Hiking to the Humantay lake
(By Martin, Photos taken by Miriam, Mavic and Martin)
After a hot shower and some coca tea serving as quick breakfast, the preordered taxi picked us up at 4:10 in the morning from our AIRBnb apartment. It brought us to the Cusco town center and dropped us there with the advise to wait for Marco. It was almost freezing cold, at least for our standards, 3° C according to the online weather report. An old Inca lady was already up preying on ill-equipped tourists like us, she sold us two woolen gloves and a cap with “Bommeln” for Miriam.
Marco found us and soon we were sitting in a mini bus with seats for 15 but only three other people from Israel were in it, so far. Then we were zick-zacking across town to fill the empty seats and pick up supplies, just to end up at the same plaza after around 40 minutes. Not the most effective way to organize a day tour. We finally left town at 5:00. The mini bus had reclining seats, so I fell asleep quickly and missed most of the driving at hazardous speed, only to wake up two and a half hours later on a curvy dirt road. A view out of the side window showed no road, only a valley around 500 meters down a steep mountain drop. Recent news reports about several Germans dying in two mini bus accidents in Peru on similar roads flashed back to my memory and I decided to continue the nap for a while.
After a three hour ride we arrived in a valley at around 3400 meters altitude. Our guide pointed towards the way that would bring us to a basecamp consisting of a few barracks and several rows of grass-covered roofs, places for hikers to camp overnight.
In a shed-type building breakfast was served, a pancake for everybody and buns with mountain butter and strawberry jam. With it came instant coffee or a selection of fine teas including the coca tea made from fresh coca leaves. We had a chat with an accounting student from Colorado about mountains and travel in general and skiing in Beaver Creek in particular. No. Not Fish Creek this time.
After breakfast Marco introduced the second guide, Christian, and briefed us on the hike in Spanish and English. We had one to two hours to walk up, would meet at the lake for some story about the area, and then walk down for lunch, which was scheduled at 2:00 pm. The first bit of the hike is supposedly not so difficult, the second bit would be more difficult. Everybody was expected to take one of the wooden walking sticks provided by the tour operator. Horses were available for the way up for 70 Soles. But not for the way down since they could slip and make the rider fall. The two guides would be in the middle of the group and at the end. Oxygen was available, just in case.
Mavic decided to take a horse, Martin initially too but then one of the guides said: “You can walk”. So off we went, walking. We had two hours to go up, one hour on the top, and one hour to go down if we did not want to miss lunch.
The way up: Walking for 20 meters, short of air, resting for a minute or two and then walking again. Step by step. I can now better feel with the Reinhold Messners when they wrote in their books that from a certain height on every step takes a huge effort.
It’s interesting though that we were completely exhausted after 20 meters, not able to get enough air, then after a short rest the exhaustion is totally gone. I have to look it up, it appears as if the blood can not absorb sufficient oxygen from the thin air. That explains why breathing oxygen helps.
Most people were faster. There were two young girls, mid-twenties I guess, and they were always a bit ahead of us, but we caught up with them when they rest. Then, one third of the way up, they gave up and got two of the horses that were conveniently placed every 200 meters by the horsemen. That felt great. I was doing better than those young girls. There was also a young couple behind us. She was really slow, but they got better and ultimately overtook us.
The second part is indeed a bit more difficult. It was steeper, and there was more gravel, requiring more secure steps. When we were almost up, the horses that carried the ladies came back with empty saddles.
The lake is beautiful, turquoise color, with the mountain with a glacier in the background. We sat around the guide who told us some Inka stories.
Meanwhile I lookied up, hoping to see a condor, but none would give us the pleasure to show itself. We exchanged some travel experiences with the three youths from Israel, who are on a six month travel around Latin America. We stayed around an hour and took some pictures. Even getting up from sitting position wss hard work and I got terribly dizzy doing so. On the last 100 meters I had developed a dry cough, supposedly also a symptom of altitude sickness.
Then it was time to go start the decent. Mavic joined on foot on the way down. It was a lot easier than going up in terms of breathing. But difficult to find safe steps on the path that is often covered with rubble.
Most young people walked on the grass parallel to the path. I was quite astonished how little thought these folks give to the environment. Any plant in this height takes years to grow. Having hordes of tourists stamping on the grass frequently will convert this slope into a wide rubble autobahn in the long run. I was also surprised that the guides don’t encourage the tourists to stay on track. Anyway, we stayed on the path. Probably living in Germany and having been in the Alps on a regular basis has sensitised us more with respect to vulnerability of sensitive ecosystems.
We reached the dining hall at 14:00. It took another thirty minutes until a basic but tasteful lunch was served. Noodle salad, fried rice, chicken strips and many different vegetables. One of the younger guys, who had rushed up the mountain with two friends, was put on oxygen after lunch.
The last 500 meters from the dining hall downhill to the bus I realized how exhausting the climb was. In the mini bus on the way back a sting in the left chest cage I had developed sitting in 4 long haul flights on the way to Peru returned and the seats were too small and uncomfortable to effectively fight it.
After a first careful travel on the mountain road, passing many horses loaded with goods, and a crazily fast second half of the drive on curvy, asphalted roads, the mini bus dropped us at the plaza in Cusco where we were picked up this morning. We took a taxi home straight away and were in bed by 20:00. I woke up at around 22:00 with a really bad headache. It was accompanied by problems with the stomach and the feeling of having to throw up. I wonder whether that was related to altitude sickness. 600 mg Aspirin did the trick and i was able to go back to sleep. The next morning my head was fine, but still very short of breath. I wonder how long it takes to really acclimatise to the height. We won’t be able to find out because we left after two days.