Huaraz & the Cordillera Blanca

3rd December 1999: Huaraz, Peru (Day overall 135)

It was 6 o’clock on the morning when the overnight bus from the city of Huanchaco on Peru’s coast pulled into and Andean city of Huaraz.  The night had been a sequence of efforts to get warm and find some sleep since the ascent back into the Andes had caused the temperature to plunge.

With bleary eyes, we were ejected onto some road we didn’t know and some hotel hawkers hanging about nearby swooped.  “Mister, mister – good hotel very sleep!” and similar came from several directions at once.  Each of them were shoving scruffy, plastic covered photos of their hotels in our faces.  Bizarrely, each of them showed pictures of pretty run-down hotels all with cartoon sheep shown in various states of hotel-ing: sleeping; showering; chatting at the bar; etc.  The hotel names were the only discernible differences between them – usually something not particularly subtle such as “Hotel Americano“, “The Friendly Inn“, “Hotel Imperial Palace” and one that just went for “Hotel Sheep” perhaps taking its own photo a bit too literally.

We decided to disappoint the hawkers for now and headed off to find a coffee in the first cafe we found.  An hour later and slightly more awake, we emerged to be confronted by the same hawkers who’d been sitting on the pavement outside waiting for us.  This time we took their cards, told them to leave us alone and headed off to find some places ourselves.

The first one was in a dingy part of town and was called “Edward’s Inn”.  It was unfriendly and expensive at $8pp.  We left and stood outside reading our trusty Lonely Planet in an attempt to locate another.  Meanwhile, the owner stood by us slowly reducing her rates in an effort to change our minds and by the time we left, she was down to $5pp.  It took a couple more before we found one that one we liked.  “Albergue Churup” was worth the time it took to find – it was run by the friendliest and kindest family you could imagine almost to the point of embarrassment and we had a lovely room with an en-suite bathroom.  We unloaded and ordered some breakfast which was both cheap and tasty.  So good in fact, we all ordered another one!  Soon after moving in, I began reading to the others about some of the walks we could do nearby but before long, I realised I was talking to myself – the others were all fast asleep.  There was little else to do so I followed suit.

I awoke about noon and made sure the others knew I was up until they too started stirring.  We headed out and took a wander around Huaraz.  It was pleasant and lively place with its main tourist focus being the walks in the surrounding mountains.  The ‘Cordillera Blanca‘ mountain range filled the view on the eastern side of the town providing a lovely backdrop.  Snow-capped mountains were shrouded with clouds with the lower slopes covered in a myriad of little fields filling every available patch all the way down to the edge of the city itself.

We checked out the prices of gear to rent and looked around for hats, sweaters and the like in attempt to try and get warmer.  Indian peasants, probably Quechuan, were everywhere selling everything that could be knitted, carved or grown locally.  It was an interesting point that the race of people who make up about 70% of the population of Peru seem to be virtually ignored.  Never once have I seen a picture, poster or advertisement that included a person of Quechuan descent except in a tourist postcard.

We picked up some simple food for dinner which Mark cooked in the Churup kitchen.  The rest of the evening was spent looking through walking guides for a possible direction tomorrow.

4th December 1999: Huaraz, Peru (Day overall 136)

The standard breakfast in Peru is eggs, bread, juice and coffee – all pretty plain because the idea of garnish or flavouring does not seem to occur at all.  Getting salt or pepper can be a more difficult task than a finding the Holy Grail.  Luckily, Churup has heard of these strange western delicacies and this was part of the reason why their breakfasts were so tasty!

After filling up on breakfast, we kitted up and headed out on a short walk up to the Wilkahuain ruins only a few miles away.  This was supposed to be a relatively easy, stretch-of-the-legs kind of walk – but before we had even made it to the start of the actual path, I was already out of breath!  I still felt very weak generally having only recovered from some rather unpleasant food poisoning which was 10 days I’d rather forget and both Irinia and I were struggling with the altitude having just come up from the coast (Huaraz lies at 3,050 meters above sea level).  Mark of course was feeling completely fine and Jono was feeling pretty good too.

We took it slowly and followed the path along a small valley beside a glacial river which flowed down the centre.  Either side, the land was all farms with small fields and the odd selection of pigs and cows.  The pigs were all tied by one foot to a stake in the ground and upon approach – the ran away which caused them to trip and plunge head first into the mud.  The cows had huge horns and in contrast to the pigs, felt no need to run away as we approached – we gave the cows a wide berth!  There were many Quechuan women who all seemed to wear the same thing whether they were 5, 50 or 100 years old.  They have wide brimmed hats with a ribbon decoration, bright shawls, red cardigans and a purple or red petticoat.  Underneath these are orange stockings and black shoes.

Walking up through the many villages somewhere outside Huaraz

The walk continued up through little villages.  Each of the houses were made of mud bricks which were then whitewashed.  They were covered in graffiti and posters for what looked like local elections.  I’ve noticed that in every South American country, they always seem to be having an upcoming election.  The hopefuls are usually friendly, moustached, bald, wearing a shell suit or sports jumper, smiling and holding a big thumbs up.  They all look the same after a while and as they all have the same campaign mottos – “No drugs!” – I wondered if any really cared who won.

After about 2-3 hours and several ciggie breaks for Jono and Irinia who were new found partners in crime, we made it to the ancient temple of Wilkahuain.  It doesn’t look much – a building made of bricks with no windows and three tiny entrances – but it is over 100 years old and has survived in the heart of an active earthquake zone.  The last major earthquake in 1970 killed 70,000 people and destroyed most nearby towns and villages.  This temple was built ~800AD by the Wari people who lived long before the Incas and was still standing after probably dozens of big earthquakes.  Our student cards helped getting us a ticket for 2 sols (50 pence) and two boys followed us around wanting to be our guides.  They claimed to speak fluent English which wasn’t really the case but they knew enough to convey the basics, so we let them lead the way.

Mark showing great interest in our guide’s explanations

We met two Canadian girls – Robin and Christine – who joined our little tour of the insides of the temple.  Most of the passages were about 3 feet high and had artificial light due to the lack of windows.  Our guide book supplemented the lack of information from our boy guides.   The lower level was dedicated to the Moon, the middle level for the Sun and the top was for human and animal sacrifice but we found they were all very similar.  In an effort at some droll humour, I asked how the ancient Wari people generated the electricity which powered the lights.  This led to an odd conversation with the boys who truly believed the Wari people did actually put the lights there 1000 years ago.  Perhaps it was them now making the joke back on us!

Irinia and Robin outside the Wilkahuain temple

We nibbled some snacks outside under a cover since it had begun to rain.  After it had dwindled to an Englishman friendly drizzle, we set off on an alternative walk back.  We had abandoned our map which was just scrappy brochure from the hotel and made our way by guess trying to more directly head to where we thought our hotel might be.  The walk took us through more tiny villages and we passed many children who would immediately hold out their hand saying the words “Regalo me!” meaning “Give me a present!“.

A few hours and several badly sung songs later, we made it to a rough dirt track via which we scrambled up into the back of the Hotel Monterrey where we decided to grab a drink.  It seemed deserted but an old guy appeared and we were able to get a decent coffee and a sandwich.  Mark’s seemingly main goal in South America is to succeed in his quest to find the perfect banana smoothie and therefore he orders one wherever we are and whatever time it is.  Ironically, he still hasn’t learnt the Spanish words for asking for one so it’s always interesting to watch his attempts.  This old guy had just looked at Mark blankly as he made his latest attempt before hunger took over and he settled for the same as the rest of us.

The old guy did help us to work out where we were which was no-where near our hotel, or even the centre of Huaraz.  But we were near the main road and from there, we flagged a passing rickety bus and enjoyed a very jolty ride back to Huaraz.  We picked up a few food bits in the market and Jono cooked up his special stir-fry-rice.

5th December 1999: Huaraz, Peru (Day overall 137)

Today was supposed to be the start of a three-day trek into the hills.  However, waking late from the tiredness from yesterday’s excursion left us too little time to get food, equipment and enough trekking time to find a good campsite.  So we changed our minds and turned it into a two day hike that would start tomorrow.  As it turned out, nearly everything was shut anyway since it was a Sunday so we would have never been able to leave when we wanted anyway.

There were a couple of shops open so we wandered around searching for a few bits of equipment.  Irinia was trying to find a yellow North Face jacket (fake of course) and Jono was pondering getting a large poncho since his anorak was useless.  In one particular shop, both of them were trying on some garments and the assistant was offering helpful encouragement.  “Usted bonito!” she said.  “You look beautiful!“.  The assistant said this every time one of us tried on anything no matter how it looked.  I think she would have said this if I balanced a used tea bag on my head.   Jono was unsure about the poncho and needed to put on a rucksack to see how it would fit together.  There were plenty in the shop so he grabbed one to test it with.  The manageress, who had been sitting eating her lunch throughout the entire time suddenly went mad.  From her sudden shouting, arm waving and demeanour, I think I worked out she was either wanting us to buy something or go.  I tried explaining we did actually want to buy the poncho but needed to test it (not easy with my limited Spanish) but she wasn’t interested and just continued gesticulating and shouting until we thought enough was enough.  We dropped the various garments we were about to purchase at her feet and walked out the door.  Her loss.

By the end of the day, we managed to get what we needed and headed out to an Italian restaurant for dinner.  I made the wrong decision with a lasagne and enviously eyed up Jono’s pizza.  Back at the hotel, Irinia tried to convince us to go out for a drink but we’d all fallen asleep.  Must be getting old.

6th December 1999: Huaraz, Peru (Day overall 138)

By the time the alarm went, I’d already showered and was packing for our little adventure.  We worked as a team – two for the shopping and two for the equipment.  It didn’t take long and so by noon, we set out and grabbed a small local minibus which took us along with our baggage and about 14 locals to Llupa at the end of a very bumpy road.  Unfortunately, Jono was sitting under a roof support and had a very sore head by the end of the journey with repeated knocks.  Our driver looked a little disappointed when we paid him the same as what everyone gave him and not the 150% he asked for.  We jumped out and set off.

A crowd of kids freely pointed the way to Pitec much to the annoying of another man who was trying to ask for money to show us the way.  As it happened, there was only one path and it led all the way there.

Trying to work out the way to Pitec with the help of several local children

It was only about 3 km but took us the best part of 2 hours as we kept stopping to chat with other people, many of whom we’d met in other places, who were on their way down.  Several people warned us we wouldn’t be able to get up and down before nightfall but that didn’t worry us since we intended to camp for the night.

Pitec was little more than a knocked down hut and a sign post.  Here we rested close to an Overlander group where Irinia met a friend she had last seen on her flight from central America to Quito.  Small world.

Views of the Cordillera Blanca mountains

We walked another couple of hours into the valley up steep gravel paths.  After searching for a while, we found the perfect spot to camp in a sheltered spot next to a small river.  We set up our tent, gathered firewood, got a fire going and started the cooking.  For dinner: pasta, veggie soup over the gas stove and bacon fried over the open fire.  With our bellies full, we entertained ourselves with bouts of tuneless and wrong worded singing.  Each of us had different ideas how the umpteenth verse of ‘that old classic’ went but we enjoyed just being in the outdoors and no one really cared.

Me and Jono at our river campsite

Night fell and the clouds rolled in leaving us with a feeling of complete isolation.  The fire burned slowly giving off a low light and by the early hours, the archives of Queen, Elton John, Roxette, The Police, Elvis Presley, Take That and many more had been thoroughly disgraced, twisted, tortured and exhausted.

A few pours of water extinguished the fire and the four of us tucked cosily into our tent.  The four of us together was a squash but after the usual fidgeting and cursing, we all eventually settled into an uncomfortable yet satisfying night in the wilderness.

7th December 1999: Cordillera Blanca, Peru (Day overall 139)

Each of us had actually woken quite early.  The problem was, that with little sleep, we all kept falling back into our own little dreamworlds.  It was nearly 10am by the time we’d all each decided to stay awake.  So much for the early start!

The remains of yesterday’s meal provided us with a quick breakfast and we quickly packed and soon had the camp back to the natural untouched wilderness it once was.  We set off for a steep climb back to the path.  Irinia seemed to struggle with the altitude and I hung back with her to chat about old times while Mark and Jono went ahead to reach the lake we were heading for.

The morning clouds hung heavy in the valley and it gave a mysterious feel to the world around us.  The path climbed steeply until we reached the final series of waterfalls.  Here it turned into a steep rock climb covered in wet mud.  About half way up, in the middle of giving an experienced rock climbers guide to overcoming one particular section to the others, I lost my footing and slid helplessly towards a drop that I would have really rather not attempted without the aid of a very large cushion.  Somehow I stopped myself at the last moment but it helped Irinia decide that she would rather not carry on up the rock face.  Instead, we found a comfortable, grassy area and proceeded to top up our tan whilst Mark and Jono continued onwards. They returned a while late with tales of the lake which they said was pretty and we all turned back and started off back down the mountain.

Irinia at the waterfalls leading up to Lake Churup
Jono in front of Lake Churup

Going down was so much quicker (partly because we didn’t meet anyone coming up to stop and chat with) and within 2 hours we were waiting for a bus at Llupa.  After an hour of no bus and one local mentioning it was not due for another two hours, I managed to convince a local ‘campesino’ to drive us back to Huaraz in the back of his lorry and it was only about twice what the bus would have cost us at £1 each.  We sat on our rucksacks in the back of the lorry and endured the bumpy ride home much to the amusement of the locals we passed who waved or pulled faces at us!

Heading back to Huaraz in the back of a lorry

Back in Huaraz, there was a flurry of activity as we attempted to pack, get money, give back bits of equipment we’d rented and recover deposits all of which had the usual difficulties.  Luckily, we had one less complication since we’d already booked our onward overnight bus tickets to Lima.  Finally, we were ready to go so headed out for an early dinner in “The Bistro” which was very good.

We said long goodbyes to the adoring family of Churup and asked the taxi driver to step on it in order to catch the bus.  South America time has its advantages since the bus left 15 minutes later than scheduled – and only 5 minutes after we boarded!


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