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The Andes! Cordilliera Blanca

Above 4000 meters above the sea level on yet another continent. Huaraz where lady dress up and drink. Bluest blue of Laguna 69 and 4 days on Santa Cruz trek across Cordilliera Blanca

Itís vacation time! Irene had 1 week off in the kindergarten and so we packed our bags and headed for our first proper trip in Peru. And the destination was nothing less than the mighty Andes. And not just any part of Andes. Cordilliera Blanca, supposedly the worldís highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas. Donít ask me how they measure that, because for example worldís highest mountain outside of the Himalayas is Aconcagua in Argentina, but probably Cordilliera Blanca has highest number of mountains above 6000m, or I donít know. They say, I believe. The highest mountain of Cordilliera Blanca (and Peru) is Huascaran, at 6768m.
Cordilliera Blanca is located right in the tropics, but the high altitude and the moisture coming from the Amazon cause that there is permanent snow and glaciers on top of the mountains, which gave the mountain range its name ďWhiteĒ. And apart from the sexy white lingerie of the mountains, they have very sexy shapes too: beautiful, sharp peaks.

After 7 hours on an overnight bus from Trujillo, during which the bus climbed more than 3 kilometers up, we arrived to Huaraz. Coming from the very sea level to 3100masl, where Huaraz is located, gives you a bit of breathlessness. And from there on everything else is just up.
To acclimatize we had to stay at least a day in Huaraz. As it turned out we were lucky that we arrived on Sunday which happened to be Motherís Day. The town was full of people and mommies, attractions for kids, fun fares, street snacks, etc. But most of all the town was full of Peruvian ladies all dressed in the amazing Peruvian ďfolk costumesĒ. To them itís not any folk costume, itís their regular dress: huge skirts of all colors, blouses of even more colors, green, red pink, blue, white, yellow all happily shining together and typical hats. Hundreds of them all around. It was amazing to see it, it immediately gave us the feeling of witnessing something real, that glimpse into yesteryears that is so difficult to find in this world of Adidas and Facebook. I would love to adopt one of the ladies and just put her in my living room for decoration :-)
As we soon found out, the mothers of Huaraz know how to celebrate the Motherís Day. A lot of them got totally drunk. So wasted that other people had to drag them through the town, as they were incapable of walking. Happy Motherís Day!

We came to Cordilliera Blanca to do Santa Cruz trek, which is 4 day trek, and according to National Geographic one of 25 best hikes in the world. The problem is that the trek (and all other treks in the Cordilliera) goes high, very high. The highest point is 4600masl, and it would be reached on our second day. That means that just 3 days after leaving the sea level we would have to be at 4600masl and sleep at 4200masl. And that is pretty risky for altitude sickness. In Nepal it takes at least a week to get to such altitudes. And having been in Nepal I knew how it feels to be at high altitudes. To get prepared we decided to stay one more day in Huaraz and do an acclimatization daytrip to Laguna 69. The hike begins at 3900mals and the Laguna is at 4600masl, so itís pretty deadly acclimatization hike. The weather mostly sucked, but luckily the sun appeared just when we reached the Laguna (which is a glacial lake). The hike was long and tough, the headache caused by the altitude sickness almost killed us on the way down, but we survived and the Laguna was brilliant. Unreal shade of blue.

When we returned to Huaraz we were destroyed and sick and didnít feel like starting a 4 day trek next day, but we manned up and did it. We rented a tent, sleeping bags, camping stove, bought food for 4 days, water purifying tablets and set off.
It took 4 days, 3 nights. There is no civilization between entry and exit points, the trek is way up in the Andes. You have to carry everything with you, on your back. On day 1, after 4 hour bus ride from Huaraz to a trailhead you start from 3600m and sleep at 3800m, next day you climb over the Punta Union Pass at 4760m and go down to 4200m where you sleep, next day you descent to 3800m and on the last day you arrive to the end at 2900m. 61 kilometers in length, some 1300m ascent and 1800m descent in total. That sounds like a relatively easy hike for 4 days, but trust me, not at these altitudes. Irene almost died on the last 200m climb to the pass. Other hikers almost didnít make it either. But finally everybody did and the joy of descending into lower altitudes propelled everybody on the way down. The second day, when we had to climb the pass was really hard.
What else to say? It was beautiful hike. Being the most popular trek in Peru outside of Machu Picchu region it supposedly gets very crowded during high season, but as it was not high season yet it was almost empty. There were only 3 other independent trekkers going in our direction and one organized group of maybe 10 losers who had their tents, food and everything else carried on donkeys. It was nothing to compare with crowdedness of Nepalís trek, at least at this time of the year. Being in pre-high season, the weather was not great but it was acceptable. The rainy season was still hovering above the Andes and we almost cancelled our trip to Cordilliera when we checked the weather forecast, but Iím glad we didnít. The skies were mostly cloudy, but sometimes cleared up and the views were great. Sure it rained every day and every night, but the pattern was quite reliable and acceptable as long as you managed to start your hike at 7:00am (which we did). From 7:00 till 11:00 it was clear skies, till 13:00 it was cloudy, at 13:00 light on-and-off rain started and at 17:00, when we were always already in the tent it started raining heavily and the rain lasted until midnight.
It was doable, but anyway this was my first, and I hope also my last time, that I camped at 4200masl (this hope turned out to be incorrect, just 2 weeks later). Luckily it was not as horribly cold as I thought it would be, but sure it wasnít warm either. Itís good we were in the tropical latitudes, which kept the temperatures reasonable in this altitude.

This trek had a special personal significance for me. 7 years ago I would have never guessed so, it was never my goal, but by completing this trek, in the last 7 years I have managed to see all the greatest mountain ranges of the world: the Rocky Mountains (in USA), the Alps (in Austria), the Caucasus (in Georgia), the Himalaya (in Nepal) and now the Andes in Peru. I had stood above 3000masl of every continent except Africa (and Antarctica of course), and indeed above 4000masl on most of them. Mauna Kea in Hawaii in Oceania (4205 masl, OK, me and Jano Stopka DROVE A CAR there so it shouldnít count, but anyway, it does), Longs Peak in Colorado (4346masl) in North America, Kala Patthar in Nepal in Asia (5643 masl), Punta Union in Peru in South America (4760masl). Paradoxically, the only continent I havenít reached 4000masl on is Europe, where my highest checkmark is at the foot of Mount Kazbegiís glacier at some 3400 (masl), but at least I was staring right into face of Mt. Kazbegi, one of highest mountains in Europe at 5033 masl. Well, I gotta do Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro to get done with this to-do list.


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     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak