Peru: Getting High in the Andes

17 Jul

I visited Peru for the first time this summer. On this trip, I met up with boyfriend-candidate Ben who was having an adventure of his own, learning Spanish and working at a monkey sanctuary in Bolivia.

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Morpheus (top) with my favorite monkey, Ben.

 

We decided to rent a car and head north to take on some serious hiking in the Andes.

 

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But first, ceviche.

 

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Gorgeous man, gorgeous mountains.

 

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Near Carhuaz – Chacas drive

 

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Endless photo ops.

 

After we arrived in Huaraz, we went on one acclimatization hike. We had planned for a second, but it was blocked off and so instead, we headed to the cute city center and rented a tent, sleeping pads, a stove, and cookware, thinking this made us legit and ready to summit mountains foolish enough to stand in our path. It seemed like a good use of our time to rent equipment rather than to practice one more day.

My original plan was an ambitious 8-day trek with pack mules in La Cordillera Blanca, because why not? I thought: “We’re young, (relatively) fit, and there is never going to be a better time! Let’s do this!”

But… ever the voice of reason, Ben talked me out of it (thank goodness). He found this grand plan to be a little too ambitious for us.

“Why don’t we start a little smaller?” he asked. And so we did.

We decided instead to take on a 3-day hike up to Laguna Ishinca, thinking “Two nights? We love the outdoors! No problem. We got this!”

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The “cute” city center I was referring to…with a parade.

 

We drove the long, winding road to the Laguna Ishinca trailhead.

 

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This is actually a “road.”

 

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Pardon me, sheep, but which way to the trailhead?

 

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Stunning views from the start.

 

We found a home to drop our rental car, with a lovely local named Asusenna and her family, who promised to watch it until we returned on Friday. We did our best to learn a few basic phrases in Quechua like “Hello. How are you?” Where is the bathroom? Have a nice day!” until Ben, looking anxious, told me we had to start walking or we wouldn’t make it to the campsite by dark.

We studied our guide book, threw on our packs, and took off onto the trail.

 

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Getting directions: The Ancash Region natives speak Quechua so, even for my own personal interpreter Ben, communication was an issue.

 

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The first llama of the trip.

 

We soon learned we had very different hiking styles. The guidebook said that this hike should take 5 hours, but 3 hours in, it was clear we were nowhere near halfway through. Ben raced ahead like he was in a video game and had to reach the next checkpoint by a certain time or he would fail that level and die and have to start over or whatever happens in video games when you don’t reach the thing by the alloted time. Or so, that’s how it felt. I got very familiar with the view of his backside drifting further away.

Meanwhile, my style is more to mosey along, take frequent rest stops, snack, take pictures of everything, chase llamas and butterflies, snack some more, wave and try to chat with locals and passerby’s (people smile in the countryside when you see them!), search for Ben on the horizon, and snack. It’s all about energy conservation!

 

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Views though! Time for a snack.

 

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Blue skies for days.

 

I caught up to Ben at a flat, grassy area where the guidebook told us to resist the temptation to set up camp, and forge ahead. I had my pack halfway off, but Ben urged me forward, so I grabbed a snack, found his tracks, then trudged on. Finally, we reached our guidebook-approved campsite just before dark.

We pitched our tent with our headlamps on and collapsed into bed. But, in our haste to get into the mountains, we forgot to consider just how high we were. We began our day at 3,000 meters (a shade under 10,000 feet) and had climbed to 3,700 (over 12,000). A word to the wise: Altitude sickness is real, yinz.

I’m not exaggerating, I legit felt like it was over. I couldn’t breathe. It was pitch black (apparently altitude sickness gets worse at night) and Ben reassured me that, if I needed him to, he would carry me back down to town, but I wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge of a rescue job. We had been hiking for 8 hours, he could barely breathe himself, and besides, we weren’t there yet in our relationship and I would be damned if I was going to play my damsel in distress card. I told him to tell my parents I loved them.

Not helping matters was the fact that it was absolutely FREEZING, and we were NOT prepared for the cold. We shivered throughout the night. At around 5 a.m., when it was still dark, we felt like we had to get moving or die in our tent. By 5:30, light was coming up over the hills but had not, yet, entered the valley.

So, wrapping ourselves in everything warm, including our sleeping bags, we hiked up the mountain to chase the sun and seek out warmth. Brrrrrr.

At long last, we crested the ridge and sat down to thaw out in the morning light. The feeling slowly returned to our bodies and we could finally enjoy the views. Maybe we wouldn’t die after all?

 

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Survival smiles.

 

We scurried back to our campsite and noticed that there were around 100 other tents in the valley, most with mules grazing nearby. These people looked like they had been on the trail for months, with thick layers of dirt and grime, chapped lips, high-tech, warm-looking gear, and worn boots. And here we were, on the verge of death after day 1 of an introductory hike.

We busied ourselves with heating up water for coffee and talked about how serious we had been about heading back down immediately. But, now that the sun was out, could we possibly make it through another day’s hike?

The reason we had initially chosen this path was for the refugio located nearby. This was a hut with bunk beds for tired and cold hikers, but not cheap at $40 per person, per night in a communal living situation. It sat at 4,350m (14,271.65’, to be exact). But, we needed it.

We were feeling ambition again, and the sunlight was helping. Not ready to retreat back down, we altered our plans and sought refuge in this refugio (see what I did there?) for our second night. We dropped off our gear, and since we had such a horrible time last night, thought we should hike up even HIGHER. *Narrator shakes her head in disbelief.*

We hiked up to 5,000 meters (roughly 16.5k feet. About 1,000 feet below Everest base camp.). My legs burned from my hips to my toes, but the views were worth it.

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Sadly, we forgot our swimmies.

 

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Roughly 3 miles above sea level, NBD.

We made it back to the refugio and had a much better night’s sleep. When we woke, we spent most of the day walking down to return to our warm car. No wonder the initial hike took so long! We went far!

We couldn’t find Asussena or her family, so, unfortunately, we left without saying goodbye. Shortly down the gravel road, someone started yelling at us, but since we couldn’t understand them and we were so tired and so grateful to be sitting down, we kept going. Then a taxi came speeding after us, I could see it in the rearview mirror and I pulled over to let him pass. They were driving so quickly!

It was Asussena, who had chased after us in a taxi because she thought someone was stealing our car. It was Thursday, and we had told her that we weren’t supposed to be back until the following day. Oops!

And so we cheated death and stole our own rental car. A successful boyfriend-candidate test for Ben and one of my favorite moments (in hindsight) from our time in Peru. Next time I’ll acclimatize better.

Hasta pronto,
‘mi

 

One Response to “Peru: Getting High in the Andes”

  1. deekerson December 14, 2017 at 12:49 pm #

    A thrilling recounting of an ambitiously difficult and stunning adventure. Reminds me of my Teton climbing days. Glad you both had no lasting effects of the insidious altitude sickness. I’m glad I didn’t know real time ’cause I would have been worried sick. Thanks for sharing. xoxoxo

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