Semi-stuffed on mediocre tasting empanadas de queso and carne, the gang and I stood on the corner of Huaraz’s busy Luzuriaga street awaiting our early morning pick-up. We were on the road to Pastoruri, a tall, tropical glacier that soars 17,000 feet in the Cordillera Blanca.
I made the eight hour bus ride from Lima to Huaraz, a town nestled in the high altitude Callejón de Huaylas, a lush valley sandwiched by the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra mountain ranges. In bustling Huaraz, backpackers in waterproof hiking pants mingled with traditional Peruvian women clad in their bright skirts, European hats and colorful back sacks. The snowcapped Huascarán mountain, the highest pinnacle in the tropics, towered in the background. It is from this spot that we were to start our trek into the heart of the Andes.
The route of the day would be one laden with gritty, potholed dirt roads and stellar mountain landscape. We started driving south of Huaraz, passing by the quiet communities of Recuay, Ticapamapa and Catac, and catching glimpses of puya raymondii, the eerie pineapplesque flower that blooms only once in its solitary life. After a 43 mile shuttle ride, we reached the foot of the quiet, desolate trail that would lead us to the top of the Pastoruri glacier. From here, it was a one mile ascent through extremely thin air, pass rusted rocks and an otherworldly looking lagoon.
Our trudge was slow and disorienting — At high altitude, overexerting one’s body is a recipe for disaster.
Upon reaching the summit it was clear that Pastoruri might not be the most spectacular of the Cordillera Blanca’s spell binding mountain glaciers. Pristine glacial lakes contrasted against discolored rocks and jagged peaks. However, the sloshy, wet ice and dripping icicles made it apparent that Pastoruri was another victim of accelerated glacial retreat. Like most of Peru’s tropical glaciers, Pastoruri is quickly disappearing, melting away to global climate change (or not, depending on your beliefs). Experts predict all the Peruvian glaciers below 18,000 feet will disappear by 2015.
Up there, breathing in the thin air, I began to feel woozy, sloppy and slow. I was having my first encounter with soroche, also known as altitude sickness. Unfortunately, drinking mate de coca, chewing on coca leaves, elevating my feet and chowing down on pipping hot bowl of sopa sustantiva did little to alleviate my pounding headache and ill-feeling nausea. I experienced seven hours of gut wrenching pain complete with a headache that consumed my entire body. It took a bus ride descent all the way down to Lima sea level to get me feeling grounded again.
In the end, nature prevailed. But excellent photographs, knockout mountain views and the chance to experience something that might soon be lost made the trip all the worth while.
Lani is writer for the Karikuy volunteer program. Visit www.karikuy.org/volunteer for more information.