The Agony and the Ecstasy

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Flag of Peru  ,
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Apologies for the delay in posting this latest blog, we have been on the go continually for the last week or so and haven’t had a spare moment to write.

We arrived in the trekking town of Huaraz after a 24 hour journey involving 3 buses. It wasn't as bad as it sounds though as we travelled courtesy of Linea, one of several luxury bus companies in Peru. These buses are expensive compared to the normal buses but definitely worth it over long distances. They are double deckers and we booked ourselves the VIP seats downstairs which are as big as first class airplane seats, recline right back and you get served meals! Nice!
The last bus travelled through the night so we arrived in Huaraz early in the morning. Huaraz is located in a valley at over 3000 metres and is flanked by the brown slopes of the Cordillera Negra on one side and the white peaks of the Cordillera Blanca on the other. The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest tropical mountain range and consists of pointy peaks, razor sharp ridges, foreboding glaciers, green valleys, turquoize lakes and gushing rivers. We checked into Olaza’s and enjoyed a breakfast on the rooftop terrace before venturing into town where there was a parade going on with dancers and a brass band wandering through the streets.

We spent the first two days in Huaraz relaxing and getting used to the altitude in preparation for our 4 day Santa Cruz trek. On the third day we decided to do a day hike to Laguna 69 which we were told would be a good acclimitization hike. We drove for three hours up into the mountains and entered the Huascaran National Park where we stopped at the ranger station to pay our entrance fee, before passing the brilliantly turquoise Llangunuco Lakes and the start of our walk. We were at 3800 metres and felt the effects of the altitude immediately so started off at a gentle pace, slowly climbing through a beautiful rock strewn valley. We thought that being an acclimatization hike, the lake would be just a few miles away at the head of the valley. Little did we know! When we reached the end there was no lake and we saw that the path started to climb steeply. We followed the path up for over an hour before reaching a very steep section, at the top of which we assumed would be the lake. Wrong again! Instead the vista opened up into a flat grassy expanse over which towered an enormous rock face. Guess where Lake 69 was! By this point we were exhausted and worried that we were knackering ourselves out for the Santa Cruz trek that we were starting the next day. We also had a driver patiently waiting for us in the valley below to take us back to Huaraz and didn't want to make him wait too long. We were on the verge of giving up and turning back but fortunately met another hiker who encouraged us onwards, so with gritted teeth and palpitating chests we huffed and puffed and swore our way to the top. We are so glad we did because Laguna 69 was astonishingly beautiful, a deep turquoise colour backed by stark grey scree slope, above which hung an icy glacier. The water was ice cold and tasted as good as it looked. The return journey back down the mountain took only half the time and we were on a real high from having reaching the top.
By the time we reached Huaraz, it was early evening and we were exhausted. We had a quick pizza and packed our things ready for the next day.

At 6am the next morning we met Freddie, our guide for the trek, and Julien and Clemence, a lovely French couple who were joining us. We had decided to save some money by taking public transport to the start of the trek instead of a private car. In hindsight, we would have paid a bit more for a private car because the driver of the minibus obviously had a death wish and seemed intent on racing the other minibuses that zoom along the valley road, swerving to avoid crater-like potholes. It was also jam-packed with passengers virtually sitting on one another! At Yungay, a town further down the valley, we changed minibuses and started the long climb up into the mountains, following a narrow road that zig-zagged its way up until we reached a high pass and then descended some way down over the other side. We got out at Vaqueria, a small, dusty village where we met our donkey driver and three donkeys who had the unenviable task of carrying our luggage.

We walked for five hours on the first day, passing remote Andean villages with adobe buildings where old women wear traditional clothing and young children play in the dirt and say 'Hola' as you pass. Then we passed into the national park and walked through a wide valley passing llamas, donkeys, horses and cows including many bulls, which fortunately seemed very placid, interested only in munching the grass. That night we camped in a beautiful spot next to a small river under an imposing ridge of ice and snow. We were well looked after by our guides who had already put up our tents by the time we arrived and welcomed us with a cup of steaming hot chocolate and freshly made popcorn followed by a warming dinner, well needed as it became very cold as soon as the sun went down. The night sky was amazing, with multitudes of stars and the milky way, impossible to see back home because of the light pollution.

The next day was very tough with a climb of 900 metres up to Punta Union pass, located at 4760 metres. The main difficulty was the altitude which makes it hard to get enough oxygen. We took it slowly though and the pain was eased by the sensational views of all the snowy peaks around us and deep valleys below. About half way up we met a group of Peruvian soldiers coming the other way. They were dressed in full battle gear and carrying scary looking guns but were very friendly and all stopped to say 'Buenos dias, como esta?' Then it was the final push up and over Punta Union pass, an imposing wall of rock that nearly killed us! Julien and Clemence reached the top before us and by the time we arrived, we learned that Julien had just proposed to Clemence and she had said yes! After hugs and congratulations and a picnic lunch, we started the long descent down into a vast U-shaped valley to our campsite at Taullipampa (4250 metres), a gorgeous meadow sitting at the foot of Nevado Taulliraju and its glacier. To help with the altitude we were served Mate de Coca, a tea made from coca leaves. In Peru, coca is grown widely and is perfectly legal as it has been used by indigenous peoples for centuries.

After a freezing night, we awoke early and hiked up a remote side valley where the walls were cloaked in the wonderfully twisted quenua trees, to Laguna Arhueycocha, another perfect blue glacial lake. Then it was back down into the main U-shaped valley that should be in a geography textbook, passing several waterfalls, and two large lakes with an interconnecting marshy area where we spotted Andean Ducks with bright blue beaks, Andean Flicker, Andean Lapwing, Puna Ibis, some geese and an Andean Coot. After about 8 hours of walking, we arrived at our third and final campsite, again in a perfect setting in a small grassy area, amongst boulders and by a river.

Our final day took us down the valley through a landscape that looked like a giant rockery in an ornamental garden with glacial boulders scattered amongst bromeliads, cacti and alpine flowers with an ever present river running alongside. The early morning light gave the whole valley a warm glow.  As we got lower the valley narrowed into a dramatic canyon and we followed the winding path down and down until we reached Cashapampa, a small village at 2900 metres and the end of our trek. We were exhausted but happy as we sat down to wait for a minibus back to Huaraz. Freddie tried to negotiate a ride for us in a very comfy looking minibus but for some reason the driver wouldn't agree to take us all the way so we ended up piling into a taxi along with all our gear and another random person making it four in the back and three in the front along with various things attached to the roof! After a very uncomfortable journey down to Yungay, we changed vehicles and got into one of the maniac driven minibuses which had a pig and two goats strapped to the roof. The poor goats kept making distressed bleating noises when we drove over potholes. After two nail-biting hours we eventually arrived back in Huaraz feeling somewhat frazzled. As a reward, we treated ourselves to a meal at Siam de Los Andes, reputedly one of the best Thai restaurants in South America, incredibly expensive by Peruvian standards but absolutely delicious and worth every penny.

Notes for travellers

Santa Cruz trek arranged through Olaza's hostal (highly recommended) -
Private driver to Lake 69 (cost 160 Soles also arranged via Tito at Olaza's)
Trek company - Quenual tours (cost $120 each + $15 each for sleeping bag rental)

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