My name is Raj, I am 35 years old, and I am professional backpacking guide in the Cordillera Blanca Norte, deep within the heart of The Andes in Northern Peru. I consider myself first, and foremost, a linguist; I speak 6 languages including Spanish, English, German, Hebrew, French and my native Incan tongue Quecha. Over the past 21 years I’ve come to specialize in leading tourists on the famed Santa Cruz trek, from the small village of Cashapampa in the east, 50 kilometers through the heart of the Andean Mountain range, to the smaller and even more remote hamlet of Vaqueria. In route, traversing over the Punta Union pass, reaching a oxygen sapping height of 4750 meters (15,800 feet) before dropping down the continental divide into a river valley whose waters eventually trickle their way into the Amazon Basin. This particular romp took us a leisurely four days and three nights, meanwhile paid, outfitted tour groups generally take three days, two nights; while the freaks-of-nature crowd, prefer the alpine style of two long days and one short night. Having spent most of my adulthood training and guiding in these mountains I’ve come to prefer the leisurely kicked-back-vibe four day style and always enjoy those who are down to cruise with me.
It was not always this way, I was born a bastard, raised fatherless, impoverished and uneducated. I left home at the age of 7 searching for a better life, eventually wandering my way into the trade of sheep herder. It was hard at first, young, naive, with barely any possessions to my name, but I worked hard, kept my nose down, always smiled and eventually my persistence paid off as I worked my way up the herding ladder, to its pinnacle, high alpine cattle wrangling. Even then, after achieving this highly sought after position, I found myself living a life unfulfilled. The pay was meager, the winters unbearable, and the bitches scarce. I persevered through the hard times, always befriending the passing trekkers working their way through my range, receiving handouts occasionally, supplementing my already paltry company meal rations. Eventually I reached out to the guides I so often encountered, seemingly enjoying their ‘work’ of escorting the carefree foreigners, through our pastures, over and beyond the horizon. I too, wanted to pilot these people merrily along the trail, occasionally herding them from away from danger. Long tail short, I was lucky enough to meet an expert trekking guide, willing to take me on as an apprentice. From there it was only a matter of time until I too reached my current position of lead guide on the Santa Cruz Trek.
I was sunning myself in the grass in front of the lodge that marks the start of the trek in Cashapampa, a small village tucked away in a high valley at the treeline, a ninety minute bone-jostling ride away from the city of Caraz. I was just fresh off my morning nap when I was startled by the screeching halt of a small passenger van (collectivo) with a colorful mound of bags heaped on top, delivering 5 gringos and all their gear, nearly at my feet. This was a particularly loud crew, morale was high, bickering too, as the unloaded their gear, tied up their boots and marched up the trail in my direction. The best groups you can always hear before you can see and this was a classic example of the case. Four guys, one pretty girl, bumbling about with a map in hand, without an organized outfitted guide in sight, so I did what I do best, I confidently strode towards them with my best smile on, exchanged greetings and attempted to sniff them out. Competition is always stiff with other freelance trail guides at the head of the trail, but this group and I instantly made a connection, without looking back I bounded uptrail and began my days work
It’s a rough, rocky, dusty, steep, shameless climb initially, as per tradition the group was breathing hard from the start, but pushing on not wanting to appear weak in the eyes of each other and particularly me, as I’m a local and everyone wants to keep up with the loc-dawgs. I usually lead by example, running ahead to shady spots beside the trail, patiently waiting for the first hiker to arrive, and then I repeat the process until eventually the group stops for water or lunch. I don’t carry any water because I’ve done the trip so many times, I know where to find the purest water along the way, and frankly it’s silly to me that anyone is willing to carry the extra weight. I’m am a product of my environment, carrying only my hard learned trail knowledge and the coat on my back; scavenging for the bare essentials as I go. Initially I too put my stoic face, pretending I’m not tired, not hungry, nor thirsty; all the while, spying, not eyeing, the mountains of tasty organic, non-GMO, sustainable grass fed snacks the foreign groups always lug in excess. After a few hours into the uphill battle, a few shade breaks in, and eventually someone feels bad enough for me and offers me water. With a smile I graciously accept along with the top half of her granola sandwhich bonus. Today her name is Marlie, I think that her and I are gonna get along just fine.
It’s 9.7 kilometers, 700 meters of elevation gain, and copious amounts of sweat to reach the first tent pitching option at the campsite, Llamacorral. After 4 hours time, it was 2:30 in the afternoon, and the group arrived at the first campsite looking and feeling, spent. After a bit of running around scattering the good grain (anyone who is familiar with the Dominican Sisters knows this line), I was able to convince them to seize the nice weather window before us, and we pushed on to the first lake, Lago Ichiccocha. 2.7 kilometers into the 3.7 required kilometers to reach the lake, rain that had been stalled in the valley high above us, decided to quickly make its way down, in great haste the boys pitched their tents in the flat valley bottom, just one false ridge short of the lake. Knowing this I tried to get them to push a little further by running further up the trail, follow they did not, instead they seemed completely torched and were contented to camp near the remnants of a old battered latrine that they said “might be nice to cook in if the weather persisted.” I laughed too, as I’ll never quite completely understand these foreigners and their norté montaña ways.
This my friends, is when all the real fun started, they started by boiling up some dreamy, steamy hot chicken noodle soup, sipping slowly to warm themselves. Stevie pulled out a box of red wine to ease their way into dinner prep, as things got mashed, things got chopped, and things got re-hydrated; before I knew it, we were all enjoying sautéed beef, on mashed potatoes smothered in a vegetable and beef stewlike gravy. Silently I observed as they doled out the portions and thankfully my gal Marlie caught met spying and generously slipped me some of her meal, unbeknownst to rest of the crew, already mid-gorge into the feast. As fast as the rain fell, the mild evening temperatures dipped in unison, as did the sun, and by 6:15 the dishes were rinsed in the glacial runoff that passed through camp. As the crew tried their best to avoid the the finger numbing task, the idea of a cow and donkey dung campfire was laid. Laid, but not properly did it hatch. After two boxes of wine and many ratherly unsuccessful attempts by the self described pyro, Estban, another heroic gathering and fire blowing attempt by Jackson (smoldering moist dung smoked everyone out, and the eventually the Eagle Scout gave up), the crew decided to call it a night.
As I said earlier I usually only travel with my weather proof coat along the trail and find wind protected alcoves to curl up and sleep for the night, but after the generosity of this group and particularly Marlie, thus far, I decided to try and bunk up in one of their tents. I hung close to Marcus around the way outside of the campfire, trying to make a connection, because he was well away from the smokehouse they were calling a campfire, but after the fire was out, he kicked me out of his lap and beat it for his tent, leaving me little time to convince another member of the group I was a worthy addition to their tent. I went with the weakest link, following Marlie back to her tent, only to find Stevie already cozied up, passing out sprawled in the center, looking forward to a proper nights rest. Disheartened by the lazy eyed look he shot my way and thinking my luck had run out, when unexpectedly Stevie unzipped the tent and allowed me in. There are miracles people and this one was a Hail Mary, as I crawled inside, they laughed at his caving in so easily, after spending the day continually ranting to Marlie about how there was, “absolutely no way, that Mongrol is sleeping in the tent.” Snuggled between him and Marlie, we called it a night at 8:30 PM.
The sunrises 12 hours after it sets this near to the equator and by 6 am the tent was nearly full-daylight, my hair was everywhere and I desperately had to pee, luckily Stevie did too, and we started day two together with a stretch and a satisfying piss in the bushes. As the coffee brewed, the bacon fried, the eggs were scrambled, and the tortillas toasted; I dreamed of having every trail meal with this food-loving crew. The weather was overcast, the air cool and brisk, and the Sloan boys were on a quest for trout. They didn’t seems to have any idea if there was trout in any of the lakes we planned to pass, but we had to wait on them, at each body of water, as they tried their luck. Luckily there was only one lake that drew them in for any meaningful amount of time and even more so, the bite was on. The rest of us explored the inlet as they scrambled up and down and around the lakeshore one upping each other’s catch count, within an hours work, dinner was harvested. Fish heads and guts are not my idea of a meal, much to the dismay of the brothers as they excitedly presented to me the innards of the trout, I scoffed, and bounded up the trail leading the crew on a leisurely stroll up the valley to the base of the Punta Union pass. Throughout the day I did my best to yell at all grazing animals we passed as my animal-like instincts kicked in and I chased off all of those who dared to approach my crew. The group laughed at me and seemed to think that this was a joke, but they were to soon find out how dangerous the livestock could be.
After setting up camp in a wind protected spot near the base of the pass, the crew basked in the sun, enjoying the afternoon surrounded by glaciated peaks and stellar cloudscapes on this fine sunny day, the 20 of April, 2016. As dusk approached dinner preparations swung into high gear, trout were cleaned and seasoned, while the pasta was set to boil. Everything on the trail traditionally tastes better, but the boys really outdid themselves with lemon peppered butter pan fried trout as the entree, served on a pesto pasta base, and much to my surprise, I too received a generous portion for my hard days work. As the sunset and the stars started to burn in the night sky we witnessed a rogue cow sneakily advance on a neighbor camp and steal off a bag of food, nimbly dancing away with three French backpackers in tow. Even moreso did the crew appreciate my ability and instincts to fend off predatory farm animals after witnessing the cow escape with the booty. Only then triumphantly eating the plastic bag and all its contents with a single gulp, as the Frenchies threw rocks like little girls from afar. We all could feel that the nights entertainment was only just starting to build, the music was on point and a bit of mist was in the air. Over the next two hours the camp rejoiced over the sunny afternoon, clear night sky and enjoyed hot drinks served up by our resident bartender Marcus. Tales were told, jokes were while taking in the spectacular display being put on by the nearly full moon rising over the pass. As we sat in its eastern shadow we watched as the moon bathed all of the surrounding 5000 meter snow-capped peaks one by one, illuminating the glaciers and turning on the night lights basking us in its reflective glow. Slowly the anticipation built up as the moon crested the pass and fully lit up the valley to the cheers of all the crew stoking on the Planet Earth esque moment unfolding in front of our eyes.
After the moon rose and the drink cups emptied, the cows sneakily worked their under the cover of darkness and shrubbery, closer and closer to our camp. Once the first was spotted in the flickering light of the flames of our stove, we began to fend them off, me by yelling and chasing them while the boys used their headlamps and rocks to achieve the same affect. After a few hours of moon and starlight cattle rustling, we turned in for the night, I snuck my way back into Marlie and Stevie’s tent, pretending that I’d guard them from the rouge, trash eating cows throughout the night. Just as they were cozied up and nodding off, we heard the yell of Jackson as he shined he headlamp towards our tent, illuminating a terrifying longhorn silhouette just inches from our rain fly. It seemed that one of the marauding cows had honed in on the plastic garbage bag beneath our tents vestibule and was trying to chew its way through our fly and into the plastic feast. Luckily with Jacksons aim and a well placed rock, he was able to dissuade the cow into running far into the night, in turn allowing us to fall soundly asleep and without incident until the sun rose and the temps flared, beginning day 3.
The morning came with two of the three 6000 meter peaks surrounding our campsite, backlit by perfectly blue clear skies, while the third and closest to Union Pass, hid, tucked away in wispy fog like banks of clouds. Having 900 meters to climb to reach the top of the pass, and another 1300 to descend on the other side, the group ate a nutritious breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee and hit the trail by 8 am. After two and half hours we reached the top of the pass at 15,800 feet. Taking our time to enjoy a snack and the scenery, as it was still burning blue and the third peak was finally peeking out between the hazy high altitude cloud bank. It had been a wonderful three days thus far, heading 5 great humans through the valley, past the rabid plastic munching cows, fishing along the way and eating like kings. I sat gazing down upon the valley which they would descend, looking as regal as I possibly could, and watched as they passed by me one by one, each looking back encouraging me to follow, whistling, calling my name, offering me treats. I resisted the temptation to follow, knowing that I hard prepared them as best I could and now they were going to venture off as many others had done before them, into the valley of the rain that I no longer belong to, I’ll stay on the sunny side I barked, the humans need me over here.
Raj left us that day to return back to the town of Cashapampa, where he may or may not have owners, but will always be able to find a few food scraps from Trekkers and the occasional warm tent to sleep in. Raj is one of the most energetic, charismatic, friendly dogs I’ve ever come across, when he ran ahead of us on our first day we didn’t imagine he’d be with us for the next 41 kilometers, nor did we imagine that we’d fall so hard for a trail dog. He kept us company for those days and showed us the way, in his own way, got fed, and left a lot of fur in our tent. We still talk reminisce about him and his expert herding ways.
Thank you all for reading along and being patient with my blog posts. An especially big shout out to Jeff C. Irving, John Temple, Uncle Steve and Uncle Joe for the words of encouragement a few weeks back, although this is 9 days past due and a bit lengthy, I sure hope you all enjoy it.