Heading into the mountains of Peru with a Peruvian girlfriend and a baby monkey. High times on the road!
Huaraz felt like a trap and I had to get out. I told my Peruvian girlfriend Maria this and she agreed. We had to get out, even if only for a weekend. I had been to most of the valleys around the high Andean town and was becoming bored with the typical melting glaciers and shrinking lakes. We decided to go to a forest that she had been to 10 years before, and camp there.
The next morning, after buying a cheap bottle of wine and some basic food, we hopped in a collective minivan packed with 20 people and headed to a small town along the Callejon de Huaylas, the long arterial valley that seperates the two main mountain ranges of northern Peru, the Cordillera Blanca, and the Cordillera Negra.
There was one thing about our little journey that was especially interesting and entertaining for the locals – Maria was carrying a small Titi monkey that she had recently inherited after her roommate left him behind. She wasn’t able to find anyone who was reasonably sober to take care of him while we were gone, so she decided to take him with us. Neither one of us knew if it would work out and we imagined that if it got too cold it could be very bad for him but we had no choice. He road along with us in Maria’s little orange school girl’s “Tigger” backpack. It was surreal.
After grabbing a cheap, greasy, delicious meal in a local restaurant and feeding the monkey a banana, we caught another packed bus to a nondescript curve in the middle of the mountains.
We looked around a little, and eventually she recognized the trail we were wanting to take, and we began to ascend.
The valley was heavily populated and farmed, and it struck both of us that it could be dangerous to camp there. Maria, a young woman who had grown up in Lima and was of European descent was very suspicious of the indigenous people of the mountains. I realized that her fear was mainly tied to the fact that most of the violent crime in the big cities is caused by the starving masses of migrants from the countryside.
As the trail thinned a bit, a wide valley opened in front of us showing a small forest of pines along a ridge high above us. Everything else had been cut for farm land and only the highest and most hard-to-reach trees remained. Just 50 meters in front of us we saw a European couple in their 70’s hiking up the same trail.
We followed them for half an hour before finally catching up to them at a small river crossing and asking them the usual backpacker questions. They turned out to be German and as Maria spoke German quite well they talked as we walked along. They were an incredibly fit couple for their age, and though the man, Peter, was quite small, his arms were like iron and his steps were light and agile.
Eventually, we came to the “forest”, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. 80% of the trees had been freshly cut only weeks before, and were lying across the rocks, charred and broken. It was a graveyard. I looked to Maria and she was equally shocked. It was the same environmental rape that I had seen so much in the developing countries of the world and the only explanation seemed to be poverty and desperation. Eventually, we found a decent camp sight and said good bye to the germans, who walked a bit ahead of us before returning back to their camper-truck for the night.
Maria set up the tent along the river while I decided to build a fire with some of the masses of wood laying around the area. As the sun set we sat around the fire and cooked the carrots and bolonga we were carrying for dinner as we drank the wine. We sat up quite late talking, then went to back to the tent and made love under candle light.
The night was cold and frosty, as the dry season was now fully on us and the air dropped well below freezing. Maria had woken just before sunrise in a panic over the monkey, whom she had begun to see as a child of sorts. She dreamed that she’d heard a crunch and had killed him as he was in the sleeping bag with her to stay warm. I rolled over and went back to sleep, waiting for the morning.
Eventually, the sun entered the valley and the tent immediately went from freezing cold to unbearably hot. I rolled out of the tent onto the frozen ground in a sweat, and immediately went for water. I looked up to the huge rock face and waterfall that we were bound to climb that day and imagined the glacier lake that must be behind it all. I mixed some powdered milk with water and ate a cup of cereal while Maria was waking up and getting dressed.
As I was finishing breakfast, she came out of the tent with Titi in her arms like a small baby.
‘Ahhh… co-shita… tienes frio?‘
She stroked him lovingly and kissed his head before putting him away under her fleece jacket. At the same time the Germans showed up again at our camp, ready for a day of hiking. I couldn’t believe that they were actually gonna make that hike at their age but they looked ready, equipped with all the finest equipment from titanium trekking poles to GPS. I began talking to Peter’s wife, Uta, about languages as I lazily fed the monkey an orange as he sat on my lap.
She was from eastern Germany and had spent many years under Hitler, Stalin, and Krushev. She was an amazing woman to talk to and reminded me of my grandmother, only from the other side of history. I mentioned that I’d like to learn Russian, and she immediately offered to write phrases in my notebook while I was packing up my scaterred belongings.
The four of us set off together, but there was no real trail where we needed to go. We simply began climbing toward the top of the ridge above our campsight, crossing over piles of brush and fallen trees. I went ahead, as I was the strongest among us, though the German couple were incredibly agile and fit and easlily kept just behind us. It was a hard slog before we finally reached an irrigation ditch that marked the beginning of the trail.
We walked along the first ditch for a while before losing the trail again and having to cut through thick brush and more fallen trees, ascending at more then 45 degrees. The ancient German couple stayed right behind us the whole time, pushing hard up the mountain. I couldn’t believe it. I thought back to all the people that age that I’d seen in nursing homes and incapacitated and realized that life is whatever you make it. I had an incredible amount of respect for them.
After a very difficult period we finally came to the second irrigation ditch, already several hundred meters above our camp and an impressive, steep view down. The trail was winding, rocky, wet, and steep, but incredibly beautiful. We passed through strange ancient forests of twisting, peeling trees and massive boulders.
The monkey rode on Maria’s back and looked around as we continued up. It was an insane idea to bring a monkey to this altitude but when I joked about it to Maria she’d only smile, kiss me, and say that he as a lucky monkey and a “Mono Viajero.” We laughed about it and kept going, the Germans just behind us.
After several more hours of ascending, the trail thinned out and we found ourselves climbing on difficult smoothe rock. We continued like this until a sharp, impassable cliff of smooth rock, just below where I believed the lake to be. There seemed to be no way across except by crossing a very rapid stream over smooth rock and about 20 feet from a 1000ft plus cliff. I decided to cross it. The stream wasn’t terribly wide at about 1 and ½ meters, but on the other side was only about 6inches of wet rock to land on before ascending a bit more to a flat, dry area. The stream, though not very wide, was cut very deep in the rock and the water was furiously rapid. If someone fell in the water that would be it.
I considered that for a minute and then jumped acrost. I landed on the other side perfectly and motioned for the others to follow me but they couldn’t. I jumped back acrost to explain what was going on and what we had to do but it was clear that the Geramns simply couldn’t follow me there. Maria came down to the stream, but was very afraid of dropping the monkey in the water and wouldn’t cross. I offered to carry him across and she agreed. After a period of nervous contemplation on her part, she crossed over the stream and realized that it was much easier than it looked.
The Germans decided to take another route way around the cliff and we didn’t see them anymore as we climbed the rest of the way to he lake. It was beautiful, a very large lake surrounded by foerests and snowcapped peaks. I laid on a warm rock with Maria and the monkey and we ate the little bit of food we brought and drank the ice cold, pure water straight from the lake. It was perfect.
We talked about different things, and then she mentioned to me how great it would be to make love in that spot, right there by the lake. To me it was great idea but we wondered if the Germans would show up. After half an hour or so, we decided that they couldn’t have made it. I suggested that we climb up a little to the rocks above us so that if someone did show up no one would see us.
As we began to kiss Maria heard a whistling sound but I convinced her that it was a bird and we kept going. We hid the monkey under a pile of clothes to keep him warm and made love there in the open under all the glory and beauty of the mountains. It was perfect.
Afterward, as we were both laying naked on the rocks, holding each other to stay warm from the cold highland wind, Maria spotted the Germans high above us on a cliff across the river. She scrambled to put her clothes back on as I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I finally saw them after she pointed toward the rock wall, and I scrambled to get my pants back on. It was hilarious. They had obviously seen everything. We sat laughing for ages. We came down from the lake after that and met the Germans further down the trail.
There was no bus back to any major town and we were forced to camp another night at a soccer field in a little town and eat tuna crackers and cold cereal for dinner. The next morning we made it back to civilization.