16.01.2006 - 29.01.2006
We bid an emotional farewell to our Quechua maid and caretaker, who seemed crestfallen that we were leaving so soon. After eating a huge breakfast, our second in as many days, at the misnamed El Turista, since it was full of locals, we crammed into the collectivo that took us to Huaraz. We were given the best seats in the small combi, right up front, but that didn't prevent 15 people from squeezing in. The ride took about 1@1/2 hours through the valley, and would have been shorter were it not for the constant stops that were made to drop-off and pick up other passengers en route. Huaraz, a bustling city of 100,000, is the capital of Ancash, and the center of commerce and tourism for the entire area. It has grown significantly in the past few years, and is full of tour/mountaineering guides and shops, as trekking has become a major industry. Despite the towering snow peaks nearby, and an elevation of close to 10,000 feet, it does not have the low key charm of Caraz. Most of the older buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes and the concrete utilitarian houses and shops sprawl out along the valley floor.
Looking Down our Street
There are a number of bustling markets however, with cheap food, great pineapple and mango smoothies, and just about anything else you might think of. It is easy to get lost among all of the stalls and passageways. There are also a number of good restaurants, including a French creperie.
We stayed in Albergue Chirrup, 6 or 7 long blocks from the center. It was an excellent choice. We got a room with a balcony and breakfast for $20US. The place had 4 stories or so and looked like a Swiss chalet. There was a common room on the third floor with fireplace and a kitchen where meals were served, and the 4th floor had a balcony with even better views of the high peaks.
Views of Sunset from 4th Floor Balcony at Hotel
Our neighbors in the room next door were quite chatty, or I should say Nicholas was. He turned out to be Romanian, in his early 30's, living in Montreal for many years. He spoke about 6 languages fluently, including English and Spanish. His wife, in her mid 20's, gorgeous and exotic looking, was a black Peruvian with Indian blood who spoke little English. She could easily have been a model. We got to know them fairly well over the course of the next two weeks. It seems that Maria, after living in Canada with Nicholas for a few years, was forced to leave because of visa problems, and was now stuck in Peru trying to obtain permission to enter Canada legally. She was from a poor family and did not have much of a formal education, which contributed to her problems in getting out. I always assumed that being married was an easy way to do it, but apparently this is not always the case as their marriage was not recognized in Canada. They only saw each other a couple of times a year when Nicholas came down on vacation. He sent her money as she had little means of supporting herself. At one point he confided in me that he was worried she might end up on the streets of Lima, working as a prostitute if she was unable to leave.
The owner of the Albergue was in his 70's, wore a beret, and seemed to be a man of the mountains. He and his wife lived in a nearby house, and we spoke to them about hiring a Spanish teacher. I should add that my primary reason for coming to the high mountains was to try and arrange a trek for a couple of weeks, but Nanette was not interested and wanted to continue her language studies. Our first teacher was relatively young, well educated, and considerably more sophisticated than our teachers in Guatemala. She came from a middle-class family, and as it turned out was partly Jewish. We went to the market place with her a couple of times to practice and learn the Peruvian names for different fruits and vegetables. They were not always the same as in Guatemala and Central America where, we were told, they speak a more antiquated Spanish. For example avocado, is aguacate in Guatemala and Palta in Peru. One day Marta took us to her mother's small convenience store and said to her, “Doesn't he look just like Uncle--------?” “Dios Mio,” she exclaimed, and agreed that I did. Must have been my Jewish blood.
Marta was not always available so we also studied with someone else, an elderly, retired gentlemen who had been a university professor. He put us through our grammatical paces while discussing highbrow Spanish literature, and also reviewed the dreaded subjunctivo, which, though it it is used frequently in conversational Spanish, I have all but forgotten.
In between lessons we took several excursions with Nicholas and Maria. Nicholas was quite the organizer, and as his Spanish was fluent, we let him arrange a day long horseback ride through the mountains. It began with an hour collectivo ride to a small town in the middle of nowhere. As directed, we made our way to a stable, where after a short time our guides showed up with the horses. It was a boy of about 12 years old and his sister, maybe 15.
Our Fearless Guide in Front, his Sister walking in back, Nanette, Maria and Nicholas
It had been some time since I had been on a horse, and some of the narrow rocky paths we traversed gave me pause. The horse clearly had a mind of its own and seemingly would stop to munch on the grass at what I considered to be the most inopportune times, ie, whenever there was a steep drop-off on the trail. Often my side kicks were not enough to motivate the beast and our 12 year old leader would have to take the reins and pull my horse while astride his. After several hours of making slow progress in this way, and a very sore ass, I decided to walk some and felt much better for it. Horses, I decided, or at least my horse, was not worth the trouble. I could walk faster on these trails then they could.
The bucolic scenery gave us different views of people and fields as we meandered from one small village to the next.
Most of these villages had narrow dirt roads, and were occasionally serviced by collectivos, but otherwise we saw hardly any cars. Here the indigenous people were everywhere, and generally wore more typical native dress with colorful blouses and bowler hats.
To be more exact, it was primarily the women who dressed this way. The men looked more like cowboys with jeans and boots and more western style shirts. Our destination was a set of hot springs on a road that led back to town. It took a long time to get there and we didn't arrive until late afternoon. It was not quite what I was expecting, as it was a fairly developed place, by Peruvian standards, and we had to wait a while to get into the springs. Apparently it was a popular place with the locals, perhaps because they didn't have to heat up the water in order to bathe.
We ate in one of the many food stalls that lined the road opposite the springs.
Waiting our Turn at the Baths
On the funky side, we did manage a nice soak in our private room before taking an icy shower to rinse off.
After a couple of days in Huaraz, the weather seemed to deteriorate, just as I was trying to arrange my more extensive trek. I wanted to go to the Huayhuash (pronounced why wash), location of the climb and accident of Joe Simpson, described in his book Touching the Void, and later in the movie of the same name. This range is supposedly one of the most beautiful in all of the Andes, and also the most remote. Hanging glaciers practically reach into the jungle green edge of the Amazon basin. Unfortunately it was not to be.
The Albergue turned out to be a great place to meet people in part because of the large and comfortable common rooms. That is one of the advantages of staying in hostels as opposed to anonymous hotels. Although there were few people when we arrived, the place got more crowded as the week went by. We met a young American student from eastern Washington, traveling on his own, an athletic and feisty woman from Argentina who ran a gym outside of Buenos Aires, and was a personal trainer. She was going off on a small trek by herself, despite the rain, and insisted we look her up when we got to Argentina, which we did. We also met a young couple from London. They were driving down the entire coast of Central and South America, and had started their journey seven months earlier in LA. Michael had quit his job as an investment banker in order to take this trip. His mother was Spanish, father American, but he was raised in the UK. He spoke Spanish fluently. EJ, his girlfriend, was also a Brit. She had been working for a corporation deciding how to disburse funds for philanthropic projects. We liked them both immediately, and as their route was more or less what ours was, we talked about meeting up along the way, though I'm not sure that any of us expected it to happen.
One day I played hookey from Spanish school, and went on a long day hike with Nicholas and Maria. We hired a guide for this one since we heard there was a short section of rock where a rope would come in handy. Our destination was a small alpine lake part way up one of the mountains we could see from the hostel. Our guide showed up as schedualed, early in the morning, with a driver. We started up one of the dirt tracks outside of town. After driving for a while we were forced to get out and start walking because the road was blocked by some heavy equipment. As best we could gather, they had been working on it at some point, and simply left the equipment in the middle of the road . This meant that our walk was going to be significantly longer than originally planned. Undaunted or perhaps the better word might be unknowingly, we set out cross country through fields and around boulders.
Lower down the area was used for grazing and there was a network of paths crossing it. Good thing we had a guide. He set a quick pace, and somewhat smugly I noticed that both Nicholas and especially Maria had difficulty keeping up because of the altitude. By now I was fully acclimated and despite the age difference, had an easier time keeping up then they did. As we got higher the fields disappeared until we were walking on a narrow rocky path that led up through scree. The clouds thickened and the temperature dropped as we approached the lake. There was a short steep scramble for maybe 50 yards as the rock walls closed in.
Our guide went up first and top roped us one at a time. It really wasn't necessary on the way up though I knew I would be glad to have the extra security on the way down. Another 45 minutes of heavy breathing and we arrived. Maria was visibly relieved that she had made it. She was not an experienced a hiker and this was by far the most difficult walk she had taken. It was quite chilly here at almost 16,000 feet and the lake was larger than I had expected.
A Rare Sunny Moment
Higher up, maybe 500 feet or so large dirty snowfields were visible and then the glacier beyond that. The guide made us all some coca tea. Nice to have at these heights, it seems to help with saroche (altitude sickness), and gives you a little extra energy besides. Spits of ice began to fall from the clouds, but none of us wanted to rush off.
This dog belonged to Other Hikers
We ate a late lunch on the rocks, and were rewarded with occasional rays of sun through the clouds. This lit up the mist around us and gave us a glimpse of the jaggedness above. As we sat there, three kids showed up ranging in age from about seven to ten. We had passed them on the way up when they had been herding sheep. Dark skinned, they were obviously Indian, though they all wore jeans. The youngest had a cowboy hat that was too while the others each wore a baseball cap. Dirt smudged their faces, but they smiled at us in a shy kind of way. A few sweets from us brought them closer. From a nearby village, they were as curious about us as we were about them and insisted we take pictures.
When we showed them they laughed, and wanted more pictures taken while they hammed it up. Eventually we started the trek back and luckily the weather held. The kids followed us much of the way until we got back down to the grazing fields where they struck off on their own, presumably to find their village and their sheep. We waved to them and said adios. Nothing special happened, but it felt as though a cultural exchange had taken place.
Sheepherder at Lower Elevation
By the time we got down our driver was long gone, and we had to make our way back to another village and wait for a collectivo to take us back to town. Collectivos are the primary form of local transportation in this area. Meant to hold about 10 or 12, they are invariably stuffed with up to 18 or 20 people and make frequent stops. They seem to service even tiny villages in the mountains as few people have cars and the price is right at 1-3 soles, depending on distance. 3.4 soles equals 1 $US. Usually there is a driver and another person, most often a boy of about 10 or 11, not much older than our sheep herders, who opens the door, shouts out the destination and collects the money. He is known as the cobrador. On one of our excursions the cobrador was missing and because I was sitting closest to the door, the driver asked if I would open it and let people in, which I was more than willing to do. He continued to collect the money of course. So whenever we came to a village I would lean out of the minibus and shout out our destination, A Huaraz. A few times I shouted A Nueva York, and as you can imagine I got more than a few strange looks and giggles. I doubt whether the locals had ever seen a gringo acting as cobrador ever before, and some of them, at least in the small hamlets may not have seen that many gringos at all. Perhaps now that I am jubilado, more or less, I can have a second career as a cobrador here in the wilds of the Andes. Its got to be a tough way to make a living though.
On another day trip we went to look at some petroglyphs. By the time we got to the village, it was raining hard, and we had about an hours walk on a bluff near a river. Despite getting soaked and chilled, the maize fields were beautiful. When finally got to the spacious cave further up the hillside and looking down over the valley, it was easy to see why it had been inhabited. However the fences which had been erected around the entrance did not prevent many of the petroglyphs from being vandalized, and it this was disappointing, especially after the effort it took to get here. On the way back Nicholas got into several conversations with the locals. He seemed interested in going up to almost anyone, no matter how improbable, and engaging them. Half the time I had no idea what they were talking about as my Spanish couldn't keep up, but I gathered he asked questions about the caves, and also about their lives in the village. Most were indigenous farmers, and I wondered what they thought about this gringo who would sometimes ask personal questions. Maria was much more reserved than he was, and it took her a couple of days to feel comfortable even talking to us, let alone strangers. I could see that it must have been Nicholas who had approached her when they met in Lima a few years back. On the way home she told us about her background growing up in the barrios of Lima, and the contrast between her Peruvian life and the life she led in Canada. Her struggle to leave Peru had already stretched well over 2 years and involved endless amounts of paperwork and bureaucratic delays. She seemed to appreciate our concern and interest in her story, and it was frustrating that there was nothing we could do to help. If anyone could get her out it seemed like Nicholas could, and yet even he was stymied by the process. Much later, we heard she did finally manage to get out.
After spending 10 or 11 days in Huaraz, I had to acknowledge that longer trekking was out, and we took the first class bus to Lima, about an 8 hour trip. When we went to leave the owners of the Albergue wanted to charge us double the going rate for our Spanish lessons because they said we were both students. This directly contradicted what the teachers had told us. Eventually they relented, but it was a sour note on what had been an enjoyable stay. The bus ride was uneventful and comfortable, if less interesting, than the trip up the Canon del Pato.