The Highpoint of Our Trip

Trip Start Jun 14, 2007
Trip End Aug 04, 2007

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Packed into a Toyota station wagon taxi, we stared out at the dark Lima streets, mentally saying good-bye to familiar places from our years living here. Our Cruz del Sur bus left at 10 p.m. and we immediately curled up in our semi-bed seats under warm blankets and went to sleep for the 7 hour trip winding up the mountains to Huaraz-the Switzerland of Peru-at over 10,000 feet above sea level. 
Ironically, all the tourist activities involve leaving Huaraz. After a short early morning nap at our hostel we took a tour north up the "Callejon de Huaylas"-the Valley of Huaylas-to see the cordillera blanca and the cordillera negra-the white range and black range of mountains. The white range is on the eastern side and go up to 22,000 feet so all the precipitation from the jungle falls on them. The lower "black" range has no snow at all and slightly is lower in elevation.
To the strains of an Andean reed flute and a tom-tom over the bus' speakers, we drove along the valley. Snow caps peaked out from behind the barren gold-brown mountains closer to us. Every curve in the road revealed spectacular scenery. The houses in the pueblos we drove through were all made of unplastered adobe bricks held together with dried mud. Their corrugated tin roofs were anchored on with dozens of melon sized rocks. Patchwork terraced plots went to the highest point of the mountains. Yoked oxen heaved together to haul a single blade plow through the rocky, unyielding soil. Peach trees, orange groves, artichoke plants, blossoming sweet peas, scraggly corn, small plots of winter wheat ripe for harvest all struggled to turn out their produce.
The small two-towered catholic churches in each village were the most colorful buildings, painted with bright colors and neat contrasting trip. Topping each home throughout the countryside was an intricate wrought-iron cross at the peak of the roof to protect the inhabitants from the spirits they believe lived in the land before the house was built, combining the catholic faith and the ancient traditional beliefs. Any flat surface might be painted with the symbol of a political party and name of its candidates. We found Waldo! He recently ran for governor of the province of Huaraz.
We stopped in the main plaza of one village to try local fruit flavored ice cream. Have you ever had chirimoya or lucuma ice cream? Christina chose mint chocolate chip and chocolate! Women in brown felt, wide-brimmed, stovepipe hats carried brightly colored bundles on their backs, sold artisan trinkets, or begged for a handout.
Further down the valley we came to a solemn place where the pueblo of Yungay once stood. In 1970 a 7.8 earthquake shook all of northern Peru, flattening the villages all through this valley as well as in many other parts. It caused an enormous block of ice to fall off of the mountain Huascaran. The avalanche came down the valley and covered the village just 3-4 minutes after the quake, killing 25,000 people. All that is left of the old town is the cemetery which was on higher ground, 4 palm trees from the city center, two bits of the original cathedral, and the rusted out skeleton of a bus. The rest of the city is buried under 3-7 meters of earth.
Huascaran is the highest mountain in Peru and has two separate snow capped peaks. Looking up at its 22,000 feet against the brilliant blue sky it is an impressive sight. We took dozens of photos and gazed at it in awe from every angle we were able.  
We drove on to a turquoise lake up in the mountains where we took a 20 minute boat ride rowed by a local man. Once again, the scenery was spectacular and we wished everyone could see what we were seeing. We took a walk along the edge of the lake for about 20 minutes before returning to where Indian women sold puffed corn (like Sugar Pops), and salted roasted kernels of corn. We added these to our snacking as it was nearing 3 and lunch wouldn't be for an hour!
We finally arrived back in Huaraz about 7 and started walking through the streets to our hostel. The main streets were a congestion of sidewalk vendors and trekking agencies. All the side streets seemed to be home to local markets. The city itself needs a lot of work, but our hostel was a refuge of quiet and quaintness.
Tuesday morning we started out on another tour up to snow level. The southern end of the Callejon de Huaylas was higher and less agricultural. Sturdy tufts of green-gold grass covered the mountains punctuated by semi-dried scraggly orange flowers with bits of fluffy seeds bursting out. Round puya plants that live at this altitude 60-70 years, shoot up a 6 or 7 meter flower that discharges 5 million seeds, and then the whole plant dies.
We passed sheep folds made of piled rock walls. A small shepherd boy with sausage color cheeks, a red shirt, and multicolored earflap hat watched our bus go by. A woman stood patiently outside her house guarding the drying corn. An old man in leather sandals and equally leather feet carried a load of lumber across a suspension bridge over the sparkling river.
Arriving at the beginning of the trail to the glacier we rented horses for the first kilometer up and then hiked up the last half kilometer to the snow level. A blue ice cave greeted us with a stream of melting snow flowing out from under it. Climbing up several hundred feet with much huffing and puffing, we reached a place where we could walk on the snow. We were at the high point of our trip and possibly of our lives-over 17,000 feet above sea level!
The kids tromped around in the snow and slipped down patches of ice before we made our way back to the bus where we ate tender boiled corn with fresh cheese. Trying to stay awake the 35 kilometers down the mountain to take in all the beauty, we all dozed and nodded a bit.

In Huaraz we enjoyed hot drinks at a restaurant overlooking the main plaza of the town which is under restoration. The next day was the 150th anniversary of Huaraz and bands played, people in typical costumes marched and danced up and down the street and everyone seemed to join in the general gaiety.
At our hostel we had showers and finished packing before heading to the station to catch our overnight bus for Trujillo.
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