Friday, July 30, 2010

Four days without a shower: The Santa Cruz Trek

Huaraz, eight hours north of Lima, is the gateway city to the Cordillera Blanca, a glorious mountain range with more than 22 peaks over 6,000 meters, second only to the Himalayas. (North America has only three mountains over 5,700 meters. Europe, zero.) It´s the Andean adventure capital for daring rock and ice climbers and hard-core trekkers.

Mountaineers and backpackers returning from arduous expeditions congregate in the town center. Getting to my dorm bed involves tripping over giant boots, ice picks, crampons, tents, sleeping bags and piles of provisions.

I am hopelessly intimidated.

It doesn´t help that ¨In Memory of¨plaques with inspirational quotes and photos of young mountain climbers adorn the walls of the cafe in my mountain-lodge-themed budget hostel.

I´m here for the Santa Cruz Trek, a famous four-day circuit with some of the world´s most thrilling scenery -- snowcrusted jagged mountain peaks that jut into the clouds and loom over azure lakes and golden meadows where sheep and cattle graze.

When I handed over my $100 for the excursion I innocently failed to make the connection that I was signing up for four days with no hygienic facilities, showers or running water. I blush at the memory that I packed a towel and my mesh shower sponge. I even stuffed some face powder in my backpack. At least I knew better than to bring more than one outfit as I´d be carrying all my belongings on my back.

The guide would pick me up at 6 a.m. My phone that I´d depended on as an alarm had stopped working, so I asked the guy at reception to knock on my dorm door at 5:40 a.m.

I jolted awake at a knock, grabbed my headlamp to locate my belongings and rushed to the bathroom to get myself together. Then I went to reception bundled in my jacket with my backpack and water bottle in hand, only to find the lights out and the door locked. No bus waited for me in the street. I shined my flashlight on a clock in the office. 3:40 a.m. The groggy receptionist sat up in his mattress on the floor and rubbed his eyes. Lo siento! I hissed. Then I went back to bed still dressed, waiting for another knock.

Over breakfast I met my group: an eccentric mountain-climbing Swedish couple, a comedic little Spanish guy with glasses, a gorgeous medicine-studying, snowboarding couple from Austria and a whiny French mother and daughter. Edith, a soft-spoken young Quechua woman who spoke intermediate English, would be our guide. We all piled in the van for the four-hour journey deep into the surrounding mountains, taking in the aerial views of the villages and agriculture below.

During the drive I mentally replayed the previous day´s experience and the blow it inflicted on my confidence in my athletic ability. The saleswoman in the mountain bike agency had assured me that I´d need no experience. Yet I´d arrived to the bike warehouse to meet the New Zealand couple that would be joining me -- a pair of chiseled athletic gods. The man was seven-feet tall. A professional rugby player. They wore spandex shorts. I had on jeans. They graciously pointed out that I´d put on my cycling gloves backwards.

I tried to remain calm as our taxi drove one hour into the stunning yet tranquil Cordillera Negra mountain range. I tried to maintain my dignity when a second guide had to stay behind with me on a gravel road, only periodically venturing onto the single track trail, as everyone else flew ahead down over grassy boulders and sharp curves.

I couldn´t figure out my gears, but I refused to give up, huffing behind them with my hamstrings on fire up the steep, never-ending hills as we bumped by village women lugging water and children leading mules. I feared my forearms would give out on the brakes. My insides jostled on every rock. When we finished the nearly vertical 1,000 meters down in Huaraz four hours later, I was humiliated, exhilarated, exhausted and throbbing with adrenaline.

Still, I was pumped about Santa Cruz. The 50-kilometer route in the Huascarán National Park (named for a 6,768-meter Andean leviathan) led up the sensational Quebrada Cruz, climbing the valley and crossing the Punta Union pass at 4,760 meters above sea level. It ended with a ramble down into the Quebrada Huaripampa on the other side.

The first day we hiked past towering eucalyptus trees and boulders carpeted in moss with the Río Santa Cruz roaring along the trail. We encountered dozens of other trekkers and even more mules. I felt a pang of sympathy for the burros. They looked as cuddly as a stuffed Eeyore and heaved with exhaustion under the load of all the trekking gear -- tents, sleeping bags and food. The solid and stocky village men led them along, sometimes prodding them with sticks. Occasionally a horse would trot past, an emergency animal used to quickly transport sick trekkers.

We went on, traipsing through expansive pampa meadow and by alpine wildflowers before arriving to our campsite under menacing glacial peaks. There I peeled off my boots to inspect my new callouses and blisters.

That night the wind whipped my little one-man tent as the temperature dropped below 10 degrees. I shivered, curled up into a ball in my high-tech sleeping bag, sliding on the sloped hillside with rocks jutting into my back, wearing all the clothes I had. I coughed most of the night, sure the other campers would eventually toss my tent in the river. Tears welled in my eyes when I tried to work the jammed zipper on my tent door to use the bathroom for the second time. I swore I´d never camp again.

Edith woke us up with coca mate tea at 6 a.m. After my morning bread and hot chocolate I was ready to hit the trail again, feeling better as the sun rose overhead. We trekked along waterfalls spilling over rock walls, jade and emerald lakes and marshland. That day´s walk included a breath-stealing, two-hour ascent to Punta Union. During the entire climb I walked briskly without stopping, looking down at the ground rather than up ahead toward the torturous path. At the top we took in the goose-bump-inducing views of toothy ridges and razored peaks, all white. As we ate our sandwiches and fruit we spotted a viscacha, a rodent that looks like a rabbit with a squirrel´s tail.

That night we camped in a lime-green meadow under Nevado Tailuaya (3,830), where an occasional crash of thunder split the air as avalanches broke from above. I washed my hands, feet and face in the rushing hypothermic river before crawling in my tent that night, trying not to think about the foxes and occasional puma that Edith had mentioned when I´d asked her about local wildlife that afternoon. My aching knees helped distract me.

The third day was a long eight hours. Edith led us on a side trip to a mirador for a sensational mountainscape panorama, and we continued up to the climber´s base camp for Alpamayo (a frozen pyramid once dubbed the most beautiful mountain in the world) and then kept climbing past lovely red quenua trees, amethyst lupins and tube-shaped cacti up to a pristine aqua lake under threateningly close glaciered crowns.

That night Edith filled our bottles with boiled river water before we went to bed so that we could stuff them in our sleeping bags to stay warm. On the two-and-a-half-hour hike the last morning I was too thirsty to mind the foul taste.

At the trail´s end in the hamlet of Vaquería our van awaited us. I tried to appreciate the mind-blowing, airplane-quality views of the countryside below during the dizzying, two-hour descent, but I dozed off in exhaustion with the sun on my face and Latin pop music in my ears, fully content in the moment and willing the bliss to stick around a few days.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tales of an accidental backpacker

I´ve been wearing the same shoes every day for nearly six weeks. A pair of hiking boots. When I tie the laces a puff of dust releases into the air. These boots have crossed the world´s driest desert, squashed through muddy jungle, sunk into pampa swamps, braved the frenetic streets of South American metropolises and trekked around some of the world´s highest mountains.

In the past 40 days I´ve learned that it´s possible to live with only two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts. I´ve gotten used to the way my face looks without make-up. My daily routine no longer includes body lotion and perfume. I´ve forgotten how my hair feels when blown out long and smooth with a hair dryer. I´ve gone days without encountering a mirror. Or checking my e-mail or logging on Facebook.

My eyebrows need tweezed, my hair is desperate for a conditioning and my cuticles are a disaster. My back aches from lugging around my heavy backpack, which contains my current livelihood and I therefore protect at all costs. After weeks of traveling between 2,500 and 5,000 meters above sea level, I´m used to gasping for breath. My once oily skin is dry, and my once voluminous hair is almost flat in the thin, dusty air.

Yet through all of this I´ve never gone to bed without washing my face, brushing my teeth, and God bless my orthodontist, putting in my retainers. Sometimes that meant splashing river water on my face, getting out my toothbrush in bus station bathrooms splattered with vomit and diarrhea or scrubbing my retainers in a possibly snake-infested jungle fountain. And, may my dermatologist read this, I never stepped out into the oppressive mountain sun without lathering myself in sunblock and even donning an embarrassing safari hat I bought in the black market on the streets of La Paz before a spontaneous jungle expedition.

I can´t remember bathrooms with toilet paper and soap or with doors that even shut, besides lock. I sigh with relief if water actually flows from the faucet, always cold. I´ve accepted that sometimes baño means a hole in the ground with two footprints in front. I automatically hold my breath when I enter a bathroom and come out breathless like I´ve just finished a sprint. I´ll have to train myself to flush toilet paper again instead of tossing it in an overflowing basket.

Hot showers are a luxurious surprise. A hot shower with good pressure is an extravagance that I´ve encountered only once on this journey. I try to recall what it was like to drink water safe from the tap or buy produce from the market without fearing for my health. Or to accept change without worrying that it´s counterfeit.

I´ve learned to wash my socks and underwear in hostel sinks. I´ve discovered that almost no price is ever fixed, whether it´s a hostel, tour or earrings. I´m now wise enough to request a seat toward the front of the bus after suffering nights bouncing over the wheel on unpaved roads with cold air and exhaust fumes blowing in from the iced-over window that wouldn´t close. And I´ve found out that even if I have my bus ticket, I won´t be allowed to board unless I´ve paid for the right to access the terminal.

I wake up between 6 and 7:30 a.m., sometimes as early as 3 a.m. if an excursion requires it. I go to bed between 9 and 10 p.m., sometimes as early as 7:30 p.m. if I´m exhausted and there´s no electricity. My typical breakfast is bread and jam. My budged lunch and dinner usually consist of soup followed by rice, potatoes and chicken. (However, I tried llama in San Pedro de Atacama and ate lots of fried bananas in Bolivia.)

Every meal is served with coca tea, made from the same leaves as cocaine but sharing none of the illicit drug´s affects. (The people in this part of the world have been planting, chewing and drinking the plant for thousands of years, believing it to possess dozens of medicinal benefits essential for the hostile, high altitude conditions.)

I shake my head at the realization that I´ve been traveling through South America with a backpack for more than a month. It will be 42 days when I fly back to Santiago. Eighteen of them alone. I´ve been in three countries, 12 cities, 14 beds and one tent. I´ve suffered bone-chilling zero-degree temperatures with blustering winds on desert nights and steamy, 90-degree jungle days. I´m 1,667 miles from my home in Valparaíso, Chile with more than 900 photos on my camera´s memory card. I´ve had conversations with people from Sweden, Bolivia, Austrailia, Peru, New Zealand, Chile, Austria, Canada, Germany, England, Poland, France, Scotland, the Netherlands, Spain, Finland, Japan, Belgium, Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Israel, the Czech Republic and Brazil.

I crossed the world´s driest desert in a jeep. I went into the jungle. I traveled down the world´s most dangerous road. I´ve seen geysers, volcanoes, lakes of every color, deadly mines, ancient ruins, pampas, some of the world´s highest mountains and deepest canyons and the world´s largest salt flat. I´ve rafted on canyon rivers, trekked in the Cordillera Blanca, canoed on tropical lakes and mountain biked in the Andes.

I visited villages where electricity and running water have yet to arrive, where mules are used for transport and radios for communication. Communities where Spanish is a second language, if spoken at all, and Aymara and Quechua peoples still hold true to their pre-Inca and Inca dress, food and faith.

In six weeks I´ve had no less than five adventures of a lifetime. Please don´t think I´m bragging. I´m just in awe of my blessings. I´m fully aware that I´m utterly unworthy of any of this -- I´m not especially daring or outgoing. I wear makeup and love shopping and read fashion magazines. I don´t know East from West and bought my first big backpack on the street in Chile two days before I left.

Nothing was planned. This has been an unanticipated, undreamed of gift, the most spectacular trip I´ve experienced thus far, just in time for my quarter-of-a-century birthday.

And now I´m left the unrelenting urge to tell you all about it.