Friday, September 4, 2009

Young Gay and Yang Gan Ook Oh

Our room at Jo’s Place not only had a great view of the mountains, it also had a bird’s eye view of a yard where every morning two men slaughtered, ducked and plucked hundreds of chickens for the endless stream of local grocery shoppers. It was a rather gruesome sight (of which I’ll spare you the details) but of course we watched and even took a picture to document the event. So every morning we woke up to the sound of chicken death throes. And for those of you curious what that sounded like, it was less horrific than you’re imagining as it was the sound of wings madly flapping in a confined space. But today wasn’t about chicken slaughter it was about a tour. Although if the tour was bad, there was a chance we’d be enacting our own death throes in the confined space of the bus.

The tour didn’t start well. We got up early and had our breakfast to make sure we were ready when the bus arrived. After waiting for 15 minutes, the hostel owner came out to tell us that the tour was running late so we had another 45 minutes before they arrived. I wish we’d known this before since those were 45 minutes we could have been sleeping. It didn’t get better when the bus arrived as we were surprised to learn that the tour was in Spanish and we were t the only gringos on the bus. Oh well I guess I’d be translating for Adrian all day. But the bad feelings disappeared once our guide began his spiel. Hugo looked like some sort of South American game show host. He had the pinkie ring and dyed hair that looked like a toupee but most importantly he had the personality and repetoire of bad jokes to go with it. However, he was so entertaining soon both Adrian and I forgot he wasn’t speaking English and enjoyed his descriptions even when we couldn’t understand what he was saying.

Our first stop was at the hot springs just outside of town. However, we weren’t there to visit them. Instead the bus was picking up a group of young Americans who appeared to speak pretty good Spanish (phew, at least there would be someone to ask for a translation when I couldn’t figure it out). Then it was off to our first stop, Caraz. Caraz was a small little town famous for a religious festival but we weren’t here to visit that either. Nope we were here to sample the local ice cream, rumoured to be the best in Peru. Adrian indulged and agreed that it was pretty tasty while I pulled out my zoom lens to take some snaps of the local folks who wore some pretty impressive fedoras.

Then it was back on the bus and off to our next stop – the city of Yungay. Saying the name may make you want to titter but it was a rather sad place. At 3:23pm on May 31, 1970, Peru’s deadliest earthquake sent a mountain sliding down over the city, burying the town under 6 metres of earth and ice killing all but 92 inhabitants. The survivors were mostly children visiting a fare at the stadium just outside of town and a handful of folks visiting the hill-shaped cemetery. Only the cemetery was still there, with the rest of the city and the bodies lying under the earth. As we walked through (or should it be over) the town, we visited the old central plaza which was identified by the palm trees still growing, although half of their height was now under the earth. The façade of the town cathedral had been rebuilt as a memorial but the tops of the original giant arches of the ceiling poked out of the ground near a crushed bus that had been thrown out of the landslide and now lay as a reminder of the devastation.

Hugo explained how earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale had released heat that melted the snow as well as energy that helped propel the mixture of snow, ice, water, rock and dirt that made up the mountain and on to the town. It only took 45 seconds and no one stood a chance. Now the entire site was considered a national cemetery and it the only identifiable place still untouched was the original town cemetery. The bottom two tiers were buried and had to excavated but now it provided a fitting gathering point for visitors.

To give you a sense of what happened a did a little bit of google work and found these before and after shots.
Before and After
It was hard to believe the distance the mountain traveled to bury the town but on our way up over where the mountain used to be we passed huge house-sized boulders to emphasize the power and force of the event. It was a somber visit but also awesome in the true sense of the word. Nature’s power is always impressive.

Then it was time to get back on the bus for the long drive up into the mountains. It took over an hour on twisty mountain roads to reach Huascaran Park in the Cordillera Blanca the mountain range opposite the Cordillera Negra. The two ranges used to be easily identifiable – the Blanca had snow caps and the Negra didn’t but the effects of global warming had screwed that up. I passed the time by sticking the camera out the window to get snaps of the white caps which got closer and closer as the valley got smaller and smaller. Once we turned into the park, the road passed between a narrow gorge with sheer rock faces that rose up on either side of the bus.

At the park entrance we paid our S5 fee and then drove through the gate. Just on the other side we stopped. There was no lake in sight and I worried that we were going to be disappointed. But Hugo pointed to a path that wound its way through some trees. I began to walk towards the path following the others in front of me and walked bang into a stone sign. I saw stars and had to double over in pain, cursing myself for following the short locals without looking up and cursing my hat for blocking out the sign from my view. This did not bode well I thought. As the goose egg on my forehead throbbed, Adrian and I followed the path and as we rounded the corner we were greeted by the sight of the most beautiful aqua glacial lake. The lake stretched back to the mountains surrounding it. There were row boats waiting to take us out for a tour but the price was a bit steep and Hugo told us that following the path around the side would give us an even better view than the boats. Quickly forgetting about the concussion and cerebral hemorrhage I’d probably given myself, we followed the path. It was easy and when we got to the end, we were very glad not to have forked out for the boat ride. The boat only went about 30 feet from shore, whereas the path took as halfway around for awesome views of the lake and the mountains (photo above).

It was now late afternoon so we (and probably everyone else on the bus) assumed we were skipping lunch and just heading back to town. But first there were a few more stops. The first to visit a naturally carbonated spring. Hugo invited us all to take a drink but I passed noticing signs that warned that the water was not potable. The next stop was to visit the world's largest flower. The puya raimondii plant flowers only once after growing for about 100 years and then dies. Sad but true. But when it flowers it goes out with a bang. These large alien beasts tower like the mountains they grow on. They reminded Adrian and I of Triffids and as they grew in numbers it felt like they were multiplying before our eyes. We took lots of pictures and then hurried back on the bus before they attacked us.

Once we were all back on the bus, we drove back down the mountain and towards Huaraz. Much to everyone's surprise the bus then stopped at a small town for lunch. Like all restaurant stops on tours, it was a restaurant far away from anything else so it was either starve or pay the price. Luckily the price was reasonable and they had lake trout (not chicken!). It was delicious and worth more than they charged and I think lake trout may be my new favourite seafood. After lunch, or was it dinner, we all assumed we were heading back to Huaraz. Surprise there were more stops on the tour.

The first was for some dessert at a manjar shop. It’s what the Colombians call arequipa, and the Argentineans call dulce de leche and what Adrian and I call yum. Well, the free samples were tasty but I’d never buy a whole jar as just looking at it gave me 50 cavities (yes I know I only have 28 teeth). Now it was time to head back to Huaraz? Nope wrong again. The bus then took us to a ceramics workshop and while I’m sure they were beautiful Adrian and I stayed on the bus waiting to get to town after a very full day. Eventually we got our wish and the bus drove into town. We got off in the centre and headed to a bus company to book our tickets to Lima in a couple of days. By booking a few days early we hoped to get our favourite seats at the front. No such luck as there were the only four already sold. So we settled for the second row and headed back to the hostel to collapse. Tours are exhausting even though half of the time is spent riding a bus. I wanted to blame it on the fact that I had to translate everything for Adrian but even when they’re in English they’re exhausting. Tomorrow we needed a break. So we decided to wait another day before venturing on to the tour bus.

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