Condors Over the Cordilleras-1998

 

I had not envisioned myself clutching my stomach and leaning over the neck of “Caballo Blanco” to retch during my third day of trekking on the pre-Inca trail  in northern Peru, but El Nino had thrown us some curves. We discovered this when we landed in Lima after an all-night flight and learned that our planned route to the trailhead was impassable due to a “precipitous” tunnel. An alternate route took us from sea level to 16,000 feet in three hours by bus, hardly the recommended program for acclimatizing to altitude!

 

The normal seven-hour bus ride became a twenty-hour ride, including a camping stop when the steering wheel of our support vehicle come off in the driver’s hand. The good news was that the breakdown occurred near a lovely llama meadow at a mere 14,000 feet. And they were able to repair the vehilcle the next day.

 

The lack of sleep and the stress of the rapid ascent caught up with me on the third day. Luckily our support included the trusty steed Caballo Blanco, which means “white horse” in Spanish. (I don’t think the Peruvians are very creative when naming their animals. It’s probably like us naming our cars.) After riding him over steep rocky paths and through slippery stream crossings for a day, I recovered sufficiently to motivate under my own steam.

 

As is usually the case with adventure travel, the most difficult aspects are those that involve reliance on roads, vehicles or the other accoutrements of “civilization”. Once we were on the trail, carrying light daypacks and camping alongside lakes or pre-Inca ruins, our trip was outstanding.

 

 

 Our Ibex Trekking group was composed of thirteen people from ages 38 to 65. All were from the West: Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, California and I was living in Idaho at the time. My belief is that the more strenuous the activity, the more agreeable the people on the trip, and this group was no exception. 

  

The first half of our trip was in the Cordillera Hauyhuash, a beautiful, jagged, snow-covered range in northern Peru. This area had been closed to visitors for many years due to the activities of the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso or “Shining Path” and was not yet widely traveled. The region was made famous by Joe Simpson in “Touching the Void”.

 

Most trekking days consisted of crossing a fairly challenging pass up to 16,000 feet followed by a one or two-hour downhill stroll to a campsite beside a vivid blue lake, below a hanging glacier topped with soaring mountains. We generally arrived at camp, which had been set up by the burro drivers, at about 3:00 pm. After a quick cleanup with hot “washing water” delivered in pans to our tents, we had tea in the dining tent, followed by dinner a few hours later. We started again at 6:00 am with “bed tea” delivered to our tents by the cook staff. Those of you who have trekked in Nepal will recognize a lot of those traditions have been transported to Peru.

 

 After nine days in Huayhuash, we caught a bus to Huaraz, a small, mountain town which has become the trekking and climbing headquarters for the Blanca, a range of more frequently climbed peaks. A night in a lovely inn with hot showers restored us for the 12-hour bus trip to the second half of our adventure.

 

En route to the trailhead, we stopped at the site of Yungay, a town which was completely destroyed in 1970 when an earthquake set off a slide from the nearby Huascaran Mountain. Over 16,000 people were buried under a river of mud. Only 300 or so who escaped to the higher ground of the cemetery survived. The only attempt to excavate the town was to dig where the bank was located and recovery the money. Such events are all too common in this geologically unstable area.

 

Our trip through the Blanca was equally beautiful, dampened only by the lingering “El Nino” showers that obstructed some of our views. One special joy for me was seeing two pairs of Peregrine falcons in the first three days in that area. They seemed at home in the steep, rocky terrain. Other frequent sightings were the Andean Condors and Caracaras that were to be soaring over every pass we crossed.

 

As I find wherever I travel, one of the best features of the trip is the interaction with the local populace. The mountain people here are the Quechua Indians who speak Spanish or as they would say “Castilian” only as a second language. They scratch out a living raising mostly potatoes on small terraces perched on steep mountainsides. At first glance, a mountain will seem too steep for even a trail, but upon closer examination, you usually see evidence of farming.

 

 

The native people are small, dark-complected, with ruddy cheeks and high cheek bones. They are a bit shy with stranger but usually warm up with a smile and a wave, especially if you try to communicate. The children, like children everywhere, are beautiful and they were curious about us. We must have seemed like the circus when we arrived with our entourage of burros, staff, tents, chickens, etc.

 

 

 

 

Although Peru is probably best known for its Inca ruins, such as Machu Picchu, I recommend that those of you who travel there also spend time in the northern mountains areas. Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca is considered one of the most beautiful mountains in the world and if you travel in a non-El-Nino year, you might catch more than a cloud-covered glimpse of it!