14.11.2007 - 23.11.2007 27 °F
Although my first week in Peru wasn’t exactly magical, the following week would more than make up for it. We left the quiet city of Trujillo at all of 25 meters above sea level and arrived in Huaraz at 3350 meters above sea level (10, 800 ft). We started off the day with a wonderful breakfast up on the rooftop of our hotel, overlooking all of the Cordillera Blanca or the white mountains. I know, not exactly creative, but the mountains more than make up for the lack of creativity in the people who gave them their name.
The biggest decision to make was whether to take the 8 day hike in the Cordillera Huayash or the 4 day hike through the Cordillera Blanca. Being as our schedule was a little tight and our lungs barely acclimated to the high mountain air, we elected for the 4 day trip called the Santa Cruz trail. These four days would turn out to be some of the most magical days of the entire trip.
It is well know that the Incans worshipped the highest peaks in the Andes as gods. The made sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans, which were presented as gifts to the mountains. To this day many people blow on coca leaves before eating them, as a sort of offer to the mystical mountains of the Andes. All of this may seem quite foolish, but as is often the case, you have walk a mile in a mans moccasins, to really understand his point of view.
We started the trek at approximately 3,500 (11,375 feet) meters above sea level and hiked a steady four hours to our first camp site at 3,800 meters. On this hike you are immediately impacted by your surroundings as the skyline is full of sharp snow capped peaks gently exposed by the passing clouds. The first night was brightly illuminated by a 3/4 moon reflected off of the crisp white snow all around us. The reality of sleeping through this cold night was a different story, but something you just have to get used to. Our guide woke us up bight and early for a cup' of mate de coca, or coca leaf tea that is commonly believed to energize hikers and help combat altitude sickness.
The second day we would do the majority of the climbing. It was a hard 9 hour hike culminating at mountain pass called Punto Union. The pass is 4750 meters (15,500 ft) above sea level. The view from that altitude combined with the thin air leaves anyone speechless. Which, in my opinion, is exactly how it should be. It is exactly the type of place that leaves you feeling so insignificant, that you instinctively remain silent.
It becomes easy to understand why the natives in their primitive way had so much respect for the mighty peaks of the Andes. These snow capped peaks slowly melt during the afternoon sun to feed a number of high mountain lakes of deep turquoise and crystal blue water. As the water level rises the lakes begin to overflow, enormous waterfalls are created from all sides of the mountain. These waterfalls form the rivers that eventually distribute the life form to the thousands of square acres that surround them. All of this is visible as you begin the descent into the valley. Plant and animal life begin to decorate the landscape, trees and bushes are able to prosper here. The ground has a spongy soft feel as if it had recently been covered by the overflowing water. And this is the good fortune that the Santa Cruz valley receives from the kindness of the giants that guard it.
But the mountains are not always kind to the inhabitants of the Cordillera Blanca. Avalanches and enormous rockslides are common in this territory, and often create barriers along the very trails we were hiking. And the seemingly tranquil glacier lakes represent the most pressing danger. As the earth begins to warm the delicate ice walls of the lakes are starting to deteriorate. In 1970 this danger was illustrated when and earthquake in the valley caused enormous avalanches and destroyed the lakes’ retaining walls. This created a devastating combination. The rapidly falling water from the lakes melted the snow and accumulated into a large amount of land mass that came pouring down the mountainside. The result was tens of thousands of deaths and a virtually destroyed landscape.
The Incans and Pre-Incans obviously experienced both sides of this delicate balance of give and take with their providers. Thus worshiping them as their gods, not only for the life that they provide them, but the imminent danger that they represent. Having spent only four days walking through their terrain, I have developed a new respect for the sensitivity of the ecosystem that supports life in the area. Unfortunately all of the blowing of coca leaves in the world wont slow down the inevitable effects that global warming and man made environmental changes are having on this fragile ecosystem.
The third day of the hike we set out for the glacier lake situated near the base of Alpamayo. Alpamayo was voted the most beautiful mountain in the world in the 1940s, and justifiably so. Unfortunately the cloud cover would make it very difficult to see the magnificent snow capped peak of this mountain that reaches 19,500 ft in altitude. The lake was a rich turquoise blue and set at an altitude of 14,500 ft above sea level. The biggest entertainment came from a Swiss traveler, Mathias, who just couldn’t resist the urge to take a swim. We all stood around the lake, bundled in jackets, gloves and scarves to watch Mathias take the plunge .
The rest of the hike would be through the Valley of Santa Cruz. The valley has two very large lakes and is line with jagged rocky snow covered mountains. Waterfalls are so frequent that they begin to blend into the scenery. Wild horses , mules, goats , and cows can be seen grazing throughout the valley. The ground is so wet that you have check your footing, or you may just sink in! The last think you want is to wake in the morning to frozen wet boots at sub zero temps. The changes had been extraordinary over the 4 day span. We had gradually climbed our way into the silent solidarity of the Cordillera Blanca, where few organisms are able to survive. Later we descended through the rich environment of the Santa Cruz Valley now plush with plant and animal life. If anyone in Peru wants to meet their maker, according to the Incas, this is where they would need to go. Our guide told us that in 7 years he had never taken a Peruvian on this journey, and that most didn’t know it existed. A sad reality, but blatantly evident through the lack of respect or concern that most Peruvians have for their natural habitat.
At the end of the trip we had hiked 48 km (30 miles) in little more than three days, and climbed from 3500 to 4750 meters above sea level, then descended back down to about 3300 to the end of the trail. For me it was clearly the experience of my time in Peru. If I had it to do over again I would have stayed the extra two weeks and hiked the Cordillera Huayash instead of heading to much more popular southern part of the country.