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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bicycles and Bathtub toes in the Andes

We met up with Julio (our ride guide and owner of the only quality full suspension mountain bikes in Huaraz, we were told) at 9:30am on Friday morning. It was a beautiful day and we were ready to see what the Andes had to offer. The plan was to head up into the hills on the Cordillera Blanca side in a taxi (yes, the taxis here have bike roof racks for just such scenarios) and make our way back to Huaraz.

To our surprise there were two other English girls at Julio's shop ready to take to the mountains when we arrived. The more the merrier, right? Right. However, I could see Troy's face take an ugly turn when Julio asked the girls about their experience and then changed over the front and rear brake for them to conform to the way they are in England. The girls responded that they were used to riding on pavement on flat ground and what do you mean there's a front and rear brake, don't you just use them both at the same time?? Uh oh.

At this point, luckily Julio also thought it best to split up the group. We proceeded into the mountains with Julio and he sent his bike mechanic with the ladies. Crisis averted :).

We rode for about an hour in the taxi and when we unloaded and waved him off, we took in our surroundings at 4,000m, beautiful! Julio was great, as he apparently pioneered the mountain biking game in Huaraz and knows all the best places to ride. We were treated to a combination of trails - downhill, single track, cross country and everything in between.

After the success of Friday's ride, we decided to go again on Saturday. Only this time on the Cordillera Negra side. We were once again accompanied by Julio and while this ride was a little more tranquilo, the view looking across to the Cordillera Blanca from 4,000m was incredible, at one point being able to see all the way from one end to the other including Huascaran, Peru's highest peak at about 6700m..

It was the perfect ride to do as a prelude to a three day trek which we had planned to start the following morning, just the right amount of 'hard', not so much that I wouldn't be able to get out of bed the next day and not so little that Troy would be bored. Thanks Julio!
After considering our options, we decided to do the Santa Cruz Trek (the second most popular trek in Peru after the Inca trail) unassisted. The highlight of the Santa Cruz Trek is the Punta Union pass (4,750m) promising one of the most spectacular views in the Andes. We had briefly considered joining a tour group as we didn't have any of our own equipment. We ruled this out because the cost seemed silly and besides the groups take four days and based on a book I had read in our hostal looby, we were confident that "fit, experienced trekkers may finish in three"... We then briefly considered 'hiring' a donkey, because seriously how cool would it be to take your own donkey into the Andes? But apparently you can't just take the donkey, you have to take his 'driver' too. This was ruled out.

We rented some sleeping bags, a tent, a stove, and some trekking poles, and with no guidebook to speak of and only a cartoon-style map in hand, we set out on our adventure. We were assured that this was a popular trek, well signed, and we would see many groups on the trail if ever we were in doubt of which way to go.

After taking a collectivo (basically a minibus jam packed with people) for about four and a half hours up the switchbacks into the mountains, we arrived at the starting point of our trek, the tiny town (three buildings) of Vaqueria. Our bags were thrown off the bus and we were pointed in the direction of a donkey tied to a sign on the side of the road and an old man sitting on a stump. After he offered to carry our packs on his donkey and a young woman collected five soles from us ($1.65) to contribute to campsite maintenance, we felt relatively sure we were in the right place. The first of many PB & J sandwhiches to come was consumed and we set out from an altitude of 3,700m.

The first day was mostly uphill, albeit relatively gradual, and we wound our way past small pockets of houses, and local people more than happy to offer a smile and point our way up the trail.

We arrived about three hours later at the first campsite opposite Quebrada Paria (3850m). The view was incredible and having found the place deserted, we celebrated our first day success and picked out just the right spot for our tent (to get the best picture ofcourse). We chefed up a hardy meal of rice and veg, rehydrated with crystal clear glacier water (purified ofcourse) and called it a night.

We got an early start the second morning, which proved to be a good idea about two hours in when we found ourselves in the middle of a swamp, clearly off-course wondering where all the signs and people and tour groups we were supposed to be able to follow were?? We did some backtracking, found our way, and eventually laughed alot. The first person we saw on our journey was another lowly traveler on his way to making the same mistake we had made. It made us feel better that we weren't the only ones to have been confused and he seemed pleased to have been spared our swamping ordeal.

With wet feet, and two extra hours of hiking under our belts, the experience was now truly our own!

As we neared the pass, we met up with two drivers and their mules, the only other people we had seen on the trail thus far. The driver going our way stopped short of the pass however, advising that it was going to rain early today so he was packing it in to set up camp. We, ofcourse, pressed on.

Reaching the pass was nothing short of amazing. And although, as we all know, I am not the emotional Farn, I was surprised at my reaction and literally found myself almost choked up...only almost. Just so happy :). It was beautiful and though the climb was challenging and my body was tired (let's not forget the wet feet and the extra two hours of wandering...), the view was definately worth it and ofcourse photos will not do it justice. The donkey driver may have been on to something as it started to flurry about this time...

From here we began the descent and reached the next camp in time to set up, cook dinner, and enjoy a cup of tea before the rain really started coming down.

Again, we got an early start the following morning and followed the Santa Cruz Valley to the town of Cashapampa, the finishing point. We found a great lunch spot where we could enjoy the sunshine and look back towards the pass and on the path we had traveled. Unfortunately the path we had traveled that day also included a marshy swamp that, sans guide, we didn't know how to avoid and so two hours into our six and a half hour hike, we once again had wet feet. By the time we got back to our hostal in Huaraz, our toes and feet were so white and wrinkly that they looked as though they had been soaking in a bathtub all day...

However, with bathtub toes and all, we give the Santa Cruz Trek a glowing recommendation and can't wait to do more backpacking upon our return home to the great Canadian Rockies :)!

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to hear you mention "when you get back home!!!" I was beginning to think maybe you'd never come back! We do have great mountains here! Maybe the view from one of them will be enough to make ya cry......