The day before I had booked the Laguna 69 trek with Alkipa Tours. I was also staying at their hostel, but with clogged toilets, light-leaking curtains, and spotty wi-fi I was not entirely confident in their ability to guide me into the mountains. However, I soon learned that the lack of attentiveness towards their hostel facilities was because of the love poured into each and every step they coordinate on the trail. As I grew more and more interested in going to bed, the hostel owner pulled up maps on his laptop, pointed to papers, and carefully described each moment that may or may not happen.
“This is the town you’ll be driving through on your way to the park entrance around 5am—“
“—I’ll be sleeping—“
“It’s known for its major exports, which include….”
I patiently waited until he started describing the way the path would change forty minutes into the hike (“steeper, rockier, and this is where you’ll want to make sure you don’t slip”), when I forcefully excused myself, found a bathroom that worked, and went to bed.
At 4am I woke up to five alarms—mine and all my roommates’. Huaraz, Peru is not a town where you sleep in. Every morning people wake up early in order to get to the park entrance three hours away. Where I was going, Laguna 69, is the most popular day hike in the area, and I was hoping to get our tour going early enough to beat the crowds.
Thankfully, Alkipo Tours was very organized, and we made it to the first lake before the indigenous people who ran the facilities even showed up. There I had my usual cup of coca tea, along with an avocado and egg sandwich and banana. The sun had come up, but not long enough to melt the snowy fog that lay on the lake or on the mountains past it. As I stood there, admiring the flaky red bark of the trees and the graceful bobbing of blue boats, the mist retreated, and left our group at the edge of a aquamarine pool. We helped our guide to pack up our dirty cups and dishes. “It’s time to begin,” she said.
Now fully awake, our car of tourists became aware of each other—two American college boys studying abroad, a German girl, a couple of Dutch backpackers, and a Swiss family. Twenty minutes after the stop at the lake, we piled out of the van and onto the side of the road in icy rain.
“It will stop soon,” said our guide, and we chose to believe her.
Heads down, we trudged down some large stones, through a grassy field, and towards some old stone buildings. It was here the rain let up and I was able to take in the scenery around us. We had walked to the middle of a valley, with different peaks of mountains piercing the sky around us. Some were relatively low, covered in green and ribbons of water, while others towered past the clouds, further camoflouging themselves in snow. Closer and more immediate to us were dramatic cliffs, impossibly steep, with water fighting to get back to the land. Water cascaded down until they converged to reach the river I was standing next to. It flowed peacefully through the valley, past the sleeping cattle and horses and into a dense wood.
From here we followed the river until we had no choice but head straight up the impending cliff. I had waited a full day in Huaraz to acclimate to the altitude, but my body probably needed weeks. As soon as I took the first step up, I knew I was in trouble. I was breathing as if I had just taken a short sprint.
“Don’t stop,” said the guide as she passed me easily, “Walk slow, but never stop.” I watched her turn a corner and leave my sight with amazement. I was now envious of normal walking speed. Reluctantly, I took another step. Despite the incredible new place I found myself, I avoided looking up. I did not want to see how far we had to go.
One of the Americans college students and I fell into pace, and he wanted to talk. His name was Brian, and he had never been to New York City. He talked about his school, and the economy, and about some of the rocks we passed while I listened to his breathing get more and more shallow until his talking just stopped, without an ending, because we both knew it wasn’t worth saying. Any extra effort we had was now being conserved, and I was making sure to take four small, slow steps for every possible giant one. Slow and steady, I thought. That’s how you win this.
Brian and I spent the rest of the hike in this pattern: he would race a head a minute or two at a time, and I would slowly but steadily catch up while he collapsed on a rock, out of breath. I told him what the tour guide had told me.
“You have to be a turtle to win the race, not a rabbit,” I said.
“I like rabbits,” he said, grinning.
It’s amazing how concise and intelligent you can sound when you know you can’t manage more than a few words at a time.
Two hours into the hike we arrived at a small lake. It would have been impressive almost anywhere else, but here in this unreal environment it served most significantly as a halfway point, and to serve as a reflection for the snow-capped mountains that fed it. “You’re third,” the guide told me as I approached her. She handed me another cup of coca tea. “And you’re 60% there.”
There was more flat valley for about 20 minutes. Just when I thought we had hiked to the impossible wilderness we saw cattle and donkeys, roaming free but still a sign of human life and their need for farming. I was glad Brian was so far behind, so I could jump behind a stone wall to pee. Up this high, plants couldn’t grow very well, but every now and then old stone buildings would be there, for seemingly no other purpose. Finally I had caught my breath, but I knew the worst was yet to come.
I craned my neck to see the top of where I’d be, hopefully within the hour. It was jagged cliff, almost straight up with a winding path to lead me there. Just as Brian caught up, wheezing, I smiled. “Let’s go.”
The cattle below us turned toy-size, and the air seemed to get even thinner. We were the first tour of the day, but campers who stayed at the lake overnight were now making their way back down. This caused me to stop, and step aside. The path was not wide enough to be a two-way street, and one small step could be a long tumble down. I looked up. The top didn’t look any closer.
Over an hour later, the earth flattened out and I could finally see the mountain we were headed to. Brian was behind me now, telling me not to wait. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.
Obstructing Laguna 69 were white stones and bright purple flowers. I was pulled forward by pure curiosity, now that my energy reserves were pretty much gone. Those last, flat moments were the longest. But finally I turned the corner and saw the most electrifying blue I’d ever seen. A pure white glacier waterfall poured in at the far end, making the water as cold as the cool blue would have you believe. The mountain that created this scene stood proudly behind it all, its snow and clouds mingling together. The sky and the earth were one in this place, it was the closest to heaven I’d ever been.
I sat next to the tour guide, who informed me that I was fourth. She offered me a tank of oxygen, which I accepted, as well as the last of the coca tea. True to her word, we didn’t stop long. By the time the rest of the tour joined us it was time to turn around. We would be back late, just in time for some dinner, before setting an alarm for 4am the next day.