Security on my bus from Lima to Huaraz seemed tight, almost excessively so. We were all searched as we boarded, our passports were checked, and someone snapped a photo of every passenger’s face. I mentally accused the bus company, Cruz del Sur, of overdoing it.
Less than a minute after we pulled out of the station one of the Peruvian passengers hurried off the bus. His sudden departure struck me as odd, but I didn’t give it much thought. An hour later an American tourist sitting just across the aisle from me discovered that his laptop – which had been in a backpack he’d placed in an overhead bin – had gone missing.
The American, of course, immediately suspected the man who’d disembarked so abruptly. Cruz del Sur does not normally let a passenger leave like that, but someone from the company’s office had called to say that the Peruvian left his travel documents behind and needed to return to the terminal. The whole thing smelled fishy. Ten months of crime-free travel had made me blasé about the risk of petty theft, so I took the Case of the Disappearing Laptop as a salutary reminder to be more vigilant.
Our bus passed mile after mile of Lima’s urban sprawl, the already-subdued colors muted even further by a tag team of gray clouds and smog. Depressing little shacks crept up the dusty slope of every hill. Most of the more substantial buildings had been left unfinished – thanks, I’d learned, to poorly-considered Peruvian tax laws. Finished buildings are taxed at a significantly higher rate than unfinished buildings, and as a result many homes and offices are purposely designed to be indefinitely incomplete. Tufts of rebar sprouted like whiskers from concrete roofs across Peru, a country-wide homage to political idiocy.
Speaking of idiocy, I apparently haven’t yet learned how to operate a door. Early on my first morning in Huaraz I walked up to the fourth-floor restaurant of my hotel. At the top of the stairs I came to a glass door with a black handle. For some inexplicable reason I thought it must be a sliding door, so I grabbed the handle and yanked it to the right. The heavy metal handle broke off in my hand, and only then did it dawn on me that the door did not, in fact, slide. It opened easily when I gave it a light push. Witnessing all this from inside the restaurant, a young European couple never changed their expression. Whether it was politeness or horrified disbelief that froze their faces, I will never know.
Huaraz sits at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca, the world’s second-highest mountain range (exceeded only by the Himalayas). Highlighting the scenic Cordillera Blanca are over 22 snow-capped peaks that top 6,000 meters, including Huascarán Sur, Peru’s highest mountain (6,768 meters, or 22,205 feet). Most countries have a city that lays claim to the title of “Trekking Capital,” and – with the Cordillera Blanca in its backyard – Huaraz is Peru’s leading contender.
I spent my first day walking around Huaraz and arranging a hike into Parque Nacional Huascarán, a huge area that includes most of the Cordillera Blanca highlands. I wasn’t ambitious enough to tackle the popular four-day Santa Cruz trek, but I did sign up for a full-day hike to Laguna 69, an alpine lake near Huascarán Sur. That night I made it to the roof of my hotel just in time to photograph a colorful sunset over the mountains.
At 6:30 the next morning the tour company picked up me and Ruth, a teacher from Colorado who had signed up for the same hike. We were the only two tourists in the group. Our guide, Edet (“It is pronounced eh-DEET,” she said), was a 26-year-old who grew up in Huaraz. “There aren’t many female guides,” Ruth commented.
“Yes, guides are mostly men,” Edet said. “But there are more women all the time.” Edet spoke English, but the three of us agreed to stick with Spanish. I couldn’t always follow the conversation but it was a good chance to practice my still-pathetic language skills.
Before setting out we stopped to have breakfast with a group of Swiss tourists who were about to leave on the Santa Cruz trek. My scrambled eggs tasted a little off, but I forced them down in an effort to fuel up for the long climb ahead. The drive from Huaraz to Parque Nacional Huascarán took almost three hours and we didn’t reach the trailhead until late morning.
Our time in the car gave me a chance to get to know Ruth. She was one of the rare travelers who seemed more interested in asking questions – and actually listening to the answers – than talking about herself, and, based on that alone, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she turned out to be such an interesting character.
In the 1980s Ruth and her husband moved to Niger, Africa, for a full two-year stint as Peace Corp volunteers, an experience that always seems to push people in unique directions. Ruth eventually began a career as a high school art teacher, and for the past few years she’d been using her summer vacations to explore Latin America – Costa Rica, Bolivia, Ecuador, and now Peru. Ruth told me she had two grown children and that her son and his wife just had a baby in February, making Ruth a grandmother for the first time. “So my son says to me, ‘I guess that means you won’t be traveling this summer,’ and my response was, ‘Wanna bet?’”
Ruth and I asked Edet about the second round of Peru’s presidential election, which had been held the day before, and, in Huaraz at least, was so orderly and peaceful that I hardly noticed it. “I think Ollanta won by a little,” said Edet. The results weren’t yet clear at that point but she was right. Ollanta Humala, with 51.5% of the vote, barely defeated Keiko Fujimori.
“Are people happy about that?” asked Ruth.
Edet shook her head no. “The people are not happy. We do not like either candidate.” Ruth and I assured Edet that Peru was not the only country occasionally burdened with that dilemma.
Our hike started at about 3,800 meters and over the course of three or four hours took us up to 4,600 meters (15,092 feet). Just two days earlier I’d been at sea level in Lima, and, despite all the time I’d spent at high altitude in Bolivia and southern Peru, the rapid adjustment to the thin air in Parque Nacional Huascarán seemed to take an unusually severe toll on me. I felt nauseous and my legs were weak. Ruth apologized whenever she wanted to stop briefly to rest, but I assured her that I wasn’t at all eager to pick up the pace.
Five minutes later Edet stopped ahead of me on the trail and turned around. “And also Shakira,” she said. Whew!
I expected to feel better as we returned to lower altitude, but even when we reached the car I still didn’t feel well. Ruth and I were both worn out, and the three-hour ride back to Huaraz seemed to drag on interminably. I tried to eat dinner that night but couldn’t finish a plate of chicken and pasta. Back in my hotel room it finally became clear that altitude alone wasn’t the source of my enervated muscles, nausea, and headache. I’d been mistakenly blaming the thin air for what was probably a bout of food poisoning caused by the sketchy eggs I’d eaten for breakfast.
I don’t follow many carved-in-stone travel commandments, but up until that morning I’d adhered rigidly to at least one golden rule: “If eggs don’t taste right, stop eating them.” It was stupid of me to violate such a well-considered policy and for about 24 hours I paid the price. I’d planned to hike to Laguna Churrup the next morning, but after an unpleasant, sleepless night I wasn’t in any shape to climb mountains. I spent the day recuperating in my hotel room, and by evening I felt well enough to risk taking the night bus from Huaraz to Trujillo, back down on the coast.