We arrive at dawn off the night bus from Trujillo and the city is quiet, freezing cold, the pink sun touching the snow on top of the mountains all around. We met a nice couple called Imogen and Phil in the bus station; we realise we’re all staying in the same hostel and when we can’t get in – because it’s 5am – we find a place together for breakfast. Phil was also from Manchester and used to live in Finsbury Park and we chat about London and travelling and our experiences so far.
The town sits at 3000m and I’m breathless in the thin air. At the centre is a plaza with a fountain and a ruined cathedral. The town was flattened by an earthquake in the 70s and even now has signs that indicate which buildings are safe should a tremor hit. All around town are women in thick socks, cotton skirts that stick out from their waists, cardigans and colourful printed shawls. They wear their long hair in braids and have tall fedoras on their heads. They look amazing. One man points excitedly at Phil’s red hair and giggles. We spend our first day wandering around town and I get my walking boots fixed by a lady called Rosa down the “zapateria” street, a thin road lined with cobblers and shoe shops.
We’re here to do a multi day hike but first want to acclimatise and read that the walk to Laguna Chirup is good. We catch a minibus from a street corner to the mountains and get chatting to a lovely guy called José who is sat with us on the backseat. He is a Puerto Rican New Yorkan and we talk about podcasts, Trump, Brexit and side hustles. He is funding his three year (and counting) travels through tenants in his houses and wise financial investments. He’s clever and I’m in awe of the ways people make travel work and the sacrifices they make. It makes me want this adventure to carry on and reminds me how much of the world I still want to see.
We’re the last ones off the bus and find ourselves in a breezy car park in front of a sign for the national park surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We begin our walk uphill along a well marked rocky path, climbing up the spine of a mountain and chatting with José as we walk. After an hour or so, we scramble up the side of a perfectly clear stream to reach the lagoon. It is beautiful: clear turquoise water, mountains all around, the silent change of wind and sun, wind and sun. We eat our packed lunches and Phil stretches out in the sun.
Back at the bottom of the mountain, we catch the minibus back to Huaraz. It’s hot and everyone is sleepy. I lean my head on the headrest and watch the barren rock turn to mountain grasslands. The road zigzags downwards and there are people farming by the side of the road, an ancient woman carrying a huge basket of wood on her back, a lady shooing an errant sheep, their traditional dress like paint splashes on the landscape. Later, we’ll both get a delayed headache from the altitude and have to force ourselves to go out and eat.
The following day we have a relaxed day as we prep for our trek. We wander towards the market where there are streets selling everything, from men’s clothing to torches to onesies to knockoff The North Face jackets embroidered with the misaligned tagline “Never Exploring”.
The next day we begin our trek. We are on the three day Santa Cruz trek which goes into the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. We’re picked up at 6am and climb into the minibus, driven up to a mountain village where donkeys are loaded with tents and cooking equipment. We take a team photo and begin walking. There are 14 of us in total: Elise and Mischel, the handsome Dutch couple we had already met a few days earlier, friendly Jorn also from Holland but living in Seattle and about to begin work for Tessler. He is in Peru for two weeks between jobs surfing and hiking and I enjoy my chats with him. There’s Chris and Claudi from Germany who climbed Kilimanjaro last year and Alex and Rebecca from the Netherlands who teach me Dutch words and who we’ll squeeze into a 3 man tent with later on. Dave and Angus, the Brit boys who are in the same hostel as us and who make us laugh lots, and Todd, the bearded American massage therapist who does tai chi and yoga when we arrive in camp. The group is completed by mother-and-son duo Sarah and Schyler from Seattle; Sarah runs a science thinktank and Schyler is 19 and about to go away to uni – I love their close relationship.
On the first day we begin with a long, hot climb on a rocky path, ascending up and away from the rushing river beneath. There are huge boulders that have fallen from the mountainside littering the landscape, which eventually, thankfully, levels out. We follow the river through the valley which has become meadowlike with bouncy moss underfoot and cows grazing by the water. Our camp is in a sweet spot, the river branching out into tributaries and running low over the rocky riverbed. We cram into a teepee and drink coca tea from plastic cups, two dogs creep in from the cold and we layer up against the freezing temperatures. We head to bed at 8pm, squeezing in with Alex and Rebecca and chatting until we’re exhausted and fall asleep.
The next morning we rise early; Rebecca unzips the flaps and sunshine and mountains pour into the tent. We begin our walk along the valleybed again following the river; it’s a gentle path with the mountains steep on either side. After a few hours, the path turns rockier and then almost like sand. The river we’ve been following has disappeared and we’re in a high barren place beneath the beating sun. The path zigzags up and ahead of me Moz and Angus are debating Brexit and British politics. I struggle for breath and am silent for once, like a left-wing fish gasping for air.
At the top the land plateaus: the mountains horseshoe around us, glaciers and snow high above and grass beneath our boots. It’s too beautiful to describe. We walk through the open plain until we reach a small wood where the group can leave their bags to go up and see a nearby lagoon. I’m feeling queasy with the altitude so stretch out with our guide for a snooze in the sun while the group heads up and returns with great photos and tales of three members of the group jumping in the icy water.
We retrace our footsteps to the top of the zigzag climb then traverse left across the mountainside then down to camp where we wash in the cold water of the river and head to bed for another early night.
The next morning is an early one – we rise and stretch at 4am and groan, hearing the patter of rain on the tent. After breakfast we begin trekking an hour or so later while it’s still the grey of dawn. Up through the rain and cloud, we walk for a couple of hours headed towards the mountain pass at 4750m. It seems to take forever and it’s tough: Todd shares coca water and rubs rosemary oil onto my temples. We’re breathless and take it steady and clap each other at the top, take photos then get moving again as it’s easy to get cold quickly in the freezing cloud.
On the other side, it’s a long way down the rocky mountainside, each step giving is more oxygen. The bare rock turns to alpine scenery and we break for lunch alongside the stream. It’s another couple of hours back to the village and then a long bus journey to town, edging down the valley on terrifying hairpin bends. We buy beers from the roadside and make plans for a joint meal that night to celebrate and say our goodbyes.
The following morning, we decide that sleep is for the weak and have booked onto a bus to visit Laguna 69. It’s the most popular day trip from Huaraz and it’s funny to be surrounded by lots of people and on an organised tour. It’s an early start and I snooze on the bus ahead of what proves to be another tough 3 hour climb upwards. I struggle and feel a bit emotional that my body doesn’t seem to work at altitude. Two nice Americans we’d met at breakfast give me some coca leaves to chew, I plug in a podcast, get me head down and plod on up. It’s totally worth it: the lagoon is bright blue glacier water surrounded by grey rock and overhanging glacier.
We find Cleo, our friend from Colombia, up at the top and meet her boyfriend Craig who has flown out from London (and been a very kind courier of our replacement Monzo card!). We walk back down together and catch up with Cleo on her past month or so, and make plans to meet them for a drink later; it’s great to see her.
Next stop: Peru’s capital of Lima!