“Oye, gringito! Buscas hospedaje?”
Those golden words sliced through the air, traveling across the street corner to dance inside my ears like a troop of viejitos stomping out salsa steps under city streetlights. It was 7am, we were groggy, a little lost, and had just stepped out of the bus station into the crisp, morning air of the mountain city of Huaraz – the Switzerland of the South.
The previous night had been sheer madness with everyone and their monkey’s uncle attempting to escape Lima as if a zombie virus had just broken out in Miraflores. Amelia – my roommate, novia, and compañera of travel – was just as eager as I was to get away from the bedlam of the city for a well-deserved weekend trip. Unfortunately, the typical ten-minute taxi ride from our neighborhood to the bus station lasted well over an hour due to the crawl of Semana Santa traffic, causing us to miss our bus out of town. Hair turning to canas as we realized we were without a bus ticket, without a hostel reservation, and nearly without sanity, we began to wonder whether or not we were even meant to go anywhere at all. Dazed by the stress of the situation, the thought of abandoning our plans and staying in Lima for the week somehow managed to cross our minds. We weighed our options amidst the baggage-laden crowds of Peruvians and decided that the purpose of this vacation was to escape the very chaos that surrounded us, so we forked up the soles, bought another ticket, and got the hell out of Dodge.
The woman shouting at me was standing in front of a small construction warehouse, stout and smiling, beckoning for me to come and talk with her. After a short conversation, she had us climb into the back of her SUV and drove us down the road to a quaint hotel situated on the outskirts of the city. Since the cost of a single room was well beyond our price range, we opted for the economic option and took a small room with four beds to split amongst our travel pandilla of six chicas and myself.
The next day we roamed the tiny, crowded city-markets flush with wool clothing, jewelry, artisan crafts, and tiny trinkets, trying on chompas that reminded me of grandma’s couch, stuffing personal trash bags full of sweaters, socks, and blankets for cousins, siblings, and parents, counting off family members on our fingers and toes. “Did I buy something for so-and-so?” “Would cousin Jane prefer a hat or socks?” “How do I figure out what my sister would want?”
Outside the crowded corridors of the markets, local artists were spreading buckets of chalk across the asphalt, crafting resplendent murals up and down the main avenue only for them to be swept away hours later by the Good Friday procession of spirited marching bands and suited men carrying thrones clad with colorful bouquets and statues of Santa María. We stood on the side of the road admiring the liveliness of it all then walked over to the plaza de armas to snap a few obligatory tourist photos with a white llama wearing a pair of sporty sunglasses. Afterwards, we scheduled trekking plans for the following days, sucked down a round of chelas brewed by a local gringo-run microbrewery, then headed back to the hotel for the night.
The next morning we begrudgingly pulled ourselves out of bed before daylight, scarfed down a few bananas, passed around a bottle of yogurt, chewed on a couple coca leaves, and hopped on a small bus that would carry us into the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca of Huascarán National Park. We passed tiny pueblos, climbing dusty roads where old women dressed in traditional Andean clothing sat outside of weathered adobe churches overlooking the greater valley as kids played nearby under the morning sun.
Up, up, up went the tiny bus as we traveled further and further into the mountains. I wondered how my body would handle the altitude and if I could actually reach the top of Laguna 69 at 15,000 feet. Further up, up, up, rambling along the bumpy dirt road, our smiles growing ever wider as we approached the towering canyon walls and snow-capped peaks reaching far into the heavens around us. Past the deep blue lake, past the grazing cattle, past the gaggle of elderly people who had stepped out of their bus to take a scenic photo of the road behind them, until finally we arrived at a bend in the road where the trailhead began.
Our driver, Oscar, informed our group that we would have until 3pm to make the hike up to the lagoon and return. Without delay, we descended down a rocky slope, crossed a narrow, roaring river, and began to make our away across the valley before us where a plethora of tranquil cattle were grazing upon the tufts of grass and dropping their pungent fertilizer along the trail. Immediately, I could feel how much of a difference hiking at elevation is compared to backpacking around the small, rolling hills of Southern Indiana. The air was thin and even though I only carried a liter of water, a granola bar, and my camera, it felt as if someone had stowed away 30-pound dumbbells in my pack for their afternoon workout. The worst part was that we were only crossing the valley; we hadn’t even begun the actual ascent.
My body protested, my legs throbbed, my lungs were in shock. From somewhere inside came a murmur like the gurgling of water flowing in tiny streams between the pebbles under our feet – a skeptical voice questioning whether or not I could really climb this camino. But any doubt, audible or otherwise, was silenced by the sound of the roaring waterfalls that crashed down the canyon walls around us. The pain of fatigue was so easily dwarfed by the euphoria I felt walking through such an immense, powerful, and pure (minus the cows) natural setting. Physical pain triumphed by sensory ecstasy. Wildflowers of purple, yellow, and red lined the tiny streams that we cautiously crossed, hopping from rock to rock, diverting our eyes from the peaks around us only for a moment to secure our footing. As the trail began to steepen, the earth transitioning from a fertile valley to rocky terrain, we looked up to see endless rows of switchback after switchback. “It is a rough road that leads to heights of greatness,” and that rough road only goes in one direction at this point. Up, up, up.
TO BE CONTINUED…