We broke camp around 9 am and got over the pass in less than two hours. Either we got more acclimatized or the pass was less difficult. I was happy about it either way.
Viconga Lake was enormous. I could see it from miles away coming down from the pass. Before we arrived to Viconga Lake a few curious heads rose up from the tall grass field on the slopes. They startled me as much as I started them. We stared at each other for a second before it dawned on me: they were alpacas! These guys were a bunch of friendly, fuzzy, fur balls with legs. There must have been hundreds of them in this pack. They roamed the valley feeding on vegetations. We decided to take a snack break near the pack, which also gave me time to change out my lens and take some pictures of these curious Andean animals.
After leaving the alpaca pack, we continued our trek along the west side of Viconga Lake. To my dismay, the trail started to climb again. At the top of this climb we found ourselves standing on the south bank of a east to west ravine. To our east stood the pitchfork shaped Puscanturpa peak towering 17,854 feet above sea level; to our west the ravine stretched all the way to the horizon. I spotted a campsite directly below us, which matched the location on my GPS. However, I didn’t see anyone else setting up camp.
After descending to the campsite, we quickly figured out why no one else was there. It was on a swampy land. My foot was sinking into the soil every other step. No bueno. We decided to head directly to the hot spring, perhaps our friends had gone that way.
We trekked over a bunch of small hills going west. By 2 pm we found the thermal baths. I was expecting a rudimentary pool with murky water and a sulfurous smell in the air, but I was way off. I hardly noticed any sulfur smell in the air. The hot spring water filled three pools.. The small pool on the far end was the hottest and designated for washing with soap. Two larger pools nearby had cleaner water and slightly cooler temperatures. A wash basin was next to the small pool so people could wash their clothes.
After setting up camp, I grabbed my shorts and headed for the pools. The three amigos were already in the pool, each holding a pilsner. They sold beer here?! For 10 soles, I was able to relax my tired muscles in the thermal bath and drink a large, though not so delicious beer. We stayed in the thermal baths until the sun sank below the ridges. I felt clean and relaxed. I smelt like a flower from the fragrant organic soap Mody carried for the last four days. I even had the chance to wash my dirty socks, shirts and underwear. Oh it was wonderful!
We were treated with another surprise at our community dinner when we discovered that the little shop sold eggs and potatoes! I immediately bought four eggs for 3 soles. It was a treat to add fried eggs in our dinner.
Day 5: Lord of the Wins – Twin Passes!
We had to wake up early, 6:15 am, for the first time since starting this trek. We anticipated a long and difficult day: Punta Cuyoc was the highest pass on this trek at 16,568 ft and San Antonio Pass was the second highest pass on this trek at 16,500 ft. We planned to set up camp at Cuyoc and to climb San Antonio Pass with a day pack.
The three amigos planned to take the long and arduous two pass route to Camp Cutatambo. Mattieu had a rough day at Viconga, spiking a fever and having chills and shivers all night, so the French duo decided camp at Cuyoc as well. We said goodbye to the three amigos, who broke camp at 7 am.
When we finally broke camp, I reluctantly waved goodbye to the hot spring. Perhaps we were finally getting acclimatized, we both enjoyed the trek up Cuyoc Pass. Tricia led the way per usual. We overtook the guided group with their cute small packs and arrived to the pass at 11:15 am. The view was stunning. Glacial peaks lined up one after another all the way across our right hand side. The overhanging glacier of Cuyoc Mountain was so close that it seemed touchable. The glacier looked like a giant scoop of ice cream sitting on a waffle cone.
We lingered on the pass for a short time taking some photos and taking in the view. The descent from Cuyoc Pass was on a steep scree field. Tricia described it as walking on marbles. Fortunately it didn’t take us long to get to the bottom, where a field of sage-like plants with blue hue covered the valley floor. We found Cuyoc Campsite a little after noon.
By the time we got to the camp, the three amigos had already headed up Jurau Pass. We sat next to our tent and watched them slowly marching up the steep scree field.
After lunch, we headed up San Antonio Pass with Cedrick and Mattieu. The valley floor was swampy with holes about ten feet in diameter filled with murky water and vegetation. At one point, Cedrick decided to find out how deep these holes were. He stuck his hiking pole into one of them and the water level went all the way up to the handle! People could drown in these holes.
The hike up San Antonio Pass was steep. Cedrick was prepared with a large bag of coca leaves which he shared with us. It was Tricia’s first time trying coca leaves. Despite being on a higher altitude earlier that day, Tricia started to feel a headache as we ascend the pass. We summited the pass in one hour and 15 minutes. From San Antonio Pass, we climbed up more onto the rocks on our left providing us with an unobstructed view of Trapecio. The view here was probably my favorite on this trek: the white peaks of Trapecio, Jurau, Carnicero and Sarapo all lined up behind a turquoise Laguna Jurau. In the distance, you could see a glimpse of Laguna Sarapocha.
We came back to our camp before sunset. A group of three trekkers set up camp close to ours. They were trekking counter-clockwise starting from Llamac. They looked like seasoned trekkers but they seemed to have underestimated the altitude gain on this day. I heard one of them retching in the middle of the night. This was not a good place to be sick.