This week I started off in the town of Vilcabamba, capping off my last day in Ecuador by going on a hike in the mountains and then meandering through town. Sunday afternoon brought with it plenty of family-oriented activities for locals to enjoy the excellent weekend weather. As I strolled through the town sipping a beer, I witnessed an intense bike race and even stuck around to watch the winners get christened in their glory by the regional beauty pageant representative, “Miss Loja 2015."
In the early evening I retreated back to the hostel to partake in an intense game of cards with some friends at the hostel. The environment, jug of wine, and striking view of the valley’s sunset made for the perfect sendoff for Ecuador: it was time to board the night bus and begin my journey to Peru.
On the overcrowded and overheated bus the wine quickly knocked me out until I was awoken at 3 in the morning when we rolled into the outpost border crossing that signified the arrival into Peru. Border formalities in the dead of night were decidedly simple, even though I had heard horror stories of this being dubbed “the most corrupt border crossing in South America.” We walked across a spooky bridge from Ecuador into Peru, illuminated only by the full moon and staffed primarily by a pack of suspiciously barking dogs. From there it was back on the bus for another few hours until we came to the dusty town of Piura, notable only as the stronghold for transportation in Northern Peru. The roads running both in and out of Piura have an eery feel, as the vast unforgiving desert slowly gives way to small houses in a perpetual state of construction.
The main city drag is lined with bus terminals on every block, each one packed with local travelers eager to get to their next destination. I quickly tried to find a ticket to my next stop in Trujillo, but the first company was sold out for the day. Luckily, the second one I tried had just one seat left, so I sprang the extra 10 soles ($3 US) and purchased a first class “full cama” ticket, skeptical as to whether it would be worth the added cost. However, the longer I lingered at the bus station and began observing my surroundings, the more it became apparent that busses in Peru would be drastically different than my previous experiences in Ecuador and Colombia.
Besides having a different office for each bus agency instead of a central terminal, these companies actually had infrastructure. For example, each ticket counter had software that could manage bookings in real time through multiple modalities, including in person, over the phone, and online! In contrast, the “online” bookings in Ecuador consist of a five times markup and a guy riding his motorcycle to the station to purchase the ticket in person. Additionally, the staff’s professionalism is simply on another level. Dressed in matching brightly colored outfits complete with high heels, the attendants resemble airline stewardesses. Except instead of serving drinks at 30,000 feet, they do it on hairpin turns through the mountains of the Andes. I was legitimately shocked to find that I had to actually check my bag at a baggage counter, go through a security checkpoint including a metal detector, and even provide a fingerprint stamp for the journey’s manifest. Compared to the chaos of passengers constantly jumping on and off on every other bus I’ve been on so far, it felt like I had stepped into a different reality. On board, my lay flat bed and breakfast service made for the perfect combination to induce a much needed nap during the 7 hour journey to Trujillo.
Just 20 minutes by bus from the busy urban center of Trujillo is Huanchaco, a tiny little surfing town on the Pacific coast that’s incredibly popular among travelers. The city and its corresponding shoreline is formed by a curved bay which cuts into the desert coastline, ensuring a wave break that stretches for almost two kilometers and propels surfers towards the center point of the cove. Upon arrival in the early evening, I wandered up and down the main drag running parallel to the ocean and took in the scene at sunset as surfers hauled their boards home after a long afternoon in the ocean.
A powerful current caused the waves to crest triumphantly as they approached their final ascent towards shore, spewing salty spray over their apex and reflecting the last rays of sunlight off their glossy surface. The boardwalk and pier were lined with vendors, bars, and restaurants, hawking fresh ceviche for as cheap as 10 soles. I dug into a plate complimented by a tremendous view of the sunset, reunited with a Cusqueña beer for the first time since my travels to Peru last year.
The following morning I was reunited with Bernardo, a German traveler who speaks seven languages that I had originally met in Montañita. He arrived in town at 5 in the morning and launched into a crazy story of his recent transportation nightmares, which included two full days of busses and pickup trucks through the remote, unpaved roads of Northeastern Peru. For lunch, I tagged along with Bernardo and two friends he had bonded with on the difficult journey and we hit the town for more ceviche and Cusqueña.
What followed was one of those days which can only occur when one has the luxury of extended travel and lacks an itinerary: from Noon to 9pm we ate, drank, walked and talked our way all over the town, sampling the local fare, indulging in Dutch apple pie à la mode, and walking along the beach. Along the way four people representing four different nationalities got to know each other, conversing on topics as diverse as our worst jobs ever and how many oceans we had swam in. Although at some point we had carefully laid out sightseeing plans, the fluidity of the present moment took over; sometimes its best to just do nothing at all and indulge in a lazy afternoon.
La Cordillera Blanca
Frenetic, crowded, and surprisingly noisy, Huaraz was not the type of town I was expecting after winding through the Andes mountains for 8 hours overnight. The economic hub of Peru’s Ancash region, the city is ground zero for adventure tours to the storied Cordillera Blanca, the tallest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas. Even upon our night bus’ 5:30AM arrival, the view from the city streets was punctuated by distant mountains, sufficiently eschewing the need for any form of metropolitan skyline. On the bus from Trujillo to Huaraz, I reunited with Stefje and Manon, a pair of Dutch friends on a similar route in South America that I had originally met in Quito. After an hour sleepily wandering as the sun began to warm up the town, we found a decent hostel and relaxed for a few more hours before setting off to explore.
Despite its popularity among gringos, Huaraz also has a bustling economy and is a meeting place for villagers from all of the surrounding towns to come and exchange goods and crops. The central market is Peru’s version of a shopping mall, serving everything from freshly butchered alpaca and guinea pig to strollers and suits, which can even be tailored on the spot by a small army of seamstresses. The town’s main drag is filled with taxis, pedestrians, and collectivo busses, constantly honking at each other and destroying any sense of charm that the gorgeous views would otherwise provide.
Lining the sidewalks of every street are trekking agencies that prove why Huaraz is such a popular destination. Within striking distance of town, one has access to gorgeous hiking trails, stunning glacier lakes, multi-day ice climbing excursions, and even adventurous trips to summit surrounding peaks which stretch as high as 6,000 meters (20,000) feet into the sky. But the crown jewel of all the offerings is the Santa Cruz trek, a 50 kilometer long jaunt which winds through mountain valleys and alongside lagunas, reaching a summit pass close to 5,000 meters. We spent most of the afternoon traipsing back and forth between different agencies, comparing trip packages and pricing before finally settling on a 5 day, 4 night group hike which started off with a day trip to Laguna 69, one of the most popular around.
Exhausted from a lack of sleep on the night bus, I took a much needed three hour nap in the afternoon, then spent the evening gathering supplies and packing, excited for the adventure ahead. On Thursday the three of us awoke at 6AM to try and squeeze in one last warm shower before disappearing into the wilderness for the foreseeable future. Our group’s shared van took off North out of town for an hour, then turned East towards the mountain range and started climbing up a dirt road, painfully bouncing us up and down out of our back row seats. Along the way we got our first taste of the landscape to come, as cliffs with sheer vertical faces carved by glaciers adorned either side of the road and a turquoise laguna brought everyone’s camera out for the first time.
Soon after the van parked at the trailhead for Laguna 69, our jaws collectively dropped at the sight in front of us: a cloudless blue sky was interrupted only by a glacier-topped peak in the distance. In the foreground, a trail wound through a gorgeous valley, populated by horses, donkeys and cows grazing next to a snaking stream. What followed was surely the most beautiful hike I’ve ever been on. We trekked past our campsite for the night and parallel to the river for over an hour, all the while craning our necks upwards as more snow capped leviathans came into view. Each mountains seemed to have a life of its own, with distinctly different summits, glacier formations, and waterfalls of melting snow cascading down into the skinny valley.
From there the climb began. We traversed up and across rocky, dusty switchbacks as the elevation rose past 4000 meters. At the top of the first ascent it would have been easy to think the toughest part was over, but as we followed the trail through a plateau and approached a sheer vertical rock face, it became clear that the worst was yet to come. The next climb was taxing for everyone, as a few members of our group couldn’t handle the combination of the altitude and the steepness and ended up turning back. Yet those who did make it were immensely rewarded, for just ten minutes past the highest point lay Laguna 69 in all its gorgeous glory.
The water was so perfectly blue that it looked like a photoshopped picture of the ocean, yet as our hands could attest as we dipped into the icy water, it was distinctly real. In the background the water was framed by two massive peaks shrouded by ice, which we could see melting in action as a waterfall cascaded into the back corner. As we sat in the calming silence and ate lunch, the quiet even gave way to eery cracking noises, signaling that the glaciers were ready to melt even more in the afternoon sun.
Our guide told us we had to turn back to beat the afternoon’s setting sun, and regretfully we left the beautiful scene behind us, pausing for one last moment in an attempt to sear it into our memory before departing. The descent was much easier on the lungs but tougher on the knees, and I was grateful once we returned to our original elevation and headed back to make camp for the night.
As we were surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, the sun disappeared quite early in the afternoon. Quickly, the breathtaking views of the days activities were somehow one-upped by the night sky. Once the last rays of light faded from view, the clear and moonless sky made for a prolific stargazing experience. In all directions, tiny specks of faraway light illuminated the darkness and even brought one of the spirals of the Milky Way galaxy into focus.
On the second day of our trip we awoke freezing cold, shivering in our sleeping bags and jumping up and down as we struck camp to try and return feeling to our fingers and toes. Yet somehow the tent was still warmer than outside, where the imposing peaks prevented sunlight from warming us up. Eventually we were picked up by another van, where the rest of our group for the four day trek through the Santa Cruz valley awaited us. After an hour on more bumpy and windy roads, we stopped at the last viewpoint for the Eastern valley, snapping a few quick photos before crossing the overpass and winding down the other side, now accompanied by stunning views of a completely different mountain range no less imposing.
Although most of us had been informed that the drive would only be a few hours, it was early afternoon by the time we finally reached the drop off point. Once there, we debated with the guides about how much of our luggage’s weight the donkeys should carry for a solid half hour before finally setting off on the hike. Led by our guide, chef, disciplinarian, alarm clock, and resident comedian Margarita, we set off on a brisk pace through local villages and quilted farm land on a rocky trail, greeted by friendly locals all along the way.
The first climb of the day culminated at the entrance to Huascaran National Park, and from then on out the only other souls we saw were fellow hikers and our donkeys lugging food to the final campsite. Over the course of the afternoon we climbed to 3800 meters then wandered across a picturesque valley surrounded by rocky peaks in all directions. Our late start also meant that the sun began disappearing as we were still making our way through the valley, which turned out to make a remarkable difference in our warmth and comfort level as we finally approached camp.
We prepared for the chilly night ahead by layering up, then reporting to the hastily constructed dining tent for a dinner of hot tea, soup, and chicken with rice. The group represented five different continents and it was nice to just sit and observe; listening and learning from the others regarding their cultures and experiences traveling through South America so far. By the time we exited the tent an icy chill had descended on the scene, but for the second consecutive night the stars had all come out and we were treated to an awe-inspiring nighttime view of the Southern Hemisphere’s constellations.
The following freezing morning was made slightly bearable by the introduction of piping hot coffee with our breakfast. While we chowed down and warmed up, the guides filled our Nalgenes and Camelbaks with high altitude steroids, coca tea, to fuel us up for a challenging day ahead. Margarita told us it would be 7 to 8 hours to the next campsite, including 5 hours straight uphill to the highest point of our trek. As we passed out of the previous day’s valley, an embarrassment of riches absorbed our view. Still chilly in the morning cold, we stepped through frosted fields, hopefully eyeing the majestic rays of light that began to peak over the mountains that stood between our cold bodies and the sun’s warmth. Each turn and rise in the path brought with it another gorgeous white mountain, the peaks covered by snow and reflecting the morning light off their glacier formations. We crossed a boulder strewn valley, all the while approaching Taulliraju, one of the most gorgeous peaks I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The path finally ceased its incessant rising and leveled out through a plateau, making the perfect spot to finally take in a beautiful panorama of the entire area. Yet in the distance I was perturbed to find that the path seemingly headed straight into a rock wall with an almost vertical face. At this point Margarita had drifted to the back of the pack to make sure the altitude gains hadn’t taken their toll on anyone yet, and somehow I found myself with no one in front of me and no choice but to start climbing. For the next 90 minutes it was nothing but up, alternating between really steep and ridiculously steep as the air began to get noticeably thinner.
Walking up was tough but the visual reward upon making it to the top of Union Pass at 4750 meters made every thigh-busting step worth it. Almost the entire 360 degree view included the icy white peaks that give the Cordillera Blanca its name. On the other side of the pass lay a postcard ready shot with massive ranges on either side and a crystal clear laguna hemmed in to the valley’s only opening. Yet the most ridiculous sight were the twin peaks of Taulliraju and Rinrijirca, which formed a perfectly framed shot for a group picture. The ridge line adjoining the two summits stretched for kilometers in both directions, adorned by snow drifts that appeared ready to plunge into the laguna just below. As I waited for the rest of the group to reach the summit I jumped along the ridge line to enjoy the various vantage points, yelling down in encouragement the calling card for the Cordillera that one of the group members, Paul, had taught us the previous day: “Todo es posible….nada es seguro” ("Anything is possible…nothing is safe").
Before I knew it Margarita herded the group towards the other side and sparked our descent down to our campsite. Buffeted by both the excitement of having seen such an inspiring sight and the rapidly thickening air on the way down, our group made short work of the remaining hike. The early afternoon sun and the glorious feeling of finally heading downhill inspired me, and I took advantage of gravity by setting of at a jog on the winding trail and practically flying into camp just before 2pm. Finally hot and sweaty for the first time in days, I took the opportunity to wash off in the river as the rest of the crew strolled in and marveled at our situation: we all concurred it was the most beautiful campsite any of us had ever seen.
In addition to the snowpack behind us, we had two other mountains on either side in the valley ahead of us including Artesonraju, a mountain we had all seen before in a different context: as the logo for Paramount Pictures. Arriving early in the afternoon made for a downright delightful rest of the day. We soaked up the sun’s rays in the pasture surrounding camp, playing cards, taking pictures, and even getting an hour of yoga in to ease just a few of the knots out of our legs.
Over dinner that night, we decided to be masochists and try to finish the entire 28 kilometers of additional hiking on the third day. This plan would enable us to sleep in a more reasonable climate the following night and visit a natural hot springs the last morning, which we wagered would be a worthwhile ending to the trip.
We hiked out of camp on an upward track the last morning, heading towards one last epic view of the mountain range as we shivered waiting for the sunlight to finally hit us. Yet by the time we descended into the vast expanse of the valley floor, the temperature had changed completely. Suddenly trading icy grass for hot sand, we removed unnecessary layers of coats, hats, and gloves and began trudging through the desert-like climate.
Throughout the afternoon the canyon progressively narrowed and the accompanying river that signaled the way out of the mountain range alternated from a gushing stream to a trickle back to a roaring flow, accumulating glacier run off from powerful waterfalls falling from high above. Even though we only stopped briefly for lunch at a beautiful laguna, it still took almost 8 hours of fast-paced hiking to reach our final destination.
Along the way we couldn’t help but smile at the hikers who were passing us steadily climbing uphill in the opposite direction, just getting started on their difficult journey. The last hour was a steep descent and we each took it as fast as we could, mentally depleted and physically completely exhausted after three consecutive strenuous days of hiking.
Just five minutes past the end of the trail stood our promised land, a tiny grassy campsite catering to recently finished hikers with a sign that read: "Congratulations on finishg (sic). Come and enjoy cold beer." At this point, the general feeling of the group was nothing short of ecstatic: the possibility of afternoon snacks, cold beer, and the warm sun was more than we could have ever hoped for.
We quickly soaked our first layer of grime away in the icy waters of a nearby aqueduct, then spent the rest of the afternoon playing with the resident pack of puppies, listening to a local man play classic Peruvian songs on his harp, and of course enjoying a couple of well-earned cervezas.
As the sun sank into the Western sky and signaled the end of our trip, the atmosphere seemed to mirror our infectious good mood and lit up the evening with gorgeous brushstrokes of red, blue, and purple. Although we were all fast asleep by 10pm for another pre-dawn wake up, this time we slept well, knowing that we had finished the daunting Santa Cruz trek and a day of relaxation and recuperation awaited us the following day.