10.01.2006 - 15.01.2006
Our next destination in the high Andes began, as usual, with a lengthy bus ride. Opting for the more scenic route,(and yes it was longer), we went first to Chimbote, guano capital of the world. Here we caught the misnamed Yungay Express, which looked as though it would be lucky to break 40 MPH. Our route took us through the Canon del Pato, and a narrow, mostly dirt track winding along the river, and then up through the slot canyon.
We had to pass through some 30 tunnels that were blasted through the rocky and dry mountains. The steep sides were chock full of loose boulders, just looking for an excuse to roll down and crush us. I was thankful that it was a dry day. The scenery was other worldly, as is so much of Peru, and it helped us to avoid focusing on the bone jarring ride. This was not a trip for the feint of heart as we frequently stared down into major chasms. We passed a few villages. People got on with chickens, and at one point several sheep were placed in the underneath compartment. Most of the luggage was stored on top, so there was room for the animals. As always, bathroom stops were few and far between, and it was a good thing we had brought a sandwich from Trujillo as there were not many food choices along the route. After a several hours, we approached the Callejon, a long narrow valley surrounded on one side by the Cordellera Negra and on the other by the Cordellera Blanca, which contains many of the highest summits in all of the Andes. We began to make out some of the snow peaks in the distance, before arriving in Caraz, at 7500 feet.
We took one of the tuk tuks buzzing around like flies, a three wheeled motor cycle buggy, complete with fringe on the top. Cramming in our backpacks, we rode the short ½ mile up the hill to our hotel, Caraz Dulzura. It appeared as though the only other people at the place were a French couple who were leaving the next day. The staff were happy to serve us dinner, provided we gave them a hour to prepare it. This was easy to do, as we sat on the terrace drinking beer and gazing up at the mountains.
The town itself, was small, quiet, and this time of year, the rainy season, there few tourists.
The narrow winding streets had old rocks walls, buildings out of cement or stone, small shops, and was not without charm. While not prosperous, it did not seem especially poor. Most of the people looked indigenous, but few were dressed in native costume. I stopped in the local tour guide/mountaineering shop, Pony Expeditions. Alberto spoke English, and was kind enough to spend some time with me, and gave me a lot of good information about local hikes. Because business was so slow this time of year, it seemed to make more sense to wait until Huaraz, a much larger town, to check out longer trekking possibilities.
Based on Alberto's recommendation, our first hike took place on the trails and narrow roads that were immediately in back of our hotel. Although a little confusing, as there were several paths, we chose one that seemed more well worn. It took us through the outskirts of town, and then started up the mountain. It was more of a road than a trail, and we passed several people herding sheep and goats. After a couple of hours we got past what looked like cell towers, and then onto a beautiful high plateau with terraced fields and stone walls.
On one side was the valley floor with the town of Caraz spread out in front of us and the Cordellera Negra behind, somewhat dark and ominous looking. In the other direction were massive glaciated snow peaks, one of which dominated the sky towering another 10,000 feet above us.
It reminded me very much of the Himalayas. The sun was hot as we walked along the relatively flat path. We passed flowering yuccas and green fields, as well as the occasional adobe hut. After another hour or two, we came across a family, obviously doing the same thing we were, strolling along and taking in the sights. They told us that although the day looked fair, usually in late afternoon a very strong wind came up, and we wanted to be down before that happened. We continued on for another ½ hour or so to a small village on a hillside, and just sat on a stone wall, watching a few farmers go about their business, and looking at the ingenious gravity fed irrigation system water the fields. After a time, we noticed the clouds had started to obscure the snow peaks, and figured we had better start back. It was hard, very hard, to pull ourselves away. Later, the wind did begin to blow, and there were some serious gusts before we got down far enough to where they abated. Obviously the family knew what they were talking about. We managed to get lost, though not seriously so, and had to take a somewhat longer way back. No matter, what a perfect day.
We ate dinner again in our hotel, this time after about a two hour wait. We were now the only people in the place, and the maid/cook/caretaker befriended us, and asked a lot of questions about where we were from, what we were doing etc. We of course asked her the same. She was from an Indian family in a nearby village, where she returned each night. She seemed really pleased that we could understand her Spanish, as Quechua was her first language.
Nanette with Quechua friend in front of hotel sign
The next day we hired a cab, with Alberto's help, to take us to Llanganuco Lakes, a national park further up the valley.
On the way over we passed close to the base of Huascaran, almost 22,000 feet, and we had some breathtaking views before the clouds came in.
Though not visible from this photograph, we thought we could make out where a huge chunk of the glacier had broken off during an earthquake, and buried the town of Yungay, killing 20,000 people. We asked our driver about it, and he told us that everyone was buried alive except a number of school children who were on a trip outside of town, just beyond the reach of the avalanche. They were the only ones spared. Other people have since rebuilt the town a few miles away. The old place, now a cemetery, is a bunch of rubble dotted by crosses, a permanent reminder of how precarious life can be in this immense landscape. As a shopkeeper in Daramsala had said to me a few years earlier, in the Indian Himalaya you put yourself in God's hands. In the west, with our creature comforts and predictable everyday lives, we have the illusion that we can control almost everything, maybe even death. Here, as in so many places in the third world, they have no such illusions.
Shortly after we arrived at the lakes, the weather deteriorated significantly. It became overcast and windy, and the temperature dropped to 35 or 40F. Of course, we were also at 15,000 feet or so, which made a difference. The lakes were a deep turquoise, fed by the rapidly melting glaciers all around. We put on all the clothes we had and started hiking further up the valley, just as a few pieces of grapple began to fall. Right around the lake there were trees, but higher it was a totally alpine environment of rock and meadows, and beyond that, ice and snow. We came to a high grazing field with stone walls and a small rock hut, that reminded me of the villages of Nepal and northern India.
At this time of year the flocks had already been moved to lower ground and we saw no animals. Occasionally, we got a brief glimpse of the glaciers and rocks above as the clouds would clear.
We took a different trail back down from the upper lake, along a river bank that was lush and densely covered with trees and ferns. Compared to the surrounding environment it felt almost tropical, though only a few hundred feet lower.
We rode back in silence, still trying to take in what we had seen.
That evening we had dinner in Alberto's pizzaria, Cafe de Rat, just above the offices of Pony Expeditions. The place had a European feel to it and was decorated with posters of the mountains and antiquated climbing gear. Unlike our hotel, there were other diners, mostly travelers like ourselves. We strolled around the main plaza, near the stone cathedral which had been reconstructed several times following earthquakes, and then walked up the long hill to our hotel just as the moon was rising over the mountains.