We arrived to Huaraz on an overnight bus that took 8 and a half hours from Lima. Huaraz is a dusty city that sits right in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra, which is the highest subtropical mountain range in the world. Surprisingly enough, this congested, run-down city was far busier than we imagined it would be. At all hours of the day, deeply rooted Peruvians crawled the street. If you could tolerate the noise, rain, and exhaust fumes, this was an amazing place for people watching. For starters, if you drive a car in Huaraz, it also must come with an invisibility cloak. At least this is what they must think. Every driver feels the need to constantly honk their horn – and for no reason at all! Every few seconds the driver would just honk the horn as if to say, “Hey, look at me, I am driving a car”. It was really quite bizarre, and a bit annoying after a while. But my favorite people to watch were the old women. They were so important with their big colorful skirts and tall top hats tilted to the side. It was fascinating seeing that this traditional Peruvian look is still very much in fashion. So what were all these people doing in this run-down town? They were going to the local market, that’s what. The women were selling hats, their own produce, and hand-knitted beanies and gloves. The main market is in a big warehouse jammed packed with most anything you would never want – unless you really have a need for dead animal heads. There is a limited amount of time that you can spend in the market (for us 20 minutes) because the pungent odors trapped inside this congested area soon becomes too repulsive to handle. So what brings tourists to this rather unremarkable habitat? The mountains, of course.
We (or Lucas) really wanted to do the 4-day Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca. However, Lima is at sea level and Huaraz is at 10,000 ft. above sea level. So in order to acclimate ourselves and see if we would be able to do the trek or not, we decided to do a day trek to Laguna 69 beforehand. Laguna 69 is a magical place that will take your breath away – figuratively and literally. We were picked up from our hostal, Casa Ana – which she is about the nicest host one could ask for – at 05:50 and driven 3 hours into the Cordillera Blanca. Just outside of the Huascaran Park we stopped to have breakfast and bought water and coca leaves for the trek. The ride into the park was absolutely stunning. There were steep mountains all around and big, fluorescent blue lakes the entire way. We had almost decided we didn’t even need to do the trek because we had seen so much beauty already. But, we decided to march on. The trek took a total of 5 hours – 3 hours up, 2 hours down. Even though the level of difficulty of the trek was low and we had done much more difficult treks in Norway, not being adjusted to the altitude made this our most challenging trek yet. We took our time, drank water every 15 minutes as recommended, but still found ourselves gasping for oxygen that just wasn’t there. Only one thing kept us moving: the majestic image in our mind of Laguna 69. With much effort, we continued to put one foot in front of the other as we chewed away at our coca leaves. It is said that coca leaves – which is what cocaine is made from – has many useful benefits such as providing energy, acting as a pain reliever, and aiding in the prevention altitude sickness. Whether this is true or not, we continued to jam our cheeks full of these bitter leaves just in case. This day trek starts at 12,465 feet and ascends to 15,090 feet—higher than the highest mountain in the continental United States. Of course, the majority of this climb is right before you reach the lake. However, this made it all the more rewarding. When we finally reached the summit, our senses were treated to the most remarkable lake we have ever seen. Created from a melted glacier, this crystal clear, turquoise lake stands out even more next to the gray, rocky backdrop that races up to the snow tipped mountain peaks in the sky. We ate our lunch while we took in this wonder, and then tested the water to see if we would take a dip. The temperature of the water was no more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so we decided we would wait until next time. We started back down right as it began to rain, and it did so most of the way down. Prompted by the altitude, halfway down we both had throbbing headaches that lasted the rest of the day. But we had done it. We tortured ourselves in order to ready our bodies for the next 4 days and saw some pretty miraculous sights in the process. Once back to our hostal, we murdered a pizza and then went straight to bed to get rested for the next 4 days in the mountains.