Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca
After promising Alyssa I would meet her again in 3 weeks (something she, and I, doubt given our combined sense of Jewish/Trinidadian time), I hopped into a taxi and headed across town to the bus stop heading to Huaraz, a little town north of Lima, hidden in the mountain range of the Cordillera Blanca, the world's highest chain outside the Himalayas, with an impressive 22 peaks over 5000m.
The bus stop was less like a bus stop and more like a bus cemetery. I had opted for economico style travel, and that was certainly what I got. I spent about 30 minutes navigating the slums of Lima looking for the 'office' of the company, which turned out to be a woman on the corner selling homemade booze of some sort....along with bus tickets. Being lost in the slums of Peru at nighttime, the only tourist in sight, brought on once again the welcome terror and exhiliration of travelling that I had been losing over the last few days. I happily stood next to the bus ticket/cane liquor woman, eating my street-cooked fried chicken and smiling happily while the grease of god-alone-knows-how-many-years dribbled down my chin.
The bus pulled up. There was chaos. I managed to find my spot, crossed my fingers my backpack was loaded safely, and settled in for the usual, awful, freezing, no-sleep overnight trip to Huaraz.
There is not much to say about Huaraz, other than its a fairly unimpressive town in a simply spectacular setting. The mountains of the Cordillera just sort of sit there, all snowcapped and whatnot, teasing the steady stream of tourist hikers and mountaineers.
I went for a walk along the main drag after taking a well-deserved nap in the hostel, and negotiated for various tours of various parts of the mountains. I met (shockingly) a friend from my very first hike down in Patagonia, sleeping in the bed next to mine. He was doing the trekking alone, without help, and wantde me to join him... I actively considered it, but given his longer timeline, and my own deadlines to be back in Lima by the 31st, I opted for a guided tour of the Cordillera; a 4day trek around a chunk of mountains, including: A cook, A guide, Donkeys to carry our crap, tents/sleeping bags/insulating mattresses/etc, 2 high mountain passes and many many hours of walking. Right on. I signed myself up, headed home, slept unsoundly, and waited for morning.
The Santa Cruz Trek
I woke up to the sound of Daniel getting ready for his 'late' 6am trek. I was supposed to have been in a bus by now. What the fuck?! Where is my wake-up call?! A knock on the open door and a head sticks its way in. Chrrris? Are you awake? Goddamn South American timing.
I sprint to the meeting spot and dive into the colectivo that had already collected the rest of the group. I apologise in between wheezing breaths, in halting Spanish. I sound like I'm having a stroke. I sit in the middle, behind aging Europeans, and in front of spry Israeli backpackers. We all trade names and languages, and settle on a communal understanging of Span-glish in which we communicate for the rest of the trip. After feeling comfortable with each other's personalities, we get comfortable with each others shoulders, and doze restlessly as the colectivo jerks its way up the mountains.
We come down the other side of the first pass in a high altitude valley with a smattering of houses they call a village. We don our gear, load up the donkeys and hit the trail. The walking is easy, and I race ahead with the 50year old French couple, who strangely cope with the altitude better than the 21year old Israelis. The valley is mossy and damp, and the houses get further spaced the deeper and higher we climb. Soon its only a couple daring cows and donkeys who chew the boggy grass of the upper quebrada, and a handful of houses that brace themselves againt the constant presence of foggy cloud. The Misty Mountains indeed. We share our lunch with the remaining Quechua speaking children, who unabashedly approach us with snotty noses asking for chocolate and sweets.
After 5 hours of easy strolling, we make it to the first campsite under the looming peaks of Paria. Our donkey driver is there with camp already set up, and the kettle boiled for tea (THIS is camping), and we chat in Span-glish before eating our 2 course meal and settling in for a rough night's sleep.
We awoke stiff, cold and upset that the sky remained as gray as we left it. The donkey driver rushed us out of bed with calls for Desayuno! (breakfast), and we made ourselves presentable for our secnd day up the mountain pass.
This was where things were made to get hard... apparently. I strolled happily on, admiring the surroundings and feeling alive and refreshed. Then I would turn around and find I was alone on the mountain. Everyone was lagging behind gasping the thin air and stumbling from lack of oxygen. Although I had never been bad with altitude, I had just realised that almost a month jumping up and down from 0 to 3000 regularly had immunised me to the effects of the mountains. I felt like superman and watched scornfully down the slopes at the human race clambering up the hillside. This undeserved arrogance lasted the rest of the trip, as I left my group in the dust to hike alone, which was wonderful. Alone with the sounds of glaciers creaking, and the smell of fresh crisp air was like a balm to my tired soul. I overtook other hikers and made it to the top of Punta Union pass (alt: 4,750) an hour and a half ahead of my own group.
I climbed the last bit almost at a run, feeling the strain on my chest but excited to summit this massive piece of rock. The pass is about 4 people wide, and as you come through the vista is incredible. On either side the valley spreads out with snowcapped peaks, seemingly so close that you are fooled into believing that if you could just stretch out your hands a tiny bit more, your fingers could scrape off the compacted snow. The valley drops down sharply amidst the granite slopes and its dark moss green strip is dotted with glasslike, turquoise glacier lakes. Its stunning. Spectacular. Picturesque....so I whip out my camera and press 'On'. It ceases to function. It has given out completely at this altitude. I almost cry. I try all the MacGyvering tricks I know with no success. I try to Chewbacca it into working order (banging it against a rock) with no success. I scream with equal Wookie rage. Whatever. The clouds are coming in to ruin the picture anyway, I console myself. And they do. And they are not pleased. And it begins to snow. And I shiver for 30 minutes more while I wait for my group to reach the pass and head down the slippery slopes to the verdant valley beneath for Day 2 of camping.
The camera begins to work as we descend, much to my relief, and by the time we make it to camp, the snow has passed, the cows are back on their feeding circuit of moss, and tea is ready to warm our bodies and spirits. The French couple passes out sleeping pills for those that need (God knows I don't), and we retire again at the early hour of 9 for a long nights's sleep.
Day 3 (And 'Day 4'):
We have realised by this point that the guides have no sense of time. Either that, or as the French point out, they have lied to us to convince us to pay for a 4 day tour when 3 is perfectly fine. The Israelis opt to do the 3, and head the '9 hour' trek down the Santa Cruz valley to the village at the mouth. Day 2 was meant t be 8 and we made it in 6 (I could have done it in 5 with my newly discovered Mountain Man abilities), so we take this 9 hour threat very, very lightly. I argue with the guide to do both the hike up to the Mirador (apparently 2 hours) and THEN join the slow Israelis down to the village. I dont want to be stuck at camp at 1 in the afternoon and twiddle my thumbs for 8 hours before bed. He begrugedly accepts, and we set off for Our last day of the stunning Santa Cruz hike.
The weather is fantastic today, something we all appreciate. I join the Europeans to the mirador, where we will have a 360 view of the mountains of the valley. We do. Its fantastic. Pictures are useless here, despite the fact that I took alot with my freshly working camera. (also, 2 hours my ass... it took 20 minutes to get up, and 15 to get down. My GOD! the Peruvians have NO concept of time)
I bid farewell to the Germans and the French in our shared Spanglish, and set off joggin down the track. "Aha. Look at 'eem. A troo Tobagonian runnurrr" waves the French couple, adamant about the fact that Tobago is where we breed our athletes, and assuming that I am one of them.
I reach the valley bottom and begin my long, beautiful solitary walk back to the village, overtaking the Israelis almost immediately, and clicking away at the beautiful scenery, while dogdging fresh lumps of cow/horse/donkey poo along the way. (See Photo Gallery for more)
The hike, as anticipated, was much shorter than 9 hours, and I reached Cashapampa with enough time to have a cold beer with the locals and chat about the difference between sheep and llama wool, before my Israeli companions pantingly made it down to the mouth of the valley.
4 hours, and 2 colectivo death-drives along the roots of the Cordillera and we were back in Huaraz, with the dreams of hot showers and soft beds. To the hostel we went, and slept like the dead.
Return to Lima
I have taken my extra day here in Huaraz like I take all my extra days: eating well, reading lots, drinking some, and doing nothing. Its wonderful.
I head back to Lima on a luxury bus (barely luxury...but worth the extra 8US for my leg room), and there trade in my serious female travelling buddy for a pair of very silly Scottish lads, whom I expect to travel back south for a week of laughs. Along with my week in Huaraz, I expect this to help cleanse the cobwebby feelings of post-Machu Picchu and to put me excitedly onto the second half of my trip: northwards to Colombia.
I have broken my rule against too many pictures in blogs this time as revenge against my camera for failing half-way. I hope its not too distracting a post and I think it will be a long time till the next one, so maybe the large amount of pictures will be a good distraction till next time.
Ciao for now!