Huaraz, Peru- The village of Huaraz, at 3,091 meters, is a launching pad for the hundreds of trekkers and mountain climbers heading out into the Cordillera Blanca or Cordillera Huayhuash, two spectacular mountain ranges in central Peru. From Huaraz alone you can see 23 snow-crested peaks over 5,000 meters, including the highest mountain in Peru, Huascaran at 6,768 meters (roughly 22,200ft). After warming up in Chachapoyas by climbing through the mud and rain up to the massive mountain-top Pre-Incan walled city of Kuelap (see Photos), I decided it was time to head to Huaraz and spend a few days trekking at some higher altitudes. Two nights traveling in rather luxurious buses and I arrived in Hauraz at 5am, bleary-eyed and hungry. I was immediately beset by several ¨capturadoras¨ offering “un buen precio” on various treks and hostels. Knowing better than to ever follow a tout, I nevertheless let one lead me to a spot for breakfast.
The breakfast was nice, and Percy was persuasive and persistent. Before I knew it I was following him to a small home with cheap rooms and listening to his pitch selling treks in the Cordillera Blanca. Over a cup of mate coca (coca leaf tea- good for altitude adjustment), I told him that I had to check other agencies for prices. I went to one other place in town and was quoted a price of over $300 for a 4 day trek from LLanganuco to Santa Cruz. As I left the place, Percy magically appeared and offered the same trek for $120, leaving the next day. Figuring I was getting a good deal, I handed over the cash. I spent the afternoon hiking up to a viewpoint above Huaraz, surrounded by striking rugged mountain peaks. Then I returned to the home/hostel for my first taste of Cuy (Guinea Pig) roasted over hot coals by a very pleasant señora in traditional garb with silver-capped teeth. Despite the rat-like feet sticking out of the hind quarter I was served, the cuy was quite tasty, somewhere between chicken and pork. The family pets agreed, the dog sitting at attention salivating quietly, the cat mewing loudly and pawing at my plate. I was thinking- it’s a fine line between family pet and dinner on the table.
Up at 5:30 next morning, I was served hard bread with butter, a couple of nice fried eggs, and some very nasty instant coffee, which I had to choke down fast as I was informed that the trekking group was waiting for me. I followed a geology teacher, sent to fetch me, across town. Percy appeared very briefly, in a rush, shook my hand and said “Suerte” (luck), then disappeared. I caught up with the rest of the group- 4 Israelis, 1 Swiss guy named Didi traveling much of the world by bicycle, a young climber from Cali named Abe, and our guide Abel. We piled into a van and spent the next few hours driving up tortuous mountain switchbacks to our starting point at Vaquerìa.
“Vamos.” The first word Abel uttered all day, and we were on our way. Climbing up through campesino country, little kids in colorful wool clothes, snot dripping, ran up to us and in sing-song voices chanted “carmelo… carmelo?” One boy latched on and kept sniggering as he used a little broken mirror to reflect the fierce sunlight into our eyes.
Soon another man and young boy caught up to us, carrying the bulk of our gear atop two burros and a horse. The man shouldered a big canister full of cooking gas, the boy a sack of potatoes, carrying them all the way up. (very tired burro shown left)
For four sun-baked days and three freezing cold nights, we made our way through the Parque Nacional Huascarán. The air grew thinner as we climbed. I would gasp for air every so often, but otherwise felt fine.
The second day was the push up to Punto Union (shown right). As the climb grew steeper and more difficult, the group lagged apart. Didi, the cyclist, and Abe, the climber, fairly dashed to the pass summit at nearly 16,000ft. I was next. As I plodded upward, my pace dragged to a crawl and my coordination failed. They say that at 8,000 feet there is half the oxygen of sea level. At 4,750 meters I couldn´t begin to imagine the ascent to Everest- twice the altitude that was nearly stopping me in my tracks. But as I joined Didi and Abe at the top, the effort of the climb faded quickly, and I tucked away out of the freezing wind behind a boulder to wait for the others.
From then on it was all downhill, mostly. I soon learned that I had paid nearly twice the money that some of the others had. I began to realize that Percy had been handing me a whole load of crap, and I began to consider my options for recuperating some of the cash. I had plenty of time to think about it as we descended through yellow daisy carpeted meadows, chewed to a fine lawn by the dozens of cows, horses, and burros wandering freely through the valleys. Waterfalls crashed over dark green and red mountainsides, just below the snowline, which would suddenly frame towering rugged glacier-covered peaks with jaggy flutes of snow climbing skyward.
Abel, who didn´t say much to most of the group except ¨Vamos¨turned out to be a fine guide, a great cook, and a really nice guy. In my broken Spanish, we traded stories. He spoke softly in Quechua to the father and son helpers, who went on ahead of us with the horses and burros. One afternoon, the boy netted enough trout from the fast-running stream to feed us all. The valley grew narrower, the canyon walls higher, the river wider and stronger as we made our way out of the park on the fourth day. We passed acres of walls and room-like squares made of stacked rocks, some pre-Incan ruins, some harnessed by present-day campesinos as corrals and fences for potato fields. As we walked into Santa Cruz, we passed dozens of men with shovels filing up the hill, some with the smell of Chicha (Peruvian corn liquor) on their breath. The whole village was dedicating the day to cleaning out and repairing the river channels above the town.
The trip officially over, but still many bus-miles away from Huaraz, Didi, Abe, and I decided to part from the group and catch a car to take us to some natural hot-springs, several winding kilometers away. We were dropped off at a rather sorry looking concrete pool, but gladly paid the sole each to finally wash in some warm water. An elderly lady in a bikini, with a flower-strewn straw hat and shining eyes, started speaking to us in English. She invited us up the hill to the real natural pools next to the freezing cold river. We learn from her companion that she is a famous Peruvian actress, still working and due in Lima the next day for a screening. With grace and poise she leads us along a path to a natural pool of absolutely bubbling hot water, too hot to touch. But it mixes with the river water in another pool nearby to a perfectly warmed soaking temperature. After a few minutes she starts digging out thick black mud from the river bank and smearing it all over her body, going on about its delicious feel and exfoliating properties. I join her instantly and am soon covered from head to toe in black sticky mud. She says that they pay hundreds of dollars for this in Europe and instructs me to let it bake hard in the sun before I return to the water. We scrub with sand and rinse off in the mad-rushing freezing cold river. Our actress insists that the next step in skin care is the florescent green algae that is growing on the rocks nearby, but we decide it is time to head back to Huaraz.
- The joy of internet in the mountains of Peru -
I just spent another hour explaining how it all panned out when I returned to Huaraz to confront Percy, then the net crashed and I lost it all. Suffice it to say that it was not a very pleasant encounter and I ended up getting only $10 back after being overcharged by at least $40. Lesson learned: never follow a tout. And always take your time to check carefully what others are paying. But in the end, the trek was fabulous and the guide and helpers gracious. I had been willing to pay $120 for it, and actually would do it again. I only got bothered when I found out what others were paying. Such is life. I will move on with fond memories of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca.
Now in Huaraz, I wish that it was easier to take pictures of people going about their daily lives. So much of what I experience on this trip is difficult to share in pictures because it is so rude and unwelcome to walk around snapping pictures of people. It must be done by stealth, and often the results are poor. The labrynthine market here is just an amazing crashing collage of faces and colors and smells and clothing and wares. The indigenous folk mark their particular regions by wearing distinctive hats. People haggle over the price of bags full of guinea pigs, rabbits, and chickens- all mixed together and climbing about each other squawking. Dozens of taxi cabs beep as they pass by. Campesinos with top hats and woolen sweaters sell bags of popcorn, sugar or salt, from street side stands. Others spread out blankets on the sidewalk full of hand-knitted hats, gloves, scarves, and sweaters. Others just hold out hats, begging. Life in Peru is difficult, but it is also positively brimming. Much as I would like to share what it is like, in the end, you just have to go there yourself, see for yourself, taste for yourself. Everyone who can, should. Of that, already after only two months, I have little doubt.
Next Stop: Lima.