At the bus terminal in Trujillo we unexpectedly ran into our friend Gabriel who we previously traveled with in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. We caught up on what had passed since we last saw each other, before boarding our bus to Huaraz. At 5am we stepped off the bus and were greeted by the crisp mountain air. Our amazing host, Jose, picked us up from the station and invited Gabriel to stay at his place as well. We passed out in Jose’s room for a few hours until we felt normal again and set out to find some food.
We spent the first day exploring the city with Jose. We had breakfast at an all natural juice store, checked out tour packages at travel agencies, admired local street art, had a few beers at a local craft beer spot, and even made a trip 40 minutes outside the city to some thermals baths and saunas caves.
It would be an understatement to say that we were let down by the baths. We imagined natural baths set in the rugged mountainside, but instead we entered an dingy motel-style open-air complex where many locals were enjoying murky pool waters, while others waited on a stone wall for their turn to enter one of the disheveled structures framing the caves. After waiting nearly an hour and being hustled by the cleaning attendant for an additional one Sol ($.36), we finally were granted our chance to enter.
We stepped into the first urine-odored room that consisted of a changing space and a shower area. After changing into our bathing suits, we opened the door and were surprised to see that the sauna was in fact built into a cave, with bubbling water seeping up from the ground, and a dock like landing with a few metal benches for our sitting pleasure. Despite the unappealing environment, we ended up having a rejuvenating experience to prepare us for the next day’s hiking adventures.
We negotiated with a tour company to pick us up from Jose’s place at 6am, but consistent with Peruvian standards, they did not arrive until 630am, and we didn’t actually leave until 7. Two hours later we were dropped off at the trail head to Laguna 69 with no guide and only instructions to “keep right… you can’t get lost.” Well, we got lost. After an enchanting start to our hike, which included walking along a peaceful broke with cows and massive mountains on either side, we followed the “trail” to the right and started ascending through varied foliage. Eventually we realized this wasn’t in fact the trail, and we were forced to navigate across swampy grass and a waterfall to get back to the proper trail.
At last we made it back to the trail, but now time was an issue as we were being picked up at 3:30pm, and it was supposed to take 3 hours to reach the Laguna and another 2 hours to descend. The further we ascended the mountains the more the effects of the altitude began to take their toll on us–specifically shortness of breath, queasiness, and extremely heavy legs. Ryan and Gabrielle took the lead while Lisa lagged behind. We reached a small lagoon two-thirds of the way up the mountain where we took a much needed break to eat our veggie sandwiches, peanuts and chocolate bars, before snapping a few pictures of the amazing landscape to revitalize our moral.
After convincing Lisa to stand up again, we continued upward, motivated by fellow hikers who promised that we were close and that the lake was definitely worth it. About an hour later, after winding our way slowly up the mountainside, we finally reached our destination, Laguna 69, and it did not disappoint. The air suddenly became crisp with gusty winds, but as soon as we reached for our warmer layers that had been shed on the way up, the expansive turquoise lake surrounded by towering snow capped mountains appeared. The view was breathtaking. In three hours we had ascended from 3,900 meters to 4,625 meters (which is a little over three miles).
The next day we had another tour lined up to take us to see a glacier 5,400 meters. Again, the tour was supposed to leave at 8am, but thanks to Peruvian time standards and efficiency, it didn’t end up departing until 9:30am. Before reaching the glacier we made two quick stops to see a bubbling algae pool and Puya Raimondi (Queen of the Andes), the largest species of bromeliad-pineapple family endemic to Peru, which only flowers once every 40 years or so.
The bus was able to bring us most of the way up the mountain, but we still had to hike an additional 1,500 meters to reach the glacier. This hike was somewhat challenging due to the elevation, even though it was a relatively short distance. Some families with young kids opted to take a horse up the steepest part, which seemed silly when you saw a 70 year old local woman climbing without any problem. It was remarkable to be standing next to a glacier at the top of a mountain, however, it didn’t outshine the previous day’s unique, pristine landscape.