Week # 4: Peruvian headrush


This week I got really high. I was light-headed and slightly euphoric. My legs went jelly-like, I felt stoned and a little bit sick. That’s what happens above 4,000 metres when you’re not used to it. I was in the Quebrada Quillcayhuanca, very close to the town of Huaraz in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca range in the Andes.

Imagine a perfect valley scene: dramatic 1,000 metre rock faces on either side, scored every so often by deep gullies and waterfalls, the craggy tops obscured in places by drifting misty cloud out of which soar huge birds of prey. Ahead of you, at the end of the valley, close to 6,000 metres of snow-covered mountain face. The sun is shining, the clarity and contrast of blue sky, white peaks, black rocks and green grass dazzling. The valley floor is of soft and springy moss-covered turf, spotted with tiny alpine flowers, tough wiry shrubs and cacti. Sheep stay close to the mouth of the valley, but there are shaggy, placid highland cattle and beautiful semi-wild horses all the way along. They were the only breathing things we saw on the ground in two days of hiking, unless you count the myriad small birds that would dart out of the bushes as we passed. On the morning of day two we wound up through shrubs and rocks to a point at around 4,400 metres looking over the rippling turquoise surface of Lake Tullpacocha. That was when I really got to appreciate the strange effects of altitude. Heavy rain in the night had brought fresh layers of snow to the higher slopes, and the melody of the birds and harmony of running water rose against a soft, thick silence. Those and the deep rumble of avalanches and conversation of cows were the only sounds we heard in this magical place – though one could easily imagine the laughter of sprites or footfalls of trolls in the deep distance as the beauty (and lack of oxygen) left your brain reeling.

I arrived in Huaraz on Friday morning, fresh from the most comfortable overnight bus I’ve ever been on. I had spent only a brief few hours in Lima the previous evening but it was more than enough time in what felt like one long traffic-jam of a city. No doubt it has some redeeming features (besides charming young Argentinean men), but I’m not sure I have the energy or inclination to uncover them. Huaraz is a much more accommodating place to arrive in. Though not architecturally interesting due to the fact that the entire town (besides one street) has been rebuilt following a catastrophic earthquake in 1970, the mountains that loom above this lively city make for a beautiful location. The busy market is a sensual onslaught, with its mounds of mangoes, avocados and many types of corn, piles of skinned and gutted guinea pigs or sizzling carcasses of roasted hogs, and local women in traditional bowler hats and bright shawls selling flowers. ‘Gringo’ tourism is here, especially focussed around trekking and mountain climbing, but it is yet merely a part of the economy rather than its main focus, and you don’t see many white faces around, at least at this time of year (rainy season is just beginning).

I have been staying in the Delgardo-Angeles’ home. A wonderfully welcoming and open family, with good English, they put up English-teaching volunteers as part of the Teach Huaraz Peru programme. My travelling companion Ed has been with them for the past two months, helping university students to improve their English skills. Elementary education is of a poor standard (unless you are fortunate enough to attend the private school owned by the local mining corporation), but national university education is at least accessible and free. Many NGOs have been set up to supplement children’s learning; on Saturday I had a lot of fun teaching the hokey-cokey to some kids in a local village through one of them.

Despite a regional strike (a regular occurrence), tonight we are leaving Huaraz on the really comfy bus, and tomorrow morning we will have descended over 3,000 metres to sea-level and the city of Trujillo, where be pyramids and surfing.

I still haven’t seen a single llama. Apart from the one made out of sweet bread that we ate at dinner last night. Find out if I’ve had any more luck next week…

Mads Ryle

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