Tag Archive for 'hiking'

We take a deep breath and we get real high…

Kilometers since last post: 212 biking, 13.4 in a station wagon taxi, 291 in buses, and about 65 hiking (without bikes).


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The last time we spoke, we had just arrived in Caraz, the city at the northern end of the “Alley of Huaylas,” the road that runs down the valley on the west side of the Cordillera Blanca. The range is known for being the highest in the tropics with 50 peaks over 6,000m. They are gorgeous, rugged, and covered in glaciers. After spending a day visiting a colorful market in Carhuaz, we set out for the major city in the region, Huaraz. As we biked south and snowy peaks emerged like popcorn on the horizon to our left, we realized that bikes are not exactly the best way to see the Cordillera Blanca. So, once in Huaraz, we booked a trek with a great agency, Huascarán (name of the national park that covers the range, as well as the highest peak in the park,) that would take us up some valleys, near some glacier lakes, over a pass, through some meadows, and over to the other side of the cordillera. It’s the most famous hike in the park, called the Santa Cruz – Llanganuco trek.

Trekking with a company in Peru is definitely out of the ordinary for us. We’re fairly used to fending for ourselves. We always keep food on hand for camping, know how to set up our tent in a few minutes, and are very used to carrying everything we own. Hiking with Huascaran, it’s different. We packed all of our clothing and things we wouldn’t need during the day into a huge duffel bag, and took day packs with water, an extra layer, and rain gear. Our team then handled the heavy stuff, and we were free to walk the trail virtually unencumbered. Our team consisted of Roger, the guide, who led us up and down the trail and explained things we saw including plants, the river and its changes, mountains, and pretty much anything we wanted to know. Cristian was our cook, and prepared excellent, piping hot meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oh, and usually a snack, including much appreciated hot drinks, when we got into camp, too. Our arriero or helper/burrow driver, Julian, was a good-natured, hard working local who broke down camp after we left for our walk, packed all our stuff onto the backs of the three burrows and one horse, drove them to the next campsite, and got it set up before we arrived. Pitched the tent for us! It was all quite deluxe, delicious, and while cold, made quite pleasant by the dry spaces and proper equipment that came with us. We were lucky to have a small group as well. Our only other fellow hikers were an awesome couple from Australia, Mike and Natalia, on a 6 month hiatus from doctoring. We got on like a house on fire!

The first and second day we hiked up the Santa Cruz river into a huge valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We then took a side trip up to the base camp for folks who climb Alpamayo, one of the most photogenic peaks in the area. From there, a short climb took us to a lake with a glacier sliding down into the far end of it. At that point we were at 4,200m (ft) and it was raining, with 2.5 hours to hike to the campsite. Cold. And our feet hurt. But when we arrived there was popcorn, hot cocoa, hot soup, hearty dinner, and dry tents. The next day we climbed over the pass at 4,750m (ft) and across the continental divide into the amazon watershed where it is markedly greener and moister. Also, it was snowing! The first (and maybe the only) snowfall of our trip. After the pass we walked through alpine meadows, and on day 4 reached a small town where we caught a bus back to Huaraz. We decided it had been a great way to spend money and time.

After a few days letting our sore calves recuperate and getting our clothes cleaned, we continued our ascent by bicycle. The rainy season has begun in earnest now, so every afternoon around 14:00 it clouds up, and at some point it unloads wetness. Huaraz is at 3,000m, so it’s already plenty cold and oxygen-poor, but from there we needed to go around the end of the park and climb over a pass at 4,600m (ft). This is hard work. We climbed for 3 days, stopping early to avoid the cold rain, and reached Conococha (4,100m) with some difficulty. Aran is more effected by the altitude than Andrew, but we were both plenty tired when we rolled up to by far the highest point we’ve biked. From there we called it and hopped on a bus over the pass to La Unión, and caught another bus to avoid a road rumored to be dangerous and rough dirt. They’ve paved the road, at least one lane wide, but it’s still a lot of up and down to Huánuco, at 2,000m (ft) the lowest we’ve been in a while. However, that put us at the bottom of yet another climb which we’ve been chugging up for the last three days. This makes 13 biking days in a row that have been all climbing, and before that it was flat on the horrible Panam highway. It’s time for something different, so we caught a bus for Cerro de Pasco today (4,400m, (ft) the highest city of it’s size in the world). Tomorrow we’ll go down to an altiplano and roll along nearly flat for a few days before descending to Huancayo, and another bus to Cuzco to meet Kieran, Aran’s brother, who’s coming to visit us and Machu Picchu.

Here’s a series of photos showing the afternoon clouds while we sat around at the toll booth.

So what’s it like biking through the mountains of Peru, you ask? Well, the roads themselves are better for biking than many we’ve seen, with a maximum grade of less than 10%, usually around 6 or 7% (that’s 60 or 70m of rise over each kilometer). The dirt roads can get pretty rocky, but nothing as bad as we saw in Ecuador. The drivers, however, are the worst of the whole trip. At least 95% of them are: 1) male, and 2) assholes. OK, maybe they’re not assholes in the rest of their lives. In fact, we’ve talked to some who are perfectly pleasant, even while driving. But as far as behavior on the roads goes, Peruvians behind the wheel are obnoxious maniacs who can’t help but honk the horn at anything that moves and MUST be first in every situation. The behaviors get worse for drivers of mototaxis, taxis, large straight trucks (tractor trailer drivers are generally the most courteous group of drivers we’ve encountered throughout Latin America (true, the worst are in Peru)), and max out in aggressiveness with local and rural bus drivers, and drivers of small 4-door Japanese pickup trucks. BUT, the traffic here is just considered a fact of life. While some passengers and folks by the roadside complain, no one seems to think that it could be any other way. The culture, too, is different than we’re used to. The people in the highlands are a little insular, and while some places are full of folks who say hello, others are not. Even with other Peruanos, there isn’t the same sense of respect that we assume in North America. When a crowded bus stops and people try to get off, people getting on are in just as big a hurry, and climb through and around the people getting off without “excuse me” or anything. We’re standing in a pharmacy, waiting to be served, and someone walks in and starts talking to the clerk who’s already helping someone else while we are clearly in line, and we never get a turn. It’s hard to get used to the fact that it’s not disrespectful here, people don’t mean to be rude, that’s just how the culture works. So, it’s different. It’s different everywhere you go, and that’s a pretty good reason to keep going.

However, we can’t do that indefinitely either. So, we’ve picked a date, and booked some plane tickets for the end of our bike tour! We’ll be in Lancaster from 16th of December until after Christmas, and then NYC for a while. Uncertain plans await, but we do have plane tickets to Bogotá on the 24th of February. We like the idea of returning there to find jobs (gulp) or something. We’ll see what happens, and so will you!

Hiking and resting in Xela

Well, the day after our last blog post, we climbed back on our bikes and rode over some mountains from Uspantán to Sacapulas, prepared to take a ride through the Cuchumatanes (Central America’s highest mountain range) to Huehuetenango the next day. However, stomachs still weren’t cooperating, so we loaded the bags and bikes on a microbus, and then on a chicken bus, and arrived in Xela (SHEY-la) (officially known as Queztaltenango) by nightfall. Since we were staying near the office of the Queztaltrekkers we immediately asked what treks they were doing in the next week. Turns out, they were signing people up for a 4 day trek through the Cuchumatanes that we had just missed biking through, and it was leaving a week later. Excellent. In the meantime, we figured we’d take the bus over to Panajachel and check out Lago de Atitlán, the most beautiful lake in the world, according to someone or other.

Andrew is guilty of romanticizing chicken buses. Discarded school buses from the states, these souped up, chromed out, brightly painted beasts roar through the highlands of Guatemala, piled high with cargo on the roof-mounted luggage racks, stopping for only a second (or less) to pick up or discharge passengers anywhere along the route. They are run by a crew of two or three — the driver, and a guy to lean out the open door and holler the destination and try to round up passengers, collect fares, and run the cargo up and down the ladders on the back. Sometimes this ayudante (helper) anticipates the stop of someone with cargo on the roof, climbs out the front door, scrambles up the open windows beside the door while the bus is still in motion to have the cargo hitting the ground the instant the brakes screech to a halt. A few minutes later and kilometers up the road, he re-enters the bus by way of the rear exit. It’s easy to fall in love with the image. In reality, they are noisy, dirty transportation, belching black smoke on nearby bike tourists, honking an air horn (or 3) at anyone who is not on the bus (well, maybe they want to get on the bus), run by pushy crews of bored men always trying to make an extra buck by getting to the terminal as fast as possible. People ride crammed in three to a seat like sardines, and are tossed into each others’ laps as the driver whips around hairpin turns are breakneck speed while passing slower vehicles and blowing the horn like there’s no tomorrow. We are glad, in a way, that we got to experience plenty of authentic chicken buses, but we still sometimes yell some choice words at the drivers when we’re on our bikes and they pass us with their ridiculous antics.

Via three chicken buses, we arrived in Panajachel on the lake. We hung out, watched the sun go down beside the volcanoes, ate our first pupusas (Salvadorean stuffed tortillas), walked the tourist street full of copycat kitsch. We also took a water taxi over to the popular town of San Pedro la Laguna at the foot of the volcano of the same name, just to see the scenery from a different angle. We had planned to hit the biggest street market in Guatemala on the way back to Xela, but mistimed it and headed to the market in Totonicapan instead.

Back in Xela, we decided to go for a little warm-up hike the day before leaving for Nebaj with Quetzaltrekkers. We got up pretty early and headed for the foot of the volcano Santa Maria, hoping to see an eruption of Santiaguito below before noon. Andrew knew it was a grueling trail, but had forgotten just how horrible it was. Four hours later, we got to the top, and looked down on a bank of clouds that showed no sign of dispersing. The trip down was a little quicker, but no less painful, and we got back to down dirty and extraordinarily sore.

The next day, we headed to Nebaj with borrowed backpacks and a group of 13 for a four day walk through the mountains to Todos Santos. The Cuchumatanes are quite remote, in the northwest corner of Guatemala, and are still a very traditional indigenous region. Over 80% of the inhabitants are Maya, and all of the women wear traditional garb, as well as most of the men in some areas. Along the way, we also learned a little about the atrocities committed in this area during the “Scorched Earth” phase of Guatemala’s civil war, in 1982. International court has ruled that genocide occurred, as thousands of Maya were murdered in the hills, and over a million left their homes to seek refuge during the war. Some of the orchestrators are just now being tried and convicted, although one was just elected president…

Unfortunately, during our hike, several miles from the nearest road, Aran got ill (bad, gross). Showing superhuman strength, she hiked down into and out of a river valley, which was the only way to the nearest place where we could hire a truck to take us up the road to where the group would spend the night. We arrived early and a spent the day sleeping. The Quetzaltrekker guides were great help and did everything they could to make her comfortable along the way. The next day, we completed the hike up La Torre (highest non-volcanic peak in Central America) and down the valley to Todos Santos, where the men all wear red pants, brightly woven collars, and heavy hats. It was hike full of amazing landscape, history, and culture, and by the end we were almost done being sore from Santa Maria!

View from the top of La Torre, with the volcanoes on the horizon labeled. (Mouse over to scroll)

On our return to Xela, A also became quite sick, and we went to see the doc early the next day. Parasites! Guatemala is sort of known for them. Lots of antibiotics and sleeping in the most beautiful hostel ever, Casa Renaissance, and we’re back on the road, rolling steadily toward El Salvador. See you there!