Full moon last night. Bryce announces that the moon is the closest it has been to the home planet for six years, so when the mist clears it is big and briliant in the sky — the more so because we are in thin, mountain air at around 13,000ft above sea level, and a long way from any light pollution. The only lights we can see are a dim, distant cluster on the south side of the Apurimac canyon, which remind us how far we really are from civilization.
This morning we make our way down a steep, muddy trail towards the Rio Blanco, whose wild, avalanche-prone ravine spills into the Apurimac from the north. On the way we walk by an old mineshaft that I have passed on this trail many times over the years. Now, for the first time, I see it is being worked again. The rich lead and silver lode running through this mountain has been mined on and off since Inca times. The Jesuits worked it in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then the hacienda-owning Romainville family mined here in the 1960s and 70s. Now Mario Romainville, just a child back then, has resumed the family mining operation. The ore is carried to the roadhead by mules and then trucked all the way to Nazca on the coast of Peru to be smelted, but the mineral content must be so rich that it’s worth mining for it. Over the next few days we intermittently hear the muffled boom of dynamite exploding inside the mountain.
We meet a group of young trekkers coming the other way, slogging up the mountainside to the pass on their way across from the Inca site of Choquequirao to Machu Picchu. They look exhausted.
Our present surroundings differ radically from those of the first campsite. The chilly high altitude glacial cirque featured a lot of bare rock, and only sparse vegetation, but two days later we are sloshing through mud amidst bamboo thickets and swathes of dense cloud forest. Bright flowers, butterflies and occasional menacing insects, wave, buzz and flutter around us.
Beyond the wayside post of Maizal (an abandoned house and a few camping spots) we switch environments again, entering a drier, scrubby type of forest with a ground cover of dense, wiry underbrush. Nasty stuff to get through, as we will learn soon enough.
When we reach the river, about 7,000 feet of elevation down from the pass, we spend the day’s last hour scrambling over rocks and stumbling along narrow forest trails, trying to find a good campsite a bit further upstream. We need to get the animals to the water, we need flat, rockless spots for our tents, and ideally we need shade in the blazing heat of the canyon floor. All this in one place is hard to find.
We eventually settle on a rocky beach with a few flat, sandy spots where we can camp in reasonable comfort for a couple of nights while our wranglers scout and cut trail towards our goal, higher up the mountainside.