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Published: October 10th 2008
Yungay was reached at warp speed in a taxi one would not have suspected capable of such rapidity, but it was not so fast as to prevent us doing a double-take at the sheep grazing alongside Anta airstrip. My second cheapest room in South America was surprisingly good value for money, with the Bolivian-style electric shower packing a 50C punch at a volume comfortably exceeding a dribble. Shortly after taking the room, a hotel minion arrived to remove the TV, but whether that was because it was broken or because they wanted to keep us in the dark as to Andy Murray's US Open progress, we shall never know.
Yungay is overlooked by Mount Huascaran, the highest mountain in the Peruvian Andes at about 6,750m, and is close to a major fault line, so it's not too surprising that natural disasters loom large in its history. The biggest of these was in May of 1970, when a magnitude 8.0 earthquake hit the region. Part of Huascaran's north face collapsed, triggering a landslide of ice, water, and rock about half a mile wide. The avalanche covered the 16km to Yungay at speeds of over 200km/h, burying the town to a depth
of 5m and leaving maybe 20,000 people dead. This same landslide levelled the nearby village of Ranrahirca (only 8 years after much loss of life in a similar incident). The earthquake itself destroyed Huaraz - and in fact affected an area of tens of thousands of square kilometres - and was the worst natural disaster in Peru's history.
We had no idea of the layout of the town so popped into a building outside of which was a tourist information sign. Inside, it seemed to be some part of the municipal government but our simple request for a map showing the location of the cemetery brought forth a torrent of Spanish which we couldn't understand, though the lady we spoke to had a helpful air about her. She led us through the building, all the while seemingly unaware that we had zero comprehension of what she was talking about despite me saying "No entiendo" multiple times, and eventually we were ushered into an office where several people were busily working. A few minutes later, we were presented with a map - a zoning map. I was staggered. Sometimes the people willing to provide the most effort to help you
can be the least helpful.
The new town of Yungay sits behind a ridge, hopefully affording some protection, but the old town lies undisturbed in Campo Santo, just a short taxi ride from the new centre. The site is covered in flowers, in particular hundreds of roses, but is also dotted with memorials and mementos (a crushed school bus, the few remains of the old cathedral). Huascaran looks too far away to have visited such destruction, a reminder that one small step for man is most definitely one minuscule step for nature. The random boulders that we had seen punctuating the landscape on the way in, some weighing thousands of tons, now started to make sense.
Near Campo Santo was the town's proper cemetery, a multi-level circular building consisting of coffin-shaped "apartments" in a style similar to ones I've seen elsewhere on the continent. Topping off the structure was a giant white figure of Christ in an open-handed gesture of appeasement, one of the few items to survive the landslide.
Yungay didn't seem too used to seeing foreigners, with us hearing "Gringos" mentioned a couple of times as we walked around, however we did find a friendly
Mount Huascaran (possibly)
As seen from the trail to Laguna 69
but tickle-starved cat in the restaurant we chose for dinner.
Our main reason for being in Yungay was as a base from which to visit Laguna 69. Our day started early with a colectivo ride to the settlement of Cebollapampa. We were dropped off at a bend in the road, with the driver indicating we should proceed down a short incline where we would supposedly find the place. We duly followed his instructions, finding a small collection of huts outnumbered by trekkers' tents. I remembered the look the lady at Tourist Information in Huaraz had given me when I'd asked if there was any accommodation at Cebollapampa, and could now understand why. We could only guess the name of the settlement came from the strange trees in the vicinity that had peeling bark a la an onion.
It was another cold and dull day, much like when we'd begun our hike to Laguna Churup, and we started off briskly just to keep warm. The first 45 minutes were along the valley floor but, even so, I felt as flat as the terrain, as though Churup was still exacting a debt from me, though no doubt part of this
was due to the elevation peaking at 4,600m. The steepest part of the ensuing climb was promisingly up to a rim near where a waterfall was flowing, and I stupidly thought we were nearing the lake, even though this would have represented a Sherpa-like pace. Sure enough this was just a small plateau, and we still had an hour or so to go, the last part of which would be up the steepest slope of the day.
At this point we became aware of a figure below us on the trail, plodding stoically onward in a fashion indicating it would overtake us soon. And with the wind in the right (wrong?) direction, we could hear snatches of Nirvana drifting over the countryside. I found this somewhat exasperating - the only person we'd seen that day in an otherwise empty wilderness and they preferred the sounds of grunge on a portable stereo to those offered by a fine mountain landscape. The guy passed us shortly, turning off his stereo and explaining away his speed by the fact that he'd recently completed the 8 day Huayhuash circuit. He pootled on ahead, leaving us to the sounds of our laboured breathing, the
air currents coming down from the cordillera, and the flatulence that's recently plagued me courtesy of a vegetarian diet my guts are still suspicious of.
Laguna 69 was another excellent alpine lake, coloured much like Churup but with broken rock on its shores, leading to inevitable memories of Jiuzhaigou
. Mount Chacraraju soared behind, perhaps responsible for the weather system that gave us only minutes of sun. A group had camped by the lake and, not having the benefit of a refreshing 2.75 hour walk, were bundled up in multiple layers. Even with our physical exertions, we were soon cold and spent the time taking photos, eating, and huddling together. Occasional rock flurries from the glacier high overhead, sound and vision disjointed by a couple of seconds, confused our brains.
We headed back as soon as it became too cold to loiter, passing only a couple of other small groups of walkers, i.e. it was no busier than Churup had been. Back at Cebollapampa, as we were pondering the inter-species symbiosis of a cow licking a donkey's arse, it started to rain and, with the ETA of the next colectivo unknown, we snared a taxi back to Yungay at
what we believed was the going rate. The falling rain seemed to accentuate the turquoise and green of the two Llanganuco lakes beside the road just south of Cebollapampa, and we were glad that we weren't standing around in the open with no rain-gear.
However the taxi ride wasn't as straightforward as it should have been, a feature of Peru that's already tedious. Having agreed a price for a taxi privado, we were somewhat surprised when the driver stopped to pick up 2 guys waiting by the roadside. They crammed into the front seat so didn't affect our own comfort and, though a bit cheeky, I wasn't going to kick up a fuss about a couple of people having a lift at our expense. However when they got off they clearly paid the driver, and one group of people I'm NOT interested in subsidising is taxi drivers, in particular ones that won't use a meter, so I asked him why we'd suddenly become a colectivo and that we were going to chop an appropriate amount off our previously agreed fare.
Back in Yungay this became a full-scale argument, anger giving me a temporarily high level of Spanish fluency
I'd previously thought only came via alcohol. If I can only master a few swear words I'll be a formidable prospect. Naturally the driver refused to accept that he'd done anything at odds with our contract, but he declined my offer of a visit to the police station. I trotted out some Anglo-Saxon to express my final thoughts.
The colectivo back to Huaraz filled up completely, and I carelessly found myself in one of the most uncomfortable seats possible, knees tight against the row in front and feet not touching the ground. Shortly after I started feeling sorry for myself, and ruing the evolutionary quirks that had brought a 6'3" visitor to a country with public transport designed for much smaller humans, a woman boarded with a bag crammed full of (live) guinea pigs, no doubt destined for the pot. At this point, my lot in life acquired a distinctly more palatable sheen. Sucks to be a guinea pig in South America.
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