In this week’s story, I find myself in the mountains of Peru in February of 2011…. In a new twist on my usual traveling way, for this particular journey I am also accompanied by a beautiful and amazing woman… the mysterious Ms. B.. Her role this week is very minor. Nevertheless, please take note of her appearance. In future stories, the part she plays is likely to be much more prominent.
Feb. 1, 2011; Caraz, Peru….
It’s an unfair universe. People die…lots of them…everyday…all the time. And all the metaphors in the world won’t stop that from happening. May 31, 1970: Yungay, Peru. An earthquake, an avalanche and the entire town was buried. It only took an instant for 18,000 people to perish. As I stand here, where that town used to be and look upwards at the mountain that collapsed upon it, a wave of emotion washes over me. Why me? Why not me? But for the grace of the gods go I… Live now because tomorrow may be gone in an instant…
After one full week in the semi-luxurious but amazingly cheap penthouse room with a view in Huaraz, we decided to move on. It only takes an hour or so in a crowded mini bus to travel down the Ancash valley to the town of Caraz and when we arrive we wonder why we didn’t make the trip sooner. Caraz is another of the world’s perfect little paradises…definitely my kind of town. There’s a nice central plaza, a small population of friendly Andean people and the entire place is surrounded by snow-capped peaks. It’s the kind of place where I could stay…live…never leave. Why did we stay in the noisy , crowded city of Huaraz for so long when this idyllic wonderland was just down the road?
So here we are, in another awesome room, with a balcony overlooking the main plaza.. The town is atmospheric and easy going. There’s a guy with a bicycle bread cart down below us in the street and that is oh so awesome; there are plenty of pastelerias to satisfy the sweet tooth; there’s lots of good little restaurants; a few local bars; a couple places have good coffee and the plaza is a flowering masterpiece of shrubs, flowers and trees with walkways and paths and benches. It is definitely a nice place to hang out and do nothing for a few days. But why do nothing? As long as we are here, we might as well have an adventure.
We awake at 6:00 am just as morning light begins to shine in the sky. We prepped the night before so we leave almost immediately. We skip breakfast and go directly to collectivo corner. We catch one right away; cram into the mini bus with a crowd of 10 or 12 other passengers and go the 13 kilometers (8 miles) to the town of Yungay. Actually, it’s really New Yungay that we go to because the original Yungay was buried underneath a landslide in 1970. We are looking for a collectivo stop in the center of the new town.
We hardly get out of one collectivo before we find the next one. But this one is not leaving for a few minutes so I have time for a quick cup of coffee… Blah! Nescafe in an improvised to-go cup of an empty Fanta bottle. Perhaps the single worst cup of joe in all of human history. Nevertheless, we are crammed into another collectivo for the long and crazy ride. Onwards and upwards goes the dirt pathway that is supposed to be a road…climbing ever higher into the mountains. The distance is only 30 kilometers but it’s uphill all the way so it takes almost an hour. We have to stop at a ranger station to pay a small park entrance fee. While there we score a roasted potato and a hard boiled egg from the road side food stand. After that, we get back in the collectivo for another 15 minutes. And then, finally, we get ourselves dropped off.
How to describe the indescribable? The canyon/valley that encompasses the glacier lakes of Llagunanoco is one of the most mind bogglingly beautiful places on the planet earth. The two lakes are colored a milky opal blue. Massive rock cliffs and promontories rise up all around us. Various small waterfalls tumble down the rocks and form into streams to fill in the glacier lakes. And then way up in the background looming almost on top of us are the great glacier peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. Indeed, in rather close proximity…seeming close enough to touch, looming just out of reach, visible and present but not quite attainable is the highest peak of them all. Huascaran; the tallest mountain in Peru reaching a height of 6700 meters (around 21,000 feet). With a glittering crystal white glacier top, it is standing right there before us.
And so we begin walking. We follow the dirt road back the way we came but soon leave the road to walk along the edge of the first lake. We stop for brunch; a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bottle of water and we are living large. How good is this life? A beautiful woman (Ms. B.), the perfect glacier lake, the big mountain looking down from above and a mid day stroll in the sunlight…
We circumnavigate the two lakes walking along the shorelines as much as possible but occasionally we have to follow the dirt road. We see one collectivo pass by and a small group of road workers but mostly it seems that we have the valley to ourselves. There’s white sand on the shore of one lake but mostly the lakes are surrounded by rocks. Strange twisted trees with awesome orange fluffy bark crowd the shoreline. Birds skitter across the water and fly through the air. A surprising assortment of colorful flowers spring forth from the shrubbery. The whole scene is alive with a vibrant intensity. Human experience is full on. Mother nature…the planet earth in all it’s glory and possibility bestows its blessings upon us. Everything is so incredible it almost seems unreal. We do try to take photos. But one dimensional images cannot possibly portray the multi-dimensional reality.
It’s early afternoon by the time we reach the end of the second lake. There’s a ranger station there with an interpretative nature trail; bathrooms; a couple of indigenous ladies selling local food and even a couple of small boats. But the boats are occupied by a tour group and our bellies are full of pb&j’s so we don’t hang around the picnic area for long. Instead, we follow the trail that disappears into the woods.
To say that the trail is beautiful seriously trivializes the reality. I know I tend to overdue things with superlatives but it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most amazing walking trails on the planet earth. It’s a perfect paradise; a Shangra La; an Elysia; a Garden of Eden. It really could not get any better; a flowing rushing river of opal blue; a thin forest of fluffy orange bark trees; an abundance of colorful flowers and birds and butterflies; towering rocks cliffs with waterfalls spilling over them; and the incredibly impressive image of the mountain… Huascaran…looking down on this idyllic scene like some kind of god.
It takes a few hours to walk the trail and it is late in the afternoon by the time we reach the dirt road again. We are tired and hungry from the long day’s walk and we are seriously hoping it won’t take long to find some transport back to Yungay and Caraz. A collectivo or bus has to come by sooner or later; it’s just a question of when. I guess it’s theoretically possible to walk the 30 kilometers downhill back to Yungay but we’d rather not. It’s been a full day of exercise and now we want to relax.
Sometimes in this life, you get lucky…and this is one of those times. We have just emerged from the pathway onto the road when a bus heads our way. It’s a tour bus but we wave for it to stop anyway. Surprisingly, it does. There are 2 empty seats so the guide offers us a lift to Yungay for 10 soles (3 bucks). Good deal; we climb aboard.
After traveling only 10 kilometers the bus stops at a road side restaurant so the tour group can eat. Good news for us; we are starving now and it’s a good restaurant. After lunch, the tour guide asks where we are staying and we say Caraz. He then tells us that the tour is continuing on to Caraz so we can have a lift all the way there. But first they are stopping in Old Yungay to visit something very interesting.
Truthfully, I already know quite a bit about the interesting stop in Old Yungay. I went there on my first trip to South America way back in 1993. And Ms. B and I were planning to go there after our trek to Llagunanoco. Except our trek took longer than expected and we were exhausted from the long walk and didn’t think we had the time or energy for the detour. But the luck of the tour group makes it possible. The bus takes a left in New Yungay and travels 5 kilometers up a side road to where the town used to be. We get off the bus and enter the sacred ground.
The story is one of great tragedy. On May 31, 1970, an earthquake dislodged a section of glacier from the top of Mount Huascaran. The glacier slid into the valley collecting mud and dirt along the way. In a matter of seconds, the entire town of Yungay was buried and 18,000 people were killed. In other words, a town as big as my hometown of Oneonta disappeared in seconds… It kind of puts things in perspective. On 9-11-2001 in NY city some 3000 people died. With no disrespect intended, that tragedy is rather miniscule in comparison. In response to 9-11, America waged two wars and killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims. In response to the disaster at Yungay, what could Peruvians do? You can’t wage war against a mountain…against a god. All you can do is hope and pray it never happens again and try to go on living in the shadow.
As we enter the sacred ground of the former town, I notice a rather significant change from what it looked like here when I visited way back in 1993. Back then, this spot in the valley was all dirt and mud and rocks and rubble…with hundreds of small white crosses sticking up from the ground. It looked like the aftermath of a landslide. I remember that the many crosses, all with the same date, May 31, 1970, had a powerful and eerie effect in the barren, buried and bleak landscape. I remember standing here (in perhaps this very spot), looking up at the Mountain Huascaran and speaking to it like it was a person or a god. Why? I asked. Why did you do it?
Now, however, in 2011, this landscape has significantly transformed. There are still hundreds of crosses all bearing the same date sticking up from the ground. But now the landscape is no longer barren, buried, muddy rubble. Instead, on the sacred ground, where the town used to be, there is an amazing extensive flower garden. Roses are the dominant species but there are many many other colorful species as well. The bleak and the barren has become lush and beautiful again.
As I stand here again, in the same spot, almost years 20 later, I look up again and see the mountain god of Huascaran looking down upon me. I have an urge to say something, write something, express something. There’s a message in here about tragedy and death and about how we as humans should respond to such things. But no words of mine could possibly do justice to the depth of the experience. The looming glacier capped peak with it’s infinite capacity for destruction and a lush and vibrant flower garden growing down beneath it. The contrasting image tells the whole story. Life, death, rebirth….life…death…rebirth… It really is a beautiful universe.
After our visit to the sacred ground, the tour bus gives us a lift back to Caraz. We are dropped off right in front of our hotel on the plaza at about 6:00 in the evening. It was a very full 12 hour day.