Skip to content

Life on Llama time

By: Camey VanSant

By Gabriel

My Peruvian experience first started in the capital of the Inkan** Empire. Cusco. On this adventure I was joined by my sister on school break. With the desire to head into the rainforest, we made our way to Paucartambo, the turning point between the Andean valley and the rainforest. We looked towards the jungle but after hours on the winding roads, neither of us wanted to even look at a car let alone get in one.

Luckily, we found a research station in the cloud forest less than an hour away. After reaching the station which only had power on a few times a day and wifi only in the dining area, we knew we had found the right place. Our mutual exhaustion made it an easy decision to spend some time resting and recovering. We were able to look over the mountains and spot many species of hummingbirds while I was able to organize my photos and videos, set goals for myself and do some editing, and my sister was able to catch up on sleep after a grueling finals season, peacefully able to sleep for 12 hours a day uninterrupted. Still being at elevation, we acclimatized for upcoming adventures. After a few nights, we were ready for a deep plunge into the lives of the Inka.

The Q’ero tribe. After Spanish invasion, they were able to preserve their culture and traditions due to the remoteness of living in the Andes where the Spanish could not reach them. In the 17th century, over 100 years after Francisco Pizarro orchestrated his takeover of the Inkas, there was a rebellion by the Inka state. The rebellion failed, and the Spanish tried to eradicate every sign of Inkan culture. They banned ceremonies and speaking the Quechua language, destroyed the sacred altars to the Pachamama, and murdered the priests that were keepers of the Inkan rituals. They thought they had wiped any living signs of the Inka from the Earth until in the 1950s when they learned about the Q’ero.

We stopped at the market in Paucartambo to get resources for our expedition. We decided on quinoa, lentils, beans, oats and rice as the staples, and some fruit and nuts. We decided against taking any spices, salt, or sugar as it was extra weight.

At the heart of the Q’ero Nation live the Hatun Q’eros. We reached the village of Choa Choa after a few hours on a narrow road carved into the mountain side with no guardrails and a cliff thousands of feet down. I had read that we needed to look for someone in this town that had family in more remote villages that spoke Spanish and Quechua. With everyone coming towards the car wondering what us two outsiders were doing in their remote village, we had an impromptu village get together. The village was very empty because since being introduced to western culture, wifi, and electricity, many people now only live there part time. Electricity was only available for a few people that had solar panels. A young man named Jose Luis who was only 20 began to understand what we were interested in doing and was happy to take us. We were driven to where the road ended and planned with the driver to pick us up in another town in four days.

We walked across rivers and streams and started to learn more about the Q’eros. After a couple of hours, we reached Nacion Q’ero, where over 20 stone houses with thatched roofs were built. We reached Jose Luis’s house. Much to our surprise there was no one living in the village. We learned that now most have left the community and only return once a year for an annual traditional festival, and sometimes a couple more times if they are farming potatoes.

We decided to go look for our guide’s abuela a short walk from his house. She was not home because she rotates where she lives to take care of their crops and animals. However, we met the only family that lives there year-round. There were several kids playing with toys and their parents were working on knitting garments out of llama wool. We were invited inside where we played with the kids, and they boiled water over the fire to brew tea from a handpicked leaf of a local plant. We were within good company of animals. There was a bunny jumping the home, a cat, and two dozen of their llamas enjoying the fresh grass outside. After heading back to our guide’s house, we made our bed by grabbing a couple of hanging llama and sheep hides and putting them on top of the hay on the ground of the house. Then with a few wool blankets on top our bed was made.

We had dinner around 5 pm as the sun was beginning to set. We ate our lentils mixed with quinoa. The lack of flavor because of my own insistence on not bringing anything extra was at best cleansing to the palate, at worst inedible. By 7 pm without the stimulation of internet or light, we went right to bed. We expected that since it was only a few days after the summer solstice (the warmest time of the year) we would have no issue with the cold. After the first night, it was clear we were wrong. The temperatures were just above freezing.

We were up early, and after eating the cold left-over lentils and quinoa we started our hike determined to find the abuela.  We hiked for 6 hours, taking many breaks to catch our breaths in the thin air and to take pictures of llamas. It was too warm at the beginning of the hike for alpacas, but as promised, our elevation increased, the pressure dropped, and we started to see so many alpacas! Along the way we ran into 30 llamas blocking the trail completely being the animal embodiment of Gandalf saying “you shall not pass” in llama language, luckily after a little bit of convincing, we parted the sea of llamas and were able to continue our journey onwards and upwards.

By midafternoon we made it to his abuela’s house but there was no abuela, only 3 different bowls of oatmeal at different temperatures. Not really, but the village resembled a hobbit house and there was a river running along the village surrounded by giant mountains on every side. It was magical. Jose Luis said that everyone was probably out herding sheep and alpacas. The sun was out, and we laid down and got to sunbathe while we waited.

After resting a little bit, the abuela made it back and was super friendly and happy to see us. Her grandmother instinct was strong, and she brought out alpaca hides for us to sit on and big alpaca blankets. Then she brought freshly boiled potatoes for us to enjoy. The family grows over 200 varieties of potato around the community. These were not just any potatoes; they were the best potatoes we had ever had. Without any seasoning needed they were very flavorful and had hues of blue, pink and purple under their skin.

There were even more animals in and around the house with guinea pigs, chickens, dogs, alpacas, a horse and a cat. We got to meet more family, Jose Luis introduced us to his abuelo, cousin, and aunt as well. His Abuelo was 90 years old. He was super healthy and never had used any medicine. His diet consisted of almost solely tubers, such as the potatoes we were snacking on, fish and corn. He was very energetic!

He in Quechua said something about his alpacas and motioned for us to follow him. We began to understand that he was taking us on a hike to show us his alpacas. We were going straight up the side of the mountain. He was very fast and at time would start running. After about 10 minutes and a lot of ground covered, he sat down on a rock and indicated he needed a break. We looked at each other, and within 5 seconds, his break was over, and he began running again. Then we made it to a lookout, and he became very sad because there were no alpacas there to show us. He seemed sad and sat down on the grass and took out his alpaca wool and began spinning it into yarn. He asked us if we wanted to keep going or go back to the house. Both concerned we would be summiting the mountain where there was snow if we said we wanted to continue, we motioned back to the pueblo hundreds of feet below.

There were heavy rain showers which made it very cold when we sat more than one foot from the fire. We did not know the temperature, but when the rain cleared and we could see fresh snow on all the mountains around us just a few hundred feet up, we knew we were not exaggerating our estimates in the 30s.

Our next destination was our guide’s brothers’ homes in Qocha Moqo which in Quechua means Alpaca.   This town was similar to Choa Choa having a dirt road, but little electricity and no internet. We were at the highest elevation yet of the hike at around 14,000 feet.

We learned about the spirits of sacred peaks around us called Apus and did a Despacho to the Pachamama which was the traditional gratitude ceremony creating an offering to Mother Earth.

After a night’s rest, which would have been good but were were freezing, we bought a few hand-woven beanies and scarves. We were taught about the many different symbols and meanings behind the colorful garments. Sadly, it was time to say goodbye. We headed back to Cusco full of potatoes, and valuable lessons. Thank you or sulpayki as they said in the Hatun Q’ero communities for making us feel part of the family.

The driver shared how he had never been to the Q’ero but that it was very sad to see them living like this. This sentiment had at times leached into the community. Many youths having been told that their lives were bad now would leave in search of a better life. As we drove back towards urban life, the grass turned to pavement, the air turned into smoke and diesel fumes, the water turned brown, and the peace and quiet was once again gone. My phone regained service buzzing with tasks and responsibilities and the endlessness of the consumption of overstimulation was with us once again. Coughing, I said to my sister over the sound of yelling, car motors and honking, “So nice to be back in a city isn’t it.”

Thankfully, there were more mountains on the horizon. The next day, my spontaneous Duke friend Bella joined our next expedition.

Disclaimer: Counter to most of my adventures thus far on my gap year, this one would not be to the same level of teenage dirtbag. We were hiking the Inka trail with a guided tour company called Alpaca Expeditions as you cannot hike the trail without a permit.

We checked in and were handed duffle bags which we could put all our things in that we did not need while hiking. Having offloaded most of my weight and all the logistics and food taken care of, I was able to go into full vacation mode for the hike. At the end of the meeting, we were told that we would be picked up just after 4am in the morning.

Day 1:

Waking up at 3:30 is not morning, I think that should still be considered night. I heard my alarm while still in the middle of a dream. Very confused and bummed that I would never know how the rest of my expedition dream would play out, it hit me that we had an expedition to begin! Adrenaline rushed me to the bus where we would start a couple of hour journey to the trailhead.

We started the hike which began in the desert. The first part passed by many houses and stands selling everything people would forget. We stopped every 15 or so minutes to learn about the history of the trail and of the Inka sites that we could see. The best stop had prickly pears (cactus fruit) for sale. There is nothing as refreshing as cool prickly pears on a hot sunny day.

We were constantly walking past donkeys, horses, pigs, and chickens. It was like we were walking through desert farms.

The Inka trail was the most spiritual and ceremonial pilgrimage route leading to Machu Picchu, only used by the most important members of the Inkan Empire. The most special part of the trail is getting to visit sites along the trail while learning more history about the Inkas.

A little bit after lunch, we were released from the group to go at our own pace, allowing me to partake in my favorite thing to do on trail: Run.

Once arriving at camp, a team of porters greeted us with a round of applause and set everything up. Sleeping tents, eating tents, and even a bathroom tent. I decided I wanted to sleep in my own tent the first night, so I pitched it myself with the porters ogling my one-man home and questioning its waterproofness. Then it was naptime. After resting a little bit as everyone made their way into camp, it was teatime. We enjoyed a pleasant tea party and then an extravagant dinner. The chef really did a good job quenching everyone’s appetite. It was an early food coma kind of night.

Day 2:

We woke up again at the crack of dawn. The objective of the day was to reach the highest point on the hike: Dead Woman’s Pass. We made it to a beautiful lookout where we met up with the first herd of llamas on the trail. Not only could we look out, but also look up to a small divot in the mountain that was the pass. We snacked on some scrumptious grapefruit and were told we could go at our own pace and wait at the top. What was supposed to be a 2-hour hike was only about 45 minutes at our pace. Bella, despite having well under the recommended amount of rest and acclimatization under her belt, beat everyone to the top. Dead Woman’s pass rewarded us with a beautiful view and a fantastic breeze.

Much to our surprise, we were not the only ones that had made it up, a small puppy had also summited and seemed a lot less tired than all of us. No one knew whose it was, but it seemed ready for an adventure.

When it was time to say bye to the pass, we raced down to where lunch had been set up. I was really enjoying the self-pacing. In a similar fashion, Bella was off to the races, to catch up and get cool pictures, I jumped from rock to rock until not a single person from our group was in sight. We saw the green food tent and when we arrived there were sleeping mats laid out as well and we got fresh chicha morada, a drink made from Peruvian purple corn. We were able to take another nap. The hike hard, rest hard pacing was immaculate.

We had a second pass to conquer after lunch. First, we stopped at an Inka site where we were taught about the communication system of the Inkas. Chaskis carried official messages all around the Empire and were famous for their efficiency. They would sprint 2.5 km to the next chaski, physically relaying messages up to 300 km per day. Despite not having an important message to deliver, it was fun to be partaking in this ancient activity of running on the Inka trail.

The further we ran, the closer we got to the rainforest. We were very fortunate to remain almost completely dry thus far, until we waited for everyone atop the second pass of the day, exposed to the elements, and it started to downpour.

Hiding under the green ponchos, we made a makeshift shelter. After waiting 30 minutes in the rain, the guides decided we could continue. We started down a waterfall. The trail was now more riverlike, but without a tube to slide down the waterfall in, we took it one step at a time. That lasted until a porter sped by us, and we realized the rain was letting up. Surprised, tired of walking in the rain, and Bella not enjoying being cold and wet, we followed suit and resorted to running.

We reached a fork. To the left, 100 steps up to an Inka site, to the right, a warm drink, and sleeping bag to crawl into. We made the gametime decision to go to the Inka site. It was beautiful, and to our surprise, the same puppy was there to greet us.

At the campsite, we enjoyed the peace and quiet as the group rolled in.

Day 3:

We had a chill day and our guide paced us and gave us a demonstration of the ancient hunting methods used by the Inka. He turned saw grass into a spear, and a naturally made chord into a rock launcher sending a rock into orbit. We then met more llamas that were super friendly and domesticated. They liked being pet, well, sometimes. Other times they were prepping a big spit ball for an unsuspecting hiker.

From the llamas onwards was a descent. We were now in the cloud forest, the high elevation part of the Amazon. Everything became super lush and green. We even found a tarantula along the trail.

We made it to camp by lunchtime, rested, and then went to see the second to last Inka site of the trail. Once again, the dog joined us. It was so docile and loved being carried. We became worried that it was carrying more than cuteness, however. Some of the hikers claimed that they saw little black dots in the puppy’s fur. They said that the dog has bed bugs and fleas and that we would be sick if we handled the dog. Without access to the internet, the fear, uncertainty, and doubt were more contagious than the said bed bugs, which do not live on dogs, or the fleas that take many hours to spread and are not dangerous to humans. With a little bit of consolation from the levelheaded dad in our group, the fear subsided.

Now, it was time to celebrate the last night, not only of the trek, but also of the year. They set up a mini party and brought us special yellow hats, which were good luck based on Inkan culture. The trail had offered me some time to reflect on the year and make goals for 2024. Despite not being certain what plans lie ahead, I was able to reflect on the best plans being made based with my heart, and not with logic and analytics. I had written many goals for the New Year and am very excited for the split between exploring the world and starting my studies at Duke.

After the festivities, we went to bed well before midnight because we had a grand start planned for the first day of the new year.

Day 4, January 1 (3 am):

We were woken up for the big day! After getting ready, our group started hiking in the dark to reach the control gate before other groups. There stood the final checkpoint between us and the Intipunku aka the Sun Gate. This is where the sun rays would go through and reach a window in Machu Picchu’s sun temple below on the summer solstice.

After hours of waiting for the control gate to open, 5:30 hit, and with enough light on the trail for it to be safe, the gate opened. There was one problem. One group was ahead of us. The trail would soon become too narrow to pass and they were much slower than us. Luckily, much to the slow group’s chagrin, we were able to snake through after drafting behind them for a few minutes. After this, it was game over. We full on sprinted what was supposed to be a two-hour hike, completing it in 30 minutes. We were rewarded with the amazing view of, drumroll please: clouds! Instead of the first sighting of Machu Picchu from high above, we were in the clouds with a complete white out. Even though we did not see Machu Picchu from the sun gate, our luck quickly improved as while we started to walk down towards the entrance to Machu Picchu, we saw the clouds begin to rise and the extraordinary Inka site appear in front of our eyes. It was magical. We went to the entrance and took our first steps inside. From the Sun Temple to the Temple of Condors, it was all spectacular. We must have had a good omen because a giant condor flew overhead while we were walking around. We learned the condor represented the heavens and spirituality, having a close relationship with ‘Inti’ or the Sun God because it flies so high.

After exploring Machu Picchu extensively, we headed down to Machu Picchu town where we had our last meal as a group. It was truly an amazing experience and a great start to 2024. Learning about the Inkas has been fascinating. Every piece of their Empire is remarkable, and I am grateful to have been immersed in two unique, equally different experiences to gain greater insight into what it would have been like to be alive during their rule. Even though they ruled hundreds of years ago, looking back and learning their traditions can teach us how to be more advanced in our present and future.

What I have learned with the Inkas has changed my world.

**Spelling of Inka is reflective of Quechuan language spelling to honor the indigenous peoples and language and culture.

Categories: Gabriel