May 31, 2013 by jiejie768
At, oh, about 6 a.m. on Thursday, May 16, the Cruz Del Sur bus from Lima to Huaraz pulled into the north-central mountain town and deposited our weary trio of travelers into the dawn’s early light of an unfamiliar town. We shook off the cobwebs long enough to acquire a ridiculously overpriced (8 soles) cab ride to our hotel and prayed we’d be allowed to check in early.
The powers that be saw fit to answer our prayers, and to the everlasting credit of the extremely accommodating staff at La Casa de Zarela in Huaraz, we were granted entry into our room immediately upon arriving. The highly-recommended lodging locale was out of triples when Meg and I made the reservation, so we had to settle for occupying three of the four beds in a four-bed dorm room with en suite bathroom. Arriving as early as we did, we had the room to ourselves at that point, but the note on the whiteboard in the office indicated Gaspar would be joining us at some point in the day: I could hardly wait to meet our new friend.
Upon depositing our stuff in our room, we half-heartedly discussed getting breakfast, or exploring the town before all three of us decided independently, and unanimously, to take a nap. By 9 a.m., we were feeling much more rested and set about planning the day. First things first, we grabbed an excellent, and affordable, breakfast (complete with an entire French press of delicious coffee) at the hotel cafe and perused various travel literature in search of activities.
While researching Huaraz before leaving for Peru, Keegan had found a mountain-biking outfit that specialized in half-day excursions, and we were eager to explore that option. As luck would have it, the shop for said outfit was right across the street from our hotel. We stopped by and learned that the proprietor was presently on an excursion for that day, but should we return at around 5 p.m., we’d be able to work something out for Friday. Our primary endeavor lined up and accounted for, we then set about exploring the town and seeking the hot springs advertised in the guide books.
There are two things that stand out to me about Huaraz. First and foremost, are the gorgeous, snow-capped Andean peaks that surround the town in nearly every direction. It is virtually impossible to look up without inadvertently feasting your eyes on some of Mother Nature’s best work. The second is the veritable lack of colonial architecture throughout the town. Apparently, the town has been more or less destroyed by avalanche and/or earthquake a number of times in the relatively recent past, meaning the vast majority of the town’s buildings have been built since the 1970s. This, unfortunately, made the town rather drab and uninteresting in appearance, especially when set against the abundant natural wonders waiting just outside the city limits.
Our first order of business upon reaching the city center and the ever helpful iPeru office (if traveling in an unfamiliar place in Peru, I highly suggest locating the local iPeru office and asking what they recommend; they are almost always on point and exist in just about every city in the country), was to find a mirador. Finding higher ground from which to view my new surroundings is often priority No. 1 for me whenever I’m traveling, and given Huaraz’s incredible scenery, this trip was no different.
From the city center, we managed to talk a cab driver into taking us to one of the viewpoints suggested by the iPeru attendant. He agreed to drive us out, wait a bit and then drive us back into town for just 20 soles ($7.50). He turned out to be a pretty entertaining guy to boot. On our way up the hillside outside of town, he continued past the mirador and continued climbing, insisting that there were interesting things to see farther up and that he would stop at the viewpoint on our way back to town.
The paved road ended at a gated community that looked as if it had been airlifted to Peru from Palm Springs. The houses therein were unlike any residences I’d seen anywhere in Peru. Our driver was rebuffed by the security staff when he asked if we could take a spin around the complex, but undeterred, continued along a side road that skirted the neighborhood and delivered us to a secluded spot featuring clean views of the valley and surrounding mountains.
Our driver explained that the gated community was built for and occupied by foreign engineers who work in the mining industry that has created a fair bit of controversy in the Huaraz region. The area is rich in natural resources, but the mining is not always (or ever) mindful of preserving the natural beauty, and the locals have grown a bit resentful. Furthermore, the presence of the mining industry has driven real-estate and housing prices through the roof and created a pretty massive chasm between the haves and have-nots in Huaraz.
As we were heading back toward the main road, our driver stopped along a fence guarding the complex to again let us take photos of the mountains that rose behind the neighborhood. As we were snapping off photographs, a bike-bound security guard approached and told us we had to skedaddle. He was worried that we were taking pictures of the houses, and that was strictly forbidden (by someone, not sure who). To that point, we had been focussing on the breathtaking mountain views, but upon hearing the security guard’s misplaced concern, I couldn’t help snapping a picture of the neighborhood … just because I could.
We did, however, heed the guard’s wishes that we leave, and headed back down the hill toward town. Our second stop, at the actual mirador, provided more spectacular views of the surrounding mountains as well as a birds-eye view of the growing city of Huaraz. Our previous stop did not feature city views, and we were surprised at how big the town actually was. Huaraz is often described as mountain-climber’s and outdoorsman’s paradise, and for some reason I always thought the population was around 15,000-20,000 people. Turns out the city is home to around 100,000 residents, but, in a lot of ways, it does not feel that big.
After soaking up the view, and filling up our cameras’ memory cards, our driver took us back to town and graciously agreed to drop us at our hotel instead of the plaza where we’d originally boarded (about a mile or so from the hotel). Once back at the hotel, I was disappointed to learn that Gaspar still had not shown up. When was I ever going to get a chance to meet my new best buddy? Saddened, but determined to make the best of the day, we grabbed our swimsuits, Keegan and I took turns applying each others sunscreen (there are pictures, but I’ll spare you the horror, and me the embarrassment), and we headed off to the Monterrey hot springs.
To get to the hot springs, we once again descended into the plaza and caught a combi (basically a mini-van converted into a bus) that would take us to the thermal pools located just outside of town. The bus ride turned out to be a great cultural experience for Keegan in and of itself. He had avoided the packed buses in Ayacucho as we opted for taxis most days, but now he was getting the full experience.
Early in the trip, we were among the only passengers in the bus and managed to acquire one of the coveted dozen or so seats. But as the bus continued toward its endpoint, it quickly collected passengers operating on the tried-and-true Peruvian bus mantra: Siempre hay espacio (There’s always space). By the mid-point of the trip, there were about three people in the aisle between the seats where Keegan and I were sitting. My shoulder underwent a rather more intimate relationship with the gentleman standing near me than I would have liked, while Keegan’s face was positioned roughly in the center of the man’s, well … how to put this? … let’s say the gap between his buttocks. It was an excellent chance for Keegan to truly appreciate mass transit in the Peruvian Andes.
After about 30 minutes, the bus dropped us off at the hot springs and we were ready to bask in the thermally heated hot tubs. This did not turn out to be an available option. Monterrey was more of a pool than a hot springs. The water was plenty warm for swimming, but well short of hot-springs temperature (also, it was basically the color of diarrhea). It was, however, a pretty pleasant way to pass the afternoon, and we swam and waded in the waters for a good hour before heading back into town. We were saddened to learn, courtesy of the strangest sign I’ve ever seen (see photo), that we were not allowed to make out with one another in the pool … alas.
By about 4 p.m., we returned to the hotel and took turns showering before heading out for a night on the town. Sometime during this break in the action, Gaspar finally showed up (be still my heart) but seemed uninterested in engaging us in more than the most perfunctory of greetings. He had been out climbing mountains all day (literally) and did not seem as interested as I was in making new friends. Crushed, but determined to enjoy myself anyway, I set my sights on the night ahead.
Before we could go out, however, we had to meet with the cycling guide. He was good friends with the owner of our hotel and met us in the restaurant downstairs. We were a little dubious about his price (120 soles per person — $50), but were very interested in his service. We asked if we could think about it for a bit, and he told us to stop by his downtown office (not the shop across the street form our hotel) later that evening and let him know what we decided. This was perfect, since his office was located just down the street from the micro-brewery-restaurant we had lined up for that evening’s dinner.
Visiting the Sierra Andina Brewery gastropub was one of the things I was most looking forward to while in Huaraz. Their craft beers (in bottles) are available at the Burrito Bar in Lima where Meg and I frequently eat, and I longed to try the tasty brews fresh from the tap. Though I enjoy the macro-brews available in Peru, there is very little selection or distinction among them; basically, one is afforded the option of Budweiser, Miller or Coors (not actually those brands, but their Peruvian equivalents) anywhere you go. Craft brewing, and things such as pale ales, ambers and other mainstays of the American micro-brew culture are no where to be found. Sierra Andina is a welcome exception to this rule.
In addition to offering up a tasty array libations, Sierra Andina also seemed likely to provide me yet another elusive indulgence that was missing from my meals while in Peru: a decent, American-style hamburger. They delivered in spades on both parts. The beer was even better from the tap, and the hamburger they offered, while not the best I’ve ever had, was far and away the best I’d tasted in Peru.
During dinner, we decided that, even though the price was a bit steep, mountain biking was the activity we most wanted to do, so we’d pony up the extra dough (before learning the price, we’d set our cap at 100 soles) and follow Julio up into the mountains. This turned out to be a great decision, but we’ll get to that part of the trip in tomorrow’s post. We also were pretty excited that he planned to start the endeavor at 9:30 a.m., an astonishingly late (and more than welcome) time to leave for anything in Peru.
After informing Julio, the biking guide, of our decision and paying a deposit, we headed off to the 13 Buhos (13 Owls) bar to try another craft beer we’d learned about in our guide book. This beer was marketed as a home-brew and was infused with coca leaves. Truth be told, this beer had a rather hollow and disappointing flavor, but the 13 Buhos was an excellent place to grab a drink. Keegan followed his coca beer with a coca sour (a coca-infused take on Peru’s signature drink, the Pisco sour) and I enjoyed a giant Cusquena (I really like it when a bar offers me the chance to order a 22-ounce beer in lieu of the more common 12-ounce variety). Meg opted for a banana milkshake.
We passed a couple of hours at 13 Buhos, chatting and playing several games of Jenga before deciding to call it a (relatively early) night. We got back to the hotel at about 10, and were all asleep before 11, happy to be spending the night in actual bed. Gaspar came in shortly after us, but much to my chagrin, merely walked over to his bed on the far side of the room and went to sleep without more than a couple of words in our direction. My hopes of a lasting friendship were quickly fading into the cold, dark Andean night.
Catch up on all of Keegan’s visit: