Huaraz & la Cordillera Blanca

layogenic adj. (Tagalog) Beautiful from far away but messy up close, like a Monet.

Author Robert Louis Stevenson said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”  While that is a lovely and poetic sentiment, I have to disagree, because arriving in Huaraz after four days of hoping we would make it felt pretty damn good.  Four days, four 8+ hour bus rides, and a whole lot of candy later, we finally arrived in Huaraz, Peru, nestled in the very heart of the perpetually snowy Cordillera Blanca mountain range.  As we stood in the rain outside the bus station, staring up at the white mountains surrounding us, we could hardly believe we had spent the last few days traveling through scorching desert.  Was this really the same country? 

As we descended down the steps of the double decker luxury bus, we were both anxious about what we would find upon opening the luggage bodega. While we had allowed our bags out of our sight on the bus from Piura to Trujillo (on the strict condition that they had given us luggage tags both for us and for our bags), that was during the day, where we could always keep a wary eye through the window on the bodega hatch.  This time, we had been forced to choose between being paranoid freaks and being healthy, well-rested individuals.  We chose the latter and decided to try to sleep on the bus.  While I had slept far better than expected, I still spent a period of time in the middle of the night when the bus was mysteriously stopped on the side of the road with the bodega hatch below our window open, staring vigilantly and making sure our packs didn’t go walking away.  Nevertheless, that mysterious stop and the time I had spent not watching the hatch had made me nervous. I peered into the bodega as bag after bag was pulled out.  Finally, I saw two happy patches of orange and blue.  Nellie had made it after all.

With bags on our backs, we headed out of the bus station into a gloomy drizzle.  It was only 7am, but the streets of Huaraz were already packed with cars and ramshackle tuk-tuks that all seemed too busy to pick us up, even as we desperately waved at each passing one, really hoping to not have to walk to the hostel in the rain.  After walking the wrong way for a few minutes, righting ourselves but still failing to hail a taxi, we stooped our shoulders and trudged frumpily grumpily through the rain.  The necessity paradox had struck again.

Located on the outskirts of Huaraz was a small, brick hostel (though ever building in the whole damn city was made of brick) called the Andes Camp Hostel.  We had made a reservation there a while back, snagging a cheap price of S/50 (or about $15) per night for a private room.  It wasn’t luxurious by any means, with water that was rarely ever hot, a bathroom that rarely had any toilet paper, and a kitchen that sometimes didn’t open on time in the mornings, but it was quiet and cozy enough in our room.  Once again, Chris and I found ourselves stuck in a room with only a bunk bed, but thankfully the bottom bunk was larger than a twin and thus we could both comfortably fit on it while using the top bunk as a luggage shelf. 

Upon arrival, however, we didn’t know that just yet.  The problem with visiting Huaraz is that almost any bus that takes you there is a night bus, putting your arrival time at some obscene morning hour long before hostel check-in.  Thankfully, most hostels there are accommodating of this and allow free luggage storage prior to check-in so you’re at least not stuck lugging your pack around all day.  After we dropped our stuff off in the small loft above the reception area of Andes Camp, we set off to find some breakfast.  While our overnight bus had provided us with a couple snacks upon departure of Trujillo, we were still starving and in desperate need of some caffeine.  We quickly found a little café, ordering huge breakfasts and the first real coffee (as in made from actual espresso rather than the shitty coffee concentrate liquid you get pretty much everywhere else in Peru) we had had in days.

After breakfast, we returned to the hostel to settle into our room before setting out once more for even more food.  As we shuffled slowly through the city in the drizzling rain, I pulled my coat tighter around myself.  One thing I was already noticing was the dramatic temperature difference between northern Peru and here.  Huaraz was cold.  We had gone from sweating bullets in coastal humidity of Trujillo only eight hours prior.  Now, we were shivering in the cloud soaked mountains at 10,000 ft.

Another striking revelation about Huaraz was the general ugliness of the town itself, which was surprising given its location.  The Cordillera Blancas surrounding the town were absolutely stunning, and Huaraz from a distance, a sea of red nestled into the heart of so many white peaks, really was an incredible sight to behold.  But up close, it was another story: trash lining the gutters, vendors lining the sidewalks selling all manner of oddities in from cages of live chickens to bins of speckled quail eggs, mangy stray dogs on every corner, and crumbling brick building and crumbling brick building.  The city of dogs and brick, they called it.  A local explained to me that people only bothered to put money into sprucing up the front of their building that would let the rest fall apart.

After lunch, we took just about all of our clothes to a nearby Laundromat.  We hadn’t done laundry since leaving Lllulu Llama so suffice it to say we were quickly running out of clothes to (re)wear.

As the day went on, we found ourselves feeling particularly ill.  It started with Chris when Chris doubled over as we walked back from the Laundromat.  I held his arm and guided him back to the hostel where he collapsed on the bottom bunk and bundled himself up in every thick, woolen blanket in the room.  As I laid with him, stroking his back, I found my own body growing more and more uncomfortable.  It wasn’t a stomachache, but rather a searing pain spreading like fire through my entire abdomen, and no way I could possibly curl up would ease it in the slightest.  Through all the stomach sickness and cramps in my life, I had never experienced stomach pain like this.  Naturally, I did what any reasonable millennial would do: Googled it.  It wasn’t long before I found my answer amid the typical warnings of cancer and liver failure.  We were experiencing altitude sickness, commonly characterized by intense stomach pain and dizziness.

Here’s a little lesson in altitude sickness, something I just recently learned myself going into these high altitudes for the first time.  Growing up in Montana, I find myself feeling a certain invincibility with mountains.  However, I forget that Montana’s mountains, while rugged and beautiful, are far from the most extreme in the world, with our state high point reaching just over 10,000ft. Huaraz itself was that and for the first time in my life, I felt the effects of Acute Mountain Syndrome (AMS).  Altitude sickness is nothing to take lightly.  At its most severe, AMS can develop into pulmonary and cerebral edema, in which in the lungs or brain, respectively, begin to fill with fluid forcing a choice: descend or die.

AMS is a neurological disorder, and it is not yet fully understood.  While genetics are thought to play a part, there are many unknown factors that contribute to a person’s inability to cope with altitude. We see unexpected sources fall victim to AMS; an Olympic athlete can feel the effects when a couch potato doesn’t.

Basically, it works like this: The lungs of a human, if flattened and ironed out, occupy the approximate area of a tennis court.  Using that same metaphor, at low altitudes, oxygen molecules can be thought of as tennis balls scattered close together across the entire tennis court.  Contrary to what many believe, the percentage of oxygen in the air is the exact same at sea level as it is at high altitudes, around 21%.  The only difference as one increases in altitude is that these oxygen molecules get larger and farther apart due to less atmospheric pressure pushing them together.  The tennis balls, then, in getting scattered and compressed, become more like basketballs.  It then becomes more difficult for the body to intake this oxygen.  At 13,000ft, the body can only intake 62% of the oxygen it typically expects in one breath.  The body makes physical adjustments to combat these effects, like creating more red blood cells to carry oxygen, pushing air through normally unused portions of the lungs and even cutting off blood flow to inefficient parts of the body.

Some of these changes can be dangerous if we are not careful to compensate for them.  At high altitudes, we breathe more, sweat more, and urinate more, all things that force our bodies to lose fluids.  We don’t know a lot about why some people can acclimatize better than others, but we do know that hydration is the single most important factor contributing to our ability to acclimatize.  Having been traveling for four days straight through stressful situations and dry deserts, Chris and I were anything but hydrated when we arrived in Huaraz. Also consider that the rule of thumb is for every 1,000ft you go up, you take one day to acclimatize.  We had gone from sea level to 10,000ft in a matter of hours.  It’s honestly no wonder it affected us as it did. Even though we had withstood 13,000ft on Quilotoa without such effects, even though we had lived for a month at over 9,000ft and had descended from such an altitude only four days prior, we had never ascended something so quickly and in such a state of dehydration.  Our concern shifted from why this had happened to how we could most quickly get over it.  Sleeping at altitude is one of the best ways to acclimatize, so that’s just what I did.  I took a late afternoon nap, mostly because I was in too much pain to do anything else.

When I awoke, much to my pleasant surprise, my abdomen no longer felt like someone was punching it repeatedly.  I even felt well enough to set out and pick up our laundry, something I had really been dreading doing given my earlier state.  Chris still wasn’t feeling great, so I set off into the dark and rainy alone.  Thankfully the Laundromat was only about a kilometer away and I was able to make the dash through the rain without getting too soaked.

The next day, both feeling renewed and acclimatized, we set out to explore the town in the morning before attempting to spend the afternoon climbing at Los Olivos, the climbing spot located 3km west of Huaraz.  We first stopped in a little climbing shop called Andean Kingdom, where we met a young girl named Luciana running the desk.  She spoke English well and we immediately launched into a conversation with her about the local climbing and even the possibility of climbing some of the nearby mountains.  She ran over a couple mountains with us (some of the less touristy but still difficult, non-technical ones) and told us about gear rental prices, which were surprisingly cheap for a mountain tourist trap like Huaraz.  She also told us all about Los Olivos, and let us look through the full color guidebook of the area.

“Look, I know I should make you buy it if you want the betas, but since you’re only here for a week, I don’t want you to spend $30 on a ten page section.  Go ahead and take some photos if you want.”  We thanked her profusely and snapped photos of the route betas, beyond excited that we were actually going into an area down here with some knowledge of the climbs.  Lucianna took a major step in restoring our faith that everyone down in South America wasn’t just money hungry looking to screw over a gringo.  In fact, we hadn’t really had a bad experience yet in Peru, if you didn’t count the border, which no one does because borders are always expectedly terrible.  Maybe it was just Ecuador that had been so bad.

If you ever find yourself in Huaraz, needing to buy or rent any outdoor gear, or are looking to arrange a guided trek, go to Andean Kingdom!  Seriously, Luciana and the rest of the staff are so kind and helpful.  I can only hope promoting Luciana’s business on here will help her in the pay that she helped us. Also, the shop has an adorable dog named Hachi who happily greets anyone who walks by.

We chatted with Luciana for a little while longer about her life in Huaraz before another group of customers wandered in and pulled her away.  We thanked her again and told her we’d definitely stop by to see her again before we left.   From there, we headed out to Los Olivos on foot.  If you’re interested, there are actually a few different ways to get there:

  • Bus (S/1): Take the Combi bus (line 15) to either Urpay or Cordillera Negra.  Stop at either La Palta or Pasaje Las Robles. 
  • Taxi (S/5) or motorcycle Tuk Tuk (S/2)
  • Walk (free!): The walk is about 3km and takes around a half an hour.  Head west of Huaraz, turning toward the mountains at el estadio.  Anny local can point you in the right direction.  Shortly after turning at the stadium, you’ll cross a bridge over a river and enter a pretty slummy area of town.  Keep following the road up until you see the crag on your left.  A cement staircases will lead down from the road between two houses.  Take this staircase, and the subsequent steep dirt path down into the valley.  Cross the stream and make the short hike back up to the climbing.  Turn right at the stream for the boulders and Sector 3, or left for Sectors 1 and 2.  If you’re unsure about the exact way to get there, the app actually shows the path. 

Warning: If you do walk, watch out for some stray dogs along the way.  The guidebook to the area even states, “Beware of the aggressive dogs at the beginning of the path.”  What it doesn’t say is that the aggressive dogs are pretty much everywhere.  In particular, however, there is group of three extremely mean dogs about halfway up the walk, just before the sharp u-bend in the road.  They hang out on the upper porch of a house on the left, but will quickly launch themselves off this porch and start chasing anyone that approaches.  One of these dogs is actually muzzled, and good thing because he actually pushed his snout hard against my legs, and had there not been a guard between his gnashing teeth and my skin, I would have had far bigger problems at hand.  Chris managed to scare them away by screaming and waving his arms, but not before I became thoroughly scared of every stray dog in Huaraz.  A tip we learned the next day: If you want to save yourself the fear and hassle of this pack of dogs, you can actually take a shortcut up the U-bend.  As you approach the bend, you’ll see a florescent, mint green building on the left, with a staircase cutting up the hill directly before it.  Take this staircase and you’ll bypass the dogs entirely.

While the trek to Los Olivos had been less than fun, the climbing spot itself actually turned out to be one of the best we had encountered thus far on our trip: it was pretty clean, an easy and fast approach, accessible from the city, and very straightforward in its layout.  Los Olivos consisted of five sections (a total of around 50 bolted routes, ranging from 5.7 to 5.13b), two additional boulders with 22 boulder problems, and a 90m upper level traverse.  The rock, being volcanic conglomerate, was sturdy with interesting bubbled textures, if only a little dirty in some places and wet in others where the rain from the previous days was still leaking down from the foliage above. 

Both the upper (right) and lower (left) walls of Section 1 at Los Olivos.

We decided to start in sector 1, which had a mix of easier routes for me and harder routes for Chris.  With a good number of 5.9 and lower 5.10 climbs, there was actually hope for me to get in some good hard days of climbing.  We spent somewhere around four hours at the crag, sharing the sector with only two other people working some of the easier routes on the lower left platform, while we played around on some tricky slab routes above.  By the end of the day, when Chris stuck me on a 5.10c called El Lagarto, I was worn out.  He’s a great coach and knows that pushing me is the only way I’ll get better, but boy, I wasn’t happy with him at the time.

“El Lagarto,” I muttered angrily while hangdogging off the wall for the fifth time.  “No wonder.  I’d need to be a fucking lizard to climb this.”  Finally, we called it a day, both knowing that once my frustration reached a certain level, there was no hope for improvement.

But the next day, I returned with something to prove.  No damn lizard rock was going to get to best of me.  After a warm up on some of the climbs we had sent the other day, including my very first time leading up a breezy 5.7.  Finally, I hopped back on El Lagarto, messing up early on and burning myself out by the time I reached the crux.  I demanded Chris lower me to the ground so I could go again from the beginning.  If I was going to send this climb, it was going to be a true send.  On round two, I got it, smoothly gastoning over the crux and finishing up on a dirty top out.  And then came the part for me to be lowered to the ground and sheepishly admit to Chris that he had been right: I could do it.

The day only got better from there, as I continued to break a record and send a 5.10d up the corner of two boulders and make it pretty far along a 5.11a.  By the end, we were exhausted, but decided to cool off by making our way down into the valley and toward the two boulders along the dirty stream.  We quickly learned that none of the bouldering was nearly as impressive as the bolted routes above, being either far too easy of a slab route, or far too difficult of a roofed overhang.  Eventually, we gave up and collapsed in the grass, enjoying the cool shade of the towering trees overhead and watching local women emerge from the forest carrying huge bundles of branches and wood in cloth slings over their backs.  We noted the stark contrast between the trash filling the stream and the beautiful nature around us, that apparently the locals didn’t care enough for to preserve.  Huaraz was filled with dichotomies.

The next day, we woke to have our worst gnawing fears from the previous days confirmed: Chris had herpes.  For the past few days, he had been complaining of a sore throat and a tender mouth.  After my bout with the same horrible disease months before, I only hoped he wouldn’t have to suffer as I had.  But on that fateful morning when we look down his throat with a flashlight, there they were, the little angry white pustules lining his tonsils and throat, just like mine.  He was at least lucky enough to have them discretely hidden inside his mouth, while I had had the pleasure of both feeling and looking awful. 

Upon our second visit, we were delighted to find Luciana had just acquired a new kitten, only six weeks old and already a climbing pro.  Shout out to Black Diamond if you're looking for a new mascot.

Upon our second visit, we were delighted to find Luciana had just acquired a new kitten, only six weeks old and already a climbing pro.  Shout out to Black Diamond if you're looking for a new mascot.

Due to this unpleasant discovery, Chris and I decided to take a day off and just rest.  We took the morning to go out to eat breakfast at a cute little café called Café California.  It was painted golden yellow on the outside and inside lined with bookshelves stocked full with both English and Spanish novels for guests to peruse while sipping on their coffee.  The breakfasts were a little expensive for what you got, which was to be expected from anything with California in the name. After breakfast, we wandered around town, returning to Luciana’s shop to chat with her a little bit.  We told her we were taking the day off, but invited her to go climbing with us sometime in the next couple of days.  She confessed that she would love to, but was way too busy with both the shop and her newly opened restaurant, Campo Base, next door.

“My boyfriend would probably love to go with someone though if you’re interested.”  We told her we definitely were and she said she would talk to him about it.  Since learning about Luciana’s new restaurant, we thought we would support her and try it out.  We took two seats in the two top table sitting street side, while Hachi follows us and propped himself up on my leg, mooching for food we did not yet have.  We ordered two menu del dias hoping for an authentic Peruvian dish, whatever that ended up being.

The first dish was something called palta a la reina or “avocado queen style”.  Best thing about Peru was that I could say goodbye to overpriced avocados as they were eaten with almost every meal. This particular dish was an avocado stuffed with broccoli and carrots (though sometimes it has chicken or potato), topped with a creamy sauce.  Second course was a delicious chicken stew.  As we sat there, eating our meals and people watching in the quiet, lush and decorated square in the company of friends and good people, with good food, and, sure Chris had painful throat herpes, but we were overall satisfied with our situation.

Suddenly, Chris jumped up from his seat and dashed out into the road.  Confused, I traced my eyes after his path and just about choked on my chicken.  He was locked in a friendly embrace with none other than Farhad, our surprise roommate on Christmas Eve back at Llullu Llama.  Did I mention that was over a month ago by this point? Janine was standing next to him laughing at the coincidence as I too abandoned my meal and walked over.  We quickly updated each other on out journeys for the last month.  Farhad and Janine and had just returned from the Laguna 69 trek and were in the process of pricing out different guide companies for the Santa Cruz trek, so they unfortunately weren’t planning on sticking around in Huaraz for long to catch up.

“You know, you guys are the second people from Llullu Llama we’ve seen here,” Farhad told us.  “We saw that Australian guy who was traveling alone, too, but he went into a shop so we didn’t get a chance to say hi.”  I could have started doing a kick-line to the tune of “It’s a small world after all” but decided we weren’t good enough friends for that yet.

But wouldn’t you know it… Later that evening, I ran out of the hostel to quickly take some cash out of an ATM having arranged a temporary unlock window with my bank (why yes, I was STILL struggling with the consequences of getting my bank account stolen and no, I hadn’t been able to receive a new card yet).  After trying two different banks with ridiculous ATM fees (avoid Scotia Bank), I eventually entered a BCP and withdraw my money for a shitty but still better fee of S/15 to withdraw the maximum amount.  As I turned around, who else was waiting in line behind me but Australian man (I feel bad that I now can’t remember his name).  Again, the question ran through my mind: Would I be judged if I started dancing and singing here in the bank?

We also exchanged stories from the last month and he filled me in on his current lung illness and his relentless plans to go hiking the next day despite it.  I wished him luck and returned to the hostel to blow Chris’ mind with my newest discovery.

 After that lovely, sunny day, we naturally awoke to rain.  But we weren’t terribly heartbroken, as Chris’ herpes had flared to an all-time new angry level, and he wasn’t in any shape to go out climbing.  Instead, we stayed in all day, just watching television and shielding ourselves from the chilly damp air under thick woolen blankets.  Eventually, we made a daring venture to the grocery sore to restock our food supplies, where we ran into Luciana of all people.  We chatted briefly with her before she had to run and get back to work.  We got our groceries in the small and limited shop (the one seriously huge downside to spending any amount of time in Huaraz) and returned to our dark cave for the night.

Chris still felt bad the next day, but since it was our last full day in Huaraz, we were determined to make it out climbing at least once more.  Out to Los Olivos we went, though this time we thought we might try a new area and climbed straight up to section 2.  Section 2 is unique in that one of its two main walls is actually a volcanic well, eroded by water drainage right into the rock.  It makes for some really interesting climbing, thought he well itself is often slick with water from recent rains.  Even with that area being a little wet, the climbs on section 2 were fun, if only a little easier than section 2.

Not a bad view from our cave as we waited out a short little shower on our final day of climbing at Los Olivos.

We moved on yet again to test out section 3, just down the path to the right of section two and slightly around the mountain.  And of course, what kind of climbing adventure would it be without some sort of unexpected delays.  Just as we were tying in to attempt the first climb of the section, I decided it was a good idea to pass some gas.  Almost immediately, I regretted the decision, quickly unstrapping my harness and yelling, “Gotta go!” before darting off into the bushes.  After ten of the most unpleasant minutes of my life, I waddled back to Chris, leaning casually against the wall fiddling with his shoes.

I took a deep breath.  “I think I just came the closest I ever have to shitting my pants as a fully content adult.”  It was also probably one of the most disgusting things my body had ever produced, but it came with a valuable lesson that was becoming one of the most important things I had learned in South America: never trust a fart.

Crapping crisis mostly averted, we began climbing one again by doing one tricky half chimney 5.9, but overall found ourselves disappointed in the overall area.  The most interesting overhanging boulder unfortunately had a terrible belay spot, as well as high first bolts and a shady landing area.   Combined, it wasn’t really something we wanted to take our chances on so packed it up and headed back into Huaraz for a quick (but delicious) burger dinner at La Rotanda, located in the same square as Luciana’s shop.  Then came the part we dreaded most about any stop: packing up to leave.

We would be leaving the next day, though not until late at night on the Cruz del Sur night bus (S/60 per person).  That meant that once again, we would just need to hang around in Huaraz all day.  Check out of our room was at 11am (though they started annoyingly knocking on the door and hurrying us along at around 10:15am).  Still, we were staying in that room until the latest possible second.  At 10:59am, we strolled into the lobby, stashed our packs in the upper loft, and headed out into the city.  Since we had almost twelve hours to wait, we took our time strolling around, saying goodbye to some of our favorite sights, and of, course, saying goodbye to Luciana.  She gave us both big hugs and wished us safe travels on the remainder of our journey and we promised that if we ever found ourselves in Huaraz again, we’d be back to visit her.  Form there, we returned to the hostel to make dinner with the last remaining store of food (despite the fact that signs told us we weren’t technically allowed to use the kitchen after check-out unless we wanted to pay extra for it).  And then we waited.  And waited.  Finally, as it neared 10pm, we hoisted up our packs once more and made a daring venture out into the dark rainy night, failing to wave down cabs for a solid five minutes before one finally picked us up and took us to the Cruz del Sur terminal.  This was the final bus journey of South America, the final push before heading home, and had I not been so tired already, I might have felt a little sadder.