The road at 17,000 feet in the Andes of southern Peru would often disappear in the fresh snow.
Jacobs Takes a Long Ride to Another Amazon River Tributary
Trying to find two indented tire tracks after 5 inches of fresh snow at 4 a.m. was impossible.
By the time I finished my second visit to the source of the Amazon, the sun was rising. We finally had just enough light for our vehicle to follow the barely visible tracks.
"If we get stuck up here, we would be in trouble because my cell phone doesn't work. And, no one would come to look for us for a few days," said Carlos Zarate, my guide.
I wasn't worried. Zarate had explained that he was in charge of training all the trekking guides in the region. He even spent a year in Switzerland training to become a mountain guide. If anyone was going to get me home, it was Zarate.
Our slow progress allowed me to take in the stunning landscape the high altitude had to offer. Several lakes at 15,000 feet had small flocks of pink flamingos.
"Everything that grows up here is special, hardy and determined to survive," Zarate said, pointing to a green mossy plant that covered a rock. "It's called yareta. The plant growth rate has been estimated at approximately 1.5 centimeters per year. Many yaretas are over 3,000 years old."
Apparently being hardy included us, because two hours later we were on a well-traveled road heading home.
As we drove toward Arequipa, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was happy I didn't fly straight to Peru and within a week try to reach the source of the Amazon.
Taking the slow, hard route by coming over land from Ecuador allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation of what I had just experienced.
Otherwise, these special moments risk slipping into the category of being a ride at Disneyland. That's fine, but some things just can't be replicated - like sipping the cool clear water at the source of the Amazon at 17,000 feet in the Andes of South America.
Next on my itinerary was to follow and see the river at specific points. My goal was to experience on a small budget as much of the Amazon as possible.
"I suggest you go to Espinar, Peru. There won't be any tourists there, but it will allow you to see the Apurimac River in the high canyonlands. Plus, you could see the Inca hanging bridge at Queshuachaca," Zarate suggested.
The Apurimac River basin is considered the longest tributary to feed the Amazon.
The 10-hour bus ride was grueling to Espinar from Arequipa. Apparently, the driver liked one particular song. For eight hours, he blasted that same song over and over. Unfortunately for me, the only speaker on the bus was right above my head.
The people around me on the bus smiled and offered that look of curiosity that silently asked, "What the heck is this guy doing here?"
Zarate's words came floating back into my mind as I stepped off the bus at 10 p.m. in Espinar. "It's a mining area, so there won't be any tourists and the town isn't much to look at."
That became very clear as I stepped from the bus station into the darkness and onto the muddy streets.
The next morning, with the assistance of the hotel owner and his son, I negotiated a taxi ride to the various locations Zarate had scribbled on a piece of paper. At this point, I was completely unaware that it would take 12 hours of driving to complete the list.
"Half payment now, and the rest when you complete the journey," explained the hotel manager in very broken English and with some creative hand gestures. I had asked for his help in finding a good driver.
I have learned over time that the majority of people truly want to help when asked politely and with a smile.
In a small white station wagon - with a windshield filled with cracks and an engine that constantly sounded like it was stuck in third gear when going faster than 30 miles per hour - my driver set off to show me the remote views of the Apurimac River.
It was time to go see what I call the young Amazon.
Breakfast on the muddy streets of Espinar Peru, fresh trout (left). A surprise sighting of a flamingo at 15,000 feet in the Andes of southern Peru (right).