Archive for the ‘Peru’ Category

Why Wash? … Why not?

July 8, 2008

The emergency backup horse was tempting. It followed us up each of the passes in Peru’s Huayhuash Mountain Range, enticing us with its empty saddle. But my sister and I resisted the urge to hop on for the climb, opting instead to feel the fullness of burn.

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The trail through the Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced WhyWash) circles a cluster of high, white peaks about four hours east of Huaraz. The range contains six mountaintops measuring more than 19,600 feet and 15 others measuring more than 17,700. The seven-day trek took our group over eight high-altitude passes, including an especially brutal one, San Antonio, which measured more than 17,000 feet tall.

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Climbing the near-vertical San Antonio pass drove Laura and me, normally not self-affirmation types, to repeat motivational mantras over and over in our heads.

During each of the climbs, my thighs screamed, my calves burned, and my lungs begged for a break. But the views from the high points more than canceled the discomfort; snow-capped mountains overlooked grooved rock walls, brilliant blue lakes and lush green valleys. Avalanches sometimes crashed down from the high peaks, filling the air above them with clouds of snow powder.

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At 111 miles long and 18 miles wide, the Cordillera Huayhuash is small compared to most. But what it lacks in area, it makes up in height.

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We were accompanied on the trek by six 20-something Israeli guys who boiled up fresh tea every night in camp and bet on everything from scenes in the movie ‘Snatch’ to traffic fatality numbers in Israel. We learned the Hebrew words “Sababa,” which means “It’s all good,” and “ree-bah,” which means “jam.”

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A guide named Benito showed us the route and cooked our dinners, and a donkey driver named Lincol managed the eight super-cute burrows that carried our bags. Most of Lincol’s animals were named Pancho or some version of the name, and, in the mornings, stood so patiently awaiting their loads that frost remained in their unmoving shadows long after it had melted everywhere else.

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Does it GET any cuter?

The Cordillera Huayhuash is much more remote than the Cordillera Blanca, the range closer to Huaraz. Though we occasionally ran into other groups along the way, we often encountered nobody for hours at a time.

The trail tapered out in some places, forcing us to traipse through the virgin landscape in what we thought to be the right direction. During those times, I felt privileged to be in such a beautiful, unspoiled space.

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Nights were cold, well below freezing. Laura and I slept in multiple sweaters and vests and cuddled up with the bottles of boiled water that Lincol would deliver to our tent before bedtime (he called them our novios, or ‘boyfriends’). When those became tepid around 2 a.m. we pulled our sleeping bag cords tighter around our faces and tried our best to sleep until morning.

We camped near natural hot springs our third night on the trail. Weirdly enough, it started hailing just as we dipped our toes in the water and stopped right about the time we decided to get out — the only precipitation during the entire trip. Submersed in the warmth of the tub, we watched the ice pellets land on our shoulders and melt from white to clear to gone.

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Right outside the hot springs, villagers manufactured bricks from mud and hay. They said they were building a changing room beside the hot springs.

In camp on the last day, our group purchased a sheep for $30 USD from a local rancher (Laura says they run $400 in the U.S. Don’t ask how she knows this). With confidence and precision, Lincol slit its throat, chopped off its feet, removed its skin and organs and split it up the ribs. He marinated it in a green sauce, and, less than an hour from its last bleat, it was cooking Pachamanca style, underground.

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Lincol at work. I couldn’t watch the first part of this process.

Pachamanca in progress. Lincol, Bendito and a couple others cover the stone chimney containing hot coals, lamb and potatoes with dirt, tarps and straw.

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Our group at the trail’s end in the village of LLamac.

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Into thin air

June 25, 2008

Laura, Alexis and I summited Mount Everest the other night under a full moon. Ok, so we weren’t actually in the Himalayas, and the mountain was a few thousand feet shorter, but we saw snow, we saw crevasses and there were ropes and crampons involved. It was basically the same thing.


We climbed Vallanaraju, an 18,600-foot glaciated peak in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, with a team of three guides and two other participants, an American girl named Anna and a Belgian guy who went by Victor or Lucas, depending on the moment.


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The summit of Vallanaraju, which, from below, looks a lot like a dollup of meringue


On the first day, we hiked to a moraine camp beneath the mountain’s glacier, where we put on all the clothing in our packs, drank coca tea and went to bed early. We woke up around 1 a.m., strapped on harnesses and crampons, roped ourselves together and began to walk.


The full moon lit the way as we crunched across the Styrofoam-textured snow. Its rays made many of the snow crystals shimmer, creating an effect as breathtaking as the climb itself.


We passed crevasses — giant bowls, canyons and cracks in the ground — and tried to stay evenly spaced so the ropes connecting us would not become too tight or slack. We sucked water as best we could from our frozen bladders and sometimes ate gumdrops. We always kept climbing.


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We reached the summit around 7:30 a.m., and, as you’d expect, the view was incredible.



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The descent


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K-2 next?

What goes up wants to come down

June 25, 2008

Our climbing experience in Peru’s Cordillera Negra was not a metaphor for anything at all; The fact that we quit not even midway up the rock reveals nothing about the strength of our characters. At least that’s what my sister and I told ourselves as we were being lowered to the ground.

About 140 feet high on a 600-foot rock face, Laura and I, both novice climbers, got stumped by a tricky spot that requires you to position your right knee by your right ear and then stand on that leg while launching toward a hand hold way up and to the left. Laura tried, fell and dangled. Then she did it again. And again. I did the same during my go.

Feeling weak and frustrated, we decided there was nowhere to go but down. One at a time, we sat back in our harnesses and tiptoed back over the distance we’d worked so hard to cover on the way up.

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The aborted attempt to summit the four-pitch rock surface did not do wonders for our self-esteems. Nevertheless, the views were stunning. That’s the arid Cordillera Negra in the foreground and the snowy Cordillera Blanca in the distance.

We redeemed ourselves the following day, however, at a climbing area called Chancos, where we and a couple friends scaled several routes each, working our way from hold to hold like ballerinas.

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That´s me climbing and Michel saving my life.

Afterward, we celebrated our successes (because they, of course, do have a deeper significance in the context of our lives) by soaking in the thermal hot springs down the road.

Laura and I are in Huaraz, Peru at the moment, a mountain town with endless places to mountaineer, trek, mountain bike and, yes, climb rocks. We originally intended to stay in Huaraz for three to five days, but once we saw what the town and its surroundings had to offer, we extended our stay by about three weeks.

Since we arrived, we’ve hiked to the spectacular Laguna 69.

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Us and the lake

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This cow, hanging out in the moraine by the lake, hid behind flower bushes and charged us whenever we turned our backs.

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A waterfall and blooming taulli plant we passed along the trail.

We’ve mountain biked along a pre-Inca path from the mouth of the Cojup Valley to downtown Huaraz, passing through numerous farming communities along the way.


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Laura descending

And we’ve gone on a few multi-day hikes, which I plan to describe in future blogs.

Machu Picchu, and no ducks in sight

June 5, 2008

Every morning around 5:30 a.m., voices outside our tent would offer us coca tea, saying, in not so many words, it was time to get our lazy asses out bed and head for the holy site.

To avoid the crowds and expense of the super-popular Inca Trail, Laura and I chose an alternate route to the lost city of Machu Picchu, one that took us by the base of the 20,500-foot Salkantay Mountain.

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The 20,500-foot Salkantay Mountain

The trek started on a Wednesday in a clearing near the village of Mollepata. We were accompanied by two guides, a cook, three horsemen and six horses and eight Dutch people who would sometimes make observations in their native language that sounded, to our untrained ears, a lot like the phrase “There are no ducks here.” (In fact, there weren’t.)

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One of our excursion’s horsemen preparing to strap sleeping bags, fleece jackets and potatoes to that horse’s back

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The horse parade

During the five-day, four-night trek, we hiked across foggy alpine meadows littered with lichen-covered rocks, crossed the 15,000-foot pass at the base of Salkantay Mountain and descended into a lush jungle where bromeliads, begonias and banana trees flourished. We passed through a number of farming communities along the way, where we’d often see people hoeing for potatoes or loading donkeys up with the harvest.

At periodic intervals, our group would stop, our guides would snap out the camp table and stools, and we’d feast on typical Peruvian food: soups, stuffed peppers, lomo saltado (that’s steak with veggies and fried potatoes).

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One day’s lunch spot

The food escaped its hutch in the kitchen one day as we were eating, but no one seemed to care. No, we weren’t offered guinea pig.

The trek ended in the super-touristy town of Aguas Calientes, the jump-off point to Machu Picchu, about a half-hour bus ride away. Not-so-tasty pizza parlors line the streets of this town built for travelers, and everyone wants you to try their restaurant’s cappuccino or spaghetti. We often did, I’ll admit, because there’s not much to do in the surreal little town besides eat.

When we arrived at Machu Picchu around 5 a.m. the following morning, a thick fog shrouded the ruins, giving them a very mystical air.

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Llamas gently grazing in the lost Inca city

The fog lifted around 10:30 in the morning, revealing the Inca city in all its glory. Let me just say, I think Machu Picchu fully deserves its place among the New Seven Wonders of the World. The 15th-century Inca city is almost completely — well, 80 percent — original, just as the Incas left it around the time the Spaniards came to conquer them. The civilization built its city’s terraces, houses, plazas, temples, fountains and irrigation systems with smooth stones that fit perfectly together. We walked through the architecture marveling for most of the day.

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The classic Machu Picchu shot

See, Laura and I really were there

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Click here to see more pictures from our trek to Machu Picchu.