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on feet

PERÚ: CEDROS DE ALPAMAYO

My circuit by bicycle of the Olimpia and Llunganuco passes with their spectacular mountain backdrops left me wanting more. I long to get closer still to those peaks and investigate their icy mysteries in greater detail.

Emboldened by my six day trek in the El Cocuy National Park in the north of Colombia, and fortified by invaluable information provided by Harriet and Neil (of Pikes on Bikes), I decide to tackle the Alpamayo Circuit, a ten day high altitude trek. I fill my backpack with as much dehydrated food as I can find, highlight some key names on the topographical map that James gave me, and set off on foot.

The trail head is at Cashapamba and so I hop on a minibus for the seventy kilometres from Huaraz to Caraz and then endure a rattly 'collectivo' ride on the steep windy bumpy dirt road up into the hills to the entrance to the 'quebrada'. Once I've bought my trekking permit at the gates of National Park I am ready to embark. The walk starts with a long steady climb up the valley. For the first two or three days my way follows the route of the Santa Cruz trek, one most popular walks in the Cordillera Blanca, and consequently is quite busy. For each group of tourists on the route there is usually an enormous accompanying team of guides, porters, cooks and helpers and a herd of pack animals. I am heading in the opposite direction to most people and somehow manage to largely avoid the crowds.

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The second day offers the possibility of a side trip to the Alpamayo base camp. The weather is perfect...

... and the valley deserted.

Just above the Alpamayo base camp, peaks rise...

... above another ethereal glacial lake where I spend a happy hour or two...

... before returning to the main valley.

Even with a side trip, I make an early camp just past the standard 'Day Two' site, where I have an admirable view from the cosy shelter of my tent.

There is ample time to soak it all in...

...until the sun slides away...

...over the mountains...

... ultimately leaving the warmest, most comfortable place, my snug sleeping bag cocoon.

Next morning sees me at Punta Union, the first of the treks passes.

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Always something new to see... this flower is a member of the buttercup family and its local name in Quechua is rima rima, apparently meaning "speak speak". The flower is believed to have the property of helping a child who has not yet learnt to talk to speak if it is knocked gently against the tongue.

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The forth day starts with another steep climb.

The sun arrives late on this mountainside and all sorts of ice formations...

... adorn...

...the way.

I should have learnt the names of at least some of these peaks by now... but I haven't!

Sun comes over the pass before I reach it, illuminating the forest.

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Looking back; the trail on the other side is the Santa Cruz trail descending into the valley towards Vaqueria, a small village I passed through on my bike last week on the way up to the Portachuelo de Llanganuco pass.

Finally, up and over the pass, another galcier, another improbably coloured lake...

... and a long descent, dropping down into a bucolic valley...

...of boggy pampas dotted with cows and sheep and campesiños.

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The way is always harder to find where trails multiply due to greater habitation and it is late in the day but the time I reach this lakeside camp by an unnecessarily circuitous route.

In the morning, a short climb...

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... and another descent which brings further encounters with valley folk and their beasts. Sadly, in this area, any greeting is quickly and almost inevitably followed up with a request, or a demand, really: Dame chocolate! Give me chocolate! Regalome un sol! Give me money! I decline.

It must be said, that on the evidence of the local housing, that people in the area are not wealthy and who knows where the money collected at the entrance to the park the is going - not, it would appear, to anything that benefits the local communities.

More peaks rising splendidly above the valley.

This delightful girl, Celíca, accompanies me for a couple of kilometres after I ask her and her mother for directions when I encounter them doing their washing in a stream. She begs me for any information I might have on how to combat freckles but then she talks about her aspirations - she is interested in theatre but also dreams of a future as a nutritionist. I wish I could offer her something of substance, more to assist in giving her an improbable opportunity to pursue her ambitions through the practical means of further studies than in curing her freckles, but I only have chocolate. I give her some.

At the top of the valley, I stop confronted with tomorrow's pass...

...so I let night fall where I am. I cook by starlight*...

*Well, planetlight, I guess, I presume this to be Venus – the ‘evening star’.

... over an illegal fire. It has become apparent that I am probably not going to run out of food during my ten day trek but I am certainly going to run out fuel before I am done.

It is a guilty pleasure, but an undeniable one.

The cliffs high above my campsite turn out to be home to a pair of adult condors with a juvenile still in their care. I watch them settle in to roost in the evening and then set out to another day of lofty circumvolutions as the morning light strikes their aerie.

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Up and over another pass, to make acquaintance with a new set of valley beasts - alpaca.

I've seen plenty of these alpine cacti before but this is the first time that I have seen them in flower.

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This giant rock offers a cave campsite that appears intriguing from a distance...

... but a closer inspection reveals decades of garbage...

... scattered around the area.

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I head up a long wide valley on another side trip. There is nobody at all here and I see a couple of Andean foxes. Wildlife is scare in these parts, in fact I think I can count the wild animals that I have seen in seven months of camping in South America on the fingers of a single hand. Andean foxes are far bigger and a lot less shy than the little grey Central American ones and I'm glad not to tangle with one too closely.

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The shores of the glacial lake at the end of the valley are dotted with post-Incan ruins but I'm not at all sure what they are about.

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Climbing above the valley floor proves challenging, initially because the trail is not clear on the pamapa and I have a fatal attraction for alluring cow trails that lead to precarious steep loose rocky slopes and then disappear. Once I gain the first pass after stumbling and sliding on this terrain through spiky brush I am confronted with a long desolate rocky valley to traverse before the reaching a second higher pass. And then it starts to spit rain and hail.

On the other side of the pass, just ahead of me there, it's still a long way down into the valley to find a flat campsite with a good source of running water.

I arrive at the campsite which I have to share with a few other groups, not long before sunset.

In the morning, the groups set off but I head in the opposite direction on yet another side trip to investigate a valley running up to the 'back' of the Santa Cruz peaks.

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These alpine plants that I have seen, at altitude, as far north as El Cocuy are known locally, in Quechua, as 'Guinea Pig Penises' and they are hung in the corner of guinea pig hutches to encourage prolific reproduction. I think of them as more reminiscent of sea foliage, myself, but then I haven't studied guinea pig anatomy very closely.

This valley has an ethereal beauty that I find hard to wrest myself away from.

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Closer observation of the glaciers, using my binoculars, reveal details such as ice caves hung with delicate icicles and hint at the some of the rewards of mountaineering. I may yet have to get still closer ... but that will have to be for some other time.

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Back on the main trail, I arrive at one of the official camp sites...

... but pass it by in favour of a walled field a little further on.

The last pass is the highest...

...and once scaled another stunning vista opens up...

... above another perfect celestial lake.

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It's all downhill from here...

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A condor circles...

... above the last campsite, at 4200 metres.

In the morning, it is a return to the agricultural patchwork below.

The village of Hualcallan where the trek ends is settled on one of the earliest archeological sites in Peru with structures that date back to over 2000 B.C.. A large group of archeologists led by the US site director just happen to currently be in residence.

I am allowed to visit but not photograph the dig at the larger of these two mounds in the middle of the villager's crops. The Peruvian archeologist who showed me around the dig explains to me how the different cultural and ethnic groups built their temples and ceremonial structures one on top of the other as they rose and fell from power... It is still the same today, he said, he glancing back towards the building in the village full of archeologists and students from the US.

On the hill above the village there are a number of more recent burial mounds.

{ 9 } Comments

  1. Tim Joe Comstock | August 19, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    It is all so beautiful Anna. Thank you.

    tj

  2. anna | August 19, 2013 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, tj. It is beautiful. Hard to drag myself away…

  3. Cesca | August 20, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Rugged and beautiful, and thanks for sharing. Tony and I just keep shaking our heads at how intrepid you are. By the way, a post for The Other Hundred just appeared on Facebook with one of your photos and a brief bio of you and a link to your blog. You may have a few more people tuning in!

  4. anna | August 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Cesca, thanks for popping in. Hope all is well with you and your boys.

    Thanks for letting me know about the FB post. FB is a closed book to me – I am a resister!

  5. Cesca | August 21, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Hi Anna. You’re really not missing much! After I mentioned it, I realised it probably wouldn’t figure in your scheme of things. All well with the boys.

  6. John Fontanilles | August 22, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    An inspiring post with beautiful photos.
    Safe Travels-

  7. Valentina | August 25, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Anna,
    What an inspiration you are! I’ve been thinking of riding my bike solo down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. I’ll be turning 40 next year, and hope to be ready for this adventure then. I live in Los Angeles with my husband, and our guest room is always available for adventurous women like you.

  8. Michael | September 9, 2013 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    Hermoso, Anna.
    Que bueno ver que vas tejiendo tu ruta hacia el Sur. Hermosas las fotos de las montañas en Peru y buenazo tu Vote for… post. Dice mucho de la politica Andina.
    Suerte en lo que se viene.

  9. Ted | September 17, 2013 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Oye güerita,

    I keep meeting people that know you! I’ve been charged with sending you saludos from Manuel and Marta from the casa de ciclistas in Medellín; from Manuel’s cousin who lives in Palmichal near the Río Cauca, and from the guys who work at the finca on the Cauca that ferried you across; and saludos desde Colombia from me of course.

    Happy trails

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