Straight to the Source

Every year for our wedding anniversary we don our backpacks and head somewhere wild. This year was no different except for the first time, we are in another country. While deciding where to go, Alex noticed a small highlighted box in our Lonely Planet guide to Peru that mentioned a seldom visited but truly unique place: the source of the Amazon River.

Actually, the Amazon River has four sources, but the one furthest from the mouth emanates from a rock face high on Nevado Mismi, just a few hours from our house in Arequipa. And when I say high, I mean HIGH: 5,168 meters (16,955 feet!) above sea level to be exact. We realized it would likely be a grueling journey, but this was our 10th anniversary and it called for an exceptional destination.

Lonely Planet offered little detailed information so we turned to the interwebs, where we found a few blogs with descriptions of the journey and one tour company that offers a guided trek.

We devoured the details in the blogs and turned to the tour company for more information and to rent the necessary camping gear to keep us alive 16,000 feet in the air. With the help of Saul at Peru Adventures Tours, summit post, Brendan’s Adventures, and Viva South and Central America, we had just enough information to make it to our destination without getting lost or dying of frostbite.

Our first challenge began on the way to the bus terminal in Arequipa, when we realized neither of us had our debit cards and we had only 120 soles (about $40) between us.

Not to worry though, because we had a credit card. When we arrived in Chivay, we immediately sought out a hotel that would take plastic.

Church in Chivay’s Plaza De Armas

One of many statues adorning the walking-only tourist street.

“No hostals in Chivay take cards,” said the lady at the tourist office. Caramba!

Luckily before the trip we sewed an emergency stash of dollars into our backpacks, so we busted out $40 to change. Alex and I made the rounds to the local banks and tiendas, but apparently moneychangers aren’t too keen on dirty $20 bills that have been folded up in a secret pocket of your backpack for two months. One teller even chuckled while Alex stood there sweating.

So after exhausting all options, we had the same $40 we started with. Alex walked to a hostel that, according to Trip Advisor, was run by a saint of a woman; he was not sure what he was looking for but what he got was the name of a hotel that supposedly took cards.

We hoofed it to the hotel, confirmed that we could indeed pay with a card and got a room. A little voice in my head told me we should pay immediately, but then I thought, “no, don’t worry.” Plus we were both feeling a little smug for having just navigated this whole hiccup with nothing but our broken Spanish. I should have listened to that little voice though because the next morning, we were informed that only cash would be accepted.

I insisted that we could only pay with a card (or the dirty $20 that no one wanted), and it soon became clear that the credit card machine worked, but the 16-year-old boy “running” the place simply didn’t know how to use it. After a call to his mom who walked him through the steps, plus some help from me, we were paid and ready to begin the real adventure.

Central fountain in Plaza de Armas

Thankful that we weren’t washing dishes for the rest of the day to pay for our room, we walked to the center of Chivay to find a collectivo (i.e. a minivan that crams as many people as possible in, leaves when full and stops at various points on its way to a final destination).

We found a van fairly quickly with the right town names emblazoned on the front, but we were only passengers #2 and #3.

Alex is ready, but that bench in front of him needs three more people and a bag of dead chickens

After an hour, the van was full and we took off. By the time we left, we were packed in like sardines with people sitting in seats and on the floor, giant bags of vegetables, and a bag of dead chickens at our feet.

About 40 minutes later we arrived in the middle of nowhere–our starting point. We were bristling with anticipation as we watched the van drive away.

Then we stepped onto the trail.

The first day was a gradual climb up a beautiful valley. Hiking along a seldom used jeep road we saw a few alpaca and sheep ranches but overall we were overwhelmed by the remoteness of it all.

Over the course of the day we were reminded of the altitude. Alex would bend over to take a photo and start gasping for breath when he stood up. “Don’t forget to breathe” became our mantra.

We started the day at 3,800 meters. Due to the lower pressure, at that altitude there is about 38% less oxygen available per breath. We ended the day at the deserted village of Ran Ran at 4,522 meters (14,836 feet).

You can identify the ruins of Ran Ran as post-Spanish due to the presence of a church

No one seems to know why Ran Ran was abandoned

Towards the end of our day, we gazed down on alpine lakes filled with amazing Andean birds, like the Andean Goose, Giant Coot and Puna Teal. Finally we came over a ridge to find the large laguna that indicated we were close to our destination. A lone shepherd and his herd of alpaca, llama and sheep roamed at the far end of the lake. A fitting end to our first day in the Andes.

The sun set at 6pm and we were asleep by 7pm. Really. Unfortunately, we were both awake a little after 10pm and that is when sleep became a dream. “What time is it?” I asked. Alex replied, “12:15″…”2:20″…”4:10.” And then we drifted into a solid sleep for an hour and a half until the sun hit the tent and we were relieved of the freezing temperatures.

Our 2nd day took us from a hike that felt vaguely familiar (sort of like hiking the hills of Southern California with a little more desert thrown in) to a landscape best described on Brendan’s blog as Tatooine from Star Wars.

As we gained elevation, we transitioned from the alpine lakes and montane grassland and shrubland (known as the puna ecosystem)…

…into the land of sand and rocks.

We saw our first viscacha (the Andean Chinchilla), a flock of Andean parakeets (yes, parakeets!), and a gorgeous waterfall.

We also got our first view of our destination, Nevado Mismi, in the distance.

We hiked across a massive plateau where vicunas roamed and the wind off the mountain gusted in our faces.

Eventually we reached the Quebrada Carhuasanta valley (“quebrada” is a creek) where we would camp  at an elevation of over 5,000 meters. The icy wind didn’t let up and we rushed to set up the tent for a reprieve.

We ate cheese, bread and GORP for dinner to avoid setting up the stove and cooking in the frigid temperatures.

We slept very little that night. Tossing and turning, at times gasping for breath. Even wearing multiple layers, fleece jackets, gloves and hats, we were cold. But we knew the reward would be worth it: reaching the source of the Amazon the next morning on our 10th anniversary.

Alex got up at sunrise, and ever my hero, set up the stove and made coca tea to ease the effects of the altitude. We sipped our tea and ate dry granola, psyching ourselves up to exit our sleeping bags and start hiking.

The day’s hike started with a steep incline as we inched closer to the mountain, taking deep breaths every two or three steps.

Once up on the plateau, the views into the valley were stunning.

It took a bit of searching to find the actual source. We crept along the rock face, finally spotting the spring in our binoculars. We climbed over massive boulders eventually arriving at the headwaters of the Amazon. A stream poured from a small cave, cold and clear.

We sat and gaped at what was really just a rivulet, amazed that it would eventually form the largest river in the world.

After snapping several photos and filling our water bottles, we continued around the rock face to discover the spring that jets from cracks in the wall.

The entire experience was nothing short of amazing.

We basked in our excitement and joy as long as we could knowing that the next hour of hiking would be a butt-kicker as we climbed a huge pass that we estimated at 5,300 meters (17,355 feet). We climbed slowly up the hill to the next plateau where we fully grasped the task ahead of us. The pass looked daunting to say the least. We rested for a few minutes, then began the final push.

I can say that without a doubt this was the most physically demanding thing I have ever done. I developed a pattern of taking 12 steps, then stopping for three deep-ish breaths then another 12 steps and another three breaths. After what seemed like endless rounds of walk/breathe, I reached the top just behind Alex. Despite the pounding pain in my head, my racing heartbeat and the lack of oxygen, I was ecstatic, feeling the high of accomplishing this massive feat.

The gale force winds at the top of the pass forced us to descend quickly into a sweeping valley. Although it took us over an hour to climb, we descended the rocky slope and reached the puna wetlands in about 15 minutes.

We hopped from rock to rock through the braided channels and ponds feeling the physical relief of the descent.

The rest of the day was lovely: the view was spectacular, a light breeze blew and my Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms faded. We saw several herds of alpaca and llamas as well as their friendly herding dogs.

We settled for the night in one of the many abandoned stone alpaca corrals that dot the valley. And for the first time in four days, we got a sustained five hours of sleep.

Our last day, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise glowing on the mountains.

We headed out of the valley and onto the adjacent plateau before making our final descent into Tuti. As we climbed down a crazy steep and rocky trail, the pre-Inca ruins of the village of Naucallacta came into view.

We ate lunch in the shade of the largest of the ruined buildings admiring the beautiful stonework.

After one final steep descent we arrived in the small village of Tuti. We lucked into three collectivo rides in quick succession (and for very little of our remaining soles) that took us to the road where we had one final small hike down hill and across the Rio Colca to arrive at the beautiful Colca Lodge. We spent one romantic and relaxing night soaking in the hot springs, drinking wine and stuffing our faces.

And we made it back to our house in Arequipa the next day with 5 soles to spare.

Turns out, hiking to the source of the Amazon is a bit like being married for ten years: it’s challenging, rewarding, exhausting, and exhilarating, often in unexpected ways. And like our 10 years of marriage, the hike was worth every minute.

New birds: great thrush, black crowned night heron^, rufous collared sparrow^, white winged dove^, american kestral, white capped dipper, oasis hummingbird, andean goose, giant coot, puna ibis, andean negrito, andean flicker, ruddy duck, andean lapwing, andean gull, mountain caracara, puna teal, yellow billed teal, cordilleran canastero, black siskin, andean parakeet, white winged diuca-finch, peruvian sierra-finch, slender billed miner (^ denotes birds seen in other countries on this trip)

14 thoughts on “Straight to the Source

  1. Wow! That sounds like one epic trek. So glad that we were there for that happy day 10 years ago and that we can be “here” for this special day too! Thanks for risking your lives so you could share your adventure with us.


  2. Your blogs are always interesting but this was the best yet. Felt like I was there, while still in my chair in Florida (except warm & not gasping for air). I LOL’d over the credit card debacle and the dead chickens. Keep ’em coming and stay safe and healthy.


  3. Just got to your first post and so amazed at your perseverance. It brought tears to my eyes to the deeper meaning of what you were doing and then you summed up everything that I thinking at the end. Looking forward to reading the others. Cheers to you two on your


  4. Happy Anniversary! Definitely your best blog post yet and probably the best Anniversary Backpack, too. Great photos and an amazing adventure. You guys are really taking the road less traveled now and I bet it just gets better from here. Miss you!


  5. I second what everyone else has wrote. Amazing journey! I felt it in my bones while reading it. I also felt how much you two love each other and how much I love you both!! Aw shucks now im crying.


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  8. You guys amaze me! That was some trek and an awesome post. You are experiencing aspects of Peru that most Peruvians never experience. In your post you comment on the elevation but I missed how many miles you were hiking per day. Congratulations on your 10th anniversary!


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