If you go
The best time to travel to Peru is during the June to August dry season. Fly into Arequipa, and from there it’s a four-hour drive to the Colca Valley, where you’ll want to acclimate for a few days by trekking into the world’s deepest canyon. Overnight at the hotel Pozo del Cielo in Chivay before spending another four days trekking to the source of the mighty Amazon River. More info: Classic Travel, www.classic-travel.com.
If you’re going to knock something off the bucket list, it might as well fill a big bucket. That’s my reasoning, anyway, behind camping at a lung-busting 16,200 feet in the Peruvian Andes on a four-day, mule-assisted backpack trip to the source of the Amazon River — a far cry from our Yampa River back home.
Of course, right now I’m filling a different proverbial bucket. It’s 3:30 a.m. midwinter in the Andes and my stomach isn’t exactly enchanted with the altitude. While the rest of the group arrived a week earlier to acclimate, I didn’t have that luxury and now am paying the price. Which is why trip leader Yurek Majcherczyk, a Pole who has led trips in Peru for 30 years, has decided to link superlatives: Trek at 12,000 feet into Colca Canyon, the world’s deepest, to acclimate, and then backpack to the headwaters of the world’s greatest river. It’s the perfect combo trip, putting the Amazon within reach of anyone willing to work for it. While the Colca drains to the Pacific Ocean, it puts you in striking distance of the Amazon, just over the Continental Divide. Majcherczyk is here assessing the commercial feasibility of his plan, bringing me along as an hypoxic guinea pig.
Following the Incas
From the ancient Incan city of Arequipa, I caught a ride from lead guide Carlos Zarate across the altiplano to join the rest of the group in Chivay. The surrounding 20,000-foot volcanoes of Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu hinted of the source’s elevation. One of Peru’s top mountaineering guides, it was Zarate who discovered the 500-year-old mummified remains of the Incan princess Juanita at the summit of 20,630-foot Mount Ampato. Those remains now are on display at Arequipa’s Santa Maria Museum.
Red- and white-striped flags celebrating independence week fluttered off every rooftop and llama as we drove out of town (our Colca Valley destination is so remote that its inhabitants didn’t learn of Peru’s 1821 independence from Spain for another 20 years). The flags augmented the white ash still blanketing the foothills from the eruption of Huaynaputina in the 1600s, which destroyed Arequipa, as well as the pink road-cuts through volcanic tuff and lava flows.
Topping out on the 15,700-foot-high altiplano, where llamas and vicunas grazed nonchalantly, we descended 4,000 feet into the llama-taxied village of Chivay, where I met the group at the hotel Pozo del Cielo. They had spent five days trekking in and out of Colca Canyon as part of Majcherczyk’s combo-meal: Acclimate in the world’s deepest canyon, and then trek to the Amazon’s source.
“It’s the perfect way to do it,” he echoed that night over alpaca steaks. “It combines two great trips into one.”
I’d been with him in the region before. Four years earlier, I had joined him as the sole kayaker on a first descent canyoneering expedition down the Colca’s uppermost 12 miles, which drop an unheralded 2,800 vertical feet. It was a bit of a sufferfest, much like his first descent of the canyon’s lower 60 miles in 1981, a feat likened to Sir Edmund Hilary’s ascent of Mount Everest.
For now, however, I was enjoying the luxury of dinner at a nice hotel, my acclimating coming from mate de coca, a tea made from coca leaves, and an earlier hike up to a series of round rock towers known as tambos on a ridge above town, built as Incan messenger shelters. An original Incan trail passes through Chivay, and the civilization’s signs are everywhere, from terraced slopes to an ancient stone bridge.
After dinner, Carlos gave us some beta on the expedition. It will be cold, he said, so pack warmly, but restrict our gear to two people per duffle bag for the mules. The entire trek will be about 25 miles.
The false Amazon
The next morning we piled into two trucks, turning north out of Tuti onto a barely distinguishable dirt road. A bumpy hour later, we came to the ruins of Ran Ran, built by the Spaniards in the 1500s to “Catholicize” Incan shepherds, before finally piling out at a small creek spanned by two ice bridges. From here, at 15,500 feet, we began hiking west across the Continental Divide to our first camp on the slopes of Nevado Mismi. Following an old Incan trail, imagining their footsteps before mine, I plodded across the desolate, lunar-like landscape. The terrain gave way to fields of scattered boulders, strewn about like kids toys at home, and then fields of spongy moss, only to return to barren dirt.
Over a ridge we saw the colorful tents of Camp 1, thanks to a head start by the mule team, sticking out in stark contrast to the barren surroundings. Two one-pole yurts, a blue one for the guides and a red one for dining, barely fitting a table and nine collapsible stools, served as community shelters out of the cold. As soon as the sun dipped, so did the temperature. Over soup, we decided that Piotr and I would climb Nevado Mismi in the morning with guide Julio, and then catch up with the rest of the group. Countless tosses and turnings later, a flashlight pierced the Andean darkness at 3 a.m., waking me for the climb. I crawled out of the tent, careful not to disrupt the frost crystals clinging to the ceiling.
After paying my acclimation penance, we embark on our bonus side trip: climbing Nevado Mismi, an 18,363-foot behemoth shark-finning off the divide. Strapping on our headlights, we ascend a gradual, rock-riddled slope. I feel like an astronaut, down to my heavy breathing. After a few hours the sunrise bathes the surrounding ridges in a warm glow.
While it is more than any of us bargained for — Julio included, who swings his ice ax to break the knife-like “penatente” ice formations impeding our progress — eventually we summit to take in sweeping views of the Andes. Navigating the same ankle-breaking ice ridges on the descent, we soon veer away from our uptrack and traverse north, descending under a massive cliff. Beneath it is an icefall-lined spring cascading out of the rock. Even at this high elevation, the green you’d expect of the Amazon wastes no time in taking hold. The water trickles through moss-lined rocks and circular blobs of lichen as it cascades through boulders down to the valley far below.
It’s the headwaters of the Carhuasanta, one of two sources of the Amazon, as commemorated by a plaque declaring it the fuente. But river sources, I’ve learned, are determined by length, elevation and volume, and the nearby Apacheta has it beat on the first two counts. So we trudge on, tightening our hoods against a brief Andean snowstorm, and soon catch up with the rest of the group in a broad, barren valley. There, we follow another stone-lined Incan trail up the Apacheta Valley. By the time we reach camp, I’ve been on my feet for 15 hours. This time I have no problem falling asleep.
In the morning we follow an ancient Incan trail, a sidewalk-width path lined with larger cobblestones, up the Apacheta Valley to the Continental Divide. Carlos bends over and picks up a piece of obsidian, used in ancient trade. Rabbit-like vizcacha scramble among scree fields; they’re good to eat, but you have to pull out the tail. An avalanche of llama careen down the opposite hillside. After a few hours, we reach the creek’s headwaters, the Amazon River’s true source. Two stone monuments mark the location, discovered by Polish adventurer Jacek Palkiewicz in 1996 and confirmed on a Peruvian expedition last fall by Kompsat-2 satellite images. A plaque reads, “Here starts the Amazon, the greatest river in the world.” It snakes through grass-lined mounds before disappearing around a steep bend into the valley below.
I think of the Yampa River back home and its source in the Flat Tops. While it runs 250 miles and drains the second-largest watershed in Colorado, it pales in comparison. The Amazon stretches 3,600 miles, providing one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. The thought of celebrating a 26 cubic foot per second release like we did this summer seems trivial. And standing where it all starts serves up a serious dose of humble pie.
Walking away from the group, I add to its volume in my own little way. I then turn northwest to follow its flow. The Apacheta feeds into the Lloqueta, the Ancolloque, the Chalamayo, the Hornillos, the Apurimac and more before joining the Amazon and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. It’s hard to fathom the distance and obstacles its cargo faces along the way.
After posing for photos and catching our breath, we head over the snow-lined continental divide, topping out at 15,800 feet. Descending down to our next camp we pass mounds of yareta asorela compacta, a medicinal plant shaped into giant green balls.
We’re now back in the Pacific drainage, where water has a much easier time making its way seaward. A final seven-mile, 3,000-foot descent toward 20,630-foot Mount Ampato leads us into the plaza de armas in the village of Lari the next day.
That night we toast our success and soak weary muscles in the riverside Calera hot springs back in Chivay. While not exactly in the same league as Dr. Livingstone, we’re proud of our accomplishment — and realize that Majcherczyk’s plan holds water just like the Colca and Amazon do. Sinking beneath the 102-degree springs, muffling the Peruvian flute music playing overhead, I imagine myself a water drop coursing its way to the Atlantic, a journey far more difficult than our own.
Eugene Buchanan is magazines editor for the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at ebuchanan@SteamboatToday.com or 970-870-1376.