Friday, 11 September 2009

Living with your back facing Eden

(Thursday-Tuesday, 13-18 August 2009 – in retrospective…)

Google map:,+peru&sll=53.800651,-4.042969&sspn=12.791842,28.168945&ie=UTF8&ll=-9.332542,-77.34787&spn=0.666712,1.400757&t=h&z=10

The 8-hour long trip from Lima to Huaraz offers you fantastic views of the coastal desert, then the transition to the rocky Andes, through a green valley, to finally get you to the uniquely snow-capped Cordillera Blanca. Not that we could see much of this the first time around, as we did the second half of the journey already after sunset. We’d have to wait for the return trip to fully appreciate it.

The Cordillera Blanca, along with its southerner “sister” Cordillera Huayhuash, is a premium spot for trekking and mountaineering, second only to the Himalaya range. It offers plenty of peaks above 6,000 meters and an incredibly vast, inhospitable and beautiful show of white mountains coming out of the yellow-dry rocky plateau, creating an effect that in my mind resembles a dinosaur’s dorsal emerging from the water (not that I've ever seen one, of course!). Its contrast with its easterner neighbour, the Cordillera Negra, equally high and rough but just not snow-capped as it "absorbs" most of the heat and humidity coming from the Pacific, makes it even more beautiful.

I think we could only comprehend its full size and splendour once leaving Huaraz by day, when the road went up a few hundred meters further up, and you could see it from the birds’ perspective. If I already had my mind on the idea of returning here later on, in September, to finish my Latin America travels with a long hike across this beautiful range, the sight of the Cordillera Blanca shining at far, in daylight, completely convinced me of that decision.

I came here wanting to share one of the most impressive experiences of my travels through Latin America up to then: high altitude hiking and mountaineering. The unique view of glaciers all around you; the noise and sight of ice breaking and falling; having nothing but gigantic mountains surrounding you – for days in a row. Having nothing but two landscapes a day to appreciate - given the scale of the mountains and valleys, and the speed at which you walk, that’s all you manage to achieve. Having nothing but two landscapes a day to appreciate, but still be amazed at every inch of variation in the perspective you have of the ice and rock colossus in front of you.

We had a glimpse of that. But, first, we had to survive the urban disaster of Huaraz...

The city – which, making things worse, is not that small – is surrounded by a truly spectacular landscape, but manages to make you feel like you are in Beirut, after the worse bombings of the Lebanon war. There’s zero urban planning and the streets grow chaotically. The buildings look only half-built, with bricks & mortar still on show, cast-iron frames step out from the flat roofs, aiming high at the sky like TV antennas, and waiting for the house owners to have enough money to build its next level. The traffic is, as usual, crazy, and you cross the occasional river bed that looks more like an open-air dump than a natural geographic formation.

And, worse of all, the city lives with its back facing the marvellous peaks right next door, just like they don’t exist. The buildings’ few and small windows face everywhere but the mountain range. You cross the all town in search of a pleasant café where to drink a nice hot drink, while facing the glaciers at sunset, but there is no way to find a damn place with a decent terrace (apparently there’s such an oasis around, we found out later; will need to look for it even more carefully next time!).
WHAT A WASTE!! People of Huaraz: I know this piece of Eden is no news to you, it has always been there and you may not look at it the same way I do, but…

In addition to the urban disaster of Huaraz, we had to survive my quasi-intransigent demand for independent travel and trekking, which means hiring no travel agencies, cooks, mountain guides or mules to carry stuff for you. (Please don’t ask me why: it’d take me long and strong words to express myself - perhaps at a later post). But well, we managed to meet my childish demands while keeping the physical effort of the hikes manageable for all… :-D

We decided to escape depression in Huaraz and went for a few nights’ stay at a very cosy lodge at the entry door of Cordillera Blanca, 45 minutes away from town. Electricity was supplied only a few hours a day, by generator, what ensured dark-clean skies at night. The place was pretty much empty – at times we only had the local dogs and the owner as company – and the location was perfect for both the views and as an entry point for short walks in the surrounding mountains.

With this nice stay and a couple of day-long or two-day long treks in the area I think we had a taste of the glaciers and I managed to share a bit of my recent passion for high-altitude hiking and mountaineering.
But I couldn’t but leave wishing we would have done much, much more… I felt we only experienced the tip of the iceberg of what this region has to offer, and of what my previous experiences in the Andes had provided me.
But well, we had to make a trade-off with other things we wanted to see and do in Peru, and I guess I was still getting used to a new paced of travel - a shared one, but also clearly time-limited.
That's something I had to learn bit by bit during the upcoming weeks: travelling for 7 months in Latin America as a "job" is not the same as enjoying your only month of vacations in Peru, is it? Your mindset is necessarily different, what you look for is also different, and you just have to live with the constraints and limitations that reality brings.
Was I being a bit self-centred when I didn't fully realise that back then?

. Huaraz: an ungly urban landscape, facing its back to the mountains...

The mountain lodge: beautiful setting, candlelight and perfect sky at night... and dogs as company, treks included

=== 1-day trek to laguna Churup ===

Common sight around here: blue-green lagoons facing glaciars

Yep, dogs as company, from the lodge all the way to the lake, and then down again. Pity we had to carry her on the steepest parts of the trail. Not too much of a guide dog, is she?
=== 2-day trek to laguna Pulcacocha ===

All geared up for a chilly night in the mountains

The cow & the mountaineer: encounter #1

The glaciers of the Pucaranra peak at sight; it looks like just next door, but as usual in this kind of landscape your eyes trick you and the bloody lagoon was still a good 3 hours or so from here

The cow & the mountaineer: encounter #341

The peaks and the glaciers are a tad closer here; but still a good 1 hour walk away...

Finally the lagoon - for the gnome and everyone else


Camp-fire at the mountain refuge where we stayed for the night: very handy given how cold it was. It was only us, the snow-capped peaks and the stars. Ah! And not as poetic: a lot of cow shit around too...

Second visit to the lagoon and the surrounding glaciers, this time in the morning of the second day. Great idea to go there and see the sunrise behind the peaks... but it took so long for it to happen that we were close to freezing and gave up after 20 minutes of waiting. By the way, do you see that small dark dot? That's me by the lagoon. Now you can get a feel for the scale of the glaciers... It tricks you, doesn't it?

Now a bit closer, but I still look ridiculously small against the mountain... From there we were lucky enough to see and hear ice cracking and falling. Nice!

Looking cold, very cold... There was a reason to it: look at the ice on the knife, below. By now we had gotten back to the refuge (20 minutes away from the lake) and waited for the sunrise there...

Heading back... Once the sun hits directly, the weather warms up incredibly and it's ok (actually, it's advisable) to walk on shorts and t-shirt. That's how the weather is like here: hot with the sun, bloody cold without it

Saying farewell to the amazing view

Back to the lodge, back to canine company...

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