Cloud touching: a lesson in high altitude living

Trip Start Nov 08, 2004
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Trip End Nov 08, 2005


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Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Adios Ecuador, Hola Peru

As we said a fine goodbye to Ecuador“s green mountains, we said hello to Northern Peru“s barren coastal desert.. nothing but grey for miles and miles. Chaos greeted us in the towns of Pirua and Trujillo, the serenity of the Ecuadorian Andes was gone. Both towns were jam packed with old yellow taxis beeping every few seconds, noise, dirt and beggars. The first thing we noticed about Peru was the drop in standards of living from Ecuador, but simultaneously we were quite overwhelmed by the genuine kindness of the Peruvians, so many times they have helped us out for no gain of their own.

A whole city made from mud??

It was Peru“s Independence Day which meant it took us two extra days to reach our destination of Huaraz as all the buses were full, but this is Peru and whilst waiting for a bus we wandered around the vast ruins of an ancient mud brick city, "Chan Chan ". I had no idea that Peru“s ancient civilisations go back far beyond the Inca“s - this city was built by the Chimł civilisation in AD1300 who were eventually conquered by the Inca“s.

Back in the mountains - Huaraz

We caught a night bus and woke up in a valley at an altitude of over 3000m, in the town of Huaraz at the foot of the "Cordillera Blanca" . This is the highest mountain range inside the tropics in the world. In the area of 180km by 20km wide there are 50 peaks of 5700m or higher. The stats can“t do it justice though, the scenery here has to be seen to be believed.

After 2 days acclimatising to the altitude Jason convinced me that it would be a great idea to catch a battered old bus to the top of a mountain pass at 4800m and cycle back down.... the bus was supposed to leave at 6.30am, but by 7.20am they were still loading the roof with endless sacks of vegetables and rice, boxes of oil, chickens, old car parts etc etc. Two hours later I realised those Ecuadorian bus journeys had been merely a Sunday drive compared to this. We were snaking our way along a ridiculously narrow and bumpy dirt road carved into the edge of the mountain. The hair-pin bends were so tight that the bus had to do a 3 point turn to get round each one. The driver had to let the bus roll backwards at each bend to make it, and we could hear the brakes struggling to hold. Even the locals looked worried!

At 4800m we jumped off the bus and our breath was taken away by the altitude and the scenery. For the first time since being at high altitude it really did feel like we were on top of the world. We could see the road zigzagging for miles below down to two turquoise lakes sandwiched in-between awesome rock faces. We felt so dwarfed by the giant snow crested peaks all around us, one of which was Huscarąn, which at over over 6500m is Peru“s highest mountain.

The cycle down was slow, the road was made of loose stones, rubble, sand and dirt and I took each bend very cautiously... just how treacherous this road is was brought home to us when we saw 15 crosses sitting on a bend, the date on each was the same: 19th April 2005. It wasn“t hard to imagine a bus driver misjudging the turn and slipping over the edge. Ironically the crosses sat in front of one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen down to the lakes. A few zigzags later and I came across something which chilled me to the bone: the roof of the fallen minibus was still propped up against the edge of the mountain. Parts of the twisted chassis were still attached as well as crumpled seats, bits of clothing and, the worst, a child“s hair bobble. Even with the scenery and the sun making everything shine, the mountain suddenly took on a macabre feel.

A few minutes later I had gone ahead whilst Jason took photos. I stopped to wait for him as the lakes grew nearer. I waited... and waited .. and waited, but there was no sign of him. After 20 minutes by brain was in over-drive imagining him having cycled off the edge or fallen...eventually as I started to walk back up a van passed me and told me Jason had a flat tyre and was fixing it, I was so relieved! Another half hour passed and he came cycling down the mountain, still with flat tyre. The tear in the tyre was not fixable so our cycle was brought to a rather abrupt end and he didn`t care if more damage was caused by cycling on a flat. We made it down to the lakes, but then had to spend two hours bouncing up and down jammed in between indigenous farmers and their sacks of potatoes in another shaky old minibus. These old minibuses are the main form of local transport in Peru and they cram as many people in as possible - sometimes 17 at once!The roads are so bumpy you are bouncing all over the bus and the driver is literally wrestling with the steering wheel to avoid the potholes and stones! An annoying end to a fantastic day.

Upwards and backwards in time

Putting these events behind us we decided to hike up to the "lodge" in the mountains -built by the British couple who run the hostel we were staying at in Huaraz (The Way Inn). The hike up was a real lesson in Peru“s highland Indian culture. We walked up steep cobbled pathways, over streams and through tiny villages which could only be reached by donkey or on foot. It amazes me that when you are so high up in the mountains you come across these remote communities which are so untouched by the trappings of the modern world. 45% of Peru“s population is indigenous and mostly live up in the Andes. The Campesino“s (highland peasants) build their cottages with mud-bricks which they dig up, shape and dry in the sun. They live off their own land and animals and are totally self-sustained. No mortgages, bills and supermarket trips here! It felt like we were walking through a film set. The women dressed in bright clothes and hats a bit more poiny than the Ecuadorian ones, led their donkeys, goats, cows, pigs, chickens and dogs up and down the mountain or worked in the fields with hand-held ploughs. Families trekked up and down to villages carrying pots of soup and laden down with the days pickings on their backs. The beauty of it was that we didn't see another gringo all the way up. The locals were apprehensive of us at first, but chatted to us as we exchanged sweets for photos!

The lodge had a spectacular setting above the highest village looking out over the mountains and was full of luxury inside. We had been excited about the hot showers which we had heard were very good (yes these things are exciting when you are travelling) but just our luck - the water pump packed up just as we arrived so we had get buckets of ice cold water from the stream to wash with and drink for 3 days!

Laguna Churup - a test of endurance

The lodge is a good starting point for a hike up to a lake called Laguna Churup which sits in a valley at about 4500m. We set off for the 700m climb with 2 Danish girls. After 2 hours of uphill walking one of them had to turn back due to the altitude, but the worst was yet to come. The rough path was full of boulders and followed a narrow ridge which just got steeper and steeper and steeper.... by 4000m metres I could barely catch my breath and started to feel really dizzy. Jason and Lis were ok and apparently altitude sickness affects some people for no reason and not others. It was at this point that Jason started his usual "it`s just over that ridge/around that corner/we are nearly there, honest" fallacies to try get me to the top. We had two choices for the final ascent to the lake - option one was a 200m near vertical rocky path next to a waterfall and option two was a long path around another mountain and down to the lake. We took option two but lost the path after about 10 minutes and ended up scaling bare rocks trying to walk horizontally across the mountain. Again it was best not to look down...

Four hours after setting off we got our first glimpse of the gorgeous clear lake surrounded by several peaks of over 5500m. Suddenly we realised we only had just over two hours to make it down before darkness so, panicking, we slipped and slid down the rocky path next to the waterfall - me mostly on my bum! Going down the rest of the way was such a pleasure and within an hour we were back in the green pastures with the Campesinos and their animals. It had taken seven hours to cover just 22km - now I really realise what altitude can do!

We are off back to sea level in Lima for the weekend and then to Cusco, South America“s most famous tourist destination, and a 5 day hike to the lost city of Machu Picchu.
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