This past Wednesday I woke up and decided it was a day for some exploring. There's a road that leads up from my site and I’ve been wondering for awhile how far it goes. Since the school is on vacation for two weeks and there's really nothing going on around town, I decided it was the perfect day to walk the road till the end.
I had left my backpack in Huaraz and didn't plan on the hike last more than an hour or two so I didn't bring along my normal hiking supplies: water, a jacket, camera, first aid gear, etc. Instead, I threw on my easy terrain hiking shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt and stuffed my pockets with my (nearly dead) cell phone, my iPod, 5 soles, and a sucker.
It was a beautiful day and a gorgeous hike along the road. At one point, I turned around and realized that Huascaran, the highest tropic mountain in the world, and four other snow capped peaks were framing my horizon. I passed a field overflowing with small, yellow butterflies. I didn't see a single car or truck and few people. I felt like I was in a magical Andean countryside created just for me.
I reached the end of the road after about two hours, around 1pm. I found a spot where I could see my site to the right and Huaraz to the left and thought about how close my site is to Huaraz and how very, very different they are. Since I’ve moved to site, I’ve always wondered if I could possibly walk to Huaraz. It was only 1pm and I had no real desire to turn around, so I decided to just walk a little farther. I could see a little forest that I desperately wanted to check out, so I headed in that direction.
The paths came and went. I would go awhile on a footpath before I realized it had disappeared. I would continue to make my own path, knowing only the general direction of my destination. I knew that when given the option I should always continue uphill, since going downhill would make it almost impossible to cross any rivers that had become deep ravines. I continued exploring with an eye on my watch and the general idea that I should turn around by 4pm if I wanted to make it home before dark at 6:15.
Shortly after exiting the dark, little forest that had urged me to continue my trip, I climbed the embankment of a field and rounded a corner when four snarling, barking, angry dogs came sprinting towards me. I stumbled backwards, groping for a stone. Usually just reaching for a stone scares dogs away but these four kept charging. I was backpedaling as fast as possibly while simultaneously pulling out my ear buds (probably in an attempt to think more clearly) and reaching for any rock. Thankfully, my hands finally made contact with two hefty rocks and I got ready to throw. The dogs stopped and we stared at each other. Soon (but not soon enough!), the dogs' owner came strolling down the path. No apologies, just a nod as if to say, “Hey. I see you met my dogs.” My eyes were as big as saucers and I was shaking as the adrenaline continued to surge through my body.
“Quieres pasar?” You want to pass? The owner asked.
“Si. Pero... puedo?” Yes. But... can I? I replied, casting a nervous glance at the still barking dogs.
“Si, por supuesto.” Yes, of course. He answered, looking a bit confused.
I took a step and a dog lunged towards me. The owner scolded him and gestured for me to continue on. I took another step which was answered by another bark. Eventually, the owner got the dogs under control and I scurried away, gripping the two rocks I still had in my hands. I felt comfortable again once the dogs were out of sight – but I had a rock in each of my back pockets and one in my hand for the rest of the trip.
I walked and walked. I came across two soccer goal posts, roughly constructed, that marked the end lines to a soccer field with snow capped mountains as the background. I still wonder who goes there to play soccer, since the closest houses were an hour away in any direction. I was once again struck my how remote I was.
At some point, I realized that there was no way I could possibly backtrack on foot everything I had walked. I was feeling exhausted and it was just too far to walk before dark. I either had to reach Huaraz or the main highway. There really wasn't any other option.
So I kept walking. I crossed a river, which is always a dangerous prospect when I’m hiking by myself. When I hiked to another volunteer's site a month ago, I was cut so badly that I just had to stand on a rock in the middle of a river holding my arm until the pressure helped the bleeding subside. As I was walking along the path, I didn't see a clear way across the river, but thought that I saw a small footpath. I dove into the brush and quickly realized that there was no path. There also wasn't really a way back up to the path I had been on. I just had to push through. I could feel sticks and twigs getting stuck in my hair and thorns ripping across my bare arms but there wasn't really anything I could do. I took a step and feel chest deep into a hole of some sort. I pulled myself out and kept pushing through. I stepped into a clearing and saw... a bridge. If I had walked three more minutes I would have come across a path and a bridge.
Rivers. They're out to get me.
But I wasn't bleeding too badly (and didn't have my first aid stuff even if I was), so I continued onwards. Around 3pm, I arrived in a village. I only had 5 soles with me and knew that I needed 2.50 for the ride back to site but I couldn't resist spending half my money on two bottles of water. I hadn't brought my Nalgene along and had gotten so desperate for water during the hike that I broke one of my important “staying healthy in Peru” rules and drank water straight out of the rivers I passed. I hoped I was close enough to their glacial source that they weren't too contaminated. I promise to keep you updated on all of the stomach mishaps that occur due to this decision. Regardless, I finally had water and almost finished one 635ml bottle before even exiting the store.
The rest of the walk took place on a road through small communities. I still had no idea where I was but the road was leading in a generally downhill direction and I didn't have the energy to fight it. I just went where I was lead. Soon, I came across a road marker that said “5km”. Shortly, I saw another one saying “4km”. I assumed that the markers were measuring the distance to the main road and I sought each one out with an exhausted eagerness.
Around 3:45, I called my PCVL, the one person who I could almost guarantee would be in Huaraz. “Hey Sophie.” I said. “I have a favor.”
“Go ahead.” she replied.
“Well,” I said, hesitantly. “I kind of accidentally walked to Huaraz and I haven't eaten all day and I don't have any money and...”
“Let me invite you to lunch.” she cut me off, laughing. “Where do you want to go?”
I had been dreaming about the couches at California Cafe for the last hour. “California sound okay? Half hour?”
I was finally in Huaraz and could catch a combi to my final destination. But a combination of stubbornness and weariness kept me from waiting for one. Stubbornness because I had made it this far on foot and wanted to continue the journey by myself. And weariness because I was afraid that if I sat down I would never get up again and would be stuck circling the same combi route for the rest of my life.
So I entered into the hardest part of my journey, walking from the outskirts of Huaraz to the center of town. I was feeling some culture shock – after being so completely isolated it was unsettling to be around so many people – plus the adventure had worn off now that I was back in familiar territory.
It's almost exactly six hours from the door of my house to the door of California Cafe. I was still picking twigs out of my hair from the disastrous river crossing (still am, actually) as I explained to Luisa, the wonderful owner, my adventure and immediately felt the homey hospitality that makes me love California Cafe. She assured me that if Sophie didn't show up for some reason I could pay for my food later, asked if I was okay after walking alone, and treated me to two extra large fresh orange juices.
After eating (and laughing about the absurdity of the day with Sophie), I walked to my combi stop and got the last available seat. I promptly rested my head against the window and prepared to sleep. Little did I know, I was in for one of the crazier combi rides of my life. Let's just say there were at least six people crouched in the aisle and eight guys riding on the roof. Oh, the last combi of the day is always interesting.
I got home around 7, watched an episode of West Wing, and was passed out cold by 8.
For anyone keeping count, this is the third beautiful hike I’ve found from my site. So if you're still looking for a reason to visit, this is another one. I’m just a short flight (and bus ride) away. And, I promise, we'll keep some rocks in our pockets.