By Rosalie Justus
Hiking sola in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, the author worries about same-species predators and other problems.
I know right away, the Dutch aren’t going. Marlie’s teeth are all purple from the herbs she’s been chewing. They’re a sharp contrast against her pale skin. She’s one of those naturalists that think if it’s not in pill form, it has to be better for you. Yeah, Marlie’s sick, and I’m secretly glad.
It’s 1988 and I came specifically to hike wherever possible in South America. In this case I’m in northern Peru to trek across the Cordillera Blanca. I’ve gone on many treks alone. Even if it proves I have an utter lack of intelligence I love the thrill and satisfaction of accomplishing a physical feat on my own.
But this particular trek may take almost a week, and here in Northern Peru there are known guerrillas and stories of murdered hikers. While staying in Ecuador, before coming to Peru, I heard many horror stories from other travelers. The stories were mostly about petty thefts, but some people told me that hiking in the Cordillera Blanca was dangerous. Maoist guerillas were controlling the area. I didn’t really believe the stories, but I thought I should go with someone else.
To my amazement no one else seems to want to go until I meet this Dutch couple. They are circus performers who, like me, obviously don’t think much about the dangers, and their enthusiasm takes away all my doubts. The rain was another problem, but it has stopped, at least temporarily, and the Cordillera Blanca range is in clear view. All I have to see is a mountain range, and I lose control of my wits. Now, even though Marlie and her boyfriend aren’t going, I have to go.
I want to catch the early morning truck from Yungay to Vaqueria, which is in the valley after the infamous pass and where the road ends. If I miss the truck, I’ll have to ride with someone who happens to be going that way. I know that’s rare since there are only mountain villages that consist of a few mud and grass huts.
It will be less torturous if I can get a ride over this pass. The trail, from what I’ve read, goes straight up with practically indiscernible switchbacks and in this season there will be snow. I could follow the road, but that would be boring and take an extra day. After waiting several hours in Yungay and listening to various opinions on the matter, I realize the truck’s not coming. I’m told that lately there hasn’t been a daily truck—something to do with the guerrillas. I ignore the comments. I am oblivious to all except my focus on the mountains. I see the hammer and sickle symbols on a few buildings, but I don’t think any more about them than I do when I see graffiti at home in the States.
Eventually I get a ride with someone who’s taking wood to the first few huts. The road is very narrow. There’s barely room for one vehicle. It’s carved into the mountain like a lip. Fall off the lip and forget it. Roads like this are just a part of third world life, and I’ve been on many.
After giving a little mime show to the local villagers, who speak only Quechua, I get another ride with some people going to the smaller of the Llanganuco lakes. The Indians’ shocked expressions let me know they think I’m absolutely nuts to do this trek alone.
Anyway from there I walk along the road to the larger lake. Now to my left there’s a steep black wall that gives the effect of an enclosed stadium. On my right the beautiful aquamarine lakes reflect wavy, blue lines off this black wall. Behind me the land drops off to nothing. Only the cloud-filled sky is in view, and in front, the snow-covered pass is barely visible—a window between the mountain and the mist. There’s no place to camp unless I want to pitch my tent in the road. My map says there’s a camp at the bottom before starting up the pass. It’s taken me all day to get this far, and I want to get to that camp before it starts to rain. I can tell by the clouds that I don’t have much time.
In the distance I see a white pick-up jeep coming my way. Great! I guess I’ll get a ride to the camp if not over the pass. As it gets closer, I realize it’s full of men. No, they won’t be going over the pass but to the work camp that is probably a couples of miles west to where I could camp. The words, work camp, written on my map, flash before my eyes. They’re not just men; they’re convicts. As far as my safety is concerned, it doesn’t make much difference if I take the ride or not, I don’t have much of a choice being where I am.
The jeep slows down. I step on the running board and hold on to the door next to one of the guards. The only thing that distinguishes him from those in the back is his privileged seat. The guards all have the look of those who enjoy giving pain. I look at my feet—always. I don’t dare look at them. The guard questions me, “Donde va muchacha?” “Voy a Santa Cruz” I answer. All of them laugh, and one says, “Mucha gente mala esta cerca de aqui.” I wonder who could be more dangerous than these men. I barely glance at the convicts in the back and see they are leering at me. I wonder when they were last with a woman.
I am still incredulous when they let me off at the fork like I ask them. Then I realize from their sadistic laughs that they think I am going to endure a cruel enough joke by trying to go over the pass this late in the afternoon. Fortunately, this seems to amuse them and prevent them from any further thinking. So they split to the left, which goes to the campsite and on to their work camp. Not knowing what else to do, I start up the pass. It’s beginning to sprinkle, which adds to my miserable feeling.
At 13,000 feet the landscape is pretty barren so when I see the campsite below it looks like an oasis. It’s flat for one thing, in a grove of trees, and there’s a stream running through. I turn around and head down towards it. I come up over a small ridge. The convicts are out of their jeep and at “my” campsite. I duck down; I don’t want them to see me. What should I do? They didn’t try anything before, but to camp with them could be pushing my luck.
There’s no other level ground around, the sprinkling is turning to light rain, and soon it will be pouring. I’ll have to tell them I want to camp there also. My legs are shaking. I only hope they aren’t rapists, murderers. As I start to get up, I notice they are getting ready to leave. I crouch back down again – relieved!
I rush to put my tent up quickly, and now I’m snug inside. I’ve had people tell me that hikers have given up trying to go over the first pass, but I’m not worried about that. The physical has yet to scare or stop me. I haven’t really even started this trek; I could turn around, but I won’t. I’m mentally incapable of doing anything rational. It’s like my legs take control, and they won’t stop until they’ve reached their goal. My mother once asked me if it was her fault that I had such wanderlust.
Maybe it is her fault. I guess I took it to heart when she told me I could do whatever I wanted. Ever since I was a little girl, I said I was going to do what men do, and for some reason I never thought of that in the way of a career but in the physical way. I was a tomboy that never grew out of that stage. To top it off, I had a preoccupation with maps. I wanted to go everywhere.
I knew I would never have children because I saw that as an obstruction. I would later see that relationships were an obstruction also. I wanted nothing to get in the way of where I wanted to go.
Now here in my tent I seem to have reverted back to childhood. I worry what my mother will think. I care more about her feelings than my safety – how upset she’ll be if something happens to me.
I hear a motor, and I look out my tent to see the white jeep coming back. Shit! If they aren’t observant, maybe they won’t see the tent because it’s partly hidden in this grove of trees. As the jeep gets closer, I can see that only the driver is returning. I guess he’s dropped off the prisoners and is returning home. Did he see me? Will he or anyone come back? I fall asleep afraid and wishing for the daylight, which brings that false sense of security.
If I wasn’t happy about the Dutch not coming before, I am now. I have hiked three months straight in Ecuador. I’m in good shape. While waiting to see if Marlie would get well, Frank, her boyfriend, and I had gone on some day hikes. He couldn’t even go up a small hill without taking a break. They would have never made it up this pass.
As it is, I don’t know if I will either. Because of the steepness and altitude, I seem to be moving inches at a time, in fact, scrambling in places. As I’m pulling myself up, I see two Indians coming down. Thinking of yesterday’s episode, I’m a little wary of everyone. Maybe they’re guerrillas. Maybe they’re going to rob me. I practically hope they will; I’m so tired they can have this pack!
“Mister, Mister” Apparently they think I’m a man, or mister is the only English word they know. They shake my hand and pull out a couple of cooked potatoes. “Come papas?” I can’t believe they’re offering me food!
We’re standing in the snow, and I notice their toes and the tops of their feet are exposed. I wouldn’t even call their shoes sandals just little slabs of leather held together by this torn cloth. What am I complaining about? The encounter gives me a shot of adrenaline and I hike on to the top.
The pass is like no other I’ve crossed: A distinct ice door that belongs to a giant. I can only see directly in front or in back of me. On both my sides the compacted snow and ice rise 20 feet above my head. I walk through and look to the green valley below. I did it! I still have another pass and, although supposedly higher, it’s not as difficult. I find out later that would have been true if I had left two months later when there would have been less snow.
I walk on down and though the village of Vaqueria. The Indians stop what they’re doing, come out of their huts and greet me. Such an oddity! I wonder if I’m the first woman to do this alone.
I walk away from the village, past the flute-playing sheepherders, and on to a more solitary area. It’s an easier hike now, and I start to think too much. My mind plays games when I’m alone. Again what kind of idiot am I? I sing to ease my anxiety and take in the views of the narrow, lush gorge.
I have to concentrate a bit on the placement of my feet. Some parts of the ground are of a green, spongy material like soaked astroturf and other parts just plain mud. I would have thought it was a little much but compared to a jungle trek I did less than a month ago, it’s nothing. I am constantly comparing my troubles to experiences in the past. I need it for motivation.
I come upon an obsidian pinnacle. It juts out of the ground like a monument. Somewhat eerie looking: isn’t this what the apes danced around in the “2001” movie? It looks appropriate. The next pass is coming up, and I’ll need a whole day to get over it. With the view of the pinnacle, I camp next to a stream, which seems loud since there’s nothing else to hear.
I feel secure. This is the kind of loneliness I love. I check out my legs, my powerful legs, my best asset. They’re horrid—covered with scabs from bites and scratches, but I don’t care.
Today, incidentally, is April Fools. I realize this when I wake up and want to go immediately. It’s raining. I think back to the first time I used this tent. I was with my boyfriend, Nick, and he loved the sound of rain. He always said that—such a romantic but otherwise useless.
The rain makes me think of the extra weight I’m going to carry by having a soaked tent. But I’m not worried, today’s going to be easy, and lugging a few more pounds will not hinder me.
Fortunately the rain is short lived so that I can walk in comfort. The sky is cloud-covered, and the air has subtle gloom. The sun will come out later, dry my tent and I can then be cozy inside. The whole process will start over again. That is if I get over the pass and into the lower altitudes.
As I head on up out of my camping pocket, the area becomes more white and not just from the snow, but because I’m surrounded by white mountains—various jagged shapes of peaks overwhelm me.
In Ecuador I once hiked with a couple of Danish guys. The obnoxious one went on and on about Nepal. He didn’t like Ecuador. With a sneer, he said, “What’s so great about seeing a single snow-capped mountain; you have to turn in a completely different direction just to see another—if any?” I happen to think that a single mountain has its own beauty; no others are around to vie for its attention.
He also complained that because they decided to do this particular trek with me, it would probably cost them their lives. “We’re never going to be found because we took your advice!” He whined fearfully. Brother! Men can be such babies sometimes.
So he would have loved the view on this trek, and I’d have to agree. The mountains are awesome. I feel like a pea being swallowed by them.
Up, up, up then what—where do I go? The snow turns to ice steps over this ridge and around the glacier lake of Laguna Marococha. It’s difficult to walk through the snow and then across these slippery, slick granite slabs that are pushed out over most of the ice. The melted water from the warmth of the day rolls over these, making me slide. I have to use my hands to try to grab something to keep me from sliding down into the lake. I didn’t think I’d need a pick. My hands are cold, but I can’t wear my gloves because I need the extra grip.
I see some orange peels on a boulder preserved for an eternity. Who knows how long they’ve been there. I must be going in the right direction. Yeah, how many times have I followed other people’s trash only to become completely lost and then have to bushwhack my way back to wherever. Sometimes I say to myself mischievously, I’d like to play a cruel joke like the witch in “Hansel and Gretel”, leading some sucker to a harrowing experience.
Well, there’ll be no bushwhacking here because it’s all ice and granite. I somehow scramble over another ridge getting my pack stuck in a crevice. As I struggle to release my pack, I realize my next forward movement would be to jump down on this lower ledge. I know I’d land smack on my face. Actually, I’m sure that would be the least amount of damage I’d do, but having just squirmed out of the crevice, I feel like jumping out of frustration. I have to be careful; I can’t break anything being by myself. I can’t even maneuver across this ice with all my limbs intact. From this view I see another lake below that I can’t find on my map (or one that should be this close).
I’m definitely not going the right way. I try another way that ends up going down to Laguna Marochoca behind me. The extra weight, the ice, the constant up and down trying different routes wears me out physically and I become delirious. I want to cry. I have to keep telling myself to stay calm and not panic.
I want to give up when I see the familiar three small stones on a large rock. The universal marker used when there’s no soil to imprint the earth. Why didn’t I see these before? Please don’t let them mean another hoax. I see another group of stones then another. Clearly this is the way. I’m up to Punta Union pass and looking over in no time. The impressive Nevado Taulliraju, black, jagged and ominous looms directly above me, and below I see the outline of the trail that cuts a zigzag through the land.
Tonight I think I will sleep soundly until I suddenly hear a crash, nothing much, but then I realize the tent is pressed against my head. Why is the tent touching my face? Jesus! The tent has collapsed! Oh no, where is the plate of scraps? Maybe an animal is trying to get the food.
I quickly realize that it’s not because of an animal but because of snow. Now I have other fears. What if there’s an avalanche? Am I too close to those flimsy trees?I didn’t think it would snow this far down. I push all the sides to knock the snow off, and the tent forms its shape again. I have to do this several times during the night. I can’t believe it’s so heavy. At least the igloo effect is keeping me warmer, but I wonder what’s next?
The next morning the ground is snow-covered; I come across some mountain lion tracks about 30 feet from my camp. Seems ridiculous now to think he would have pounced on top of the tent. If he wanted the food, he would have torn right through the side instead. I guess I should consider myself lucky.
Lucky and ecstatic, I feel I’ve already finished the trek, and I’m telling some travelers I know in Huaraz of my accomplishment. There can’t be a better high!
I hate to admit this, but there’s another reason why I wanted to do this trek besides the thrill and satisfaction. You see I met this really cute Peruvian in Caraz. And now I’ll have to pass through there once more. Yeah, truthfully when I was trying to get across that icy pass, I considered turning around, but the thought of seeing Jorge motivated me to go on.
The competitive side of me wanted to show Jorge that I could do it on my own; the other part of me was motivated by sex. Just thinking of Jorge and Djurjura Café (where I know I’ll find him) gives me a grin.
Djurjura is a sophisticated place that doesn’t fit into this area of poverty. Except for the prices, which are very low by American standards, you’d think you were in Aspen. It has a rustic look, in that the interior is made of dark, heavy wood. Horse paraphernalia hangs on the wall along with 20’s style avant-garde pictures. There are flowers on every table and a pillow stuffed bench lines three quarters of the restaurant. The other quarter is a bar where the expatriate Parisian serves real coffee—not that shit Nescafe! And he plays music like Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones.
Two days after crossing the pass these thoughts are still in my head. They make me skip. I see a group of campensinos taking a break from field work. They see me skipping. “Gringa, gringa, toma chichi.” They wave me over. I feel good vibes. “Toma chichi, gringa, coma aqua dulce.” Sweetwater my foot, I know damn well that chichiis the local brew and it tastes awful. But they’re in a good mood, and I’m in a great mood. I want to celebrate getting over the Punta Union.
They pass around the tin cup. I take a sip and “whoa” this stuff is strong! I wrinkle my nose and shake my head. This causes a few chuckles. They insist I take a couple more drinks. I do, but then I must move on before I’m drunk.
I arrive in Cashapampa not long after running into the campensinos. Although difficult, it took less time to do this trek than I thought. Some teenage boys playing a sort of basketball game see me and stop immediately. Other little children, with week-long uncombed hair and grubby hands and faces, gather around me and stare.
“A que hora es el proximo camion a Caraz?” I ask. One of the teenage boys, who happens to know Spanish answers, “No hay camion hasta manana por la manana.” So there’s no truck until tomorrow morning.
“Es possible me queda aqui?”
“Si, te quedas en la escuela.”
“Bueno!” I won’t have to put up my tent because I can stay in the schoolhouse.
The schoolmaster arrives with the key to let me in. It’s not unusual for a trekker to stay in a schoolhouse in the Andes. It seems to be the custom in these small villages that if you go out of your way to visit them, they’ll put you up. (I had stayed in a few schoolhouses in Ecuador.) “Le invito a cenar con mi y mi esposa.”
“Con mucho gusto!”I thank the schoolmaster for inviting me to dinner with him and his wife.
I’m already causing quite a commotion. The children follow me into the schoolhouse. They take special interest as I reorganize my pack, taking some things out to dry, then sitting at one of the tiny desks to write in my journal. The children gather around me, watch to see what I write. Knowing they don’t understand, I write that some crazy kids are bothering me. I get up to go to the privy outside, and they follow me there also. “Are you coming in with me?” I open the door as if to let them in. They stand there and giggle. “OK, I’ve had enough then so scat!” I clap my hands. This they understand, and they run away laughing.
Later when eating at the schoolmaster’s home, I see that the teenage boys (who had left me alone earlier) have since changed into their Sunday best and have surrounded the place to peek inside. I see them between the cracks in the wall. I also see heads in the space between the wall and thatched roof where some of the boys have been lifted. This is getting ridiculous! The attention is starting annoy me.
The schoolmaster shoes them away, and when I’m ready to call it a night, he accompanies me back to the school, which is, of course, kept locked.
I catch the morning truck to Caraz, and a few hours later I check into a small inn. I find out that while I was gone Sendero Luminoso guerrillas who occupy the villages on either side of the trek I just did, were here below bombing the local power plant. The electricity form here to Huaraz is shut off.
Well, I’m glad they were down here while I was up there. I’m also glad that the place where I’m staying has a generator so I can take a hot shower. I scrub down. I want to look good before I go to The Djurjura.
I have traveled independently to over 60 countries. If there is water I’m swimming in it and if mountains I’m climbing them. If nothing else I will walk and bike through villages to meet the local people and sample their cuisine. I don’t move fast. My shortest trips are usually two months and twice I was gone for a year.