Close to Touching the Void country.

Trip Start Oct 06, 2004
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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In Manu National Park I met Jonathan from Israel, on a five months trip around South America. Out of his five months backpacking adventure, he planned on spending a week or so trekking around Huaraz. He ended up spending two months instead, because he absolutely loved the place. In Manu he kept on raving about spectacular peaks and gorgeous mountain scenery, and before we went separate ways, he gave me the address of an excellent hostel in Huaraz where I would be able to meet lots of other travellers as well as obtain all the information I could possibly want about the hiking opportunities in Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash. Since I haven't done much hiking lately, I had already planned on doing some trekking in Huaraz before meeting Jonathan, but all his stories just wet my appetite further. Most of all I wanted to do the ten days Huayhuash circuit, a pretty famous trek (apparently one of the most awesome treks anywhere on the planet) in Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash. If you don't remember having heard about Cordillera Huayhuash, maybe you have read Joe Simpson's excellent book "Touching the Void" or seen the equally excellent movie with the same name. "Touching the Void" is probably the most famous mountain climbing survival story ever to be written, involving Simpson's close encounter with his own expiry trying to climb the notorious Siula Grande (6344m), the second highest peak in Cordillera Huayhuash.

Arriving in Huaraz one Tuesday afternoon, my plan is to go straight to the hostel I got recommended by Jontahan, and start looking into the different trekking opportunities. But then I meet Humberto, a 30 year old local, at the bus station. I lie and tell him that I got a reservation at a hostel, and hence won't need his help. But he is persistent, and promise to show me the way as it's pretty close to the bus station. I follow him, but tell myself that I will stick to my planned hostel and not sign up on any trekking deals before I have done some checking around. In many touristy cities it is common to meet people like Humberto at bus stations or airports. They are usually independent tour guides not mentioned in any guide books, or working for hostels located out of the main streets (and again not mentioned in any guide books). Hence it's their opportunity to earn a few bucks, as few tourists are likely to locate their hostel or tour agency in some back alley on the outskirts of town. Most tourists (including myself) do however steer clear of people they meet in bus stations, as they are often promising much more than they can deliver. I have had a couple of half bad experiences myself with "people like Humberto", including my three day trip to the Amazon back in Leticia in Colombia. But Humberto seems very sympatic and honest, so it doesn't take him many minutes to convince me that I should stay in his aunts hostel instead of my planned hostel, and also do my trekking with him as he is a cheap and independent but authorized trekking guide. So once again I do a big NO NO for a seasoned traveler, and agree to all his ideas (at least he was very convincing and seemed to have a vast knowledge and experience of the mountains in Cordillera Blanca).

Before coming to Huaraz, I thought I would either rent my own gear (including a tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment etc.) and do some solo trekking, or alternatively find some other travellers to go with. But I have just found out that I will meet my younger brother in Ecuador on October 3rd, and hence won't have time to do the ten days Huayhuash circuit. And then I also met Humberto as I said, and his offer was to good to resist. So I will go solo with him on two day hikes as well as a four day hike (six days in total) at different locations in Cordillera Blanca. He will organize everything, bring all the gear, as well as being my guide and cook. The price isn't bad either (going solo is usually expensive, but sometimes when you go with independent tour guides it works out ok, as you are only paying one person and not a huge tour company). So as I already mentioned, I agree to his ideas and sign up. Maybe I signed up because I am a bit lazy or a terrible cook, but I like to think I signed up because I want to support the local community. And going solo with Humberto also means I get to practice my Spanish (I have improved quite a bit the last few weeks). He speaks a bit English, but I told him to only speak to me in Spanish, and hence I can look at the trek as a cheap six days Spanish school as well. A bargain ay!!!

Cordillera Blanca is Peru's main climbing and trekking destination with more than 50 peaks over 5700m, including gorgeous Huascarán at 6768m (the fifth highest mountain in the Americas). My second choice after the Huayhuash circuit, is the four day Santa Cruz loop (the typical backpacker circuit) where I will have plenty of opportunities to have a look at Huascarán and other spectacular snowcapped peaks. But Humberto convinces me that the trek is very touristy, and that there's many equally nice treks in Cordillera Blanca (I had heard and read the same myself, so I know he's not lying). So instead we end up going on a day hike to beautiful Laguna 69 (4400m) and Lagunas Llanganuco (kind of at the start of the Santa Cruz hike). Having arrived in Huaraz from a week at sea level in Lima, I was a bit skeptical hiking uphill to 4400m just a few hours after my arrival. The reason being that I was in Arequipa a few years ago, and when going on a trip to Colca Canyon we crossed a 4800m pass. Just walking a few meters at this altitude made me gasp for breath. But this time I had no problems. I hardly noticed the altitude and Humberto had almost problems following my flight and scramble uphill to the sexy lake.

On day two we do a hard one day hike to Laguna Churup (4450m), before we top it all off with a four day hike around some of the canyons and lagunas close to Shacsha (5703m) and Cashan (5686m). A beautiful area with no tourists whatsoever. With us on the four day hike is Biter, Humberto's twelve year old nephew. It's his first multi-day hike, but I am not worried about the kid and his heavy backpack. Maybe I would have been worried to bring a spoiled twelve year old from the Western world, but I knew Biter would have no problems whatsoever in his practically worn-out basketball shoes. And I was right, Biter was one big smile for four days. Never a complaint about the heavy pack, and always helping with the tents, cooking, washing dishes etc. Humberto didn't have to say a word, Biter always knew what to do. So we had a great few days together, hiking around in mostly sunny weather and fishing trout surrounded by untouched scenery. Yes, we had fresh trout dinners, thanks to my childhood fishing skills! Only for a few hours on day two was it raining (turned into sleet). This was also the hardest part of the hike, with only steep uphill walking at about 4300m, and with 15kg backpacks to carry. It was also Saturday afternoon, so no wonder I guess when I pondered for a second "What the heck am I doing here? I could have been at El Tambo drinking beer and watching the chicas spin on the dance floor, ...or on a beach in Brazil for that matter". But when we crossed the pass at 4600m early the next morning, watching a herd of vicuñas with Shacsha as the perfect mountain backdrop, easily did it beat that hangover.

Biter has been commenting on my watch several times on the trip, and how he would have liked to have one himself (he never had one before). In fact he has looked at a beautiful watch in Huaraz costing US $5, so he is currently saving money to buy one he claims. "How much money are you missing?", I ask him. "US $5", is his answer. "So you haven't saved a single dime so far?". "I have been saving for a while, but haven't got any money yet", Biter replies. Arriving back in civilization after four days of walking, I give Biter about US $6 to buy himself the watch and some caramels. It's a lot of money for a twelve year old campesino, and a watch is probably not the first thing he and his family needs. But I don't give a damn, he did a fantastic job and is a wonderful and clever kid in my opinion. So, of course he should have the watch he's been dreaming about. When I give him the money, he is one gigantic smile that alone would have done the whole trip for me.

So how did "Spanish school" go? Well, pretty good in fact. Except one day when Humberto asked me if he could have some bread. I forgot that I was carrying the bread in my backpack, and thought he asked me if I wanted some bread. So I answered "No, not now. Maybe in two or three hours". Being a polite Peruvian, Humberto did of course not say anything (he probably thought "bloody tourist" to himself though). As he hadn't had anything to eat the whole day, no wonder he almost fainted after three more hours of uphill scrambling at 4500m. "Please, can I have some bread now???"
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