Friday, October 21, 2011

Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca - Peru

On the morning of the 30th of September we arrived in Huaraz and secured a room at Jo’s Place where we thought we negotiated a room for forty soles but the British manager was really nice but scatty and hard to interpret at times!  From here we headed out into the main town area, during the nine or ten block walk we soaked up the buzz of the city which seemed large, alive and authentic.  There were vendors selling street food and lots of local bars and restaurants along with a few westernised establishments having managed to muscle their way in.  We hung out in the plaza and tried to change a few Paraguayan notes which we found in the bottom of the money belt with little success. 

We wanted to book up some things to do whilst we were here and needed inspiration, finally finding an agency we liked which had suitable prices.  We were interested in doing a day trek to Laguna 69 as we didn’t fancy any overnight adventures having spoken to Yannis in Huanchaco where he explained how tough and cold it was.  The agency strongly recommended the day trek.  We also planned on doing some ice climbing with potentially some rock climbing to finish our last few days.  Because of these activities we would need to cut our time in Lima short.  We weren’t too upset because we had heard mostly negative things about the capital and whilst it was probably unfair to not give it a chance for ourselves why gamble when we knew we had stuff we wanted to do right here?  We finished the evening in a British run curry house, comparatively expensive but worth every penny as we hadn’t eaten Indian in a long time although we felt slightly guilty staying at a British owned guesthouse and eating at a British owned restaurant.

The sizzling mexican fajitas and curry made a nice change

The next morning we were collected (albeit an hour late) from our guesthouse by our driver and guide in order to go ice climbing.  It would just be the two of us (the maximum number is only three in a group) and cost one hundred and fifty soles per person or about thirty three pound each.  The drive took a couple of hours mostly on very bumpy, winding unsealed road in just an estate car being chased by dogs until we were at around 3,400 meters and could go no further.  Whilst we were happy to get out of the car the views had been astounding.  We now had a half hour walk or so carrying our climbing boots across rocky hills to the site where we would be climbing.  Immediately the scenery was beautiful, stopping first at a lagoon which was manmade where the authorities had erected a dam system to control the flow of water since an avalanche caused flooding some years ago.

Smithers... release the hounds

Great views during the ascent

The approach to the glacial wall that we would be climbing was stunning.  Snowcapped mountains lined the perimeter of vision, with steep rocky cliffs and a lake at the forefront reflecting the glacial blue ice.  After stumbling over a few more rocks we made it to the wall.  Our guide climbed up first and we watched as he fixed the safety bolts in at the top.  Next it was time to put on the boots and gloves and let the guide attach the spikes to the boots and hand over the ice picks.  Kate was first to go up, she ­got kitted up and faced the wall.  All in all there wasn’t much instruction and it was then I also realised that we weren’t going to be given any head protection… not great when now and again you could see or hear rocks falling from where the ice was melting.  Kate stuck the ice axe and boots into the wall and starting trying to climb, without much success at first.  Every now and again her feet would slip which didn’t help her confidence and it was soon time to come down.

The beautiful approach to the glacier we would be climbing

Our glacial climbing wall (right)

Kate getting stuck in

I was up next and hit the axe into the ice, trying a couple of times until it felt like the pick end was secure.  I found the foot spikes a lot more difficult to rely on although I only had one slip and managed to hold on.  Soon I was able to get some height and climb the wall, finally reaching the top which was a great feeling and a bit scary looking down!  It was great fun and I couldn’t wait to climb again.

Made it up. I could only wave one axe otherwise I might have fallen off!

A beautiful glacial cave

With renewed confidence Kate approached the glacial wall and kitted up.  This time she was determined to get higher and although there were a couple of slips, she soon found her feet and was making her way up towards the top.  Whilst she said it was hard work, Kate made it to just below the summit before she could swing the ice axe no more and abseiled down again, proud and tired.

The water was steadily dripping down over this ice tunnel

Kate having a much better go of it

We stopped to have some lunch and chatted to our instructor, all the while it was getting warmer as the midday sun approached and we could hear and see an increased number of rocks falling and streams emerging from the melting ice.  Because we had lost an hour with our morning ride being an hour late, we shouldn’t have taken as long as we did for lunch but our instructor didn’t seem too bothered.  Even so we decided that we would climb again which was the wrong decision considering none of us had helmets.  As I kitted up there was a rock fall nearby but I was pumped up on adrenalin and looking forward to another climb.  I was able to make it up a lot quicker this time and I was about three quarters of the way to the top when all of a sudden I noticed movement which turned out to be a rock fall directly above.  I had asked the instructor what to do in this instance beforehand to which he basically suggested covering your head with a free arm (bear in mind you may be relying on them to keep you attached) and get as close to the wall as possible.  I did this and fortunately so because a rock landed heavily on my middle finger which was directly on top of my head and although this was painful at least it wasn’t my head.  I quickly carried on to the top before abseiling down satisfied but relieved to be getting off this wall that was melting in front of me.

Making it to the top but only just in one piece

Exhilarated but relieved to be coming down

Understandably there were no more climbs that day.  We made the long and bumpy journey back down to Huaraz passing beautiful countryside on winding rocky roads as I nursed a bruised finger.  It had been a great experience although it could have easily gone wrong and the lack of helmets should have definitely stopped the activity.  We spoke to the agency afterwards and they apologised that they forgot to provide them, by the time they remembered and called the guide we were apparently too far to turn back and collect them.  In reality if this was the case we should have suspended the activity for the day but this would have meant a day without pay for all involved and safety took a back seat which in hindsight is how a lot of these accidents probably happen.

Time for one last photo before departing

The long and winding road back to civilisation
That evening we went to go for dinner but thought we would check what time we were being collected for our trek to Laguna 69 the next day and also mention our dissatisfaction with the helmet situation.  The agency worker that we had been dealing with was extremely apologetic as we mentioned how close we were to getting hurt.  We said our piece and moved on.  Outside there was a Swiss man cooking sausages, proper German sausages which we couldn’t resist before having dinner.  After chatting to him we realised that he was the owner of the restaurant that we intended to visit that evening but was now closed, a shame but a bizarre coincidence.  The waust sausages were great!

Hard to just walk past

Our ride arrived right on time for Laguna 69 and yet again it was a bit of a drive before the day’s activity could begin.  We had heard that there was the interesting town of Yungay to see on the way to where we would be walking although it is a sad story.  People are still living amongst the debris and rubble of the devastating earthquake in 1970 which caused a subsequent avalanche where 80,000 or so perished and the survivors are yet to fully recover.  Our driver was obviously in a bit of a rush and asked us if we wanted water from the town which we didn’t, although we were told that we would be stopping somewhere for breakfast as it was a six am pickup.  The driver later implied that he meant for us to stop for breakfast and not just water but this wasn’t clear.  He agreed to stop at a restaurant later on where we grabbed a simple sandwich but the highlight was being able to appreciate the home made trout farm that the owners had constructed on their land along with a pair of kittens frolicking around.  The farm consisted of various dug-out pools with canals covered by grates directing the fresh mountain water through the entire system, all very clever.

The home made trout farm system

The in house kittens provided entertainment

We were sharing the car with an Israeli couple and we told them about our near miss with ice climbing the day before to which the girl said she has a friend who’s brother as a tourist went rock climbing with an agency in his hostel in Peru and was later found dead in his bed with a puncture wound to his head.  The family suspects that he died as a result of a climbing accident having not being given a helmet.  You hear a surprising amount of stories like this when travelling, it’s usually hard to know what is true, what’s not and what’s been exaggerated but having been here none of them are too hard to believe. 

Stopping off to take photographs of a beautiful lagoon on the way

By the time we reached the point where our trekking would begin the weather was overcast and it looked like only a matter of time before it would rain, even so the terrain was still spectacularly beautiful.  We began following a meandering stream until we passed some stone houses surrounded by cattle.  As we progressed we reached the foot of waterfalls and it was unfortunately all uphill from here, not much fun when you’re already at about 4,000 meters!

Abandoned stone shelters

We made friends with a Peruvian man who was trekking Laguna 69 for the first time which is purely amazing considering that he is middle aged and living in Huaraz, a stone’s throw away from the Cordillera Blanca.  He offered to take our photograph for us early on in the trek which we gratefully accepted and you can see it below.  We offered to return the favour and then DISASTER!!  When taking the photo our own camera (which was in its protective case but without the top fastened as it was constantly coming in and out) fell out and went clunk onto a hard rock.  There were no cracks or obvious damage so we wiped our brows and carried on our way taking snaps now and again.  It was only when we tried to review a photo on the screen that we realised that instead of showing the photograph it was completely black… bugger.  We tried our memory card in other trekkers’ cameras but the photos were coming up with errors suggesting that something was probably significantly wrong.

Kate by one of the waterfalls... duh

The last photograph taken before the camera disaster!

There were probably better places for the camera to break rather than an astoundingly beautiful Cordillera Blanca trek but at least we didn’t have the best weather for it.  Even so, at one point we did agree that it was definitely amongst the most beautiful places we had seen on our entire trip.  We had emerged from a small lagoon onto a flat area of land that was green and lush with a mountain stream running through it.  Completely surrounding this area were rusty stone cliffs which themselves had borders of sharp pointed mountains saturated in snow and ice at 4,600 meters above sea level, so beautiful but my descriptions will have to do in absence of a functioning camera.  Go yourself.

Following the beauty of this point all that was left was a steep climb to the top where Laguna 69 and the rain were waiting for us.  It was a struggle and we were taking our time to prevent dizziness and burning out but to make matters worse is began to hail just as we were reaching the end.  Finally we had made it!  If I’m being honest the lagoon itself wasn’t as spectacular as I had heard it to be but the grey sky can probably account for this fact, I imagine it to be stunning on a clear day.  No sooner had we found a rock to base ourselves and opened our packed lunch did it start to rain and we went from sweating to very cold in a matter of minutes.  It was a shame, but we stayed as long as we could which basically involved making our sandwiches and eating them before starting the journey back to the drop off point which was lengthy but a lot easier than the way up.  We were nearly at the drop-off when I felt light headed and had to ask a new buddy Tomar who I had been chatting with to go on without me.  We had been walking fast and talking which probably caused the altitude and dehydration to catch up with me but a little rest sorted all this out.

I found this photo on google images... our experience was wetter and greyer!

We waited for the other couple to return to the car before we set off back to Huaraz, the driver speeding and overtaking like a madman.  We asked him to slow down which he temporarily did, but we later found out that he hadn’t brought any lunch and it was probably his belly driving.  It again wasn’t a good reflection on the company we were using especially considering that we were planning on going rock climbing with them the next day.  It was apparently too late to see the sights at Yungay which was also disappointing but probably again accountable to his not having eaten.  The next photograph you will see is of our new heroes…

Our heroes the camera repair guys

These were the guys who we somehow managed to find in town, they owned a small camera repair workshop just off the main street.  Initial impressions were that there were issues with the image sensor and it would apparently be a relatively simple replacement job so we should return the next afternoon when they would have hopefully have been able to find the right part.  They found it and we left the camera with them but once they dismantled it the problem went deeper.  At first I thought this was the usual mechanic operation of finding more problems and making you cough up for problems that you didn’t even begin to understand let alone have the ability to contest in Spanish.  They were listening to BBC English stories whilst they worked on other pieces and as I got to know them the more I began to trust them.  They were able to explain the problems pretty well in English and their expertise was second to none.  We were hurting quite a lot from the trek and along with the camera and prior issues with the company we decided to put rock-climbing aside for another time. 

Over the next few days we were constantly in and out of the camera repair shop and almost every time Kate’s camera was in pieces being worked on with a monocular and often a welding implement.  It kept taking longer than expected, apparently there were problems with the entire circuit board and they were determined to fix a long outstanding issue with the lens stiffness which occurred following the dusty silver mine tour in Potosi Bolivia.  We were happy and left them to it feeling amazingly lucky that we managed to find this pair as I’m certain back home this would have been a write off.  It was close to the wire but we got it back functioning in one piece a few hours before our prebooked overnight bus left for Lima from where we would be catching our flight to the USA the same day.  All in all it was relatively expensive at two hundred and eight New Soles, about sixty quid but there is absolutely no way we could have had parts and nearly three days labour at this price in many other places.  We thanked them and boarded our bus at the terminal which we booked well in advance in order to ensure we had the bottom floor of Cruz del Sur which as far as buses go there is nothing better.

Whilst we were waiting for the camera to be repaired we made the most of what was on offer in the town of Huaraz, notably the dining scene.  We ate guinea pig or ‘cuy’ two days in a row which was quite interesting!  It tastes like a cross between pork and chicken but it is mostly similar to pork.  The first time we had it in breadcrumbs which wasn’t amazing and there wasn’t much meat, fortunately we were in a creperie and the desert was phenomenal.  The second time was in a more traditional restaurant and the dish was a classic too, ‘picante de cuy’ or spiced guinea pig which came in a sauce and was delicious.  I was picking guinea pig out of my teeth for a while but it was a great new dining experience!

A guinea pig like the one I was picking out of my teeth

The following morning we arrived early in Lima and shared a taxi with another traveller to the airport from the bus terminal.  Upon checking it we discovered that we hadn’t completed our tourist visa that was needed prior to travelling to America, oops.  Fortunately we had plenty of time so we headed into the airport internet café, filled out the online forms and paid the fees and we were then instantly able to travel.  

Kate riding in style on Cruz del Sur, camera fixed just in time!!!!

Peru had been an amazing experience and the country has everything to offer in terms of landscape with mountains, glaciers, jungle, desert and coastlines.  It is cheap and easy to get around, there are plenty of activities and the food is excellent.  The locals are extremely chatty and increasingly so as we headed further north, though people’s attitudes and diets frequently varied between the highlands and the lowlands depending on where you were in the country’s ever varying terrain.  South America had been such a great experience and much safer than I had expected.  The people have respect for you if you show it to them and whilst they might sometimes be hard to strike a bond with they are just as curious to meet you and all you need do is show your interest in return.  Poor or rich we are all equals and don’t expect any special treatment here outside of the major cities, after all this is all part of the fun.  

I didn’t expect anything to compare with South East Asia and was somewhat apprehensive but South America did everything to quash any fears and it provided culture and passion by the bucket load.  All in all South America has so much to offer.  It sheds some stereotypes whilst giving ground to others.  It is a complex place that can be a jungle at times but there is friendship to be found everywhere, just initially receive it with caution! I can’t wait to come back.

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