We Still Went Hiking, By Darn

– by Michael!

Gratitude can be an odd thing sometimes.

For instance, had you told me that I would eventually be grateful that our hike to Machu Picchu was canceled – or at least, that I would be grateful for one of the results of said cancellation – I would have called you nuts. Or a liar. Maybe both.

That was a bad night. Joanie and I had enjoyed a lovely day in Cuzco, the capital of the empire of the Incas, a day that culminated with a bean-to-candy-bar chocolate making class at the outstanding Choco Museo. We took some cute couple-type-pictures at the fountain in the Plaza de Armas, then took deep breaths before hiking up the hills to our hostel. The pickup time for our hike in the morning was going to be 4:30 AM, and we figured we should call it an early night.

Only there would be no pickup.

We had a message waiting at the front desk, an urgent message to call the hiking company back right away. There had been a freakish snow-storm, the company rep told us, completely out of season and massive in proportion – livestock were dying, and people would follow. (One person told us that she had been near the trailhead for our hike, and the snow there – at the bottom of the trail – was over six feet deep.) There was no way that our hike could proceed. Or rather, there was no way our hike could proceed with any hope that the trekkers would survive the journey.

This was crushing to us both. Yes, we saw Machu Picchu regardless – the hiking company arranged (at minimal extra cost to us, seriously minimal, just a few dollars) a train tour instead, on which they surely lost a great deal of money. (Let me just call them out: Pachamama Explorers is the way to go. They handled an awful situation with grace and compassion, especially considering that they were dealing with at least two very distraught people.) But the hike – the hike would have been an achievement. And an achievement that Joanie and I will, in all likelihood, never have the opportunity to attempt again. It took us almost three years to save the money to do this, and there are too many other things that we need to accomplish, milestones we need to reach, in the next few years for us to make a second go at this hike.

So there was weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth. (Maybe not so much the third, but definitely the first two.) But eventually our practicality set in and we decided that we needed to at least make an effort to enjoy the two extra days (NOT included in our tour package, for which our bank account did not thank us) in Cuzco before we left on the train.

And so we decided that, on one of those days, we should go on a Sacred Valley excursion and see two important things: the agri-lab called Moray, and the salt flats of Maras.

Seriously – Moray, the first place we went, was a place where the Quechua performed extensive experiments on their crops. Take a look at the concentric rings in the photograph below – those are separated by a few feet each, and represent almost the entire spectrum of arable climates within the Andes mountain range. They could test different species and strains of various seed types, determining how they reacted to different altitudes, shade levels, and so on – and then breed new strains, hybrids, that would be more durable higher up or with less sunlight.

This was all built and up and running before the year 1500.


And they just went on, and on, and on…

From Moray, Joanie and I hiked down past the town of Maras to the salt flats below, where they harvest that fancy pink salt that you can find in upscale grocery stores for absurd amounts of money.

The flats themselves are a stunning sight – the pools collect water from the mountain springs that leave a film of pink salt as they trickle down the side of the mountain into the next pool, and so on.

So we’re glad we went, nevermind that we were hiking on not-exactly-a-trail that may or may not have, at one point, literally vanished down the side of a cliff! (Also nevermind that we had to bum a cab ride back to the main highway and hope that we weren’t too late to be picked up by a Cuzco-bound shuttle-bus – we weren’t, or else this would be a vastly different post.) 

The hike itself was a great experience, complete with random donkeys, vaqueros leading a herd of horses, a shepherd and his skittish flock.

Were we glad that the hike was canceled? No. Not at all. It remains a pang for both of us. But the joys we were able to experience instead, the beauty of the salt-flats and the massive ingenuity of Moray, are some of our best memories from our trip to Peru – and, as we leave the holiday of Thanksgiving behind us but try to keep its spirit intact, I cannot say that I would trade them for any others, and am deeply grateful for them.

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