Friday, October 23, 2009

the most spectacular barnyard on earth

Due to Jascha’s intestinal issues, our Huayhuash departure got pushed out a day. My guidebook advised that we take a bus to Huallanca and get let off at Quartelhuain (aka km 38), so we booked bus tickets from Huaraz to Huallanca. My topo map (Brad Johnson’s Cordillera Huayhuash 1:50000 map) did not show the alternate route from Huaraz to Huallanca that completely bypasses Quartelhuain. Fortunately the road was good and the detour didn’t add much extra time. We hired a taxi to take us from the dreary mining town of Huallanca to km 38. Although Jascha’s turista has mostly abated he now had a cold, not ideal at altitude.

y initial plan was to hike up and over the Cacanan Pass (15,387 ft) to access the east side of the range for a day, then cross-country over Garagocha Punta (Pass) back catch to the westerly route. I knew we would have to do an abbreviated version given our late start. At the trailhead we saw the remnants of a trekking camp from the night before. That group, like most, was employing mules, porters, and cooks. We were self-supported. I’m not a huge fan of backpacking for the sake of backpacking, but having climbed in the Andes previously, I know that glaciated peak slogs are not high on my list of fun activities. From what I’d seen from other people’s Huayhuash photos, I figured I could make an exception to my anti-backpacking principles.

We started up the trail around noon. About 500 vertical feet from the pass it started to rain. We backtracked and took shelter in a cave. Jascha told me he wasn’t doing well with the altitude. I had him take an acetazolamide pill and we decided to abandon our easterly excursion. On a 2003 trip to Bolivia I had been up to 19,974 ft, so I had some experience with higher altitudes. Jascha had not been higher than 14,200 and his cold was compounding the effects. Once we saw a break in the weather we headed down to camp near the trailhead. The rain started up again so I left Jascha in another alcove while I looked for a tent site. I was starting to get the feeling that we would be hiking through a giant pasture for 3 days, albeit a scenic one. I found a flat spot behind some boulders and we set up the tent in the rain. At this point I was regretting that we had not brought the larger tent, although I was thankful that I had invested in an e-book reader before I left and read up on Sister Ping’s human trafficking ring. Jascha went to sleep immediately, but I woke him around 6 pm to make him eat.

The next morning I awoke to first light and a tent covered with ice. We also had 2 visitors in the way of friendly dogs, who were thoroughly enjoying the rolling terrain. One of them extracted half of a freshly killed sheep carcass from a small cave ~100 feet from our tent and proceeded to roll on it. As we were packing up a local woman approached and asked for a fee of 15 soles each (~$5) ‘por la protección’. I had read that we should expect to have to pay camping fees so it didn’t come as a surprise. She gave us a receipt and left with our money and the sheep carcass.

The trekking route detoured onto the dirt road to the village of Rondoy (more like a few
stone huts). At this point we had to decide whether to take the direct dirt road to Llamac or take the more scenic trekking route over another pass and along the base of the Huayhuash or split up and take separate routes. After some deliberation Jascha said that he would join me on the more scenic route. We left the dirt road and headed up the valley following cow trails. From time to time we were followed by one of the curious, drooling bovines. As we heading south the views of Rondoy (19,258 ft) and its subsidiary peaks came into view. We were in the most picturesque cow pasture I had ever encountered. I was glad that I had the topo map because with the cow trails, the hikers’ trail had become increasingly more difficult to follow and I had to navigate by topographic features. The crux, the 15,584 ft Sambuya Pass, was in view but Jascha was having a difficult time keeping up, and the wind and cloud cover was making it increasingly colder.

Finally, we crested the saddle and caught a glimpse of the intensely turquoise Solteracocha Lake with the massive Jirishanca and Yerupaja peaks and associated glaciers looming above. The am
azing views made the slog well worth it (at least for me). Again we encountered a maze of trails, but this time we chose poorly and ended up on what Jascha called ‘a third class grass' slope. Fortunately, we made it through the cliff band and onto some sheep trails which dropped us into a nasty patch of brush, easy passage for those under 3 ft in height. After what seemed like forever we found our way to the valley floor. As we cruised toward the main camping area once again the storm clouds rolled in. Rainy season was a month away yet we had experienced persistent afternoon/evening showers two days in a row. We sped up, but by the time we reached a suitable site the rain and winds were in full force and our nerves were frayed. We hurried to get the tent set up (which was still wet from the previous day) and once again piled in with our damp gear.

I warned Jascha that we’d need to get an early start the next day if there was any hope of making it to Ch
iquian or Huaraz the following day. It was Sunday and taxi/bus availability in Llamac were uncertain, plus we had one more obstacle, a 13,800 ft pass. We spent another restless night in our cramped tent. The next morning, like clockwork, some locals came by for our camping fees. Apparently, we had crossed into another zone, so our previous payment wasn’t transferable. We hurriedly packed up and headed out toward Llamac. On the way we were advised by the father of the men we had paid that it was too late to make it to Huaraz. Conveniently his daughter owned a hostel in Chiquian, so I decided to ignore this advice.

After not too long the trail began to gradually climb out of the river valley; it reminded me of the oak chaparral hills of California minus the backdrop of 19,000 ft peaks. Jascha was still not feeling well and started falling behind. While I waited I chatted with Martin, a guy from Switzerland who had done the entire Huayhuash circuit self-supported in 10 days instead of the usual 18 (with support). He said that the locals confirmed that the weather had been unseasonably wet this year. I was most impressed that he had lugged around a huge SLR set-up the whole time.

When Jascha caught up I found out that he was doing even worse than before. We still had a mile or so to the pass and I offered to take so
me of his gear but he said no. I was happy to finally crest the pass. Jascha was out of water and still feeling nauseous. I knew we had to hurry if there was any hope of getting out of Llamac that day so I urged him to keep moving. I was aiming to reach Llamac by 11:30 am to make the 1 pm Chiquian-Huaraz bus, but I watched 11:30 come and go. We played leap frog once again with Martin and finally rolled into the village of Llamac. The first thing I noticed was the total lack of taxis. Luckily one of the locals came up and said ‘bus?’. By some stroke of luck we’d arrived just in time to catch the 12:30 bus to Huaraz. That meant a hot shower at the Steel Guest House and dinner at our favorite restaurant, La Brasa Roja, but best of all no tent.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

on the ají trail

We arrived in Lima at 3 in the afternoon to uniformly grey skies. I wasn't sure if it was overcast or smoggy, but I strongly suspected the former. Our hostal was run by a kind older woman, named Marisol, who stopped by to make sure our room was OK. We ventured out for our first taste of true Peruvian pollo a la brasa, which we found in a nondescript place next to the gargantuan supermarket, Plaza Vea. When I asked for a the waiter brought us out the special red version from behind the counter. The chicken turned out to be the best pollo a la brasa I've had to date, with the perfectly spiced dry rub and smoke-infused flesh.

After remediating the sleep deprivation from our red eye flight to Lima, and a fresh pot of Bialetti espresso from Marisol, we caught our flight to Cuzco. I had exchanged emails in Spanish with the company we'd arranged for the Machu Picchu part of the trip and to the best of my knowledge we were supposed to be picked up from the airport. We were greeted at the gate and escorted by a man from the guiding service whose cell phone ring tone was amusingly, Bon Jovi's 'Shot Through the Heart'. Our hotel, the stylish Picola Locanda, was high up on the hill on a steep, cobblestone pedestrian walk above Plaza de Armas, so I got in some training for the Cordillera Huayhuash portion of the trip (Jascha let the driver carry his pack as usual because he can't say no).

We had an hour before the service was supposed to give us an overview of the Machu Picchu trip so we took a walk up the hill to Sacsayhuaman, one of the many Inca ruins in the area. We found a pathway that cut under a barbed wire fence (the lower wires conveniently tied up to form a passage way) and bypassed the roadway. The pathway took us up to a series of stone terraces and from the top provided a view of the remaining ruins. We didn't have much time so we headed back to our hotel.

After handing over our trip fees we headed down the hill for a satisfying set lunch at El Fogon and a visit to Qoricancha, the remains of an Incan temple housed inside the Cathedral de Santo Domingo. Sadly, very little of the actual ruins remained (most had been restored post-earthquake), so we spent more time looking at the Catholic paintings, which were littered with a pleasing array of demons, sickness, and death. I noticed that no one, Spanish speaking or otherwise, was paying any attention to the 'no photography' signs.

Next on the list was hitting the local pharmacy for Cipro and acetazolamide. As we passed the Plaza de las Armas we noticed several displays of political art bringing light to Alberto Fujimori, his head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, and the numerous victims of the regime's death squads. After finding a phramacy, I made Jascha return the Cipro after he got charged $25 per course (we later found it for $3 in the non-touristy part of town). We wandered around the locals' part of town and found el Mercado de Santa Ana, where we picked up cheese and Jascha's new drink of choice, Negrita brand Chicha Morada. Morada. As dusk started to fall the anticuchos stands started coming out and for ~$0.35 I picked up a skewer laden with scrumptious a.

At 7:45 am the next morning we were picked up for the long trip to Aguas Calientes. I
decided that I didn't want to deal with the train/hotel/entrance fee logistics and the tour provided logistics coordination at less than what I could arrange on my own. The trip was long, ~6 hours of driving (much of it on dirt roads) plus another 30 minutes on the train. We reluctantly set our alarms for 4:15 am to allow time to hike up to the entrance and procure one of the coveted numbers for the trek up Huayna Picchu in lieu of the guided portion of our tour.

We set out just before 5 am and after 50 minutes of trails and stairways we reached the entrance station. The gates opened at 6 and everyone anxiously awaited for the perfect
photo op as the first light hit the ruins. The size of the complex was massive, but what set it apart from somewhere like Angkor Wat was the topology of the site and surrounding land. We crossed the site, admiring the perfect granite boulders that littered the area, and wandered over to the Huayna Picchu checkpoint. After 25 minutes of standing in line it was our turn to enter. We passed at least 20 people on the steep stairways that led up to the peak that overlooks Macchu Picchu and provides excellent views of the snow-capped surrounding peaks. Once we returned to the site we toured more of the ruins and lounged on the grassy terraces, knowing that we'd have to face the long van ride back to Cuzco. I was covered with bug bites, which I suspected were from the flies I had seen that looked a lot like the S American vector for leishmaniasis, but I knew my risk of contracting anything was extremely low.

On the ride back home Jascha was having a hard time staying warm and felt nauseous. Ironically, two days earlier he had scoffed at me for not eating doner kebab, which I had thought wasn't sufficiently cooked. He though that he had some life-threatening exotic disease; I figured he had a somewhat severe case of turista and made him take Cipro. I wasn't sure what that
meant for our trip to Huaraz the next day or for our Cordillera Huayhuash trip, but he agreed to fly back to Lima as planned 'for access to better hospitals'.