Of course I immediately gravitated towards the Santa Cruz trek. Four days gives me more time for other places and really, nine days is a LOT of time to be in the wilderness. At the table, aside from an incredibly beautiful Aussie girl who unfortunately was going the opposite direction, were a Spanish and Israeli girl looking to price out a trek for tomorrow. Well, there’s power in numbers so the three of us – after talking with the hostel’s travel agency – set out to do some price checking and bargaining. After a lot of looking we found a pretty legit company that would do the four day trek for $70 including a sleeping bag rental for me, two guides, donkeys to pack our gear, and a donkey driver. Considering most places were charging $100, we did pretty well I think. We made our booking and walked around Huaraz, looking for somewhere to have lunch: we found a little food market street and tried some Pachamanca which is basically a combination of marinated meats wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground. The marinade was almost like a pesto sauce and it was served with a sweet potato and tamale. I was again reminded that the food here is pretty darned good. Usually. After a bit of relaxing and chatting with the mom that owns the hostel for an hour or so, the three of us went for dinner. We skipped over my first choice and ended up at a “Chinese” restaurant that probably has the world’s worst Wonton soup. I actually wonder if the owners are even Chinese, as the wontons were basically unspiced meat balls in almost-raw dough.
The next morning we were up at 5:30 AM to head out on our trek. There was another guy on our trek waiting as well at the hostel named Ty from Denver. We got along instantly. The three of us loaded into the van where we met the rest of our trekking crew. There was a Spanish-Australian guy named Virgilio who was pretty great and then a bunch of Israelis. They seemed like nice enough guys when they would speak in Spanish or English but as that was pretty rare I never found out their names. It was like they were on a different trek than us, anyway. Sure they’d be in the food tent for breakfast and dinner, but they’d talk amongst themselves in Hebrew. When we were actually trekking, they were always at the back, and we’d see them only when we’d stop to wait. Then they’d arrive, we’d set off again, and we wouldn’t see them until the next stop. In all, there were ten of us which meant we had private transport. That should have been a plus, but the drive to the beginning of the trail should have taken 3.5 hours but with our extremely slow driver it took 6. Even our guides, Nilson and Lydia by the way, were getting angry. We arrived at 1 PM at the start of the track, threw together our gear for the donkeys and set out. After passing some farms set in a beautiful countryside we said goodbye to civilization and hello to increasing cloudiness.
This was unfortunate as our second day would have been lined with white peaks soaring over 6000m as we ascended a green valley below to reach a mountain pass at 4750m. Still, we weren’t entirely unlucky: the clouds did nothing more sinister than drizzle and even stepped aside from time to time to allow us a mysterious glimpse of these massive mountains. As the day progressed and we moved up into the mid-4000s, the clouds grew still further apart and there were even patches of blue. And what we could see of the peaks around us was truly incredible. This is the second highest chain of mountains in the world, after the Himalayas, and here we were walking among giants. We came up to the pass, the altitude now slowing us quite a bit, and as we stepped through the small “v” notch in the rock the view on the other side of the valley awaited. To the right, an emerald lake held in place by a lip of scree from the glacier’s younger days; it now angled down at the lake menacingly as if to warn it may strike at any moment. Off in the distance was another lake in the middle of a green valley weaving its way through the mountains. This was the path that we would take in the next few days. And on the left was a collection of peaks that had all the signs of being really high, though nobody knew for sure with the cloud there. Naturally, we got a group photo at the highest point in the trail and had our so-called lunches before descending to the other side of the mountains.
Having just come from two weeks in the Galapagos, two days in Huanchaco (both at sea level), separated by three nights in Cuenca (at altitude) and one night in Huaraz I was feeling the altitude. The headaches were manageable but now I had lost my appetite and developed a fever. When Ty and I got to base camp there was popcorn (which I still managed to eat a fair amount of) and hot tea. As I sat there I started shivering more and more violently though I was burning up and excused myself to lay down before supper. I never bothered getting up again that night although, another altitude problem, I didn’t sleep a single minute from 4:30 PM when I laid down until 6:30 AM when we got up for breakfast. Ty was kind enough to bring me a bowl of soup which I managed to get down and a bowl of spaghetti that surrendered about eight bites to me before emerging victorious. I also heard everybody getting excited that the clouds had cleared and the full moon was lighting up the peaks beautifully and then playing with the headlamps to spell out Peru in slow-shuttered fun. I didn’t entirely miss out, though, as I had to get myself out of bed around midnight when everybody else was asleep for a bathroom run and a quick vomit. They had been right, the mountains in the moonlight were beautiful. My fever was now gone or at least low enough that the night’s cool felt pleasant and I stayed out there for about a half hour watching.
By morning I was feeling sore and more bored than I can possibly describe, ready to just get up and start walking. My spirits were lifted, however, by the fact that when I unzipped the rain fly, the mountains were lit in gold lighting and the sky was that shade of blue you only see after a good rain. The trek was meant to be four days but the next two days were all downhill and pretty relaxed and a few people (myself included) wanted the extra day for other things. However, my main reason for wanting to do the rest of the trek in one day was just to get out of the altitude and cold and discomfort of the tent and get some sleep. So five of us left the Israelis (and Nilton) behind and set out at 8 AM. Lydia guided us past the tricky water crossings (including one knee-high ford in frigid glacial waters) and then also said farewell to us. We walked pretty fast – as fast as I could manage, actually, and wound our way out of the valleys and back to a small town named Cashapampa by 2:30. At that point, I was beat. I slept, for the first time in a couple days, the whole half hour down to a bigger town from which we caught the three hour collectivo back to Huaraz. I was definitely feeling better as we descended though still exhausted and lacking appetite.
They welcomed us warmly back to Caroline Hostel and after ordering in some wonton soup from a different place (better but still not wontons) and trying to watch the terribleness that was Once Upon a Time in Mexico, I had what may well have been the best sleep I’ve had in South America. The next morning my appetite had come back a bit more and Teo, Caroline’s father, gave us a ride to the bus station to buy tickets to Lima for that night. On the way back, we stopped on the main east-west street running through Plaza de Armas for some ridiculously delicious papabarillas, deep-fried mashed potato wrapped around ground beef, egg, topped with mustard, mayo, picante, and served with an onion salad. The previous day it had taken me half an hour to eat 2/3s. Today I ate two in 10 minutes. Back at the hostel we hung out with an English couple that were really friendly and shared my taste for cheesy comedy on the TV. Eddy Murphy as an alien named Dave? Hilarious (at least for the first hour). Teo again drove us to the bus, Caroline hugged us goodbye, and the mother gave us both a kiss on the cheek. When we got out of Teo’s car he asked us to recommend Caroline Hostel. Of course we would. I wish I had time for Huayhuash, the other trek here, but Santa Cruz was beautiful in spite of altitude-related difficulties. Now I feel fine and am happy to be on the road again, heading to another new place.