Just as the first rays of sunlight shone through over a mountain in the distance I hit the summit. Sweaty yet still cold, triumphant yet delirious, I perched myself on a rock and took in the stunning view of the valley below, our starting point now invisible at the bottom of the earth's deep chasm. Over the next half hour over a hundred hikers straggled in, each one feeling accomplished after having gained over 1200 meters in altitude before 8 AM. On the way back to Arequipa we pulled over for a couple of breaks, including a much needed hour-long soak at a hot springs, a pair of awe-inspiring views of the canyon and its surrounding volcanoes, and an entire hillside dotted with llamas and alpacas grazing in the high altitude grasslands.
Outside of lounging and relaxing, there isn't much to do during in Huacachina except take the requisite trip that everyone offers to go sand boarding on the nearby dunes. With the sun emanating off the massive dunes, we hopped in a boogie and set off out of town, quickly accelerating as we veered off road. Our driver must have thought he was playing Mario Kart, as we set off on a veritable roller coaster ride up and over the hills as the car careened down sheer vertical drops and drifted through turns, stoking our adrenaline. After about an hour we stopped at one of the higher points in the nearby vicinity to snap some photos, taking in the eery feeling of the desert that made it feel like we had been transported to another planet.
The visual reward upon making it to the top of the Union Pass at 4750 meters made every thigh-busting step worth it. Almost the entire 360 degree view included the glacier-topped peaks that give the Cordillera Blanca its name. 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").