Much as the ancient archaeological wonders of Peru's northern coast - as well as its delicious cuisine - have captivated us, it's time to move on. Firstly, the coast is getting a tad depressing: mile after mile on the Panamericana rubbish-tip...I mean highway...from which there is little of natural beauty to see other than as many miles of rather featureless coastline devoid of colour or vegetation. The weather doesn't help either - it's the middle of winter on Peru's coast, and it's day after day after day of extremely low, dirty-white cloud which the sun can only very occasionally pierce. Secondly, and far more importantly, a little further south is one of the places we have come to Peru for in the first place: the mighty Cordillera Blanca. Part of South America's Andean spine, the Cordillera Blanca is the highest mountain range outside the Himalaya and is home to the largest glacial extension in the tropics. It is one of the continent's foremost hiking meccas and there's no way we can miss it.
Getting to Huaraz - the largest settlement in the Cordillera - from the north is a little tricky. From Trujillo we catch a bus to Chimbote, Peru's
largest fishing port - no small statement for a country which extracts from the sea more than twice
as much fish as Japan and is second only to China in the fishing stakes. As the doors of the bus open at Chimbote's terminal we are both hit in the face by a disgusting stench which barely registers on anybody else's face: this, the smell of umpteen fishmeal production plants (Chimbote's catch has historically been almost exclusively anchoveta
, a type of small anchovy used to produce fertiliser and animal feed), is the delicate frangrance of Chimbote - twenty-four hours a day. It's a rather big and busy place, frayed and forlorn around the edges by decades of boom and bust (periodic El Niño events lead to wild fluctuations in the anchovy populations, and hence in Chimbote's fortunes), and certainly not somewhere to linger for long...even if you can stomach the awful smell for more than a few hours. Unfortunately, the walls and windows of our hotel room - rather bizarrely located in a hospital - are no match for the stench. I stop just short of stuffing balls of tissues up my nose to sleep...
From Chimbote there are two
routes - both famously long and rough - inland towards the Andes. The one we use will take us through the Cordillera Negra, which runs parallel to its white twin a little closer to the coast, and along the narrow Cañón del Pato (what ducks have to do with it is anyone's guess) before heading along the Santa Valley, which separates the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra, to Huaraz. The ride is spectacular - we wind our way over the rough gravel highway, lurching precipitously over the canyon below. Unlit tunnels, blasted straight through the mountainsides, add to the fun - the journey's is certainly worth having suffered Chimbote for an evening!
Having been unceremoniously transferred with no warning to a cramped minivan in the small town of Caraz - the bus not having enough passengers to justify going all the way to Huaraz - we make our way through the Santa valley's small, sleepy towns. Two of these are tragically famous throughout Peru, and beyond. Yungay, today a quiet town of about ten thousand souls, was once the largest place in the valley. It sits in the brooding shadow of Huascarán, a massive double-summited mountain dominating the entire cordillera
and which - at 6,768 metres - is Peru's highest peak. At the end of May 1970, a colossal earthquake just offshore of Chimbote violently shook the cordillera. The quake dislodged a chunk of glacial ice - about half a mile wide - from Huascarán's northern face, triggering a vast landslide of ice, mud and rock which thundered down the mountain's lower slopes at 300 kilometres per hour. Yungay, along with virtually every single one of its 25,000 inhabitants, was buried alive under some ten metres of debris within minutes. The village of Ranrahirca, which had already been destroyed by another massive landslide in 1962 and rebuilt, was obliterated all over again. Fewer than a hundred of Yungay's inhabitants, those who happened to be on higher ground at the time, survived. Another 25,000 people were killed in Huaraz, which was virtually flattened. Yungay was rebuilt a short way down-valley, the original town and all its inhabitants still lying buried beneath it. The tips of the palm trees of the original town's Plaza de Armas are still just about visible, along with the cathedral spire. As we drive past the town in the shadow of the huge, hulking Huascarán, it is
hard to suppress a shiver at the sheer power of nature.
Having been levelled by earthquakes more than once in its history, Huaraz is no thing of beauty. Sprawling as it is, it still occupies are jaw-dropping location at the foot of more than a dozen jagged, snowcapped peaks - the view from our hotel room is simply spectacular. Our first days in Huaraz are spent getting used to the altitude all over again: Huaraz sits at over 3,000 metres. Up, down, up, down - it never ends in South America!
Parque Nacional Huascarán, which occupies the bulk of the cordillera, is stuffed full of climbing, hiking and mountaineering opportunities: some easy, some definitely not. Many of the multi-day walks in the area involve high passes beyond 5,000 metres, so something not too demanding to begin with is in order. Fortunately for us one of the cordillera's most famous and well-loved trails, the Santa Cruz trek - a four-day hike through the heart of the cordillera - is one of the easier ones. The abundance of trekking agencies in Huaraz means that organising a trek is a piece of cake. With mules to carry food, tents and cooking
equipment, and a guide to cook your meals and keep you company on the walk, Santa Cruz is certainly not slumming it - as long as you don't mind bedding down in a tent, or adopting ursine bathroom habits - this seems as close as you can get to luxury in the wilderness.
And what a trek. The scenery - an endless succession of brilliant blue glacial lakes, soaring snowy peaks, grassy meadows and deep valleys - is enough to astound even the most jaded of walkers. But that's just one side of the story. Leo, our guide, is nothing short of a mother away from home. After a good day's walking, you arrive at camp to find that a miniature village - the sleeping tents, dining tent and, luxury of luxuries, the toilet tent (not really, it's the standard hole in the ground, with added modesty) - has already been set up for you, and a teatime snack prepared. This is courtesy of the arriero
, or muleteer, who with his flotilla of donkeys has arrived hours before you and set everything up. With a cup of hot coca tea, a snack, conversation with your fellow walkers and the
sublime views to keep you occupied, the hours fly by until dinnertime. Armed with nothing except a small, two-burner stove and a collection of battered pots and pans Leo, clad in her apron, prepares dinner. And Pot Noodle it certainly is not
: three course dinners every day. Fried chicken, stir-fries, home-made chips - it's simply fantastic. There's no doubt that we've struck it lucky with Leo. After eating their fill, everyone manages to stay awake just long enough to gulp down a final mug of hot tea - nights in the cordilleraredefine "cold" - before rushing back to the sleeping tents, wriggling fully clothed (complete with gloves, woolly hat at scarf) into sleeping bags. The wake-up call comes early - 5.30am - but is accompanied by a mug of steaming mate de coca
which eases the pain somewhat. Breakfast might be freshly-made pancakes with honey - and it's all been carried in by mule, I tell you! Leo hands out the packed lunch of sandwiches, fruit and lots and lots of goodies to nibble on and keep those energy levels up during the day. No need to pack anything up, Emilio the arriero
does all that. After having hauled ourselves
around for days in Patagonia, we feel rather lazy here...
It's an amazing way to be introduced to the Cordillera Blanca. We get back to Huaraz four days later - tired, dirty and very, very happy. With a whole mountain range to explore, the next few days are going to be a lot of fun...
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