Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Glaciers, Lagoons, and Mountains, Oh My!: Huaraz, Peru

Today, two is the magic number.  I've been away from home for 2 months, have been international for 2 weeks, and am now writing about my 2nd Peruvian city.  In contrast to the metropolitan capital of Peru: Lima, Huaraz is an outdoor wonderland.  It is nestled between two mountain ranges:  the Cordillera Negra (a range of rolling, brown, grass-covered hills to the west), and the Cordillera Blanca (dramatic, steep snow-capped peaks worthy of the most adventurous travelers, to the east).  Within a few hours drive of Huaraz, there are tons of amazing activities: glaciers, hiking trails, rock climbing, ancient ruins, lagoons, and historical sights. Given my knee issues (thanks heredity), I wasn't able to enjoy the most popular treks (4 and 8 day long expeditions through the Cordillera Blanca).  So instead, I made the most of the less physically demanding options.  Here's the highlight reel:

Puya Plant

Most people, when asked, would probably not say they find plants particularly interesting. Maybe you would agree?  Perhaps this plant will change their/your minds.  Meet the Puya Raimondii, the largest species of bromeliad known to man.  It can only be found in the Andes mountain range, at an elevation of between 3000-4500m.  It can grow as tall as 4 meters (that's 12', America), taking up to 100 years to do so!  What makes them so interesting, is that they flower only once, dying soon after!  I happened to visit these plants when many of them were in bloom.  I witnessed one of my first, rare, amazing natural phenomena!   The Puya in the pictures below are at least 10' tall.

My next favorite sight was the result of yet another natural phenomenon.  In 1970, an earthquake rocked the Andes, causing a huge sheet of glacial ice to collapse, inciting an enormous avalanche.  Within 3 minutes of the quake, (just to repeat that: 3 minutes!!!) an entire town of over 20,000 people was buried under snow, rocks and mud.  Rocks came crashing down up to 900 km/hr (that's 560 mi/hr, America).  These rocks, like the one shown below, are up to 10 meters (30') tall!   The picture below shows a flat field of grass.  This is where the town once was, now laying as a living cemetery, up to 15 meters (45 feet) underground.  You can almost make out, behind the clouds, the very mountaintop from which all the debris originated.

The burial site of the town of Yungay, from the 1970 earthquake that caused a debris avalanche.
Yungay's cemetery was perched on a hill at the back of the town, furthest away from the sight of the avalanche.  It was the only building unharmed by the disaster.  Only 90 people survived this tragedy, and it was those who were visiting their loved ones in the cemetery, a tradition on Sundays.  Our tour guide said that these people were trapped for 3 days before they could climb out of all the rubble. The entire, original cemetery is still standing today, as part of the whole town memorial.  It is a lasting site for historical preservation, and a reminder of how quickly, 3 minutes, life can change.

The original cemetery of Yungay, the only original building left standing after the tragedy in 1970.

The remains of a building destroyed in the avalanche.

Wall of the cemetery

Stairs leading to the top of the cemetery


The next of my favorite activities in Huaraz also involves a snow capped mountaintop, but fortunately, it has a much better ending.  My first full day in Huaraz, I hopped on a tour to see Pastoruri, a huge glacier, perched at 5,250 meters (yes, America, don't worry, I've got you:  17,200 feet) above sea level.  Luckily, much of that distance was covered by car...  but not all!  With a nice, stone, path, I meandered my way up the last thousand or so meters to see the glacier, a walk that takes an acclimatized, fit hiker 15 minutes, but takes a non-fit foreigner like me, lugging over 20 lbs (I've got you, world: 10 kg) of camera gear over an hour to do.  Granted, I was actually taking lots of pictures, but it was quite embarrassing to be moving so slowly!   Some people even rented horses to make their way up.

The early path up to the glacier has a wooden railing to help you on your way

As you get closer to the glacier, it gets harder and harder to breath, but the view is too amazing to stop

Man bringing horse back down after bringing a guest up the hill
I loved taking pictures of all the different cairns I saw along the way up

The higher I got, the more frequent my breath-breaks needed to be.  I was shocked at how out of breath I got, stopping every 10 or so steps to concentrate on breathing deeply from my stomach.  Luckily, an earlier stop to drink Mate de Coca (coca tea, which apparently helps with altitude sickness), and to buy some candies (the sugar in which gives your body energy to overcome the fatigue at altitude), helped get me through.

Horse handlers waiting at the top for guests, seen playing cards to kill the time (to the right).
Though I don't know how they did it, it's freezing up there!
The view looking back down the path as I got closer to the top
Once at the top, though, I was rewarded with incredible views.  Though a cloudy day, the drama of the beautiful blue glacier was not lost. Since it had taken me so long to hike up, I was left with very little time to shoot at the top and to return to the van.  I worked as quickly as I could, though I felt a bit lightheaded, and my arms felt like jello, too weak to lift a 10 lb (5 kg) camera.

I had to practically run back down the trail so as to not delay the rest of the group, and I made it exactly on time.  With every step down, breathing was that much easier, and my body felt that much lighter.  I arrived to the van completely exhausted, but very satisfied.

Laguna 69

Yet another feat of mind over matter was my trip to Laguna 69.  As I mentioned earlier, due to my knees (thanks, mom), I was unable to do any long hiking trips.  It was suggested that I do the day trip to Lagoon 69.  More than one person recommended it to me as a nice, easy hike, so I eagerly hopped aboard.  The trail is a mixture of flats and moderate steeps, starting at about 3800m/12,000 ft and reaching up to 4750 m/15,585 ft, that takes the average hiker 3 hours.  I knew that would be a stretch for me.  To help assure success this time, I learned from past experience and did these 5 things:

  1. I wore knee braces on both knees.  
  2. I bought a cheap pair of trekking poles.
  3. I filled my hydration sleeve with water instead of just bringing a water bottle.
  4. I brought coca candies and leaves to chew.
  5. I decided to just trust myself, go at my own pace, enjoy the journey, take great photos, and not feel pressured to reach the peak.  I wanted to make sure the day was full of pleasant memories, and not of discomfort or embarrassment.
Looking back now, I am so thankful about all of those things,... especially #5.  I let the stream of hikers go past me as a group of buses arrived around the same time.  As I walked the easy beginning of the trail, I was alone.  I heard the babbling of the glacial stream to my left, the chirp of birds to my right, and the crunching of my feet and trekking poles beneath me.  In fact, that first hour was the happiest hour I've spent in Peru.  It was idyllic, tranquil, contemplative, and stunningly beautiful.  I happily watched the light change on the mountains surrounding me, and clicked away with my shutter to my heart's content.  

As time passed, the incline of the trail increased, the air got thinner, and I was feeling the trek more and more.  Much like at the glacier, my breaks became more frequent, my head got lighter while my arms seemed to grow heavier.  I used my coca candy to push through.    But this time, since I had already given myself permission to not summit, I enjoyed those breaks.  At each one I watched the hills, the clouds, the grazing bulls (yes, there were random bulls), listened to the wind and the crashing water in the waterfalls.

After about 4 hours of hiking, breathing deeply and photographing, I realized that there really was no way I could reach the lagoon in time (still another hour's hike away).  I dedicated the last bit of energy I had to just making it to a smaller, less dramatic lagoon.   I made it there, lightheaded and exhausted, but content.  I sat on a large rock, warming in the sun, watching the light and wind change the reflections in the small lake.

After about 30 minutes of respite here, I resigned myself to the task of returning to the van...  An ominous task after a 4 hr ascent.  But luckily, in addition to increased oxygen flow during my descent, the weather had begun to turn: dark clouds rolling in, cool air blowing through, and nipping gusts of wind biting, so it was easy to stay moving.  Plus, I had already taken hundreds of photos on the way up, taking advantage of the nice weather to enjoy the breaks and catch better photos than I would have gotten during my overcast return trip.  So I made it back to the van, after a quick 1.5 hour descent almost at a run.  I was afraid I would be late to the bus!  I was completely out of breath, exhausted, and freezing cold, but I made it, and I made it in great time!  The next day was rough, as I battled nausea and fatigue from the altitude and the exertion, but nothing that lots of water, yummy food, and a bubble bath couldn't fix!

Llanganuco (yan-guh-noo-koh)
You know they always say: "save the best for last?"  Well, it was a tough decision, but this last site was absolutely amazing.  Peru has lots of lagoons.  They were formed by glacial ice, so many have a unique turquoise color.  Since I didn't get to summit and see the supposedly gorgeous Laguna 69, I was thankful to see one that could be seen from the windows of a car!  Llanganuco is a pair of lagoons, that are the most brilliant color of turquoise you can imagine.  They sit at about 3,850m/12,630ft, surrounded by dramatic mountains on every side.  One has to merely pull into the parking lot to see them!  I was in awe.  It was like something out of fantasy film, water that looked like paint.

As the school groups packed into boats, only S. 5 (5 soles = about $1.50 USD), I walked around as much as I could of the lagoon.  We arrived just before the sun set behind the mountains, so I was thankful to catch the last glimmer of light.

So there you have it!  A taste of the best that Huaraz has to offer (for the mobil-ly impaired): glaciers, lagoons, mountains, 100 year-old rare plants, and natural disasters.  It was an action packed few days.   I have now arrived in a gorgeous beach town, relaxing and sorting through loads and loads of pictures.  I can't lie, it feels great to be at sea level!

Now, as an added bonus for reading all the way to the end?  A rare treat!  Selfies!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Lima: My Top Ten Moments

I'm sure you have all been waiting with bated breath since my last post, wondering to yourself, but what is she doing now?  Well, rest assured, dear friends, the wait is over.  I decided to make my own top ten list for Lima.  This is by no means comprehensive of all the possibilities, but these are my 10 favorite moments from my week in Lima.  What you will notice, is that most of these are merely the result of good timing, and being open to an unexpected opportunity.  Few if any of these would be listed in a guidebook, or on the list of "must see in Lima" that a tour company might tell you, so I am so thankful that we happened to be that at that moment, ready for what was available.  Whatsmore, they were nearly all free!

10)  Public Art
Lima has a good amount of public art- sculptures on corners and public space designed with an artistic eye.  One of my favorite pieces was an installation along the coastline, a large, tiled functional art piece dedicated to love.  Walls and benches were decorated with tile pictures and quotes about love.  Couples found places to sit and many people sat in relaxation, looking out onto the waves.

9)  Huaca Pucllana
Unexpectedly, as I was walking with my new travel buddy Katja, we came upon the most remarkable sight: a huge pre-Inca building right in the middle of Lima!  Called Huaca Pucllana, it is a pyramidal relic from the Lima people, from 200 to 700 AD, constructed completely from adobe bricks.  It is a highly protected sight of great historical significance, and pretty impressive to imagine all the work that went into building such an enormous structure by hand.

8)  San Cristobal
Also by chance, Katja and I hopped on a tour bus that went through the historical part of Lima, and then on to San Cristobal, a hill just outside of the center with a shrine at the top.  I enjoyed the ride, and having a high view of the city.  The best part for me, though, was winding our way through the very tight, winding roads as we crept up the hill (and then back down)  It was thrilling, actually; the bus seeming too big to even fit in these narrow streets.  We dodged dogs, cars, taxis, mototaxis and pedestrians, all the while listening to blaring salsa music.

7)  Morro Solar
My 7th favorite activity was actually another hill, this time on the south side of town.  Atop the hill was another crucifix, but what really made the trip amazing were the views of the coast!

6)  Salto del Fraile
In this same excursion, a little further down the coast, we (accidentally) timed it perfectly to come upon the Salto del Fraile (The Priest's Jump).  Every day, a priest, dressed in traditional robe, makes a jump off a cliff into the churning ocean water below, climbing back up to collect tips from onlookers.  It was a remarkable sight, and he made it look so easy!  If you notice in the background of these pictures you will see the huge waves coming in.

5)  Malecón
Since Lima is right on the water, it is blessed with a remarkable amount of coastline.  To it's credit, Lima has capitalized on this with a beautiful Malecón: a seafront walkway lined with small parks, public artworks, piers, vistas, and even tennis courts, a hang gliding site and public exercise equipment.  My favorite thing about this, aside from just being outside and near the water, was just seeing all of the families out together, people out and active, and loving pet owners taking their dogs for a stroll.  I walked along part of this nearly every day of my weeklong stay.

4)  Pokemon Go
Number 4 on my list is on here less because I enjoyed it, and more because it was just so memorable.  Katja and I had just made our way to the Punta (the point, the furthest tip of Lima).  It is a lovely seaside space with lots of locals there relaxing.  We had just arrived, walking towards the water to watch the fishermen repair their nets, when all of a sudden a huge flood of largely adolescent males swarmed out to the ocean's edge, eyes glued to their phones.  "Well, this is a big school trip, I thought."  But then I kept watching.  Everyone was just watching their phones, hobbling across a stoney beach, not noticing the beauty that surrounds them.  "Oh no," I thought, "it can't be."  But yes, yes it was.  Over 100, probably closer to 200 people, in a swarm, playing Pokemon Go.  I was shocked.  I had no idea there was such an immense following still.

3)  Pisco Sour on the Beach
Thanks to a local friend, we were treated to a lovely evening in the southern part of Lima.  There we sat, overlooking the water, and enjoying the local drink:  Pisco Sour.  It wasn't fancy, but it was relaxed, and a really special night, seeing the city through the eyes of a generous local.

2)  Circus Show
In the southern, more touristy, part of town, there is a large public park.  Every time I went through it, it was full of people, locals, tourists, families, and lots of smiles.  One day, yet again with our excellent timing, we happened upon the park just as a circus show was about to start.  The performer mesmerized his audience of both children and adults.  He had interactive parts of the show, and mixed in a generous amount of comedy, maintaining a crowd that only continued to grow as he went through his acts.  As I watched, I was so impressed with his timing, his charisma, and I couldn't help but feel that that was a bit of what teaching is like.  You have to be part clown to gain and maintain the attention of 25 youngsters all day.

1)  Art Market
While traveling, I am always on the lookout for interesting art.  I try to wade through the mass-produced, touristic art, and find something more unique and unusual.  So far, I have found some amazing pieces, and anyone who has been to my apartment has seen some of them.  That is about the only kind of souvenir I buy anymore: art that inspires me to keep creating.  Here in Lima, I spent 2 days scouring every art market I could find, and was pleased to find some really beautiful work amongst the rest.  My favorite moment from this was meeting this woman, Milagros (Miracles, in spanish).  After much scrutiny, I bought three paintings from her, not even haggling over the prices.  I thought they were very fair, and the work was good.  What made this moment special, was that one of the paintings was hers, and the second was her uncle (and teacher's) work.  If I only had a camera at that moment to capture her joy.  At that moment she was lit up with childlike excitement; she literally jumped in the air, screaming, and gave me a hug with a huge smile on her face.  It was a really great moment.  Art is a really tough way of life, so I am really glad that I was able to support her in her work.

So that's it!  My Top Ten Things in Lima!   I hope you are inspired to take your own trip down here, and then let me know what your top ten are!  I want to give a special thanks to my dear travel buddy Katja, my kind hosts Abi and Lucho, and to my charismatic and generous guide, Christian.  You guys really made that week special!