Category Archives: Peru

Chillin´ on Lake Titicaca

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A warm welcome on the Islands of Uhros
Ahhh…Lake Titicaca, one of the world’s highest navigable lakes.  At an elevation of 3800 meters, it is so large that it actually makes a mark on the world map.  More notable for its welcoming Andean culture than it’s natural beauty, I decided to stop in for a week and see what life is like there.
Bussing across the altiplano (high plain) from Cuzco to lakeside Puno is a journey through desolate highlands, crossing passes up to 14,000 feet.  Descending upon the lake, I realized that this would not be like some of the more beautiful lakes that I was accustomed to in the States and Canada.  The shoreline was completely dry and void of any vegetation.  Puno was much uglier than I thought.  Regardless, it’s supposed to be the folkloric capital of Peru, certainly worth a few days visit.  After checking in to my 4 dollar hotel, I made a stop at Nik’s Pizzeria, also the name of my favorite pizza joint in NYC.  Nik, the owner, was an absolute hoot, and he and his team of workers (more like a family really) convinced me to stay an extra day in Puno and celebrate Halloween with them.

 

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New Friends at Nick´s Pizzeria

I woke up Halloween morning and decided to take a tour of the nearby Uros Islands.  The Uro people have created floating islands on Lake Titicaca as a way to isolate themselves from invading civilizations.  Now considered a tourist attraction, the islands are well worth a visit, and the Uros still do live there.  They create the islands using a two-meter thick soil matrix that floats to the lake surface at the end of the wet season.  A one-meter thick layer of totora leaves is added to the top layer, and then shelters are constructed with the same reeds.  The islands, which are no bigger than half an acre each, are anchored to the lake’s bottom using ropes and large sticks pounded into the mud.  Sitting on one of the islands, you can actually feel and see it rotating.

Returning to the mainland, I improvised an awful Halloween costume, and bought some bags of candy.  Much to my surprise, I had never seen Halloween celebrated like it was in Puno!  The main avenue was jam packed with children in costume, all begging local storeowners for candy.  When it was noticed that I was passing some out, I was immediately besieged by small children, screaming “Feliz Halloween!”  Forced against the wall, I had passed out two bags of candy in less than five minutes.  It was a slightly scary and invigorating experience, and I spent most of night doing more the same.

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The children celebrate Halloween in Puno like nowhere I have seen in the world!

On Nov. 1, All Saint’s Day, I hopped on a 4 hour boat ride to the large island of Amantani.  There I could find a homestay, and have a 2 day visit with the locals to see what life is like on their big remote island.  Jacinto and his lovely family took me in like family, and we spent the days talking, laughing, eating, taking photos, and learning Quechua.

The next day, The Day of the Dead continued, and Jacinto invited me to the island’s cemetery to honor his family’s deceased.  I felt like I was completely intruding, but he insisted.  So as the only gringo in the packed cemetery, I took a back seat, and watched the rituals of this beautiful and peaceful day.  It was an introspective experience, and I’m not even going to try to describe it in this blog.

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Isla Amantaní

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My lovely family homestay on Isla Amantaní

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The Incas arrive for Puno Day! This was my third town anniversary celebration in three weeks. I spent the day watching this Inca celebration with the team from Nik's Pizzeria

La Rinconada, The Highest Town in the World

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Standing at 18,000 feet above sea level, La Rinconada

18,000 feet.  No, I’m not referencing the altitude of one of the world’s seven summits.  I’m writing about a mining town in the southern highlands of Peru.  I can’t think of a harder place in the world to live in than the town of La Rinconada.  Viewing the village from afar, La Rinconada has an Alps feel, with houses a stone’s throw away from beautiful white glaciers that descend from dreamy high mountains.  But Zermatt this is not, and although it would make for an outdoor recreation paradise, I have little hope that tourists will be making their way here anytime soon.

As you approach La Rinconada, you will soon become short of breath and will be enveloped by an unforgettable stench that the inhabitants live with each day.  With no sanitation, running water, or waste disposal, and a consolidated population of 25,000 Peruvians, La Rinconada is an urban slum in an extreme environment.  Combining its proximity to the equator with its extreme altitude, inhabitants are faced with a dangerous amount of radiation, which is made evident by the stained red cheeks on the children.  In winter, the temperatures stay well below zero, a condition made much more difficult by the fact that few homes have heat and electricity.

La Rinconada would not exist if it were not for the discovery of gold deposits beneath its nearby glaciers.  The entire economy depends on gold mines, and for the last half century, workers have been coming here only because they can’t find work elsewhere.  Many have left their families in the lower plains in the pursuit of gold that rarely amounts to eighty dollars a month.  A mining company leases the land from the state, and according to a system called “cachorreo” the miners work for twenty days for free, after which they have just four days to mine gold for their own profits.  The work arrangement is risky, and few have actually profited from the mines so far.

I wonder if I was the first tourist to ever visit La Rinconada.  It’s a rough six hour bus ride from attractive Lake Titicaca, and it’s a different world from the developed cities of Peru.  But as the world’s highest town I had to give it a look.  Warned by Peruvians that it’s not a safe place for a foreigner to travel to, I recruited a body guard, a burly French surfer by the name of Gaeten, to accompany me in my journey.  Gaeten is a go-with-the-flow type traveler, and despite my warnings that La Rinconada is a cold, polluted, and potentially unwelcoming place, he was still excited about an adventurous detour from the gringo trail. So we shelled out six dollars each to take a bus ride to the top of the civilian world.

Descending from the bus, we were met with wide-eyed stares, children halted in the street, and locals who got a kick of us being in their miserable home.  “Gringo! Cusco is the other way!”  I could hear them yelling.  Knowing that the people of this community were quite economically desperate, I was relieved to find  several hostels on the main strip of town, eliminating the need to improvise a homestay with the locals.  We found the only hostel with reliable locks on the doors and paid the standard five dollars a night for a simple bed and a mountain of blankets.

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The polluted mines are carved into the glacier

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Inside the Gold Mine

My first objective was to locate the infamous glacier mines and see if I could negotiate a tour.  A 20 minute walk took me through more slums, and as I meandered around muddy waste deposits, I could not help but notice the many gold merchant stores.  La Rinconada is not just populated by miners, but also by those who work in health clinics, restaurants, small grocers, schools for the miners children, and gold processing merchants.  Inside these merchant stores, miners bring their gold which is extracted from the rock powder using mercury.  The merchants then burn away the mercury, and buy the pure gold for about eight dollars a gram.  When the gaseous mercury encounters the cold air outside, it immediately condenses onto the rooftops of houses.  Since many use snowmelt from their roofs for drinking water, residents are faced with high concentration of mercury contamination.  Excessive contact with, breathing, or ingestion of mercury can lead to a breakdown of the nervous system, birth defects, brain damage, and eventually death.

As I approached the glaciers, I realized that a formal tour would be unnecessary, as the mines were unguarded.  In fact, only a few miners were there that day because most had descended to their hometowns for the Day of the Dead.  I entered the first ice cave I saw, polluted and littered on the outside, but a beautiful icy green on the inside.  I foolishly forgot to bring my headlamp and after a 50 meter stroll I was enveloped with darkness.   Such a tunnel could have been naturally carved by sub-glacier streams, but the ones in La Rinconada were manually cut by the locals, hoping that they would lead to rich deposits of gold.  Sadly, the only gold that is found is in small seams in the rock, and extraction takes a great deal of work.  I walked outside to meet a group of women who were doing just that.

I was invited over by a worker who was quite curious about what I was doing there.  Since she had so many questions about my life, I didn’t mine imposing mine upon her.  She, like many other mine workers, had come here because there was no work in the towns and cities of “normal” Peru, and she had a family to support.  The five hour bus ride from her town meant that she could only visit her family once every few months.  I was surprised to hear that she was my age; the harsh environment of La Rinconada had apparently accelerated the aging of her face and posture.  She showed me the machine that she worked with, a “mollina,” a device that physically breaks down the surrounding rock powder then chemically extracts the gold through the binding of mercury.

I asked her where the mercury goes after the extraction.  “Right here, on the ground beside me,” she casually replied.  My face turned white.  My mind turned back fifteen years ago to my eighth grade science class when mercury thermometers were the norm.  A student broke one and mercury spilled toward the floor.  My science teacher went into a panic, sent everyone out of the classroom, and called for a professional cleanup.  I cringed at the contrast with this women’s scenario; she was in contact with this poison practically every day.

Without sounding too condescending, I had to say something. “Be careful! Contact with mercury is really dangerous for your heath.  It’s very serious!”

“Really,” she replied with a panicked face.  “These are the things I don’t know.”

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My Hero Sylvestre. This lady is actually doing something about the water problem! She and her husband constructed a well inside the upper glacier, whereby they pump water from a subglacier stream to town, and sell it to the locals. She admitted that there are still foolish residents, who drink mercury-contaminated meltwater.

The next morning the cold woke me at 6 am and I had an odd inspiration to go for a morning run.  I knew that exercising at such an altitude would be quite painful on the lungs, but the novelty of lacing up the running shoes at 18,000 feet was too enticing.  The initial few hundred meters were quite challenging, but more for the stench that I was breathing in than the lack of oxygen.  I ran out of town to the plains below, a desolate landscape, void of any noticeable features other than trash and the occasional alpaca that was feeding on rubbish.  Amid labored breathing, I stared back at La Rinconada, and from afar the village looked peculiarly attached to the glaciers above.  I then gazed down to valley below, where polluted streams carried unknown amounts of mercury to the reservoir below.  La Rinconada, practically upstream of all of Southern Peru is an environmental nightmare for an entire region.  Suit-clad environmentalists argue that the mines should be shut down, but in a country where jobs are scarce, who is going to tell that to a miner from La Rinconada, a person that has sacrificed everything from health, livelihood, and family, all for the pursuit of a small bit of gold.

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A view of La Rinconada from the Altiplano

The Children of Machu Picchu

P1000476The skies had cleared over the ruins of Machu Picchu and I was having a great day. After clocking in some serious miles in the surrounding trails, I was looking forward to when the trainloads of tourists would leave and I could explore the ruins more intimately.  At three in the afternoon, I jogged down from the summit of Machu Picchu (Machu Picchu is actually the Quechua name for the mountain that sits 2,500 feet above the ruins, one that few tourists actually hike), expecting a much more peaceful visit than I had experienced that morning.

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The ruins from Huayna Picchu

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The classic postcard shot. More photos of Machu Picchu and the surrounding trails can be found on my facebook page.

I was wrong.  I encountered something far more delightful.  I was met by busloads of schoolchildren, who had arrived just in time for an afternoon discounted tour of Peru’s greatest attraction.  Instead of the peaceful and surreal walk through the ruins that I had envisioned, I watched hordes of kids playing music, chasing each other, climbing stone walls, and hiding from the guards.  I decided that attempting to interpret the ruins of Machu Picchu was overrated, so I joined in on their fun.

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This brave soul requested the first photo!

The 30-minute warning sounded, and I walked toward the exit of the ruins.  As I passed a school group, a brave young girl asked if I would be in a photo with her.  Of course I would!  This was a refreshing request as I had just come from Cusco, where the local indigenous women aggressively try to get you to pay them to have their photos taken.  After about 20 shots were taken of the two of us, we did a group shot with the entire class.  About to say goodbye, I was then confronted with a line of chaperones and teachers, all wanting to take an individual photo with me.

I was confused.  Who did they think I was?  Maybe they mistook me for a celebrity.  I confessed that I was not the North American who first discovered Machu Picchu for the outside world.  They didn’t care that I wasn’t famous.  To them, a photo with a gringo was just as important as postcard shot of the ruins above us.  Some twenty minutes and at least one hundred photos later (I’m not kidding), my cheek muscles were drained for smiling so much, and to my relieve the guards summoned us to leave the ruins.

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My fans!!! jaja

We walked out together as the kids told me where they were from.  They were on a 6th grade field trip, called a “promocion,” which is a celebration of their graduation from the lower grades.  They were students from Colegio Williams Prescott, a small private school, in the 12,000 foot high commercial city of Juliaca.  One 11-year-old girl asked me if I would be able to visit their school.  I thought about the logistics…Juliaca was a few hours detour from my intended route, a small sacrifice for a group of students who treated me like I was Brad Pitt.  Of course I would come!  My response was followed by cheers louder than any Inca ceremony that would have taken place at this very spot six hundred years ago.

As we exited the ruins, it was time for us to part ways.  They had the luxury of taking the bus out, whereas I had an hour walk down a dark trail.  I was enveloped by hugs, handshakes,  kisses on the cheek, and repeated requests of “are you really going to come?”  As I hiked the 3 miles back to my hostal room, I reflected on my phenomenal day.  7,000 vertical feet of magnificent hiking, ten hours of exploring the world’s most stunning ruins, and a visit with some of the most excitable kids I had ever met.  The last bit was definitely the best part.

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One week later, I found myself in Juliaca, dressed in the nicest clothes that I could find in my backpack, and sitting in the main office of Williams Prescott.  To my luck, there were mothers who had recognized me in the main office.  Floored that I actually made the visit, they dialed the superintendent to come welcome me immediately.  News had spread quickly of my arrival, and within a few minutes, 11-year-old Marjorie had escaped the lunch room to come give me the world’s biggest hug.  Wow!  This was going to be an intense visit.

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Improvising a three hour class

After a nice lunch with superintendent, the sixth grade teacher escorted me to her classroom.  I had arrived at 2 pm, and the school day was officially over, but the students were to stay in their homeroom until five to work on homework.  I had a feeling that homework was not going to happen that day.  After breaking through a pack of curious third graders, I entered the classroom and was welcomed with a boisterous “Bienvenidos Jeff!”  If there’s one thing that these kids are good at, it’s yelling in perfect unison.  They soon broke their classroom etiquette, charged towards me at the front of the classroom, and suffocated me with hugs.  This was a definite no-no in the schools I used to work at in the States, where hugging a child might cost you your job and a law suit.  I was relieved when I gazed over at their teacher and superintendent, who were laughing at the sight.

When the students returned to their seats, the teacher gave me her chalk, and then left!  Ummm.  What was I supposed to do for the next three hours?  I guess I could teach!  Even though classes were over, the students were excited to have me at the board.  I improvised some lessons in Geography, English, and told stories about my life and travels.  We taught each other dances and songs in English, including “The Hokie Pokie” and “Little Mandy Walker.”  Three hours flew by.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of my day was when a wonderful student named Laidy approached me at the board fifteen minutes into the lesson.  She whispered in my ear, “Will you be my godfather?”

Caught off guard, I was speechless for a minute.  I’m not even Catholic, let alone I just met this girl!  Caught up in the excitement of the moment, I announced, “Of course I will be your godfather!”  The class cheered, and I asked for an explanation.  “El Padrino,” which means godfather in Spanish, is also the name of the person who sponsors their December graduation.  This would be a much better fit for me.  I confessed that I would not be able to make it back in December, but that was no matter as long as I sent them a class gift!  Furthermore, I was to decide on the slogan/theme of the graduation, which I’m trying to figure out to this day.  Any suggestions?

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Taking my new Godfather role a bit too seriously

As parents arrived, it was time for us to part ways again.  I thanked the students for sharing their day with me, a gift that I genuinely appreciated.  I was starting to get more and more lonely in my travels (I had been going for ten months on my own after all), and the love they gave me that day would stay with me for a long time.  I was embraced by one final 30-student hug, and my only ticket out the door was a promise to my new friends that I wouldn’t forget them.  That would be an easy promise to keep.

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I think the key to connecting with the locals is going to the towns off the tourist track

Yungay, City Lost

The cemetery in Old Yungay was a refuge for 92 survivors

The cemetery in Old Yungay was a refuge for 92 survivors

Visit the mountain town of Yungay, nestled against the highest mountains of Peru, and you will be hard pressed to find any elderly folk who can tell you of the town’s history.  That’s because none of them are left.  Nearly every Yungayano born before 1955 is buried in the shadow of Mt. Huascaran, where the old city used to be.  On May 31, 1970, Yungay fell victim to perhaps the most incredible mountain disaster in world history.  A magnitude 7.8 earthquake just off the coast of Peru induced a glacier collapse on the east slopes of Huascaran, some 1 mile wide and 3,000 feet tall.  The avalanche traveled up to 200 miles per hour, picking up rocks and mud, as it made its way toward unprotected Yungay, just 11 miles away.
Visit the mountain town of Yungay, nestled against the highest mountains of Peru, and you will be hard pressed to find any elderly folk who can tell you of the town’s history.  That’s because none of them are left.  Nearly every Yungayano born before 1955 is buried in the shadow of Mt. Huascaran, where the old city used to be.  On May 31, 1970, Yungay fell victim to perhaps the most incredible mountain disaster in world history.  A magnitude 7.8 earthquake just off the coast of Peru induced a glacier collapse on the east slopes of Huascaran, some 1 mile wide and 3,000 feet tall.  The avalanche traveled up to 200 miles per hour, picking up rocks and mud, as it made its way toward unprotected Yungay, just 11 miles away.
Old Yungay with Huascaran in the background (not my photo).  The avalanche descended from the rocky bands of the peak on the left.

Old Yungay with Huascaran in the background (not my photo). The avalanche descended from the rocky bands of the peak on the left.

Up until the incident it was a pleasant Sunday afternoon in Yungay.  Most of the town’s 22,000 people were at home listening to the first game of the World Cup on the radio, while some 300 children had packed the local stadium to watch the circus.  The 45-second quake was likely frightening, but the thunderous noise from the ensuing slide must have been horrifying.  The wall of ice, mud, and rock arrived just minutes later, burying everything in its path.  The only survivors were the 92 visitors at the elevated cemetery and the 300 children, who were at the stadium and outside of the avalanche’s path.  300 instantly orphaned children emerged from the disaster only to see miles of unsettled debris in their former town.  Their families and homes were now buried some 20 feet below.  Many survivors were trapped in mud, and earthquake damage prevented any outside help for several days to come.

Just four palm trees survived the devastating landslide

Just four palm trees survived the devastating landslide

A quick visit to present-day Yungay, and you might not even realize that such a tragedy took place here.  But probe around a bit, and you will soon realize that this town and surrounding communities still feel the effects of the avalanche of 40 years ago.  I met many of the surviving “children” who lost everything, some of them willing to share stories, others understandably standoffish.  My tour guide in the old town, a 15-year old historian, who was full of facts passed down from him, was giving tours because his surviving mother, could bear to share the first-hand stories herself.  While New Yungay has moved a few kilometers out of view of Huascaran, they still live and work in the avalanche’s path, and I wonder how she sleeps at night.

A bus surfaced after the 20 feet of mud settled

A bus surfaced after the 20 feet of mud settled

A visit to where Yungay used to be is an eerie experience, as you are walking above an accidental graveyard, with the most stunning views of scary Huascaran above.  Few structures survived, but you can still see the remnants of a bus, the edges of the church which traveled 100 meters, and four sturdy palm trees, which instantly lost 20 feet of stature.  Travel back to New Yungay, just a few kilometers away, but protected by an intervening mountain ridge, and you will find a pleasant town that exists just as any other in the High Andes.

My good friend to the right was just 10 years old when he was at the Yungay circus, and within three minutes of the earthquake, he was orphaned along with 300 other children

My good friend to the right was just 10 years old when he was at the Yungay circus, and within three minutes of the earthquake, he was orphaned along with 300 other children.

Children returned to place graves where they "think" their houses used to be, buried under 20 feet of sediment

Children returned to place graves where they "think" their houses used to be, buried under 20 feet of sediment

The Cordillera Blanca Marathon

A view from a high mountain road of Huascaran, Peru's Highest

A view from a high mountain road of Huascaran, Peru's Highest

Why walk, when you can run?  That has been my motto in the last few years when it comes to exploring mountain trails, and despite going from the best shape of my life to my absolute worst in just eight months, I was doing my best to stick to it.  Thus when I heard that the Santa Cruz trek, one of the most scenic traverses through the mountains of Peru, was 26 miles, the same distance as a marathon, a trigger went off in my brain.  I was going to run it.  Despite my condition, the dizzying altitude, impending weather, and complicated logistics, there was no way I was not going to miss this opportunity.  I dubbed it “The Cordillera Blanca Marathon,” and unlike other marathons I’ve run, there wouldn’t be any other runners, fans, or aid stations along the way, just a few local ranchers, burros, and tourists on their all-inclusive 3-day trek.
What I love about trail running is the freedom, the need for nothing except a pair of lightweight runners, a water bottle, and a little bit of food.  Having spent too many years instructing backpacking trips and hauling gear up alpine climbs, my body has said enough already.  Let it go.  Drop the pack and run.
And so I bused four hours to the remote town of Colcabamba (population 80), just one kilometer from the start of the Santa Cruz trek, without a pack, just a lightweight rain jacket tied around my waist, a 12-ounce water bottle, and some cash.  I was aware that there probably wouldn’t be any accommodations in this rural town, but from other experiences in towns of this size, I was confident that the friendly mountain folk would take me in.  My first stop was the local elementary school, where the cutest children came to greet me.  Their excitement revealed that few if any foreigners had come to visit their community.  They asked me to take several photos of them, I happily obliged, and they showed their appreciation by dumping a pile of sawdust on my head.  After they were called in to class and subsequently yelled at by their teacher, I walked on to explore the rest of their community.
Why walk, when you can run?  That has been my motto in the last few years when it comes to exploring mountain trails, and despite going from the best shape of my life to my absolute worst in just eight months, I was doing my best to stick to it.  Thus when I heard that the Santa Cruz trek, one of the most scenic traverses through the mountains of Peru, was 26 miles, the same distance as a marathon, a trigger went off in my brain.  I was going to run it.  Despite my condition, the dizzying altitude, impending weather, and complicated logistics, there was no way I was not going to miss this opportunity.  I dubbed it “The Cordillera Blanca Marathon,” and unlike other marathons I’ve run, there wouldn’t be any other runners, fans, or aid stations along the way, just a few local ranchers, burros, and tourists on their all-inclusive 3-day trek.
What I love about trail running is the freedom, the need for nothing except a pair of lightweight runners, a water bottle, and a little bit of food.  Having spent too many years instructing backpacking trips and hauling gear up alpine climbs, my body has said enough already.  Let it go.  Drop the pack and run.
And so I bused four hours to the remote town of Colcabamba (population 80), just one kilometer from the start of the Santa Cruz trek, without a pack, just a lightweight rain jacket tied around my waist, a 12-ounce water bottle, and some cash.  I was aware that there probably wouldn’t be any accommodations in this rural town, but from other experiences in towns of this size, I was confident that the friendly mountain folk would take me in.  My first stop was the local elementary school, where the cutest children came to greet me.  Their excitement revealed that few if any foreigners had come to visit their community.  They asked me to take several photos of them, I happily obliged, and they showed their appreciation by dumping a pile of sawdust on my head.  After they were called in to class and subsequently yelled at by their teacher, I walked on to explore the rest of their community.
Kids at recess LOVE to have their photos taken

Kids at recess LOVE to have their photos taken

I soon met Linfa, a lovely young women, who invited me in for soup with her family.  When they heard my story, I had an invitation to spend the night in their modest home.  While Linfa went off to help her father with his animals in the surrounding hills, I was adopted by the children, who gave me the tour of the town, and a wrestling match on the local soccer field.  Hours passed and before I knew it, and I found myself stranded at a friends house in the darkness, in a town without electricity.  An eleven-year-old guided me to Linfa’s, and in the absence of light, I was set to hit the bed by eight.  I asked Linfa’s brother where the bathroom was.  “His response…everything is natural in this town.  We go outside.  But we will be building an outhouse soon.”  Natural huh?  I figured I’d hold it until the run the next morning.

Families from Colcabamba took me in and fed me for the day

Families from Colcabamba took me in and fed me for the day

I awoke at 6:30 am, had some boiled water (I was taking some serious water treatment precautions after realizing their methods of waste disposal), and was ready to go.  I was greeted by my friends, who were concerned about my departure and the fact that I was heading out alone without a pack.  They didn’t think it was possible for a “foreigner” to do it in day.  I promised I would call their community phone when I arrived to the next town that evening; otherwise they would send the horses out for me.  I was touch by their concern for a person they knew for just one day.

I started the uphill jog, at a snail pace.  Climbing at altitude is challenging, but running in the thin air is just another level.  I had climbed a big peak just two days before, and hoped that would help with acclimatization.  But it didn’t help with muscle fatigue and I soon worried that I’d be cramped up by mile 15.  I passed a few small villages and was enlivened by the cheers coming from houses and the children who ran alongside me.  I needed this.  Soon I would leave civilization for the rest of my run, and I was about to confront at a 3000 foot climb to a 16,000 foot pass.

I didn’t even bother trying to run the pass.  I had not the energy nor the notion that running it would help my overall day.  Instead, I settled in behind an arriero (burro driver), who was transporting food and gear for trekkers, who distracted me with condor viewings and jokes about how slow foreigners are.  I crested the pass and sat down for a candy bar, some 3 hours and only 12 miles into my run.  If this were a regular marathon, it would be over by now.  I jogged down to the mountain valley below, and although low clouds obscured my views of my longtime summit aspiration – Alpamayo, I was inspired just to know that it was looking over me.  The running became a bit technical, and although my movements felt fast, the rock hopping pace couldn’t have been faster than 15 minutes per mile.  This was going to be a long day.

Looking out at mile 11, 15,000 feet

Looking out at mile 11, 15,000 feet

I set small goals for myself.  I would run for 45 minute intervals and then take a 10-minute walking break to take photos, and rehydrate.  After 3 of these intervals I knew I had to be within five miles of the finish, but I was never exactly sure because I didn’t have a map.  I encountered a native couple, and asked how far we were from the trail’s finish in Cashapampa.  “Four-and-a-half hours walking” was their reply.  I was crushed.  Four and a half hours walking for them was going to be at least another two hours of jogging for me.  My legs said no way, and I resorted to walking once more.

As I walked down valley, I felt like a failure.  My blood sugar was really low, the altitude was killing me, and I was wondering if I would even make it out before nightfall.  But within minutes, I was welcomed by an unimaginable oasis.  A store!  What a dream.  I chugged a 3 dollar bottle of Gatorade and fell asleep on a grassy knoll.  I slowly awoke to the view of a sign for Cashapampa in the distance.  It read just 6 miles and 3000 feet of descent to go.  I overcame my wall and ran into town some 90 minutes later.  I jogged around a bit get an extra .2 miles in (runners you understand right?), and stopped my stopwatch at 7 hours and 13 minutes.  Wow.  That’s a marathon time some 3.5 times slower than the world record, and three hours longer than that run by Oprah Winfrey fifteen years ago.   I felt so proud.

I was not in shape for this!

I was not in shape for this!

I’m sure this was one of the most beautiful and most challenging marathons in the world, but more important than the run was the discovery of how to travel by running.  I have dreamed of the idea of running across South America, but was grounded by the logistics and the terrible notion of running with a pack.  However, once in a beautiful place, a runner can ditch her pack in a hostel for a few days, and head out with just a water bottle, purification tablets, and the clothes she’s wearing.  Run a 20k mountain run on ancient Inca trails by morning, and arrive in a remote Andean town to play with the children and arrange a homestay by evening. And then repeat.  Now that’s a way to travel.

Climbing with the Czechs

I now know why the Czechs are such strong climbers.  They seem to have an incredible tolerance for pain.  My new Czech  friends, Lucie and Nikola are no exception.  I first met them at a climber’s hangout, La Montana, in Quito, where they confessed the tragic beginning of their South American journey.  Arriving in Buenes Aires in the middle of the Argentina winter, they soon realized that they were starting their trip all wrong.  Given the timing of the seasons, it made much more sense for them to be embarking on their travels from the north.  Despite impossibly high airfares, they were undeterred from correcting their mistakes, and instead suffered through a 7-day non-stop bus journey from Argentina to Bogota.  If they could endure through such an ordeal and then laugh about it, I figured that they surely had the proper attitude to brave the a 6000 meter peak.  We thus decided to meet up once more and joined forces in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.
We decided to climb Pisco, a technically easy peak, but centrally located and at 5800 meters, it was supposed to have one of the best views of the range.  Admittedly, we weren’t exactly setting ourselves up for success.  Prior to our outing, while my Czech friends were hauling their own loads (rather than hiring burros, which is what most tourists do) on 10-day Andean treks, I was playing with penguins at sea-level in the Galapagos Islands, which was not exactly a good thing for acclimatization.  Furthermore, we arrived to the mountains a month later than what was considered the suitable season for climbing in the Peruvian Andes.  However, daily storms tended to clear up by evening and climbing by night would be our best bet.
On our approach day, we stopped in Yungay, a nearby mountain town, to scout out a hostel for our return.  We were greeted by the lovely Senora Rusula, and soon found out that her hostel was a mecca for Czech tourists and climbers.  After Lucie told her we were from the Czech Republic, she screamed out of joy, and gave us motherly hugs with her one arm.  Before I could admit to her that I was actually from the States, she had already raced to her bedroom to bring us her homemade hats, a gift that she gives to all of her Czech visitors.  She told us of her difficult last two years, suffering through two forms of cancer, and acquiring a severe case of diabetes.  She genuinely confessed that her only therapy in life was her visits from her Czech friends.
Thus, even though afternoon storms would be threatening our 1000 meter ascent to base camp, there was no getting out of soup and juice with Senora Rusula.  Furthermore, I didn’t have the heart to deny my Czech citizenship, although worried that my ignorance of my new homeland would soon reveal itself.  She asked me my name, and I came up with the only male Czech name I knew…Marek.  She asked me where I was from, and my reply was Prague…born and bred.  I was starting to feel guilty, and suggested that we better get on our way.
After a 1000 meter high approach and a rest day at our base camp at 4800 meters, we awoke to our alarms at midnight on October 13th.  I wanted to sleep in a little more, but my Czech friends, who love to suffer much more than I do, wouldn’t let it happen.  We crossed two moraines and a debris-covered glacier (which was quite similar to my research glacier on Mount Hood, Oregon), and arrived to rope up on the snow and ice slopes at 3:30 in the morning.  Lucie was having digestive issues, and I know from first-hand experience, that high altitudes magnify such an aliment. If I were her, I would have turned around a long time ago (of course, I’m not Czech!).  We powered up the glacier, watching the surrounding massive peaks become progressively whiter as the morning sun came across the horizon.  At 6:30 a.m. we crested a 60o slope, and with a first glimpse of the mountains to the north, I knew we were on the summit.  As I belayed Lucie up, I glanced at her face, and could tell that she was in a lot of stomach pain, but smiling nonetheless.  Man, these Czech girls are tough.  We took a group photo for Senora Rusula’s Czech Climbing album, and spent the next hour soaking in the most beautiful, unobstructed mountain views I had had in years.
We cruised down to base camp, and by 4 pm we were 11,000 feet lower, in oxygen-rich Yungay, with more hugs from Senora Rusula.  I brought her some flowers, she prepared us a traditional Peruvian dish of spicy Cuuy (fried guinea pig), and I attempted my best Czech accent for the remainder of the evening.  Our lovely host asked for our emails, and because all of my emails explicitly contain my American name, I had to make one up (feel free to email me at my new gmail account, mareksa23@gmail.com, which I only have to host emails from new friend from Yungay.)  After several celebratory rounds of pisco (the Peruvian national liqour, for which our mountain was named), I looked across the table at my tough, yet extremely positive friends, and confessed that I felt honored to be considered a Czech for the last few days.  Prague was soon placed on my list, which includes Copenhagen, and Vanuatu, as a priority city to visit, solely for my admiration of its people.
Los tres checos on Pisco

Los tres checos on Pisco

I now know why the Czechs are such strong climbers.  They seem to have an incredible tolerance for pain.  My new Czech  friends, Lucie and Nikola are no exception.  I first met them at a climber’s hangout, La Montana, in Quito, where they confessed the tragic beginning of their South American journey.  Arriving in Buenes Aires in the middle of the Argentina winter, they soon realized that they were starting their trip all wrong.  Given the timing of the seasons, it made much more sense for them to be embarking on their travels from the north.  Despite impossibly high airfares, they were undeterred from correcting their mistakes, and instead suffered through a 7-day non-stop bus journey from Argentina to Bogota.  If they could endure through such an ordeal and then laugh about it, I figured that they surely had the proper attitude to brave the a 6000 meter peak.  We thus decided to meet up once more and joined forces in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.

Alpenglow on Pisco

Alpenglow on Pisco

We decided to climb Pisco, a technically easy peak, but centrally located and at 5800 meters, it was supposed to have one of the best views of the range.  Admittedly, we weren’t exactly setting ourselves up for success.  Prior to our outing, while my Czech friends were hauling their own loads (rather than hiring burros, which is what most tourists do) on 10-day Andean treks, I was playing with penguins at sea-level in the Galapagos Islands, which was not exactly a good thing for acclimatization.  Furthermore, we arrived to the mountains a month later than what was considered the suitable season for climbing in the Peruvian Andes.  However, daily storms tended to clear up by evening and climbing by night would be our best bet.

The Huandoys...could make for a great traverse one day!

The Huandoys...could make for a great traverse one day!

On our approach day, we stopped in Yungay, a nearby mountain town, to scout out a hostel for our return.  We were greeted by the lovely Senora Rusula, and soon found out that her hostel was a mecca for Czech tourists and climbers.  After Lucie told her we were from the Czech Republic, she screamed out of joy, and gave us motherly hugs with her one arm.  Before I could admit to her that I was actually from the States, she had already raced to her bedroom to bring us her homemade hats, a gift that she gives to all of her Czech visitors.  She told us of her difficult last two years, suffering through two forms of cancer, and acquiring a severe case of diabetes.  She genuinely confessed that her only therapy in life was her visits from her Czech friends.

Thus, even though afternoon storms would be threatening our 1000 meter ascent to base camp, there was no getting out of soup and juice with Senora Rusula.  Furthermore, I didn’t have the heart to deny my Czech citizenship, although worried that my ignorance of my new homeland would soon reveal itself.  She asked me my name, and I came up with the only male Czech name I knew…Marek.  She asked me where I was from, and my reply was Prague…born and bred.  I was starting to feel guilty, and suggested that we better get on our way.

Climbing the glacier by perfect weather at night

Climbing the glacier by perfect weather at night

After a 1000 meter high approach and a rest day at our base camp at 4800 meters, we awoke to our alarms at midnight on October 13th.  I wanted to sleep in a little more, but my Czech friends, who love to suffer much more than I do, wouldn’t let it happen.  We crossed two moraines and a debris-covered glacier (which was quite similar to my research glacier on Mount Hood, Oregon), and arrived to rope up on the snow and ice slopes at 3:30 in the morning.  Lucie was having digestive issues, and I know from first-hand experience, that high altitudes magnify such an aliment. If I were her, I would have turned around a long time ago (of course, I’m not Czech!).  We powered up the glacier, watching the surrounding massive peaks become progressively whiter as the morning sun came across the horizon.  At 6:30 a.m. we crested a 60o slope, and with a first glimpse of the mountains to the north, I knew we were on the summit.  As I belayed Lucie up, I glanced at her face, and could tell that she was in a lot of stomach pain, but smiling nonetheless.  Man, these Czech girls are tough.  We took a group photo for Senora Rusula’s Czech Climbing album, and spent the next hour soaking in the most beautiful, unobstructed mountain views I had had in years.

On the summit...early

On the summit...early

We cruised down to base camp, and by 4 pm we were 11,000 feet lower, in oxygen-rich Yungay, with more hugs from Senora Rusula.  I brought her some flowers, she prepared us a traditional Peruvian dish of spicy Cuuy (fried guinea pig), and I attempted my best Czech accent for the remainder of the evening.  Our lovely host asked for our emails, and because all of my emails explicitly contain my American name, I had to make one up (feel free to email me at my new gmail account, mareksa23@gmail.com, which I only have to host emails from new friend from Yungay.)  After several celebratory rounds of pisco (the Peruvian national liqour, for which our mountain was named), I looked across the table at my tough, yet extremely positive friends, and confessed that I felt honored to be considered a Czech for the last few days.  Prague was soon placed on my list, which includes Copenhagen, and Vanuatu, as a priority city to visit, solely for my admiration of its people.

Marek and Rusula celebrating a great day!

Marek and Rusula celebrating a great day!

The Cordillera Blanca – Endless Oportunities

Chacraraju, a dream climb

Chacraraju, a dream climb

I can’t imagine a better, cheaper, more beautiful place in the world to climb such big mountains.  The Cordillera Blanca has it all, and with such accessibility and current lack or red tape, it should be on everyone mountaineer’s radar.  A flight to Peru isn’t cheap, but once you’re there, you can get by on 12 dollars a day.  Book an overnight bus ride from Lima to Huaraz, the climbing center of the Cordillera Blanca, sitting at 10,000 feet, and for less than $13 you’ll be on the most luxurious 170 degree reclining bus seat, complete with snacks, drinks, and movies.  Arrive in Huaraz, or if you have all you your gear and logistics planned out, arrive in a smaller more intimate pueblo, to acclimatize, enjoy the markets, tour ruins, and do phenomenal day hikes.

If you want to bag some major rock climbing routes, and you don’t mind doing a bit of gardening, the area around Huaraz has several Yosemite-esque valleys, stable granite walls, that extend for kilometers, and reach heights of 2000 feet above the glacier lakes below.  The El Cap-size Spinx Wall has seen some development, but it’s just one of several big walls that could fill a lifetime of climbing.
But the real prize in the Peruvian Andes are the giant 6000 meter peaks, ALL of which are accessible to nothing more than a long day hike.  On top of that, you can make your approach day really easy by hiring a burro and driver for a total of 15 dollars to trek in all of your luxurious base camp amenities.  And with a national park price tag of $22 dollars per month to climb peaks like these, why would anyone spend thousands of dollars to acquire permits in the Himalaya?  Couple the Cordillera Blanca with the nearby Huayhuash range, and you will find a lifetime of alpine first ascents, begging to be plucked.
I guess I am writing this so that I don’t forget to come back in the coming years.  In just one month in the Huaraz area, you could climb several 6000 meter climbs, work some new routes, do a cultural exchange, engage in a service project, and do some of the most spectacular trail running in the world!  I’ve been trying to be less obsessed with climbing in the last few years, but this survey trip rekindled the bug, and I’m already thinking of a return trip to climb, Chacraraju, one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.  Who’s in?
PS- If you are the type who is looking for a guided, full-package trip, my friends Jen and Ted run a top-notch guiding service.  Check out Skyline Adventures at http://www.skyline-adventures.com/
Chacraju...a dreamy climb

Chacraju...a dreamy climb

I can’t imagine a better, cheaper, more beautiful place in the world to climb such big mountains.  The Cordillera Blanca has it all, and with such accessibility and current lack or red tape, it should be on everyone mountaineer’s radar.  A flight to Peru isn’t cheap, but once you’re there, you can get by on 12 dollars a day.  Book an overnight bus ride from Lima to Huaraz, the climbing center of the Cordillera Blanca, sitting at 10,000 feet, and for less than $13 you’ll be on the most luxurious 170 degree reclining bus seat, complete with snacks, drinks, and movies.  Arrive in Huaraz, or if you have all you your gear and logistics planned out, arrive in a smaller more intimate pueblo, to acclimatize, enjoy the markets, tour ruins, and do phenomenal day hikes.

A day excursion to see the rare plant, Puya Raimondi. Standing up to 45 feet high, it flowers just once in its 28-year lifespan, and then promptly dies.

A day excursion to see the rare plant, Puya Raimondi. Standing up to 45 feet high, it flowers just once in its 28-year lifespan, and then promptly dies.

If you want to bag some major rock climbing routes, and you don’t mind doing a bit of gardening, the area around Huaraz has several Yosemite-esque valleys, stable granite walls, that extend for kilometers, and reach heights of 2000 feet above the glacier lakes below.  The El Cap-size Spinx Wall has seen some development, but it’s just one of several big walls that could fill a lifetime of climbing.
An arriero, or burro driver, hauling in gear and food for trekkers

An arriero, or burro driver, hauling in gear and food for trekkers

But the real prize in the Peruvian Andes are the giant 6000 meter peaks, ALL of which are accessible to nothing more than a long day hike.  On top of that, you can make your approach day really easy by hiring a burro and driver for a total of 15 dollars to haul in all of your luxurious base camp amenities.  And with a national park price tag of $22 dollars per month to climb peaks like these, why would anyone spend thousands of dollars to acquire permits in the Himalaya?  Couple the Cordillera Blanca with the nearby Huayhuash range, and you will find a lifetime of alpine first ascents, begging to be plucked.
Just another yosemite-esque valley. Big walls waiting to be climbed!

Just another yosemite-esque valley. Big walls waiting to be climbed!

It’s not like I am revealing some big climbing secret here.  I guess I am writing this so that I don’t forget to come back in the coming years.  In just one month in the Huaraz area, you could climb several 6000 meter climbs, work some new routes, do a cultural exchange, engage in a service project, and do some of the most spectacular trail running in the world!  I’ve been trying to be less obsessed with climbing in the last few years, but this survey trip rekindled the bug, and I’m already thinking of a return trip to climb, Chacraraju, one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.  Who’s in?
PS- If you are the type who is looking for a guided, full-package trip, my friends Jen and Ted run a top-notch guiding service.  Check out Skyline Adventures at http://www.skyline-adventures.com/