¡Hola a todos!
I waved goodbye to Lima and settled down to an interrupted night mirrored in the film being played; ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. My destination was Huaraz, a location popular among travellers and Peruvians alike for its breath-taking mountainous scenery, fresh air and clean way of living. A small town with a notable European contingent of tourists and settled residents both, Huaraz is ideally situated in a valley flanked by two glorious mountain ranges, the Cordilleras Blanca y Negra. These ranges rise up from the verdant valley floor to dominate the scene, distinguishable by the appearance or absence of snow gathered upon the ranges’ highest peaks. Taken alone, the snowless Negra collection would be impressive by any hiker’s standards and even towering to the west of Huaraz they are rather spectacular. Nonetheless, the real stars of the show are the mighty peaks rising along the opposing range, Blanca, boasting among their number Huascaran, the tallest peak in Peru measuring in at 6,768m. In fact, Huascaran is the tallest mountain in the tropical zone of the world.
I arrived in Huaraz early in the morning having followed my usual custom of taking a night-bus and once more saved on the expensive of a night’s accommodation – an added benefit must surely be that travelling in the dark safeguards me against viewing the treacherous roads upon which we ride. I checked into ‘Hostel Caroline’, which had come highly recommended upon the Trip Advisor website and, after depositing my bags, headed out into town with some newly-made acquaintances for a bite to eat and followed this with a perusal of the assorted companies offering hikes into the surrounding foothills and luscious valleys. In just under an hour I had visited numerous agencies and settled upon a four-day hike following the Santa Cruz trail through wondrous lake-filled scenery boasting impressive vistas up towards main of the region’s premier peaks, including Huacaran. The area also boasts the eight to twelve day Huayhuash trek, reputed to be among the most brilliant anywhere in the world. I decided against tackling this particular trek, compelled by a lack of time and slight concerns over my abilities to last out such a long hike. In any case, the Santa Cruz trail was wonderful fun and a fine representation of my limited time in the Huaraz area.
The trail did not commence under the best possible auspices. Rising early to catch a taxi to our waiting bus, which was scheduled to carry us to the town closest to the trail-head, depositing us with a local taxi charged with ferrying us the remaining distance, I became acquainted with my fellow hikers: four people and all French. Now, let it never be said that I can be counted among those poor English souls who continue to hold some lamentable vestige of hatred towards our Gallic neighbours: I am a staunch Francophile. Nonetheless, I knew that I had my work cut out when it transpired that three of the four did not speak English. Fortunately, two of these three spoke Spanish and the fourth character made every effort to include me wherever possible, of which I was very appreciative. Over the next four days I certainly had ample opportunity to practise a little Spanish but, there were also many moments when I felt acutely lonely, unable to progress to more meaningful conversation with the majority of my group. The French would congregate each evening in one of the tents but, although I was warmly invited, I would shy away from these gatherings, embarrassed to halt the conversation so often to ask the sole English speaker what was being said. Among a host of group-based activities littered with magical memories of wonderful companions, this was simply one such occasion that fell a little short of the established benchmark but, it was still very enjoyable.
Disembarking from the final taxi at the trail-head, it soon became apparent that our donkeys and their driver were nowhere to be seen and so we waited, and we waited. After some two hours had elapsed, during which time we had all got to know one another a little better and eaten our lunch for that day, our guide decided that we could indeed commence upon the trail without our back-up. So it was that we set off at a (very) leisurely pace, punctuated by numerous, ludicrously extended breaks, as we waited despairingly for the arrival of our donkeys. The issue, of course, was that our pack-animals were carrying our tents and cooking equipment: without them we would freeze that night and so there was a real risk that we would have to turn back if they did not appear by a certain time of the day. Happily, during yet another extended rest-stop, we were finally greeted by the fortuitous sight of our donkeys rounding the hillside. From this moment hence we walked decidedly quicker and made camp some hour or so later, with the sun setting and the temperature plummeting. Fortunately this was the last of any hiccups and the remainder of the hike passed without real incident.
I bonded quite well with the whole group considering the inherent difficulties due to language barriers but, I was particularly friendly with Damien, the sole person in the group who could communicate with me in English. Although this virtue no doubt aided our fledgling friendship, it helped that Damien was also a very nice character. We enjoyed some hearty conversation as we ambled past bubbling brooks, wind-ravished moorland, pasturing cows and monumental peaks that shadowed our every movement. Gazing upon these sugar icing-coated behemoths, I was reminded of the old Incan reverence displayed to the ‘apus’, a snow-capped peak each of which was thought to be the home of a god. Thus it was that I regaled Damien with the story of ‘Juanita’, the Ice Maiden, whom I had visited while residing in Arequipa. Juanita is a young girl (approximately twelve to fourteen years of age), discovered in the late 1990s by an explorer from Europe. This explorer had purposefully visited the high mountains surrounding an active volcano to the north-west of Arequipa during a particularly violent period of that volcano’s activity. During such times, the increased temperatures resulting from the volcano’s molten outbursts heats the surrounding peaks and melts part of the snow, enabling access to areas for excavation that cannot otherwise be visited. It was during one such excursion that this European and his party stumbled upon Juanita, recently dislodged from her subterranean resting-place by the volcano’s tremors. It was an amazing stroke of luck: had Juanita remained exposed to the corrosive elements around her for much longer (mere days), then her body would surely have wilted much further. As it is, she remains almost wholly intact, a full embodiment of a past age.
Experiments commenced upon her delicate frame and it soon became clear that this was a human sacrifice, made by the Incas to one of their many ‘apus’ gods. Juanita was dressed ceremonially and sported a huge fracture in her skull directly above her left eye. Traces of a concoction of drugs were found in her stomach, suggesting that she had been drugged prior to her execution. Interestingly, a part of an umbilical cord was found in a pouch around her neck, leading some to suggest that here was a sacrifice selected possibly as early as at birth for her noble role. However, the cord has not been examined and so no-one can say conclusively that the cord is Juanita’s; perhaps it is simply a good-luck charm purchased for a street vendor, much like those uterus caps worn by superstitious sailors while at sea. The information presented at the museum I visited in Arequipa was thoughtfully compiled and well-organized. The highlight by far was actually viewing Juanita, safely locked away in her pressurized glass tomb that regulates the surrounding temperature and effectively keeps her frozen and therefore impervious to the aging effects of heat and moisture. Here was a real Inca-woman, one with hair and skin and teeth who might simply have been sleeping were it not for some decay due to her temporary exposure upon the mountain-side. The scene was one of peaceful repose yet charged with an electricity of excitement. It was a truly humbling experience to stand before this, merely a girl, far younger than I and yet ageless and mystical.
My story carried us a little further along our trail, when it began quite suddenly to hail. The changes in climate during this trip were unexpected and surprising, though we were fortunate to encounter only two small hail-storms throughout the duration of our hike. I was particularly grateful that neither fell during our gruelling climb up to the sole high pass on our route and the highest I have yet been upon land: 4,750m. I was especially happy also to note no ill-effects from the climb: indeed, I even carried the pack of one French friend struggling particularly badly with altitude sickness, able to sympathize after my own tragic experience in La Paz.
Arriving back in Huaraz at the end of our trip and having successfully avoided yet another transport strike carried out while we were hiking, our whole group headed out that evening with our guide to celebrate the completion of a wonderful trail. We ate, drank and played pool late into the night before trouping home wearily. I enjoyed one further day of rest in the town before taking another night-bus on to Trujillo, a city upon the coast. I wanted to spend a little time exploring this city before continuing up the coast to Mancora, the surf-capital of Peru: I desired only to lie out on the beach and swim for the first time in the Pacific Ocean.
I waved goodbye to Huaraz and continued on my merry way.
¡Saludos a todos!