An Austrian with crisp blue eyes and a full red beard chopped firewood outside in his lederhosen and flip flops. Cold air cut through us. It was close to freezing and the sun still hadn’t set. Questioning where we were, Brad glanced at the GPS. No wonder Nacho was misbehaving, we were almost at 14,000 feet.
Hundreds of sheep swarmed the hillside like ants. They moved in unison except for the chaos arising from the pack of baby sheep among them. Oblivious to the world around them, they were lost in a game of sprinting in circles, karate chopping the air, and vertical bouncing like frightened cats.
When the sun began to set, I bundled up, ready for a quick evening hike.
Hatun Machay sat on the hillside opposite the refugio; a stone forest considered to be South America´s best rock climbing destination. The area was unbelievable. As I approached the edge of the outcropping, overhanging rock formed caves. Dirt like finely sifted flour covered the earth and overhanging rocks were littered with 10,000 year old petroglyphs and cave paintings. The walls were like a sketchbook of doodles; stick figures, snakes, geometric carvings, ancient happy faces, deer and hunters.
As I entered the heart of the rock outcroppings, smoke wafted in the air. Sheep skin dried on a string and small rocks were stacked purposefully, forming rock barriers between the boulders. Someone lived here. Like chameleons, dome shaped huts made of straw were almost invisible in their surroundings. An older woman in brightly colored clothing sat in the doorway of her home. Antonio, her husband, appeared like a ghost. In his hands, he cupped a bowl of ramen soup, vegetables floating on the surface. He offered me dinner. The wife retreated into the environment, shy, and perhaps tired from the day. Antonio showed me his home, comprising three huts; one for cooking and the others for living. They raised sheep and lived simply. They had lived within the rocks for decades and would continue until death.
I continued onward, exploring the granite rocks. Sheets of razor sharp rock jutted up into the sky, like artisan chocolate melted on tinfoil, cooled, and placed upright on a fat slice of cake. Other sections of the rock were pockmarked and dimpled from the ancient water that perhaps once ran over them. As the sun began to set, the sky turned bright pink and blue. Unfathomable beauty.
The sheep that ran earlier were now corralled in for the evening, pinched between the boulders and peering out at me in boredom.
A fire crackled in the morning and the refugio was suddenly packed with climbers. While Brad roasted the last of our raw coffee beans from Colombia, a beautiful dreadlocked Argentine girl pulled an oversized apple pie from the oven. Between bites of the apple pie, a pot of hot water and a tin of coca leaves circled the communal table. Wildly popular, coca tea is drunk by hikers for elevation sickness and chewed by truck drivers to increase alertness. Coca leaves, as harmless as poppy seeds in a lemon muffin, yet illegal in the United States.
Once our bellies were full of pie, we took off into the rocks for a short exploration. As we wandered up the hillsides, we crossed a small trickling spring. A tin pitcher sat next to it, used by the natives for a quick drink of water while herding the sheep. We retraced my steps from the previous night, exploring everything all over again. The local women were out of their huts, gathered on the hillside, shearing sheep.
It was nice to be roaming the hillsides. Just the previous day we were passing through town after town. Skirting the Cordillera Blanca, we again went through Yungay, a town with a horrific past. Nearly the whole village disappeared in 1970 when an earthquake dislodged a massive chunk of ice and mud from Peru´s tallest mountain, Huascaran. 18,000 dead in just a few minutes. Yungay also happened to be the hometown of the older man who had ridden down through the mountains with us on our wild ride.
After seeing Yungay we stopped in Huaraz, a city of cement and ramshackle buildings. It was an intense mess of fast taxis, European trekkers, and entrepreneurial spirits along the sidewalks selling all things growing from the ground. Peruvian snack food – puffed corn glazed in sugar – was sold in bags the size of small children. In the market, distant relatives of my pet guinea pig were gutted, raw, and hairless. We had seen the living ones in the countryside, nestled in a bed of hay, plump and pregnant. In honor of my sweet Punkie, whom I lowered into the ground in my neon pink lunchbox in the 4th grade, I just couldn’t eat them.
Word on the street was that there was a brewery in town that couldn’t be missed. With Brad on a seemingly never ending mission to seek out good beer, this would be the mission for the day. We had been tricked in the past so we both remained leery; most bars tended to have European beer bottles on display, yet the reality was they were merely decorative, like antique relics in a museum.
Two Tasmanians ioined us for drinks at the brewery. Earlier in the day they had attempted to recruit us on a 10 day circuit hike through the Huayhuash mountains. They needed fellow hikers to divvy up the mass quantities of food required for the long haul. I had flashbacks from our hike and knew I was not the person for the job. As the designated walking pantry on our last hike, my feet had suffered. My baby toenails were near extinction, black with massive gaps behind each nail.
We spent the evening sampling the beers, eating popcorn, and throwing darts. Ana and I competed viscously for who would finish last in our game of darts.
As soon as we left Huaraz, rural life picked up again. Local women carried bundles of wild plants in their shawls and entire families worked in the fields. Livestock roamed the streets and distant peaks jutted up into the heavens, like an erratic lifeline on a hospital monitor. Twenty-two of those peaks towered over 19,850 feet, views I promise cannot be done justice by photography.
Back at Hatun Machay, it was time to get Nacho back on the road. First we´d have to climb back up the rough road to the 14,000 foot pass we´d driven over the previous day. Nacho despised the altitude and I couldn’t quite grasp how we were going to get back out. I jumped in the passenger seat as Brad held onto the reins of our drunken, bucking horse. Brad slipped the clutch all the way up the hill as Nacho clung on to dear life. We bounced around in our seats like a set of dice. Books exploded off of our library shelf. I screamed. Brad tried to look brave [ed. note: Brad was brave]. Yet, we made it.
We floated out of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, from 14,000 feet to sea level in the span of only 100 miles. We stopped only when we ran into the sea.