We awoke bleary eyed in Casma after a long overnight bus ride down from Mancora. Our dazed stupor quickly morphed into irritation as we were dropped on the side of the road instead of at the Bus terminal which is where we had been told we would be delivered. The problem with being left on the side of the road is that you are at the mercy of the taxi and tuk-tuk drivers and therefore, more often then not, liable to be screwed in some way...even if only mildly. This time would be no different. We were told by the tuk tuk driver that the bus terminal was too far to walk, so we acquiesced and piled into his rig. We putted off down the road only to stop abruptly about 150 yards down the street and told we were there...not only was it easily walkable, but as it turns out there is no bus terminal in Casma (or so they say) and so we were taken to a spot where colectivos (min vans) load people up and drive up the windy road to Huaraz. We paid the tuk tuk man $1 each for our short ride and then turned our attention to the several colectivo drivers who were all yelling at us in attempts to get our business. Mind you, its 6am and we hadnt slept much...= not awesome. After a little haggling we settled on the next colectivo leaving and we squeezed in to the van...and eventually off we went.
Im actually glad we were in a mini van instead of a bus for that leg, becuase let me tell you...that is one hell of a windy road. It starts in almost coastal desert where we drove through intensley thick morning fog until we started to climb the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. It is an impressive mountain range, that's for sure...boasting more then 50 mountains over 5700m (18,700+ft), its tallest being over 6700m (22,000ft)...yeah, it is no joke. The sun broke through the clouds and as we crested the tallest point of the road and we finally caught a glimpse of some of those snow capped monsters lined up along the horizon looking down onto Huaraz which is tucked into the valley below. It was definitely a "WOW" moment.
We were dropped in town and made our way by taxi to our hostel: Ezama which is run by the über friendly Emilio and his family. We were a little tired as we hadnt slept much during the overnight journey so we chilled out for a few hours before heading out to find a afternoon cup of coffee. We saw that there was a cafe in town called California Cafe, and figured that it was a must so we hit it up for some caffeine and a bowl of soup. We cruised the town the rest of the afternoon before watching the sunset from the plaza in the middle of town... a spot which offers pretty good views of the huge mountains that loom just outside of the city. Pretty awesome to see the alpine glow on mountains that big from the comfort of a city. It was also awesome to finally feel like we had arrived in Peru. The beach was nice, but it just didnt feel as authentic as it did to be here in Huaraz where indiginous Quecha people in their distinctive clothing shuffled amoungst the rest of the people going about their daily business. Yeah...Huaraz was a good place to stop.
In the morning we were up and at moving early to get out for our day of hiking. We settled on a reasonable day hike to Churup lake in the Parque Nacional Huascaran. After some trial and error (meaning being told a different location by everyone we asked) we finally found the right corner to stand in. The mini van pulled up and we piled in along with several Quechan (Indigenous) ladies decked out head to toe in their bright and colourful traditional clothing. First there were 4 of us in the van and then one by one more and more ladies came and loaded in...they were all returning to their homes up in the country side with bags full of supplies from the market in town. As more and more people piled in, G and I found ourselves squeezed ever tighter into the very back corner...until at last we were at maximum capacity and the van pulled out. Now we had about 18 people in a van designed for 12, but do you think that stopped the driver from picking up any and everyone else along the way that needed a ride? Hell no. I think the most I counted in the van at one time was 22...it was pretty unbelievable. We just sat there exchanging looks and trying not to laugh.
Finally we were dropped in a village and pointed in the direction of the National Park. Im pretty sure we were charged the "gringo prce" because it seemed a little more expensive then a 45 minute over stuffed bouncy ride should have cost...when I called the driver out on it he just smiled and drove off. We shrugged the extra $1 or so off and turned up the the hill.
We walked on a road through the village, past houses and farms and livestock and up and up and up. We hiked for about an hour before we got to the entrance to the Park where we paid our entrance fee and were told it was another 2 hours to the lake. It was slow going. For starters it was steep. And, secondly we were gassed from the elevation. The town of Huaraz is over 10,000ft in elevation and we were way higher then that. But, we made steady progress and the trail was clearly marked and before we knew it we passed a couple who assured us that we were almost there.
4450m is what the sign said when we at last arrived at the lake...14,600ft, officially the highest G and I have ever been. We sat on the edge of the lake and ate our lunch and admired the landscape; in particular the mountain that loomed directly above which sits imposingly at 18,000ft and is covered in snow. Pretty awesome! After a good 45 minutes of chilling, we decided to head back down. We made quick time getting back to the entrance of the National Park, but were disheartened to realize that, contrary to everything we had been told, there was no public transportation there and we had to walk the extra hour or so down the path we had climbed already that day. We were pretty beat by the time we stumbled off the trail in the village and flagged a Taxi which luckily was cruising slowly down the bumpy dirt road looking for passengers to bring back to Huaraz. As it turned out the private cab home cost the same as our ride up the hill that morning (with 2 dozen orher people) confirming we'd indeed been gotten for the "gringo tax". Damn.
That night we dined on a gormet meal of Ramen and hard boiled eggs and after a short walk into town that evening to grab a few supplies, we hit the hay...legs sore and totally spent.
The next day we had considered heading out for another day hike, but we were pretty beat still so we decided instead to just kick around town and see what we could get into. We spent some time at California Cafe on their wi-fi, bought bus tickets for the journey to Lima and otherwise chilled. A surprisingly good pizza dinner followed a late afternoon happy hour beer session. At happy hour we chatted for a while with our wiater: Elvis, who as you would surmise from his name was a pretty righteous dude.
In the morning we smashed some breakfast before wishing Emilio and company farewell and hoofing it across town to the bus station. Another full day of bus travel was all that lay in between us and Lima...no big deal.
As the bus pulled out of town we glanced back and had one last look at those huge mountains...I couldnt help but think that this is definitely one of those places I need to come back to do more extensively some day. In the mean time...onward, ho.