countin' the days

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Surreal World

Next stop on our saucy Southern Peru trail was Lake Titicaca (and yes, that is in fact its real name). The lake sits way up at 3,812m (12,507 ft) and aside from being the largest lake in South America, is also the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake is teeming with islands where indigenous people still live mostly traditional lives, but the main attraction is a group of 42 "floating" islands.

Called the Uros islands for the people who live there, these islands are a very surreal sight to see. In attempting to escape from the wrath of the Incas, the Uros created islands to inhabit by hand using only totora plants (reeds), which grow readily in the lake. The islands are anywhere from 3 to 5 meters deep, and every last thing on them is made of these reeds. The ground, the homes, the boats, benches, observation towers, and of course plenty of kitchy tourist souvenirs. Truth be told, these islands are a bit of a tourist trap, but it was spectacular to witness nonetheless. Walking around on the islands feels a bit like tramping on a waterbed, and you have to keep an eye out for the occasional sinkhole. Obviously, Desi and I avoided the souvenir stands and restaurants like the plague, and instead sat in the sunshine on the shores of the islands contemplating how something so spectacularly surreal could be possible.

Naturally, we also went out to the bars the night before. Lured by free drink coupons, we ended up in a random bar getting happy hour specials on Pisco Sours long after happy hour ended. What was originally some decent music with a few people swaying around turned into a huge bumpin' dance party with a bunch of college buddies from Georgia. We were reminded of many a fun college night with our fun college homies, many years ago ...

Our original plan was to go further out into the lake and do an overnight homestay with an indigenous family, but unfortunately Desi was battling with a nasty bout of altitude sickness (the town of Puno resides at a hefty 3800m). So, in true travel form, we spontaneously completely changed our plans and headed out on the next bus to Cusco.

Sauced Down South

I had fully been planning on avoiding Lima altogether, but nevertheless found myself there briefly a couple weeks ago. But no matter... I had a special agenda: to pick up my friend Desiree from the airport! Desi is one of my best friends from my UC Davis days, and somewhere around mid April, needing desperately to get off her Island (aka NYC), she suddenly decided to come visit me in Peru. Desi is the kind of person that I have tons of fun with when we're doing nothing at all, and we've always dreamed and talked about how ridiculously awesome it would be to travel together. I couldn't have been more excited.

Before we even put her bags in the room at the hostel, we stopped for a beer at the bar. This was a particularly appropriate kick-off to our journey, since the next 9 days together would involve quite a bit of happy hours, bar-hopping, beer sampling, general silliness, and nonstop laughter. Naturally, we went out that night in Lima and were lucky to find a cool little reggae bar nearby. The next day we walked around a bit, but were highly disappointed at how closely parts of Lima resemble Southern California, what with the ginormous shopping malls, ritzy cliffside apartment buildings, and McDonald's, KFC, even a Tony Roma's. We didn't stay long.

After a short flight, with 2 free Cusqueña beers onboard, we happily arrived in Arequipa. Known as the White City, Arequipa is a dazzling gem of a town, especially at night. We found a fantastically cozy little hostel right in the center of town, and got to business straight away. Luckily we'd arrived on a Friday night, so the bars were going off in a big way. We took advantage of the abudance of drink specials going on, and Desi & I tried our first Pisco Sours, the national drink of Peru. We were also pleased to discover that every region of Peru seems to have its own variety of beer; here, we were tossing back nice, grande Arequipeñas.

The next day we explored a little neighborhood called Yanahuara. It reminded me a lot of southern Spain, which isn't all too surprising considering the Spaniards themselves are responsible for the architecture around here. It was a lovely, peaceful stroll away from the tour groups and touts in the city center. But the best part came afterward ... ceviche! We stopped into this tiny cevichería and almost thought we´d been completely jipped, when all of a sudden two plates of the most incredible ceviche arrived. It was Desi's first ceviche ever, but it was also the best one I've ever had. And it cost us about $2 each.

Clearly, we were off to a good start.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back in the Harness Again

Once I was safely back down from the mountains, the agenda was clear: time to go climbing. Though I climbed briefly in Quito (Ecuador) on a fake rock wall, I hadn´t been on real rock since November, and hadn´t done any outdoor climbing thus far in South America... Ridiculous! I had about a week left in Huaraz to see what I could pull together.

I had been searching hard for other climbers for a few days, but nothing was turning up. Finally, when I had just about given up hope, I found not one but two awesome partners. I overhead Jo, from Britain, talking about cilmbing over breakfast, and though she had other plans to go trekking, she changed them rapidly as soon as I pitched the climbing plan. She couldn´t have been a nicer or more pleasant person to spend a few days with, not to mention a great and supportive climber. Tom is a climbing guide from Colorado, who I´d heard about and had been searching for for days. I finally found him when I wandered into a dorm room and saw an enormous Black Diamond backpack and climbing gear spilled all over the room. He only had a couple days left in Peru but was up for a last minute change of plan to head for the rock. Like Jo, he was an easygoing, super fun person, and needless to say an excellent climber. Go team.

I had heard about the climbing area, called Jatun Machay ("big cave" in Quechua... what caves??), from a helpful German tour guide in Huaraz. I saw pictures of the place and was immediately sold. It has a very space-age, surreal quality to it: it´s located at an altitude of about 4100m, and the funky-looking rocks themselves seem to sprout out of nowhere. There´s a great refuge there, built and run by an incredibly friendly Argentinian man named Andrés, with a huge communal kitchen and a cozy fireplace around which I spent every evening.

The rock itself is a unique mix of granite and something else (no one could quite tell me what), that is found only in the Cordillera Blanca here in Peru. It wasn´t the friendliest of rocks -- my hands are recovering from a mix of cuts, scrapes, shreds, and general abuse: a sure sign of a few great days of climbing. But it was great fun to climb on. I had to build up my confidence a bit since it had been a while, but by the third day I was leading some really fun routes. (yup, that´s me on the rock in that photo, looking a lot more hardcore than I really am)

Despite my aching arms, bruised legs, and cut-up hands, it was a fantastic climbing adventure. Even getting there via cramped minibuses and shared taxis was fun. Most importantly, I finally got on some rock in South America, in an area that is mostly unknown and absolutely spectacular. And after pumping out on crazy cracks and thin faces, we were rewarded with technicolor sunsets and sparkling starry nights. What more could I possibly ask for?!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

High on Life (and Altitude)

Huaraz was my top Peruvian destination before I even got here, and I set aside two weeks to explore the surrounding area. As a city, it´s not much to look at, but it wasn´t the city I came for; it was the mountains. The Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains) are an epic range of snow-capped peaks that are the second highest mountain range in the world next to the Himalayas. Huaraz sits in a valley in the middle of it all, and is surrounded by huge, looming peaks as far as the eye can see. I arrived my first morning to find the sunrise painting so many peaks orange and pink that I couldn´t even count them, and I knew immediately this was going to be an amazing stop.

It didn´t take long to meet the right people and get a trek together. Within two days of my arrival, I´d met 4 other people that were up for exploring the mountains, and we were off. Altogether, we were 2 Americans, 1 Irishman, 1 Brit, and 1 Norweigan. Since our plan was to go up one valley and down another, we opted out of hiring a guide and doing the trek with an agency, and instead carried all our own gear & food for the 4-day journey.

Day one we mosied up Valley Quilcayhuanca, an absolutely textbook glacial valley that just got better with every step. On either side of the steep valley walls, you could see some serious snow-capped peaks peeking out, and at the very end of the valley was an enormous snow-covered mountain with a massive glacier creeping down its center. The weather was pleasant, and the sun made for a bluebird day. The going was slow but steady, with plenty of curious, horn-clad cows blocking the trail and bright purple wildflowers to admire.

We had a lovely evening where we cooked a delicious pasta & soup dinner, and sat around a small campfire enjoying the peace and quiet. The night, however, was not so lovely. It started seriously raining when we went to bed, and didn´t let up until about 2am. There were 3 of us sharing what should have been a 2-man tent, and a tent that would have been better suited for the desert and not the mountains. The rain came in, in a big way. I woke up in the middle of the night to find pools of water inside of my sleeping bag, and my feet and legs were so cold that I couldn´t fall back asleep. The tent itself seemed to be collapsing, and it wasn´t long before my 2 other tentmates found themselves in the same position.

Come morning (at long last), it was time for some changes. The other American chica, Carisa, had suffered from a nasty bout of altitude sickness the day before, and not feeling 100% better was hesitant to go on and UPwards. The two of us decided we would head back and change our plans a bit, and leave the rest of the trek to the remaining threesome.

As it turned out, Carisa & I had an amazing time. We spent the night at a cozy mountain lodge called The Way Inn, taking utmost advantage of their adobe sauna and duvet-clad beds. The next day, we went on a 30 kilometer round-trip hike up and down Valley Cojup, the one we would have been in on the trek anyway. The end goal of the hike was Laguna Pachacocha (4560m), a lake that sits at the bottom of the incredibe glacier we´d been staring at all day long. It is hard to describe the feeling of hiking up a valley towards an epic mountain glacier all day, but it sure is a good one. The lake was quite literally breathtaking. Even though the sky was completely full of clouds (in fact, it started snowing the moment we arrived), the lake was radiating a pure, crystal blue. Far off in the distance, I could even see an iceberg floating in the middle of it. It was a long day, and the hike completely kicked our asses, but in the best possible way.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Exploring the North

Once safely in Peru, I spent a few days in Chachapoyas, more than happy to not be sitting on some form of transportation all day long. But Northern Peru has more than just great vibes and a lack of tourists to enjoy; one of the main attractions are scores of ruins that are rarely visited. The biggest set of ruins is an amazing pre-Incan fortress high atop a mountain called Kuelap. It was an amazing place that really blew me away. After entering the narrow passageway through the immense fortress walls, I could see ruins of the round houses everywhere. They have discovered 420 such houses, so far, and an archeologist working on the site reconstructed one house to represent what the village might once have looked like. One of my favorite things at Kuelap was what first appeared to be a pile of rocks, but in fact was an ancient compass designating north, south, east, and west. In addition to admiring
the ruins, I was really loving the dense vegetation of trees, vines, and orchids that covered the stones, and really added to the whole mysterious aura of the place. Quite an experience for my first set of South American ruins.

One of the best things about traveling by myself -- and there are many -- is being able to change my plans spontaneously, whenever I feel like it. Originally I´d planned on going through the mountains on another multi-day hairball journey to get to Cajamarca, but after looking at maps and a calendar, I changed my mind. I hopped on a night bus, and made it all the way down to the coastal city of Trujillo by morning. Done.

Trujillo wasn´t very exciting, despite some colorful buildings and very colonial architecture. But nearby was another set of interesting pre-Incan ruins called Chan Chan that I set out to explore. Originally I planned on doing it completely on my own, but was met outside the ruins by a guide named Moses, and mostly just wanting an excuse to think in nothing but Spanish for an hour, hired him for $4. Chan Chan used to be a completely adobe city, the largest one ever known to the world. In fact, they estimate that some 60,000 people used to live there! Much of it is understandably eroded, but the main palace is still pretty much in tact. Most interesting to me were places for their worship of the sun and the moon, including huge pools of water that they´d collected via underground passageways. It was a strange place, to tell the truth -- something about seeing nothing but neutral, sepia tones in all directions. But fun to imagine what it might have been like hundreds of years ago.

After the ruins, I jumped on a minibus for 5 minutes and found myself back at the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 3 months. The little village of Huanchaco was a
nice little mid-afternoon stopover, and I spent a couple hours eating a huge plate of ceviche, and admiring the collection of totora (reed) boats strewn along the shore.