I’m sitting in Restaurant Turistico 7 Hierbas, a 40 minute drive up and out of Huaraz, my head in my hands. I am in pain. My entire brain feels like it has swollen and is threatening to explode. I feel sick and my eyes can’t focus. And I am so, so frustrated because it’s been such a beautiful, interesting day but my body just isn’t adjusting to the altitude. Dammit.
Earlier that morning I had travelled in a little yellow van alongside a wide, dry river and an old Inca road with a German girl, an Israeli guy, two Brazilians, a few Peruvians and a street kid from Huaraz who had been invited along on the tour.
Daniel was our guide, an animated man in his forties with a rhythmic, musical voice and a face and body full of expression. He spoke only Spanish, rolling his rs and accentuating each syllable, barely stopping to take a breath. He outlined the plans for the day and commented on the landscape features as we passed by.
Daniel told us about Huayna Capac, the last great Inca ruler, a powerful, ferocious and social man by all accounts who also managed to find the time for 700 wives. ‘I’ve a problem with one wife’, joked Javier, our Brazilian-tourist-cum-translator (it was his wife that had volunteered him for the role of translator, although he seemed truly happy to put his English skills to practise).
We took a quick pit stop to grab a bite to eat and stock up on warm clothes and coca leaves and altitude sweets. Most people opted for the sweets. I chewed on a coca leaf. It was not as disgusting as I had expected, just a little bitter. ‘It takes 1.5kg of coca leaves to make 1g of cocaine, so you won’t get high’, assured Javier, ‘It will just alleviate the altitude sickness’. Maybe I should have bought considerably more?!
Before we continued, a village funeral procession passed by, a car at the front followed by a coffin carried by some of the local men. Children in school uniform played percussion and brass instruments to give sombre structure to the march by which to remember and send-off the deceased.
The road passed between two mountain ranges: Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Blanca. The Cordillera Negra stops some of the warm coastal air from hitting the second range, which as a result sees much more snow and ice (therefore blanca – white). Initially the landscape was rolling, with craters in the hillside where underground lakes had erupted through the earth’s crust. The ground was dry and stony with tight tufts of porcupine brown and green grass. There was an occasional collection of cattle. ‘There used to be more’, explained Daniel, ‘but many people have now chosen a different life in the city’.
It got increasingly colder as the bus climbed ever higher along winding roads with open, empty views. We made various stops: a natural, fizzy spring where a woman with a dressed up child and lamb asked for money for photos; a small, clear and deep, deep lagoon; a ‘forest’ of Puya raimondii whose one hundred year lifespan sees the plants grow up to ten metres in height (how they find the nutrients to grow on the inhospitable ground is a bit of a mystery); and 14,000 year old rock paintings alongside some graffiti from 2007.
By the time we arrived at the pathway to the glacier – our final destination – the weather was starting to get moody. We disembarked and some of the group opted to ride horseback for the first kilometre whilst the rest of us walked slowly up the gentle incline to the 5,000m mark.
A further kilometre later, a wander over muddy, stony ground with snow lightly falling on our faces, and we reached a mammoth wall of ice surrounding a lake. Known as the Pastoruri Glacier, this huge chunk of ice is said to be shrinking due to the effects of global warming.
The light shone blue on some of the ice caves, gigantic icicles hanging and threatening to plummet into the water below. You could hear the occasional sound of cracking and whooshing as pieces of the glacier gave in to the spring melt. It was stunningly beautiful, a true wonder of nature. Having never seen anything like it, I was in awe. And then I ruined it all by trying to do some ice climbing where I got told off by a little old lady in traditional dress, the acting guardian of the glacier. Lesson learned. (There are, however, options to do ice climbing in the area, just not here, obviously).
Back in the café, and after some medicine I start to feel a teeny bit better. We make the last downhill stretch back down towards Huaraz and one of the Peruvian tourists starts to puke. The altitude has got her too. Daniel helps her out, strokes her hair and continues to keep the mood light by joking.
I guess he’s seen it all too often.