May 30, 2009
So we woke up in Cuzco in a creaky, loud hotel, which we escaped immediately. Rob worked his usual hotel magic, and we ended up in a room with a balcony, high on a neighborhood hillside overlooking the town. From our perch, which cost us some breathlessness every time we walked back up to our room, we could see the red-tiled roofs stretching all the way across the valley...it almost appeared that I could walk on the red tiles all the way down to the square.
The town and area around Cuzco was the original center of the Inca people, and there are still original walls in town built during that time period. Perhaps a short (and I do mean short) history of the Incas could be in order. At the beginning of the 1400's, give or take a few years, the Incas were just a small tribe living around Cuzco, Peru. After accidentally winning their first battle against another tribe, they rapidly began expanding, and within a hundred years, had extended their reach all the way up the Andes mountains stretching between modern-day Chile and Colombia. Perhaps they fatally overextended themselves, and perhaps they had the bad luck of encountering Spanish guns and diseases at just the wrong time, but by the mid-1500's they were already on the decline. Their very popularity and fame seems to be partially due to the fact that when they conquered other nations, they subdued their oral histories, and took credit for their achievements; making it hard for historians to really figure out who was who.
The town of Cuzco was nice enough to walk around in, although it's a tourist mecca, and higher-than-normal prices reflect such hordes of foreigners. Just the entry fees for visiting the various Inca ruins, Machu Picchu, and mandatory train ride to the ruins, were probably enough to eat half of anyone's vacation budget, regardless of how long said vacation might be. We mortgaged our backpacks (just kidding) to pay the fees, and wondered whether it would be worth it to see this particular "New 7 Wonders of the World".
May 29 - Sacsayhuaman Ruins
Our first taste of the Inca ruins were just above the town of Cuzco. We took a bus to the top of the hill, got off, and walked back into town. Along the way are four ruins sites: Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, Q'enqo, and Sacsayhuaman (pronounced "sexy woman"). The first three weren't very large, but included still-functioning fountains, caves carved through solid rock, and great views of the surrounding valleys. Sacsayhuaman, on the other hand, was huge, and what we saw was just a fraction of the original structure. The Spanish and subsequent residents had robbed quite a bit of the stonework from the site. Plenty is left, however, and it was quite impressive to see all the stones fit tightly against each other. The largest stone in the zig-zag levels of fortifications weighs at least over 100 tons, and I have no idea how they moved it into place.
May 31 - Pisac market and the Sacred Valley
We happily left our large backpacks in the hotel storage room for a few days, and set off very early to visit more sites left by the Incans. Carrying just a daypack and a change of clothes, we caught a bus into the Sacred Valley, which is where I would say most of the major Inca ruins are located. Our first stop was in Pisac, where the huge Sunday market was just getting going. While I was wandering around drooling over the tourist trinkets, Rob found a new friend and got a tour of his house, met the family, and saw his herd of Guinea Pigs (sorry, kids, roast Guinea Pig is considered a delicacy here).
To save ourselves the steep walk up to the ruins above town, we cheated and took a taxi. The Sacred Valley, at 10,000 feet elevation, is still no joke in terms of walking up hills, and instead we walked through the ruins and then back down into town, and even coming downhill it was quite steep. These ruins are where we saw the first major evidence of the extensive terraces done by the Incas...unlike many other ancient cultures, they seemed to have little interest in massive buildings or pyramids, instead focusing on agriculture and water movement. Building some of these steep terraces must have been just as much work as a pyramid, though, considering the stonework is so tight that it doesn't need mortar, and a knife blade can't fit through the cracks between stones.
June 1 - Ollantaytambo Festival and Inca Ruins
Our afternoon arrival in Ollantaytambo, also in the Sacred Valley, just happened to coincide with the Festival of Pentecost, and the whole town was involved, it seemed, with dances, parades, bullfights, and a lot of beer-drinking. Rob went to the bullfight, which was more of a parody than a real fight, but it was the town itself that was the most fascinating. On many of the streets there were sunken waterways and canals, and the town walls occasionally had the authentic look of ancient Inca stonework. We read in our guidebook that this town has been continually lived-in since the Inca days, and many of the current inhabitants are still direct Inca descendants.
The next morning we climbed the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, on hillsides dominating both sides of the town, seeing more terraces and neat stonework, including a few walls that were abandoned and never finished. From the ruins, we could hear and see a few of small bands and costumed groups wandering around town. Occasionally they would stop playing and all stuff themselves into a house somehow, before emerging again later to continue their mini-parades. We passed a few as we descended back into town. There didn't seem to be any spectators, but it was completely possible that everyone in town was already costumed and marching around.
As we got to the church, the first group came up to it and went in. One of the the participants reported to us that 15 bands were somewhere around town, and all of them would be gathering in the church soon. Sure enough, we could hear approaching music, and they started pouring in. Each unique group consisted of about 8 band members and 20 costumed folks, and the costumes really defied description. Most of them seemed to value loud, bright colors and sparkly decorations; with devil masks, long-nosed pig masks, and sequined, rainbow-striped pants being our personal favorites. A few groups actually were dressed as cowboys, Spaniards, and other more normal costumes. They all crammed into the small church for at least an hour, and between short sermons appeared to be having band-playing competitions. We wanted to stay and watch them come out again, but our train ride to Machu Picchu was leaving soon from the station.
June 2 - Machu Picchu
The ruins of Machu Picchu make the other Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley look almost like child´s play. Some of this has to do with the spectacular scenery, but also the setting itself is unbelievable. The ruins are on the saddle of a steep hill almost 1000 sheer feet above the river, and from the river level (we looked later), you can see only the tips of a few buildings. The rest of the structures and terraces are lost to view by the curve of the river and the bulge of Putukusi mountain. From town you can see absolutely nothing. The location of Machu Picchu was never revealed to the invading Spaniards, and was lost to memory and sight for hundreds of years. Only a few local farmers knew it still existed, until 1911 when an American explorer followed their directions and put it back on the map for good.
We were lucky to have beautiful weather for our visit, and even on the mountain overlook it was sunny, warm, and not windy, so we had great views of snowy Andean peaks all around us. And the ruins from this angle were still incredibly huge, although the people were ant-sized. On the other side, we could see the ancient (and now very popular) Inca trail winding down to the ruins...this is where the trekkers emerge into the ruins after days of winding their way over high mountain passes. What more can I say? Machu Picchu is amazing, and you`ll have to see it for yourself someday, if possible.
June 4 - Lima
The flight out of Cuzco to Lima was pretty amazing...even at our cruising altitude for the one hour flight, we were still only slightly higher than some of the Andean peaks, and we could see over the snowy summits and all the way down into the Amazon. As we descended into Lima, the normal coastal fog enveloped us, and for the first time in weeks we lost the sunlight and felt damp, cloudy weather.
Perhaps that colored our opinion of Lima, or perhaps the city is really as run-down, grey, and unappealing as it looked to us from the window of our taxi. There is no central bus station in Lima; instead there are perhaps a hundred small companies scattered around through the city, each with their own buses, timetables, prices, destinations, and levels of comfort. We directed the taxi to one of the bigger ones mentioned in the guidebook, and found it almost deserted with one lonely guy manning the ticket booth. He didn´t have anything leaving for our destination until late that evening, but sent us down the street to another company with a bus leaving almost immediately.
There were quite a few characters hanging around the next station, including one overly friendly guy that wanted our stateside address and telephone number for whatever reason, and wouldn`t believe that we actually didn`t have a phone number or a house at the moment. The bus driver insisted that we board the bus immediately once we bought tickets, although it wasn`t supposed to leave for another 1/2 hour. He carefully went around writing everyone`s full name on his clipboard and making sure they sat in their assigned seats...I`m sure I threw him for a loop by moving across the aisle from Rob to get more leg room. The bus was a dilapidated old relic, with broken seats and no bathroom, but that was no surprise, really.
It was an nine hour trip up into the mountains to Huaraz, and the bus stopped literally only one time for a lunch and bathroom break, so we were glad that we had brought a few snacks, and hadn`t had much to drink. As we drove out of the bus station, a security guard came on to make sure that we were all wearing our seat-belts (Seat-belts!! In a bus! In Peru!), and I reluctantly put mine on, only to take it off again as soon as the guard got off. The lady across the aisle gave me a disapproving look. Another bus station employee got on with a video camera and made sure he got a glimpse of everyone`s face in the video, for what purpose I have absolutely no idea.
Once out of the bus station, a man immediately got up and started speaking for a while, I didn`t catch much of it, and most of the other passengers appeared to be napping as well. At the end of his speech, or perhaps sermon, he handed out something to all the passengers (except me, maybe because I was a foreigner, or looked perhaps disinterested). Whatever it was, was for sale, but no one was buying, so he collected them all back up again. When he sat down, a woman got up and started in on something else. She gave all the passengers (again, except me) samples of her product, which made the whole bus smell like Vick`s Vapor Rub for a while, but I don`t think she sold many (or any) of her little packets, either.
The Panamerican Highway runs along the coast of Peru, almost all the way from Ecuador to Bolivia. We spent our first couple of hours heading north on this road. It is a literal desert almost all the way along the coast, as not much rain makes it over the Andes from the Amazon. For a while along the highway, out my window I could see nothing but an extremely steep, huge sand dune, which threatened to engulf the road at times. On the other side, the crashing ocean was also almost along the road. There was nothing growing at all.
We turned inland and started climbing, and by the second half of the trip the bus was crowded, with every seat filled up. Even worse, we were forced to watch three crappy Steven Seagal movies in a row, dubbed over into bad Spanish. I fervently started hoping we would arrive before the next person was shot in whatever movie we were watching, but of course that didn`t happen....then I started hoping that I wouldn`t have many more awful bus rides before the end of this journey, but that`s unlikely as well.
After driving through so much desolate nothing, it was an absolute shock to drive into Huaraz and find it a functioning, lively city. Even in the late evening the streets were crowded and the shops were open, and it seemed like a good base where we could once again figure out where we had landed ourselves this time....!
June 5 - 20 - Huaraz
Settling into Huaraz and finding everything we needed to be comfortable made our next decision easier. I had calculated that it would take another 5 days of buses to make our way up to Colombia for the final flight, and with our time remaining we would be traveling more than stopping. Neither of us liked the thought of that, so we have radically changed our plans, and we are now going to fly from Lima, Peru, straight into Colombia. Ecuador will have to wait for another year.
Huaraz is up in the middle of a very beautiful, and high, section of the Andes. To make a comparison, in North America there are only 3 peaks higher than 19,000 feet, and in Europe there are none. But in the mountains surrounding the Huaraz valley, there are 50, yes fifty, peaks over 19,000 feet, with the highest topping out at 22,205 feet! The Cordillera Negra (Black) mountain range on the ocean side blocks the warm winds off the water, which means that in the Cordillera Blanca (White) range to the East, there are many permanent glaciers above 16,000 feet, making for striking scenery and great photos. Just from our 3rd floor hotel room we could see quite a few peaks, with more all around town.
Although the cost of traveling in Peru is slightly higher than it was in Bolivia, the best deal around is still the set menu that most restaurants serve at lunch. It usually includes a soup, salad, rice and some sort of meat, and costs less than $2. This almost rivals the low prices in India, although taste (or lack of it), can be a factor here. I wouldn`t call South American food very interesting...at most I can assure you that it is very filling. Broiled chicken restaurants are very popular in Huaraz. Literally all they serve is chicken with french fries, and they do a roaring business. Soft drinks are usually served room temperature, and normally the only choice is Coke or Inka Cola, which is a really, really sweet version of lemon-lime. The oddity is that there is actually Diet Inka Cola, since diet drinks are hard to find in most of the world. But, be careful when opening the sugarless version...the bottles fizz over radially when they are twisted open, even if they have been sitting sedately on a grocery shelf for weeks. I entertained my bus-mates the first time I drank one by spilling fizzy yellow liquid everywhere.
Most of the trekking and hiking around the area is done in the Cordillera Blanca range that runs north of Huaraz. Several smaller towns, including Carhuaz, Yungay, and Caraz are located up the valley, and gravel roads branch out from them and lead up into the mountains. Back in 1970 there was a massive earthquake in Peru, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, causing homes and buildings to crumble like toothpicks. Huaraz was almost totally destroyed and rebuilt, and other towns fared poorly as well. But Yungay really got the worst of it, as a huge chunk of glacier broke off the side of towering Huazcaran, and within 3 minutes of the quake, 80 million cubic meters of ice, mud and rocks reached the town. Almost all of the town`s 25,000 inhabitants were buried alive, while a few managed to reach the high point of the cemetery stay above the destruction. Today, the whole area of the former town has been declared a national cemetery, and a new town of the same name has been rebuilt just a few kilometers away.
June 10 - 13 - Santa Cruz Trek
The extra time in Peru gave me the chance to convince Rob to do what might be considered the best hike in South America...although that`s debatable, of course, and I wanted to decide for myself. A rental outfit in Huaraz set us up with a lightweight tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and a camp stove. The grocery store in town was just big enough for us to find enough snacks and easy-to-cook meals, and we set off up the valley after leaving all our extra stuff in storage.
It took a couple of hours on the bus to get to Caraz, but the views of the mountains from the road were already amazing. We spent the night in Caraz, and the next morning found a shared taxi to take us up to the trail-head, which was another two hours up a really bumpy road. Our overloaded car (7 people and luggage are not supposed to fit in a 5-passenger car) hit bottom on a few ruts, and my seat (half on Rob`s lap and half jammed into the gear stick) wasn`t very comfortable. The road climbed a long way, and then once back on our own two feet and lugging heavy backpacks, we climbed even more. In fact, we climbed the entire first day of the hike, up into this narrow, deep valley next to a rushing river. The weather was warm and sunny, and aside from a few pesky horseflies, it was a beautiful day of hiking. Unfortunately, the valley was deep enough that our views of the snowy peaks all around us were obliterated. It took most of an afternoon of climbing before any snow was visible, and then it was still just now and then. But perhaps that is part of the charm of the Santa Cruz trek...the farther along we got, the more amazing the views became, and the more we wanted to keep going to see what else was up the trail.
There were a few other people actually lugging heavy back-packs with all their gear, but we also met a few groups of people that were carrying only a small day-pack and invariably walking faster than we were. We wondered how it was possible to be so far out here with no gear, but then when the first loaded donkey train came by us, all our questions were answered. The donkeys were moving fast, even loaded down with more gear than I could ever carry, and their handlers were almost running to keep up with them, uphill and down. Yet the donkeys wore no harness or halter, and seemed to know just where they were going. We always got out of their way, and Rob coined the phrase ¨Where`s YOUR donkey?¨ in the same tone that Joey on the TV show Friends would ask ¨How YOU doing?¨.
Our first campsite was named Llama Corral, and although we saw cattle, horses, donkeys, and chickens running around, there seemed to be no llamas. The donkeys roamed around loose, and a few came over to peer into our cook-pot as if it might contain a nice bowl of oats just for them. Our theory of packing was that we should eat all the heavy stuff first so that our backpacks would get lighter, faster. That never noticeably worked until the last day, as most of the time while hiking, we were craving liquids and soups, not dry cookies. Eating a Ramen noodle soup doesn`t remove as much weight, as say, a package of Oreos. There was only a tiny hut next to the campground, where a family sold a few soft drinks and ostensibly cared for the non-existent llamas, but that was the last sign of civilization that we would see until the end of our trek. Although this is supposed to be the most popular trek in Peru, we still saw amazingly few people going either direction, perhaps less than 40 over the whole 3 days.
On the second day we again climbed the entire day, into a wide valley alongside a couple of blue lakes. A few more peaks were visible, and the glaciers were brilliant blue cracks against the sky. Near the end of the day, we climbed a very steep switchback to get a view of the Alpamayo, called by some the most beautiful mountain in the world. I think they were referring to north face of the mountain, which wasn`t visible from our point of view, but the truth as we saw it, was that all the mountains around us were beautiful. We had never seen so many jagged, glaciered peaks just begging to be photographed. As we came around the corner to our second campsite, we drew in a collective breath and again scrambled for the camera. Seemingly near enough to touch was the mountain we had been chasing since it came into view the night before, and finally we could see the layers of snow waiting to fall into the lake. Sure enough, as we watched, the warm afternoon sun cracked a large avalanche of snow of the steep side of the Nevado Taulliraju, and the crack of it reached our ears like a clap of thunder.
We pitched our tent under clear skies in the middle of a rocky pasture, surrounded by views of three glaciers basking in the pink of the setting sun. Although we are geographically close to the equator here, we were also nearing the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, and these elements combined to give us about 12 hours of darkness each night, which can get pretty long if you have to spend it in a tent. We slept well the first night, but as I lay sleepless in the darkness on the second, I heard the unbelievable sound of raindrops starting to hit the tent flap. Sure enough, a glance outside showed a bank of fog approaching, although the sky had been clear at dusk. We stuffed our packs at our feet, prayed that our rented tent was actually waterproof, and tried not to let anything touch the edges of the tent fabric. I didn`t get much sleep that night, and it drizzled almost all night, at times windy and threatening to crumple the whole tent into a soggy mess.
By morning it was over, and blue skies were peeking out at dawn...but our down sleeping bags were quite damp, and the tent was soaked. Luckily it was breezy still, and we managed to dry it while we cooked breakfast. Meanwhile we were awarded amazing glimpses of the glaciers through the rolling fog. We started our third day of hiking, and we were still climbing; the glacier that had looked so close still zapped a few more hours of switchbacks out of our legs. We eventually reached the bright green lake and kept climbing to a notch in the pass at Punta Union, reaching 15,695 feet of elevation under our own steam. It was chilly at the pass, but once on the other side, it was all downhill for a long way. In fact, we dropped almost 3,000 feet by the time we reached our third campsite.
Our last morning was a lot more downhill, passing through pastures and red-barked quenua trees and more views of the Nevado Taulliraju, which somehow had just the right angle to be visible from both valleys. After a couple of hours we came to a road-less village that could only be reached by hiking there. Quite a few kids and herds of sheep passed us going uphill to the pastures. The people were friendly enough, but almost every single kid asked us for candy, and a few boys got mad and threw rocks when we didn`t oblige them. I guess the village does see plenty of hikers come through with leftover food, but to me it was just begging, and brought on by earlier hikers setting a bad example. Rob enjoyed his chance to see the village life, and took quite a few pictures of snotty kids, as evidenced in the photos. Once through the village and across the river, it was a very steep climb up to the road, made worse by our already tired legs.
So at noon we found ourselves sitting on the side of a dusty gravel road waiting for a ride back to civilization. After an hour we moved into the shade, and still not one vehicle had gone by us. A couple of locals and their kid were waiting with us, so we didn`t feel too lost. When a van finally came around the corner and shouted the name of our town, we were quite relieved, even if it was going in the wrong direction. Somehow we found ourselves clambering in and driving the wrong way...I guess we honestly thought that the road ended just around the corner and we were just turning around, and we also were glad to have gotten seats, which is never a given in Peru. The locals had gotten in with us, maybe they had the same thought about getting seats.
But a half an hour later, we were still going in the wrong direction, and having second thoughts about our decision. The scenery was really dramatic, and our cliff-hugging road gave great views over the populated valley below us. We dropped down into the town and stopped in the main square. After a moment of confusion, the driver told us that our vehicle wouldn`t be going back in our direction but the one behind us would. There already seemed to be too many people hovering around the mini-van, but he assured us that there were still seats. Our bags were lifted onto the roof, and sure enough there was a free seat in the very back, which is the place that everyone hates to sit, as we`ve found out before. More people climbed in after us, and sure enough, we were forced to fit 4 people into a seat meant for three. We crammed in by all turning our shoulders sideways and getting really cozy with our seatmates. People kept on getting in the van until there was absolutely no space left, and at least three more climbed onto the roof to ride with the already considerable pile of baggage.
So on the ride back to where we started, we amused ourselves by trying to count how many people could fit into the vehicle, which was hard to do because we couldn`t see through the mass of bodies to the front seat. Keep in mind that this is a 14 passenger van...after a few people got off just up the road, we came up with a count of 31, including just kids and the guys on the roof. The amusement didn`t last long when we realized that we were driving on dangerous mountain roads with no shocks and double the number of preferred passengers. Even worse, our dusty window wouldn`t open, and the locals, still wearing sweaters and hats, seemed to think that this was their chance to enjoy a sauna, and left their windows purposely closed.
By the time we had gotten back to where we started, it was at least 90 degrees inside the van, and there were still 21 people crammed into it, although now everyone had somehow found a seat, and we settled in for a long ride down. We hadn`t showered for 4 days, and I was sweating and cursing the closed windows. This drive was mentioned as behind a highlight of the whole circuit, but the windows actually fogged up from the inside from the mass of people, and the outside was quite dusty, so I guess our guidebook author had found a nicer way to enjoy his trip back.
Before we could go down, we had to go up and over a 15,000 foot pass, and the sparse air inside the vehicle got even thinner. The views, when I could catch a glimpse of them, were quite full of glaciers and lofty peaks, and if our legs had hurt any less, we probably would have demanded to be let out so we could continue walking. Once over the pass, the valley of Llanganuco came into view with its jade green lakes, and an endless series of switchbacks down to them on our bumpy gravel road. Towering over the valley to the south was the massive bulk of Huascaran, at 22,205 feet the highest peak in Peru and anywhere in the tropics. The day was kind of cloudy and foggy, but occasional breaks of sun and blue sky gave us beautiful glimpses of the peaks and glaciers. The valley was clear, and the drop from the pass all the way down to the main valley was at least 7000 feet, yet the peak of Huascaran was still 7000 feet above the pass.
June 16 - Mountain Bike to Laguna Llaca
When I woke up this morning, I was supposed to be headed out to do some rock climbing outside of town, but one of the guys in the group got bit on the ankle and couldn`t walk from the swelling, and they decided to wait another day. So I huddled with the owner of the travel agency to figure out what else I could do on such late notice. He suggested renting a mountain bike and riding some of the hills outside of town, which sounded like a great idea. I picked a route where I would have some uphills, and tied my bike to the top of a shared taxi for a ride partway up the mountain. I soon found myself pedaling on deserted gravel roads with a few houses scattered around. The first couple of hours were all uphill, although pretty gentle and the road wasn`t too bumpy. When I got into the canyon, the uphill turned into a downhill and it would have been another couple of hours freewheeling back into town. But I wasn`t quite ready to quit yet, and felt I could use I little more exercise.
So I looked at my map and found a turnoff nearby, with a road leading to a lake another 12 kilometers up the hill. I turned off onto the new road, and it immediately became much more rocky, and it seemed impossible that a normal car could navigate such a path. The bike handled it ok, although it was a lot of work going up hill on such terrain. I never really considered going all the way to the lake, I just kept saying to myself, let`s see what`s around the next corner. At the halfway point was a gate guard who checked my ticket, and told me it was still all uphill to the lake. By then the elevation was getting quite high, and for a ways I found myself pushing my bike up the hill and breathing quite dramatically. Unfortunately, Lake Llaca was not easy to get to, it was tucked up into the very corner of a steep valley surrounded by glaciers, but once I had gotten within a few kilometers of it I figured I might as well go all the way. I walked and pushed my bike the last couple of miles, I think, dreaming of the moment when I would turn around and feel the wind in my face on my way back downhill. A bunch of soldiers were camping at the lake, which really was spectacular even in the afternoon shade, and they said that the elevation was about 15,500, higher than we had walked on the Santa Cruz Trek. No wonder my lungs were hurting!
Going back downhill was a joy, and for two hours I shook every muscle in my body while descending on the terrible road and also on the slightly smoother gravel into town. The shocks on the bike helped a bit, and I actually passed a van load full of people on the road, as they all stuck their heads out of the windows to watch me go by. But there was almost no traffic on the roads, and at one point I had to go under a net which had been set up across the road, through the group of teenagers enthusiastically playing a game of volleyball. The dogs weren`t so nice, and quite a few of them chased me with teeth bared and barking madly. I was happy to make it safely back to town at dusk.
June 17 - Rock Climbing
The next day I did get to go Rock Climbing, with arms that were probably quite tired from the biking. I went with two British guys and a guide, and our climbing site was just across the valley from Huascaran mountain, the highest peak in Peru at 22,202 feet. The climbing was pretty good, but the guide was not. He was apparently very tired, and as I was lead climbing a wall (i.e. bringing the rope up the wall with me to hang it at the top and then rappel back down), the guide fell asleep while belaying me. I couldn`t believe it, and I was left clinging precariously to the wall while shouting to the other guys to wake him back up. Lead climbing is probably one of the most dangerous forms of climbing a wall, although it can be safe enough with a good belayer, and I wasn`t very happy with this experience. But...I lived to tell about it, which...is good!
June 19 - Hike to Laguna Paron
Rob finally decided to get back in on the action after a few rest days, and we took a bus, then a taxi up to a high lake through some very steep cliffs. Unlike the valleys on either side of it, which are famous for being the start and end points of the Santa Cruz Trek, this valley is litte visited and hard to get to. We had to hire our own taxi for the day to make sure that we would have a ride back down the mountain. And although the valleys around it are very near, they are separated by a horseshoe of steep, high mountains glaciered with blue ice. We walked on a faint cattle trail for a couple of hours along the aqua blue lake, and saw only a couple of other people the whole time. The lake level seemed to be lower than in the distant past, I think it was actually manually lowered to pose less of a mudslide risk in the case of a big earthquake. We could see the old water line on the cliffs. But, it was also higher than currently normal for some reason, and the cattle trail actually descended into the water at one point, making our passage end adruply at an impassable cliff. But our view from there was amazing already and it didn`t matter. At the end of the lake was a mountain which was aptly named itself Pyramid Peak, and the contrast between the lake and the glaciers was unbelievable.
June 20 - Mountain Bike to Llanganuco Laces
For one last hurrah, I convinced Rob to take a mountain bike ride along the Llanganuco Lakes from the Portachuelo Pass all the way back down into Yungay. This is the same pass we went over after the Santa Cruz Trek, although then we had been stuffed in the back of a van and couldn`t see anything. To get there we put our bikes on top of a real bus going all the way up, and felt lucky to have real seats and our own (openable) window. But, it seems that every bus journey in Peru must be memorable, and this one had its own excitement. About 1/2 hour out of town on our 4 hours journey up the hill, the police stopped the bus and decided that the driver didn`t have the correct paperwork. So we all got off the bus and then had to wait another 1/2 hour to get it straightened out. By then we were quite behind schedule, and the aisles started to fill up with people standing. Luckily, we did get up to the pass while it was still morning, and on the gentle, switchback ride down, got great views of the glaciers all around us.
The blue and green lakes were just the half-way point, and it really was a long way down to the bottom, taking us almost 5 hours of riding to go 30 miles. The bumpy gravel roads didn`t make it any easier because they jiggled our muscles until our teeth started to rattle, but the views made it all worthwhile. At the first lake, Rob caught the edge of his tire on some gravel and took a small tumble into the dust, which mainly just injured his dignity. By near the end of the day, we were both starting to get tired, from the long bus ride and the long bike ride. The roads never seemed to smooth out much, and while I compensated for the rattling by going faster, Rob chose to keep a safe speed, due to obstacles like large boulders, dogs, and actual pigs wandering out in the road. That didn`t help him, though, and he fell a second time, over an imaginary pebble in the road, sliding chest first over the front of his handlebars and getting an ant`s eye view of the gravel. He got up covered in dust with ripped pants and a few scrapes, but mostly fine and demanding that I not write about his mishaps in my story. (Sorry, Rob, but the truth has got to be told!) Luckily by then we were mostly back down to town, and just had to suffer one last bus ride back to Huaraz. To round out an already long day, we packed up our stuff, and got on an overnight bus to Lima that left at 11 at night, where we slept very well indeed after such a day.
June 21 - Peru - Panama - Colombia flight
As little as we like Lima, this would now be the third time we have passed through here. As usual, when we woke up on the bus, it was to grey skies and cool fog. We had about 7 hours to kill before our flight up to Colombia, so we made our way by bus to a suburb of Lima on the coast, where there was an actual US-style Mall on a cliff overlooking the coast. Too bad it was Sunday morning and absolutely nothing was open yet. But the views over the water were great, if a little foggy, and the swells coming into shore were in perfectly straight lines. Quite a few surfers were taking advantage of the perfect breaks, although they looked like ants from our high perch.
We finally headed to the airport and realized why we had taken such a dislike to it the first time we were stuck there. The place does have a food court, but it is located before you enter security, and once through there is nothing but a few small touristy shops. That wouldn`t normally be a problem since it wasn`t very crowded, but since there is a $31 airport exit fee, leaving to get lunch and going through security twice could get quite expensive!
We finally left Peru for the last time, and to our delight flew right over the Huaraz valley. Popping up through all the clouds was the monster mountain of Huazcaran, and we also got glimpses of the Santa Cruz valley and the Llanganuco Lakes...it was amazing. We waved goodbye to the glaciers and hoped to see them again someday.
After flying close to the Panama Canal and a short layover at the airport, we continued on to Colombia. Even at night the air was still humid and hot, and we could tell we weren`t high in the mountains anymore. We were excited to realize that we wouldn`t have to travel again until our final flight home to the States....yahoo!
***On to Colombia!***