DOES THIS LOOK INFECTED?
We planned to spend the rest of our trip in Huaraz and the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, getting from Cuzco, in southern Peru, to Huaraz, which is northeast of Lima, isn’t simple. There is no commercial airport in Huaraz, so we had to fly back to Lima. From there, we’d take an 9-hour bus trip the rest of the way. Because Star Peru changed our flight to a later time, we couldn’t catch a morning bus from Lima to Huaraz. Instead, we had to spend the afternoon in Lima and then take an overnight bus.
This was inconvenient for a couple of reasons. First, I’d read numerous warnings about avoiding overnight buses due to safety concerns. Worse, any time we spent in Lima, at sea level, would cause us to lose some of our acclimatization to altitude. Both Cuzco and Huaraz are at elevations of around 10,000 feet. The Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Huayhuash are much higher, with multiple peaks exceeding 20,000 feet. We wouldn’t be climbing any of those mountains, but some of the passes on our route exceeded 16,000. By comparison, the highest point I’d been to (and the highest peak in the contiguous United States) is California’s Mount Whitney, at 14,500’. Our biggest concern going into this trip was the danger of altitude sickness.
We were up early on Friday for our flight to Lima. The flight was smooth, and we were treated to views of Salkantay, the highest peak in this part of Peru (20K feet). In the Lima airport, we hunted for a taxi to Miraflores. The first two companies we checked quoted us a price of 100 soles ($30). The third was only 45 soles ($15), which was much more reasonable. We had the driver take us to the South American Explorers Clubhouse, where we dropped off our luggage for the day. Christy also used the free phone service to call home. Then we headed out into Miraflores, looking to kill some time before heading to the bus station that evening.
First on our agenda was lunch. Since we actually had appetites, we decided to splurge. We took a long walk through the heart of Miraflores and down to the oceanfront. We dined at the Rosa Nautica, which is situated at the end of a pier. There we had a great view of surfers riding crashing waves. We had seafood for lunch, which was excellent. It was a bit expensive, but it was worth it. It was probably the best meal we had in Peru.
We hung out on the rocky beach for awhile. Of course Christy had to touch the Pacific. This worked out ok for her, but due to my typical clumsiness I ended up with wet shoes and cold feet. We returned to the clubhouse at 4:30 and picked up our luggage, including the duffel bag we’d stored there for the first two weeks of our trip. The clubhouse closed at 5pm, which created a bit of a dilemma. Our bus was due to depart at 10:30, but we didn’t want to hang out at the bus terminal all evening. Instead, we took a taxi over to the Hitchhikers Hostel, where we’d stayed earlier in the trip. They agreed to let us relax there, even though we weren’t spending the night. We watched some TV and made a weak attempt at playing Scrabble using only Spanish words. Later I walked a few blocks to a Chinese restaurant, where I picked up dinner for us.
At 9pm we got a taxi to the Movil Tours bus station, in the central part of town. The bus station was a bit of a zoo. We picked up our tickets (which we’d purchased in advance), checked our luggage, and paid a $10 excess baggage fee. We spent the next hour people-watching. We saw some other gringos, including two French Canadian girls we’d met earlier in the trip on the bus from Agua Calientes back to Cuzco. However, most of the folks in the terminal were Peruvians. The most interesting thing about the locals was checking out some of their luggage. We saw one person with a coat rack, and another with a radiator.
We left at 10:30. The bus ride was actually quite nice. We were given a light snack and drink upon departure, along with blankets and pillows. Our seats reclined and were very comfortable. We watched a Disney movie (in Spanish) for a while, but I eventually drifted off to sleep. I managed to get some rest even though I woke up frequently. The worst part of the trip came when we made the climb up into the mountains. I kept waking up because my ears were popping.
We arrived in Huaraz at 7:30, shortly after sunrise. After a day in the fog in Lima, the brilliant sunshine in Huaraz was overwhelming. We picked up our luggage and got a taxi to our hotel, the Albergue Churup. It was too early to check in, so we went up to the restaurant on the top floor for a cheap, hearty breakfast. From there, we enjoyed our first views of the snowy Cordillera Blanca over the rooftops of Huaraz.
After breakfast I headed out to meet our travel agent, Christian. I had found him while researching the hiking opportunities around Huaraz. His website, http://www.huayhuash.com/, provided quite a bit of useful information. Although we were planning to do our backpacking independently (without a guide), we had Christian help us with things like bus tickets and day trips. That morning I was to pick up our remaining bus tickets. Christian had also offered to go over the route we were planning to backpack in the Cordillera Huayhush. Christian is an expert on the area, having grown up there in the village of Llamac.
I found Christian’s office, and he arrived a few minutes later. We picked up our bus tickets to Pacpa, which would get us close to the trailhead for our Huayhuash adventure. I paid our remaining balance, and we discussed our route using the map of the Huayhuash I’d picked up at http://www.peaksandplaces.com/purchase_map.htm. Christian provided a bunch of useful information regarding getting to the trailhead, possible camping spots, alternate routes, things to see, side trips, and possible emergency exits. By the time we were finished, I was feeling much better about our trip.
Afterwards he walked with me across town to the bus station where we’d depart for Pacpa. Then we headed downtown, where he led me to a store with camping stove fuel. This was a huge time saver, as I probably would’ve wandered around all day looking for fuel without his help. The fuel wasn’t cheap though (about $13 for a large canister, which is a good bit higher than it is back home).
I returned to the hostal and found Christy waiting in the lobby. She wasn’t feeling well. Her right forearm was swollen and inflamed. It had been bothering her ever since the fiasco with the I.V. at the hospital in Cuzco a week earlier. This was alarming, so we asked one of the hotel employees for advice. They called a doctor for us, who came to the hotel and examined Christy for less than $20. He told us that Christy’s arm was infected. We explained what our plans were, and he felt that we could continue with our backpacking trip. He was confident that the infection would subside with proper medication. He wrote us a prescription for antibiotics and took me to a pharmacy nearby to pick up the drugs. The medicine cost another $25 or so. I walked back to the hotel from there, and returned before noon. What a morning!
We checked into our room, which was quite nice. Then we headed to the California Café for lunch. This was a pleasant place, with good food and lots of Grateful Dead on the stereo. We ended up returning here a couple of times later in the trip. Afterwards we explored Huaraz. Huaraz was probably our favorite town in Peru. The weather was always nice and the people were friendly. Huaraz is well off the regular tourist circuit, and most of the travelers there come for the hiking and trekking opportunities in the surrounding mountains. As a result, Huaraz was much more relaxed than Cuzco or Lima. It’s also a much smaller city, with a population of less than 100,000.
We found a grocery store and picked up some food for our backpacking trip. We then wandered into the central market. The central market had virtually everything you can imagine for sale. We picked up more backpacking food there before heading back to the hotel. Christy had an afternoon nap while I organized our gear.
That evening we dined at a Thai restaurant, Siam de los Andes. It was a bit expensive, but fantastic. It was our best meal in Huaraz, and one of the best of the whole trip. We chatted with the owner, who looked just like the Temple High Priest from the final season of the T.V. show “Lost”. In addition to being a chef, he also provides guided mountain biking trips in the Cordillera Negra (the mountain range immediately west of the Cordillera Blanca and Huaraz). We considered taking a trip with him, but ultimately didn’t have time to squeeze it in.
We had two full days to kill in Huaraz before we started our backpacking trip in the Cordillera Huayhuash. Our primary purpose during this time was to continue to acclimate to the altitude. This meant spending our time at high-altitude without over-exerting ourselves.
We spent Sunday exploring the ancient ruins of Chavin de Huantar. The Chavin culture is one of the oldest in South America. The Chavin people settled in the Callejón de Huaylas (the valley east of the Cordillera Blanca) between 1500BC and 300BC. Chavin de Huantar was the principle religious and culture center for the Chavin people. The original temple was constructed around 1200BC, while a new temple was constructed sometime around 500BC. The temple features a maze of underground tunnels. The tunnels include unusual water channels, ventilation passageways, and even mirrors. Researchers believe the underground chambers were used by priests to intimidate non-believers. The priests used trumpets, underground lights, and water to frighten their victims. It is thought that the victims were given hallucinogenic drugs prior to the performance to magnify the effect. Needless to say, this sounded too cool to miss.
We had set up a guided tour with Christian prior to arriving in Peru. The tour included a guide and transportation from Huaraz to Chavin de Huantar and back. We got up early and had breakfast at the hostal. Afterwards, a tour bus picked us up. The ride was pleasant despite a rough road. We spent a couple of hours sightseeing from the bus window. The locals were very colorful. We passed women in native dress carrying crops. We also spotted a man walking a pig on a leash. Even better were the views of the Cordillera Blanca from the road. We drove up through the mountains, and took a brief rest stop beside an alpine lake. We took advantage of the opportunity to stretch our legs before resuming the ride. We passed through the heart of the range by way of a long, recently constructed tunnel. On the far side we passed an impressive statue of Jesus overlooking the valley below.
We descended the wild, east side of the mountains, which are more lush and green than the desert-like environment around Huaraz. We made a long, slow descent on switchbacks, and arrived in Chavin de Huantar around noon. We had lunch at a local restaurant, which was decent and inexpensive. I had fried trout with potatoes and rice. The highlight of the restaurant was its gardens, which featured many flowers including Calla Lilies.
From there we headed over to the temple ruins. We didn’t get much out of the guided tour, as our guide only spoke Spanish. Unfortunately, English tours aren’t currently offered. That was ok though, as the ruins were still fascinating. Also, many of the important features have informational signs in Spanish and English. We started outside, visiting the Square Plaza, the Circular Plaza, and the Black and White Staircase, which was the primary entrance to the temple. We passed the Raimondi Stella, which is one of the more significant engraved stone sculptures at the site. From there, we explored the underground tunnels, known as the galleries. This was my favorite part of the tour. I had a blast wandering through the maze of dark, spooky passageways. In one of the galleries we found the Lanzon de Chavin. The Lanzon is a tall stone sculpture that depicts the primary god of the Chavin culture.
The tour concluded outside, at the last remaining Tenon Head on the temple wall. Tenon Heads are stone sculptures that depict a human head combined with animal (typically cat or snake) features. The temple used to feature many Tenon Heads, but most of them have been moved to The National Museum of Chavin nearby.
The museum was our next stop. The museum, which was partially funded by donations from Japan, is first rate. It features numerous informational signs and dozens of sculptures, including many Tenon Heads. The museum also contains the Obelisk, a massive carved stone sculpture.
Although we were a little burned out on archeological sites, ruins, and museums, our visit to Chavin de Huantar was a day well spent. In fact, of all the ruins we visited on our Peru trip, Chavin was among the three most impressive (along with Machu Picchu and Pisac).
On Monday we continued our acclimatization process with a dayhike. Prior to our trip we’d set up a guided dayhike to Laguna 69 in the Cordillera Blanca through our hotel. Despite exhaustive research, it was (and still is) unclear to me whether a guide is required for dayhiking in Huascaran National Park. Guides are required for backpacking in most parts of the park. Ultimately we decided to take the guided trip to be on the safe side. Although a little pricey, the guided trip included transportation to and from the trailhead, which was convenient.
We considered a number of options for our dayhike. Ultimately we chose Laguna 69 for a number of reasons. First, the hike promised spectacular scenery in an area that we otherwise wouldn’t visit. In addition, the hike was challenging enough to offer a nice warm up for our backpacking trip, but not prohibitively high or difficult. The hike would top out just over 14,000 feet, which would start to get us used to hiking at high altitude.
We were up at 6:15 on Monday. Breakfast at the Albergue Churup doesn’t normally start until 7, but an employee came up early that morning to cook for us and another group that was starting a trek that morning. We were pressed for time, so we settled for a free breakfast of bread and coffee. After eating, Christian met us in the lobby with our other bus tickets for the return trip after our trek. At 7:15 our taxi arrived, and we met our guide, Marco. Marco was a friendly guy that was fluent in English. I’m not sure what Marco’s last name was, but it’s probably safe to assume that it wasn’t Esquandolas.
The drive to Huascaran National Park was long and tedious. The main road up the valley to Yungay was smooth enough, but after that we followed a rough dirt road up into the mountains. At least our driver had good taste in music. He kept us entertained with a steady stream of Bob Marley tunes as we bounced our way out of the valley. We stopped at the park entrance station, where we paid a 10 sol ($3) fee and used the toilet. At this point, Christy and I were dedicated visiting every public toilet that we encountered.
We continued on to the Llanganuco Lakes. We stopped there briefly to take in the view of the gorgeous alpine lakes, with massive snow-covered peaks (Nevados) in the background. We drove another couple of miles before reaching a small parking area and the trailhead.
We started down the trail at 10am. Initially we descended a steep, rocky footpath to a creek. Then we hiked upstream, passing an informal campground, a refreshment stand, and lots of cows. Jaw-dropping scenery unfolded in front of us. We rock hopped the creek running through the Quebrada Yanapaccha and continued upstream through a lovely grove of red Quenoa trees. Beyond the trees we glanced back frequently, as Huascaran Sur and Huascaran Norte towered in the distance. At 6768 meters (over 21,000 feet), Huascaran Sur is the tallest mountain in Peru. In fact, on our short hike to Laguna 69, we’d see five peaks exceeding 6,000 meters (Huascaran Sur, Huascaran Norte, Chacraraju, Huandoy, and Chopicalqui), as well as several others that are almost as high. It’s incredible to think that several of these mountains are taller than Alaska’s Mount McKinley, which we had seen the previous summer. McKinley is the tallest peak in North America.
We strolled through glorious sunshine to the upper end of the Quebrada. There we were treated to the sight of five lovely waterfalls cascading down from the glaciers above. After a short break we began to climb to the bench above on switchbacks. As we climbed, more and more views opened up. Eventually the sharp, icy peak of Huandoy peeked above the adjacent ridge. We passed above the brink of one of the waterfalls and reached the edge of the basin above. Here we found a small pond and more cows. We didn’t linger. Instead we pressed on, enjoying some easy walking. A few minutes later we reached an expansive meadow and a junction. Trails to Laguna 69 and two of the neighboring peaks diverge here. The view was stunning, so we stopped for a quick lunch.
Afterwards, Marco and I continued on towards Laguna 69. Christy was feeling the effects of the altitude, and decided to wait there rather than climbing higher.
Getting to the lake required one final climb. We worked our way up steadily, passing through fields of Lupine. Finally we reached the crest and strolled into the basin. Laguna 69, a brilliant blue, spread out before us. The snowy massif of Chacraraju towered above, its glaciers dripping in the brilliant sunshine. Waterfalls cascaded down from the ice above, directly into the lake.
We loitered there for a bit enjoying the sunshine and the views. There were several other hikers there, including three girls that were staying at our hostal. One, Imi, was from Wales. She told us about their misadventures. They had planned to trek nearby, from Colcabamba to Santa Cruz. This is the most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca. Unfortunately, they had booked their trek with a discount agency. Somehow they had ended up with a cook instead of an actual guide. Due to unexpected delays, they hadn’t made the hike to Laguna 69 on Sunday as originally planned. They had abandoned their plans to trek to Santa Cruz, but seemed to be enjoying the dayhike they had salvaged.
While we were there I couldn’t resist asking Marco how the lake had gotten the name Laguna 69. After all, there isn’t a Laguna 68, or a Laguna 70. In fact, I’m not aware of any other lakes in the Cordillera Blanca that are numbered. He explained to me, in a serious yet somewhat embarrassed tone, that the name was a sexual reference. I struggled not to laugh out loud. I mean, that answer didn’t explain how this specific lake had acquired that particular name. I was expecting some interesting history, or at least a crude joke, behind it. I didn’t press the issue though. Marco was already embarrassed, so I let it go.
We headed back down quickly. We roused Christy from her nap, and we kept a steady pace on the way back. The views on the return were still superb, although the Nevados were now shrouded in afternoon clouds.
The drive back to Huaraz seemed quicker than it had that morning. We went out for pizza to celebrate our successful hike, and then returned to the hotel to make final preparations for our backpacking trip. Fortunately we’d bought all of our food and other essentials earlier, so this mainly consisted of loading our backpacks. We also stored our remaining luggage at the hostal until we returned. We retired early, exciting to start our adventure in the Cordillera Huayhuash.
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