Hey, you want to go to Peru?

Hey, you want to go to Peru?

This is what my good friend and mentor Ramsay asked me on the drive back from a day of climbing, near our homes in Colorado. It was the mid-90’s, and I was a 20 year-old college student and aspiring mountain guide. Ramsay suggested I meet him in Peru to get some experience alpine guiding at high altitude. I had traveled around a bit up to that point, but had never been south of Mexico, much less to, what seemed to me then, the mystical land of Peru. Ramsay told me to meet him in Huaraz in a few weeks, and from there we would do some climbing and guiding together. Although a little nervous, I excitedly jumped at the opportunity. Armed with some passable Spanish skills, I left for Peru with my two large duffel bags full of climbing and camping gear, the name of the town I was supposed to get to (Huaraz), and the name of a guy for a place to crash when I arrived.

I arrived in Lima at one in the morning, passed through customs, and rounded the corner to be greeted by the now familiar wall of waiting people, waving signs and screaming names. I froze and stared blankly at the throng: ‘How do I get out of here?’ I asked myself. ‘Are these people screaming at me?’. I eventually got my wits about me, made it out of the airport and to a bus station. I had managed to make my way through Lima in the middle of night, dragging my large duffels, and onto a bus going the right way, only losing $20 to pick-pockets along the way. So far, so good.

I stared out the window, soaking up the quickly changing landscape. My bus rolled into Huaraz, and I jumped off at the end of the line. All I had to do was find a guy named Julio Olaza, who I was told could get me set up with a bed for the night. ‘I really should’ve planned this better.’, I told myself. ‘This town is bigger than I thought.’ I did the only thing I could, and asked the first person I saw, ‘Do you know Julio?” Amazingly, the answer was, “Yes, his wife’s family’s house is right there, across the street.” So just like that I had a place to stay. So far, so good.

My plan from there was for my friend Chris and I to trek for about a week, so I could acclimatize to the altitude. I would meet my friend Ramsay in Huaraz in about a week. Again arising to the blaring car horns and overactive roosters, and without much of plan, we packed up, and got ourselves onto a collectivo headed towards Cashapampa to begin our trek. Several hours packed into this collectivo with 20 other people, and the sights and smells of Peru were quickly becoming familiar. After the usual pushing through the particularly rough sections of the “road”, periodically stopping to let the engine cool off, and fixing a flat on a rapidly eroding hillside, we rolled into Cashapampa around dusk. It wasn’t long before we found someone (more like they found us) who was willing to let Chris and I camp on their land for the night. To the cacophony of roosters, burros, and barking dogs, we cooked our dinner and I watched the first of many campo sunsets on the Cordillera Blanca. The farmer whose land it was even pointed the way to the trailhead we needed, as we sat around trying to communicate (his Spanish was about as good as mine) over a few beers.

On the trek I was continually memorized by the scenery, and the people who lived back in these valleys away from Huaraz. The week of trekking went perfectly, but again I cursed myself for not making a better plan to meet Ramsay. Chris and I hadn’t even figured out how to get transport back to Huaraz from the end of the trail. I barely worried about this during my trek. The scenery and people had made me forget about. Now here we were, waiting at dusk, on some road we didn’t know, for a truck, or car, or something that could take us back towards town. Just as we had given up hope for the night and began to set up the tent, a collectivo came rumbling down the hill. We waved it down, and got it, only to find Ramsay in the back seat. So far, so good.

After that first trip to Peru, I returned for a few months every year for nearly a decade. I traveled the country, but coming back to the highlands always felt like coming home. It was here that I did a lot of growing up: the locals who welcomed me year after year, the road blockades, the banditos, the friends I lost in the mountains, the romances, the after climbing debauchery back in town, and my own close calls with the mountains. I grew to appreciate the smells and sounds: the constant car horns, the roosters that crow well before sunrise, the smell of fires burning in the campo, the dogs barking. I learned how to manage the obstacles that arise while moving through this beautiful country: the unreliable vehicles, the washed out roads, the over-packed collectivos, and the rare threat of hijacking. Somewhere along the way I grew to love this place and it’s people, and ‘So far, so good’ became ‘Viva Peru.’ Just like during that first trip, things have always seemed to work themselves out. Maybe not on my schedule, but I’ve learned how to wait. I haven’t been back to Peru in a couple years now, and I really miss it. I’ve realized I miss the people more than the landscape. I’ll be back soon Viva Peru.

By: Brian Lazar
Photo: Beto Santillan