I often tell people that my ideal life would be wandering the world on a horse. Borders and oceans and logistics get in the way of living that lifestyle full time, but I love few things more than exploring beautiful places on horseback. I was excited to get the chance to share a full day ride to Pumahuanca with Frontierlab’s Kyd Campbell and a fellow Californian named Amelia.
We start off by riding through a small town, beside train tracks and corn fields and buildings constructed from brick and stone, with the view of the mountains in the distance. Listening to the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, I feel as if I have been transported back in time. Only the power lines remind me that it is still 2019.
We follow the trail as it winds up into the mountains. Across the valley, high on the opposite peak, stand the ruins of three stone structures, where the Incas once stored grain. In a field below, a farmer is taking a break, his pan flute providing a soundtrack for our ride.
We make our way up the mountain, riding past rushing rapids and native forest, our horses picking their way over the rocky ground. We stop at a stream to water our horses. A team of men pass by us, herding about a dozen ponies and small mules, laden with packs, up the trail. Behind them, a family follows, carrying hiking poles. We ask them where they are going. They tell us they will be four days on the trail to Machu Picchu, camping along the way.
We encounter more traffic, this time a flock of multi-colored sheep that scatter, bleating, as we ride through them.
The trees part to reveal a complex of stone ruins. This is Pumahuanca, once a major way station. We stop here and tie up the horses, as the Incas used to hundreds of years ago (though they would have brought llamas instead), and spread out our picnic blanket. We boil up some cowboy style coffee and share a meal of delicious chicken pesto sandwiches on sourdough bread. As I made my way South through Latin America, everyone told me that Peru had the best food. They were not wrong.
The sheep return, peeking over one of the crumbled stone walls, just a few at first and then the whole flock, breaking over us like a wave. Soon the shepherds arrive, two old women with a little girl and a pair of sheep dogs.
“Look at that perfect Puma,” Amelia says. I scan first the mountain and then the clouds, but the puma in question is formed from the ruins. “See, there, looking out toward the mountain? And over there, a bull.” Once she points it out, I can’t unsee it, the cat seated on his haunches, the bull with his head down, facing the puma.
Kyd sets out a little ceramic horse and passes out cigarettes made with mapacho, wild jungle tobacco. “What did you want to celebrate with this ride?” she asks Amelia.
Amelia wants to dedicate the experience to her brother, and to the members of her family who can’t be there. As the two women talk about their families, I notice that the little horse is the sort that comes in boxes of Red Rose tea and am reminded of my mother, who collects these figures. I am far from home, and not very good about staying in contact. I set the intention to send her an email.
We hike up to the top of a hill, where we can see an amazing view of the ruins and the whole valley. It is an exceptionally beautiful day, and an exceptionally beautiful place, ancient but still teeming with life. We stay until the air starts to chill, and then return to our horses.
At the stream where we paused before, a family is playing in the water. I watch a little boy walk across a log suspended over the water, balancing like a tightrope artist. A little girl waves to us, showing off her missing front teeth.
On the way back I notice cacti and little brown birds, and white butterflies playing among pink flowers. The town is more awake when we return, bustling with mototaxis and tourist vans, but the horses aren’t bothered at all. It has been an excellent day.
Lily Ridley, April, 2019
100 days ago I decided to 'stay home' for 100 days. When I began the 100 days I thought I would write regularly about the process. I didn't, and I even forgot about the 100 days for some periods of the time. But last week I remembered, calculated the end date and I'm writing now. This is a much more personal post than most on this blog but I want to have this recorded here and anyways I feel good about sharing it publicly. Think of this as a thank you to all of the people and animals that have taken part in getting me to where I am now.
First to explain the original plan, the 'staying home' was basically a technique to try to become more grounded in my new home and after a few turbulent years. The plan was to stay within a couple of kilometers of my home, only leaving for food and supplies, but it wasn't totally strict, if an emergency happened or I got a guiding job I was allowed to leave the zone temporarily.
Even through forgetting about this whole plan at some periods I am happy to say that I did sucessfully follow the plan and the principal objective of becoming more grounded in my home, family, social life and business has been achieved beyond my own expectations.
I started the 100 days on December 1st, 2018 and I am ending them on April 13th, 2019. As you can read in my inital blog post about this plan, this is the second time I have used this 100 day technique, which I made up myself, the first being from December, 2012 to April, 2013.
I did leave the area around my home a couple of times, once to lead a tour for 2 nights and 2 days in the Wakrapukara region, another to assist in a mountain search operation for 10 days in Calca a few kilometers away and a couple of times to go to the city of Cusco an hour away to get my car fixed, to follow two mountain first aid courses and do a bit of other shopping. I also went on a one day road trip to the jungle three hours from our home, went up and down the valley to have lunch a couple of times and did two overnight trips to villages within 3 hours drive with some out of town friends that visited. I feel like none of those outings were really frivolous regarding my plan and didn't greatly affect the connections and grounding I was working towards. The10 day search operation was intense, sad and traumatising and this of course affected me but it was an emergency and so within my original 'rules'.
So what happened within the plan? Well, I stayed home a lot more, I cooked at home much more than previously, I spent a lot of time with my daughter and the neighbours on the property, I received lots of visitors, I said no to lots of invitations and events and I got my dream business of starting up my own ranch off the ground surprisingly sucessfully. I recoved my body back to its more sporty working state since giving birth nearly 2 years ago and am living in a house where I am very comfortable.
At the end of December, after searching for my friend's daughter in the mountain, an extremely difficult 10 day process which led me to recognize the wealth of resources that I have but unfortunately ended in great tragedy, I was exhausted, heartbroken, shocked and I didn't even want to leave home. It was also a time when the tourism was lowest here and I had very little work contracts and I was starting to think about what I was going to do to survive. I had the plan to get my own ranch business going but I thought it most prudent to wait until April or May to bring the horses here and I had just started preparatory work like building up my website. But I felt terrible and I really missed my horses and their medicine.
On January 15th I decided to take the jump and gave the order to transport the horses here. They were here by the 18th, so we suddenly had 4 large horses and a pony here and I had my dear old friends back, and a new one. I quickly got my saddles and gear back in an operable state, launched the website and to my surprise in the "deadest" part of the tourist season, I had work almost daily. And that's how it's been going since then.
This sudden success caused me to quickly need to make solid plans to have help to hold my work, home and family life together. Working with some incredible volunteer helpers has been a key as well as taking my housekeeper/nanny on full time. I find that when I need to be extremely and constantly active I am also more focused and things fall into place as they should. I'm happy that at this phase of my life I am able to maintain my physical and mental energy levels so I can step up to this unexpected occasion. I had really thought I was taking the big risk of getting into financial problems by bringing my horses here so early before the tourism season begins.
Every day I have been realising that I have made the right choice. I am busy, but not too busy that I can't spend lots of time with my daughter and even still socialise a bit. I also have noticed that what I have done in this period, but also slowly over the last few of years is to omit one by one many of the things that don't serve me and that I don't like in my life. Now I just do what I like most (of course we all have obligations and have to take care of things like fixing the car), and I don't do things which don't serve me. Slowly I am becoming more able to observe what is superfluous in my life and I can clearly see what does me well.
Having a ranch and a business and being a single mother I have to work hard. I wake up early, I have to attend to lots of people and animals and I do my office work late at night. Luckily there are so many moments, nearly each day, when I feel fully grateful, for the amazing view, for feeling 'cool' because I get to guide people to incredible experiences, for getting paid to hang out with horses, for being able to spend a lot of time with my daughter and see her develop so beautifully, that I have no doubt that I am doing the right things with my life right now. And I think that this is the first time in my life I have felt this way.
It takes SO MUCH effort, time and process to say "I am just going to follow my dream". I have so many people in my life that support me unconditionally, but even they sometimes, in their efforts to help, have made comments that planted seeds of doubt. The society, education, conditioning, strangers, observers, envious people, scared people, loving people we all encounter in our lives all contribute to insecurity and doubt, because of course we all want safety and confirmation that we are doing the right thing.
I can now see that confirmation for me comes best in those moments when I am riding on my own in an epic landscape, on my mule, with the sun hitting my back, taking a moment to absorb that everything I have done, everyone I have encountered, everywhere I have been and every thought I have every thougth has brought me right to this place and time. And I think that is pretty close to 'grounding'.
Is everything perfectly calculated? No way. Am I totally focused on my goals at all times? No way. Is my life completely clean of issues, things or people that don't serve me? Nope. Am I always in a good mood? Definitely not. But I am just where I want and need to be right now, right here, riding along on the ground and I can see the dirt trail ahead of me.
My 100 days are over now but I don't plan to change my rythm much. I do feel that now that I have my business and life established here I could consider occasionally traveling temporarily if I felt like it. In any case, now you know where to find me.
One of the places I often take my riders to is a well-kept Sacred Valley secret. Thereare tons of secret sites here in the valley but this one is so easy to access and so interesting that I have often wondered why it's one of the least known spots. The site, near the bottom of the trail that leads to the very well-visited Maras Salt Pans is called Pichingoto and this is the story that the locals have told me about it...
Apparently in the local Qechua language 'Pichingo' means bird and "toco' means holes or caves. The old name of the site was Pichintoco, 'the caves of the birds'. The village indeed includes a few different eras of hand made stone and earth housing attached to the rock sides of the large basalt rock cliffs and overhangs. The first era of housing, from the 12th-14th century pre-Incan 'Wari' people are indeed tiny caves with little square doorways, more like windos, to get in and perch inside. The legend goes that the first people of Pichintoco were highly spiritual and connected to nature and actually believed they were the decendants of birds. They twisted strong Andean grasses into ropes and made ladders to climb up to their caves. Back then it was a time of tribal wartime and they had discoverd the valuable salt spring up the ravine so they must have been in defense mode.
The second phase of Pichintoco are homes that are significantly large and more comfortable, starting down on the ground, alcoves attached to the rock. Some of the alcoves have a few connected rooms. The overhanging rock cliff leans over the houses, nearly like a cave and offered shelter and the houses had straw roofs. Now some of those houses can still be visited. These are from around the 15th century once the Incas had arrived and taken over the salt flats.
The newest phase of the Pichingoto includes a small Spanish church from the 17th century that has recently been renovated and some colonial and new stand alone adobe houses, three of which are still lived in. in 2010 there was a fire in the ancient village that drove out most of the families that were still living there and only two have moved back. Damage from the fire can still be seen buta lot of the very old structures are luckily still intact.
Now people store animal feed in this dry sheltered area and very few people visit the site. Whenever I go I get a feeling of ghosts and whispers and I wondered why nobody hangs out there and why they call it the Pichingoto 'ghetto', until someone told mre another story.
It's important to remember that the original people of Pichintoco were those that discovered the salt source, a stream of very salty water called the 'Qori puqio' or 'golden spring'. But they discovered it back in a time when the Andean diet was very limited. Developments in high altitude farming, such as the important work done at the Moray incan Agricultural Laboratory didn't happen until the 15th-17th century. The people living in Pichintoco thus are a simple diet and when they started to consume the salt, getting benefit from the minerals, they likely also generated imbalances in their bodies.
The site isn't called Pichintoco anymore, it's called PichinGOTO now, which, I was told, roughly means 'the birds with gout', gout being an illness one can get when they are suffering from a mineral imbalance. Gout causes the growth of debilitating goiters around the throat area and also causes mental disturbances (which might have contributed to the augmented 'spirituality' and strange living style of the original inhabitants of Pichingoto. This area below the salt flats was a workers ghetto.
Nowadays the salt is iodized for human consumption, preventing gout and we have much better diets that make imbalances quite uncommon anyways. This history was told to me in pieces by various locas from the Sacred Valley and from the immediate area around Pichingoto. All I can say for sure is that it really feels like visiting a mysterious ghost town. Let me know when you want to comke for a ride and explore the ancient village of Pichingoto and/or the Maras Salt Flats above. From our ranch we can visit Pichingoto in a 2 hour round trip or we can visit both sites in 4 hours.
Check out the details on our page!
Maras, Misminay, Moray Expedition Report: 2 days, 4 women, 4 horses, epic culture in the Sacred Valley.
Last week I had the opportunity to ride with 3 incredible women for two days through the valley and high plans of this Andean landscape. The group consisted of myself and 3 solo travellers, an epic team. Every day I feel deeply greatful to do this work of leading journeys and this time it was especially amazing to travel with 3 powerful women from 3 different walks of life. What began as a group of clients quickly turned into a lasting sisterhood.
This journey started at the Frontierlab Ranch in Urubamba, climbing up to the Pre-Incan salt pans at Maras, up over the great plains of the Sacred Valley's largest agricultural area and up to the community of Misminay where we spend the night. On the second day we ride above the iconic Moray Incan Agricultural Laboratory and enjoy a picnic facing the great glaciers and sacred mountains from a high point before droppinch pack down to the Willkamayu river and passing ancinet sites and new villages until we reach the ranch again. It's a two day journey of riding in vast open space, surrounded by the monumental Andean landscape and a cozy night spent full of culture, textiles and Andean flavours.
One the journey we enjoyed amazing views across the plains and out to the toher side of the valley where we can see the Chicon glacier and other 'Apus' (Sacred mountains) eye to eye. At the beginning of the ride everyone was excited to getto know each other and full of questions, talking a lot upon the way but as soon as we came up from the Salt Flats and the landscape opened up everyone fell silent for quite a while, in awe of the panorama. I've been running these trips and exploring on my own in the valley for a long time and I still take photos and even sneak the occasional selfie! It never gets boring. The long straight clouds that hung below the glacier and along the valley, as seen in the picture below, are referred to as 'serpents' in the Andean culture and are believed to be a sign of blessing for a journey forwards.
One of the things I always take great care about is in matching each rider with their horse. Each one of our horses has their own distinct personality and style and the journey always flows more beautifully then each big animal fits well with their human counterpart.
The night before our departure I received a mail from a client asking for a ride but I had to say I was already hedding out on a 2 day journey. She was a first time rider but wrote me back and convinced me that she wanted to do the trip and was going to be able to handle it. Was she ever right! She rode our big fancy Peruvian Paso champion Abakur and did fabulously the entire way! She is undoubtledly the most confident and capable first time rider I have had the oportunity to ride with. She learned quickly and sat solidly. A hebalist, she provided rich knowledge about the medicinal plants we passed along the way and shared info with the women in Misminay community.
Our smallest rider took on our biggest horse... well our mule Josias actually! And she greatly enjoyed the solid stride and confidence, often hanging back and blissing out. Since she was a more experienced rider looking for a more intimate connecting with the landscape, Josias the 'cadillac' was the perfect partner. She was a healer and shared some of her magic with another rider. I truly believe that everyone is led to this region for some type of personal process and it actually occurs more frequently than one might expect for healing events to happen spontaneously on our journeys.
Our third rider, a musician who had ridden with us a few times before on her visit to Peru, specially requested her favorite horse, our young guy Ninja. He's a small Peruvian Paso work horse from Arequipa's Colca Canyon. She said that she always enjoyed riding him and was really looking to develop a deeper relationship with her horse on the journey. When we arrived to spend the night in Misminay she took care of Ninja, unsaddling and brushing him and making sure he had a great pile of green hay for dinner. We always encourge our riders to spend as much time with their horse as they wish to, before, during and after the ride. Members of the Misminay community sang us a welcome and later a farewell song and our guest also sang a song for them. The connections that we make with community members in Misminay and the warm hospitality always makes it feel like arriving home.
Each day we rode for about 5 hours, with lots of interesting stops. We enjoyed food at a great restaurant in Maras and event tried some guinea pig and other Andean delights in Misminay. We love working with and supporting this community. When we stay in Misminay we're hosted by a collective of 8 families, we stay in one of their homes and they all share workshops about their medicinal plant and textile traditions with us. Some older community members only speak Quechua and the younger ones translate for us into Spanish. There is no cultural barrier, whenever we visit we become part of the family. This time tears were shed by all the women as we departed and everyone said they'd be back.
This journey allows us to get out of the regular tourist circuits and become part of the landscape. Let us know if you'd like to join us for a two day journey sometime!