light was already flooding into the tent. I was determined to get to paredones (a ruined Inca house) and I was worried that it was going to be a long and difficult day so I was determined to get going as quickly as possible. I opened the tent. It was a clear, sunny morning and the valley looked beautiful. Most of it was cast in shadow but at the very top of the slopes the sunlight was creeping steadily downhill.
I made a coffee, ate some fruit, packed up quickly and started picking my way through the bog and up towards the Laguna de Tres Cruces at the head of the valley, following the numerous tracks criss-crossing the lower reaches of the western slope without ever finding one definitive path. It didn’t help when I detoured a few times to avoid confrontation with cattle who eyed me (or my red fleece) warily but took no more interest.
I continued to climb steadily, resting regularly to sip water, shedding layers as the sun came into sight and warmed the valley. I was enjoying the views but felt that I was making slow progress, struggling with the weight of my pack and the altitude. I could see the pass up ahead and the position where the lake must be and I forced myself on.
Eventually the water came into view. I threw down my backpack, hopped and skipped across the ground to find a dry spot where I could sit overlooking the lake. It was totally silent and lonely but also a warm and inviting landscape; the U-shaped valley sloping back down to civilisation.
From there I turned, passed a pile of stones marking the ingañan and a little pond, ignored the path sloping down the valley to my right and heading diagonally up across the scree to my left to reach the top of the Cuchilla de Tres Cruces ridge. I fixed my sight on a specific point and padded up to it with great enthusiasm, but when I emerged up onto the ridge the ferocious wind forced me back down. It had clouded over but remained calm so the up to then so I was taken aback in both senses. I left my pack and scrambled up to crouch behind a huge boulder on the ridge, braced myself and stood up to look at what was beyond. I saw a vast wilderness of steep grey mountain sides stretching to the horizon. In the foreground were two dark lakes before the ground fell away into the narrow valley below.
I filmed a 360° panorama and returned to my pack to catch my breath. When I returned 5 minutes later the wind had subsided slightly so I continued along the ridge, feeling high and supreme but also a bit overawed by the power of the untamed, natural landscape all around me. The sun came out again and things felt friendlier. The rock gave way to sand and the path sloped down to the left and curved around to reveal a magnificent view of the valley directly to the south way below me. In the distance the Laguna Culebrillas filled the floor and a stream meandered wildly towards it.
I passed three guys on horseback heading for Achupallas who stopped and greeted me and seemed surprised that I was going to Ingapirca (where else would a gringo be going?). Further down the path a stream converged and it was impossible to keep my feet dry. The way was narrow and laden with stones which made it difficult to walk. At the bottom I found a little hut used by cattle herders, with smoke buffeting out of the open doorway. I crossed the valley floor and a small bridge. The cattle paid me no attention. The path led along the foot of another slope towards Culebrillas. Dark clouds had closed in and I stopped at a sheltered spot along the path to cook lunch before the rain set in.
Then it was one final push along the path, getting closer to Culebrillas, watching a group of four men below me walking along the bank of the stream looking for fish. I filled up with water from one of the spots where it cascaded down the hillside and across the path. Then I turned uphill slightly and the paredones came into view. I reached it, ripped off my backpack and my shoes and boiled litres of water to drink. I couldn’t even be bothered to worry about the herd of cows who were all over the spot I wanted to camp.. The drizzle had ceased, the sun came out and it was warm again. The cows drifted away, I put up the tent, explored the simple two room structure, made a fruitless search for a canal carrying water further up the hillside and then just stretched out and rested.
The night next to the paredones was long and uncomfortable. I got in the tent soon after the sun had disappeared out of view and I was feeling too cold and tired to do anything else. I tried to lie down and listen to music, then just relax. Nothing worked. I couldn’t keep still. I couldn’t feel at ease, despite having stretched and meditated. I lay for hours, listening to a gale billowing against the sides of the tent, like waves crashing in the ocean. When I went outside I discovered that the wind actually felt pretty tame in reality. I drank the rest of the water I had saved and immediately felt thirsty again. Eventually some time after midnight I dozed off.
It was a relief to wake up in the morning and know that I didn’t have to spend another night alone. I was missing Maria Fernanda and Santino more than I’d expected and that was accentuating all the unpleasant aspects, the weight of the backpack, the long nights, the altitude. I clambered out of my sleeping bag and it was another clear, beautiful morning. I packed up and walked south, leaving the runined house as a speck, watching for the appearance of the sun over the hills to my left, enjoying the contrast of light and shadow across the valley.
The Inca path is very clear and wide in this section, marked by large stones half buried and smoothed by centuries of feet passing over them. I stopped at a canal to collect water and continued south-east, fixing my sights on a reservoir in the distance. Far beyond I could see more hills rising up and I hoped I wouldn’t have to cross that far.
While I was skipping between stones, trying to avoid wet areas but also not pounding my feet, a group of four men passed me by on horseback, mumbling greetings from under their scarves, pursued by two energetic dogs. I passed to the left of the reservoir and followed the straight path. At times it gave way to bog which was difficult to negotiate.
Finally a village and cultivated fields came into sight. It was still thirty minutes away so I decided to stop by a stream and have something decent to eat. I found a sheltered spot amongst thick grasses to position the stove, cut up my last vegetables and boiled them into a soup. The sun came out again from behind a cloud and I relaxed, feeling satisfied, so much so that it was difficult to get up again and keep walking. My body was telling me it was time for an early afternoon siesta although it wasn’t yet 9am.
Little by little the contours of the land became clearer as I approached the village. Behind it a road dropped down past fields and horses into a deep valley where I guessed Ingapirca must be. The first house I passed was a poor shack with pigs and dogs wallowing in the muddy yard. A couple of small boys approached and looked up at me with interest. I gave them some noodles and took a photo. They were much more concerned that I photograph the dogs, which I did, promising to bring the photo back to them some day. Further on I passed women who stared at me. One gabbered incomprensibly and begged. Outside another house a younger group gave me a similar look but then a guy greeted me with the words, “Hey man, what’s up?” It turned out he had been living in New York City. It didn’t really help him understand why I was walking and he advised me to wait for a pick up to take me downhill.
Declining the pick up I plodded on, now on a paved track winding down past eucalyptus trees and loud dogs protecting their homesteads. I found some reception to call my wife. It was slow, gruelling progress. I could see a village way below but I couldn’t work out if it included Ingapirca. I regretted not taking a pick up, why didn’t it pass me? Finally at the very bottom a family passed me and I jumped into the back. It was a good decision as the 30 minute walk along the main road down to Ingapirca would not have added any value to his experience. It was enough the enjoy the scenery rushing past me for five minutes. We paused to allow a religious procession to pass by up the road. I hopped out at the gate to Ingapirca. The driver refused payment but accepted an offering to buy something to drink for the family.
I’d arrived. I left my rucksack and went to look around Ingapirca. It is a simple site and simple museum, but interesting enough to justify a visit. Just outside the main site a path leads past various sculpted stones and a copse of eucalyptus trees to the face of a man revealed in a cliff face. None of the other visitors bothered to go this way and I had it to myself.
Returning to the museum to retrieve my backpack I encountered a couple of staff and hangers-on who invited me to join them drinking a cocktail made with some rough spirit and chuquiragua, a red plant found in the páramo and used to prepare medicine against colds and hepatitis. I’m not sure how much good this medicine was doing me and realised the only way to get out of the loop was to escape. After chatting for a bit I left them thinking about lunch and went to take the bus from Ingapirca village, a few minutes walk down the road.
That bus took me to El Tambo, passing through pleasant countryside, past the archaeological site at Coyoctor and the train station at El Tambo. On the main road the conductor called to me to jump out and I literally crossed the street and jumped straight onto a bus going to Guayaquil. The buses don’t originate from El Tambo and to my dismay I found it was already full. I endured an unpleasant and very stuffy four hours standing and sitting on the floor at the front of the bus as we drove north to Zhud, downhill to Cochancay, where I managed to finally bag a seat for the final leg back to Guayaquil. I felt dirt, tired and immensely satisfied.