There was a time in our lives when we thought we were beach people. From our London desks we used to dream of building some little cabañas in Zanzibar or on the Pacific coast of the Americas, and living out the years with the sand between our toes. But one thing this trip has taught us is that, while we will always love visiting the beach, it is the mountains that truly make us salivate.
That’s where nature is at its most over-the-top melodramatic, where the extremes make life both exhilarating and harsh, and where the landscapes can actually make you well up with emotion. And when it comes to mountains that could make you weep with both pleasure and pain, the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes is up there among the best experiences we’ve had on our travels.
Before heading for the snow, we’d spent rather a long time basking like lizards on the warm coast. We lingered in Huanchaco for longer than planned, enjoying a few home comforts and something we hadn’t experienced for a while – a social life. A bit of lucky timing led to a reunion with our Bolivia housemate Naomi, whom we lived with near La Paz for four months, plus fellow volunteers Don and Rochelle.
We were all heading from dinner to a bar one night when we popped our heads into a place that sounded like it was having a fiesta. It turned out it was a charitable mother’s day evening, being held for some of the poorer families in the town. None of us is quite sure how it happened, but before we knew it the feisty mama in charge had convinced Naomi (an accomplished singer) to get up and do a turn for the crowd, while we were all bundled into the kitchen to serve tamales to an 80-strong gathering of hungry people. Sometimes this life is just plain weird.
Meanwhile we were also resolving an issue we’d had with loss of coolant fluid in the van. Two rare things happened regarding that – first, the VW dealer in Trujillo was full of helpful, skilled people who knew what to do. Secondly, when they told us which piece of the van had broken (the water pump), Jeremy was able to produce the relevant part from the back of the van with a little triumphant flourish. Crisis averted!
There was one other reason for our slight malingering. Everyone we met who was coming north from the mountains was reporting how rainy, cold and relentlessly miserable it was. ‘We had to get out and escape to the coast!’ they all said.
Oh dear. So we headed for the hills with some trepidation, but mentally prepared to dig out the waterproofs and just go for it.
After a, predictably, noisy night sleeping at a toll booth on the motorway we turned inland and starting slowly climbing. Before long we had our first glimpse of a jagged snowy peak. Hello again Andes! We all caught our breath with a lunch stop and some coca tea as we came over a pass at more than 4,000m to find what was to be the first of a string of gorgeous lakes. It felt great to be back on the altiplano.
What’s more, we appeared to have turned up at the very moment that spring was springing. Could it really be true? We snapped a gazillion photos, grateful for the bright skies and taking advantage of every moment, lest the weather should turn again. After a sweaty search for somewhere to park in the trekking hub of Huaraz, we gave up and found a fabulous campspot further north, at the back of a hotel with a great view of the mountains, which turned pink at sunset.
On the morning of day three we set out for a mountain lodge we’d read would accept vehicle campers. We bumped up a long winding dirt road, giving the new gearbox a bit of a workout. We finally found the un-marked, un-signposted lodge and wobbled up the final little stretch to the camping area, which sits at about 3,500m.
What a view – yet more snow-capped craggy peaks, and what seemed like our own private lake just over the brow of the hill from our campspot. We had a doorless toilet, we had no shower, and the nights and mornings were freezing – but sometimes location beats everything. The summer clothes were buried under the seats, and out came the big jackets and woolly hats.
The whole Cordilleras area is trekking heaven, and we set about making a plan. We started with a perfect acclimatisation trek to Llanganuco lakes. In order to really see them at their glittering, unfeasibly turquoise best, you really need the sun to shine. Unbelievably, it kept shining and the lush valley and forest were in full bloom after the rains.
We’d previously learned some lessons about altitude and were taking plenty of precautions with acclimatising, drinking gallons of coca tea and cutting down on the booze. Nevertheless we still had a few doubts about taking on the main trek we wanted to do in the area – the Santa Cruz, a four-day, three-night hike that would involve passes of more than 4,700m and chilly camping at up to 4,200m. Could we hack it? What if it pissed with rain for four days? And we know we’re not totally ancient, but group treks like these inevitably involve the majority of people being roughly half our age and we hate the thought of being the old farts dragging behind.
But we were feeling good – amazing, in fact – so we signed up and crossed our fingers for the weather.
It was a rainy start. We drove with the guide and cook to the village of Vaqueria. It seemed like we’d never stop climbing into the clouds. The road was rocky and narrow, but incredibly scenic. We looked down on the lakes we’d visited a couple of days before, from about 1,000m above, while Jeremy clutched the side of his seat. At Vaqueria we all stood in the mud and rain while the decidedly cheesed-off looking mules were packed up and covered with blue plastic sheeting.
We hiked along muddy paths, through villages with rudimentary houses that endure months of this weather every year – who were we to complain? In any case, we were well equipped for the weather. Jeremy has taken to hiking in his wellies. This had quite an effect on the locals we passed by, because rubber boots are the shoe of choice for just about every campesino in Latin America. The locals are used to seeing foreigners trooping past every day in their branded hiking gear, but not in a pair of $5 wellies like they wear.
We’d see them checking out his feet and giggling. As is the way with many people here, they are too reserved to shout something in your face, but wait until you are just at the edge of hearing distance.
“Botas lindas!” (lovely boots!) called a group of women as Jeremy was already stamping up the hill. He swung round to look at them and they collapsed into near hysterics. I kept a close watch on him, in case he was snatched by a group of horny campesinas.
We arrived at our campsite that afternoon as the skies were clearing, and drank yet more gallons of coca tea. Good thing about the skies clearing = a billion stars blanketing the sky and the snowy mountains above being illuminated by the moon. Less good thing = a bloody freezing night in which you must encase your whole body and hatted head inside your sleeping bag. At one point I had to shout to make myself heard over the noise of the river, to inform Jeremy that I had managed to tangle my toggle, entirely trapping myself inside and getting into a minor panic.
We set off early with an eight-hour day ahead, and began the ascent to the highest point of the trek – the Punta Union pass at 4,750m (15,584ft). It was a long and incredibly satisfying day. We were lucky that we felt strong in our heads and legs. At times I felt positively gazelle-like. Altitude sickness seems not to discriminate about who it chooses to strike on any given day. A fit 23-year-old rugby player in our group had the hardest trek of her life that day, but it could have been any of us. We stuck together, climbing past beautiful lakes that reflected the white caps of the mountains above, and getting closer and closer to the snow line.
Just before lunch we could see the v-shape that we were heading for in the rocks above. With lots of little stops required, we plodded steadily to the top. There was a lot of whooping and waving as we came over the pass. The rugby player sat down and had a little cry.
And that was all before we’d even seen the jaw-dropping view that was just over the brow of the hill. The most stunning turquoise glacier lake, backed by the razor-edged snowy Nevada Taulliraju and an increasingly blue sky. After taking it all in we settled down for lunch. It was a pretty unbeatable picnic spot.
As we started to head off down the valley, there was a loud crack, and we turned to see a chunk of ice fall from the glacier, smash into a zillion pieces and hurtle into the lake. Brilliant.
We’d had a blissfully dry day but as we arrived at camp as the skies blackened. Good thing about the clouds = it was a warmer night. Less good thing = it lashed with rain all night long, we mopped puddles in the tent and got drenched every time we went for a pee. On nights like that, it’s dinner at 6pm and bed by 8pm. The deluge stopped just in time for our 5.30am start, wet tents were stuffed into bags and off we went.
Day three was another long and glorious (downhill) hike, involving close-ups of two other glacier lakes and an amazing ‘is-this-another-planet?’ quebrada with a sandy floor and huge purple lupin bushes.
We’d barely seen any proper toilets for many days. On the way up to the glacier lake in the morning I was excited to see a rundown ex-toilet. Not in a great condition, but at least they have doors, I thought. I peered into the first cubicle – there was a whole dead cow inside, in an advanced state of decomposition. Hmm. We’ve seen some spectacularly rancid toilets on our travels, but that was another first. Undeterred, I went into the next cubicle, but it was rather distracting to think of the rotting corpse next door.
Moving on, we descended into a lush river valley and finally, happily, arrived at a gorgeous, sunny, sheltered campspot right by the water. Although it wasn’t quite the end, we only had a couple of hours to go the next morning and we were in celebratory mood. We’d (almost) done it! With the 9-hour hike behind us and the sound of the river next to our tent, we slept like babies.
Our final descent took us through a deep rocky gorge to the village of Cashapampa, where we collapsed into the minibus and drove along yet another spectacular mountain track to Yungay. We got back to our van and enjoyed a night of proper shelter and a soft bed.
But after all that trekking we still had no prospect of a shower. In fact we’d set another trip record, by going 9 consecutive days without soap and water. Not good, for anyone involved.
By day 10 we thought, ‘perhaps we should do something about that’. We packed up and set off back down the valley towards Huaraz. Just before the town we pulled into a kind of public baños, that had private suites for hire containing a sauna, steamroom and hot shower.
It took the full hour to steam, scrape and scrub the dirt off. We’d absolutely loved the Cordillera Blanca, which had given us the best reason we’ve ever had for becoming offensively filthy. But getting clean was the best £8.50 ($14) we’ve ever spent.
Things we now know to be true: Like Elvis, cows sometimes die in toilets.
LOTS MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW….