Finding myself in Peru on a bit of a whim after six months in the tropical warmth of Central America, my small backpack filled with shorts and flip-flops soon became a handicap rather than a luxury. The hiking boots that got me through the jungles of Honduras and Costa Rica were somewhere in the back of a taxi in Bogot├í. I knew I wanted to hike, but didn't know how it would be possible without the boots I had managed to lose. In Ecuador and Peru, a US size 12 shoe is not something commonly stocked and almost impossible to find. Bootless, my trip proceeded to the heart of the Andes.
The night bus to Hu├íraz I boarded in Trujillo pulled into the busy morning traffic of a provincial capital preparing itself for market day. The streets were flooded with hordes of people from the surrounding area that had started their journey into town while I was still asleep on the bus. Young men unloaded fruits, vegetables and countless other goods off the back of trucks. Colorfully dressed women with the signature bowler-type hat of Quechua speakers lined the street selling an assortment of freshly fried breakfast goodies to fuel the first of the market goers. After adjusting myself to the sounds and smells of the street, I took a moment to look up and discovered what draws most tourists to this area. The clouds of October shrouded the dazzling peaks of the 180km long Cordillera-Blanca that dominate the skyline in other parts of the year. In the permanent mist of autumn the powerful grace of Huascaran National Park was slightly obscured but certainly present. It would take more than clouds to completely mask the 6768 meter Nevado Huascar├ín, the tallest peak in Peru and the namesake of the park. A deep breath of crisp mountain air mixed with the exhaust of delivery trucks and other mysterious urban odors led me to seek the advice of a tour company that could provide a way up into the mountains. I did not have gear, but I had will. Early in the morning, two days later, after a long drive through a valley scattered with towns and farms and up and over a mountain pass, my borrowed, two sizes too small boots hit the dirt at the trail head for the popular Santa Cruz trek. As a group of seven, including the guide and the man who led the donkeys, we set off on the first day of hiking, which was to be the easiest. The trail passed through an isolated town and children poured out of the surrounding hills to greet us, ask for caramelos and chase us up the slope just as it started to increase in intensity. There is no surer way to be aware of the effect of altitude on your body than to have circles run around you by a local seven year old. We arrived at our first camp site with a lot of daylight to spare. The weather changed on our way up and it had started to rain. The rain continued throughout the night and I woke up with a wet sleeping bag. The rain didn't stop the second day, the most physical of the four, and even turned into snow as we crossed the 4750 meter Punta Uni├│n. Wet, shivering and, at times, miserable, it was on this day that I realized I was in a place like I had never been before. The rain had turned the trails into waterfalls but as we continued up toward the pass and broke out of the forest, the landscape opened up and we were surrounded by jagged masses of snow covered granite. Emerald, alpine pools spotted the valley below. The last two days of the trek were spent strolling through a tranquil walled valley. Horses and cows leisurely grazed and added to the fairy tale feeling of the environment. My feet hurt, my jacket and sleeping bag were wet, but I was happy.
Travel tips: There are many tour companies in Huaraz. Make sure the one you choose is experienced and has good quality gear.
Must see/do at this place: Be prepared for all weather extremes. Bring good boots and proper clothing.