A few years ago on my second trip in South America I ended up in a place called Huaraz in Peru.
Sitting in the valley of the Andes, Huaraz is a city sitting 3000m above sea level and most people arrive there to mountain climb, hike, snowboard and other outdoor pursuits.
I arrived with my only plan for the whole trip in mind; have no plan.
This is largely how I have travelled over the years, arriving to a place and taking it as it comes. If I find a place I like then I stay for longer and one I don’t like then I get out early.
I had a hostel recommended to me by a few fellow travellers.
The hostel is unlisted online, down a back alley with no signage, cost about 5euro per night and was one of the best hostels I have stayed at which is exactly why I stayed for over 2 weeks.
I have learned that the people in a hostel tell how good a hostel it is.
In the first few days after settling I ended up doing a day hike to Laguna 69, a glacial lake sitting in the valleys mountains.
"Laguna 69 is a breathtaking turquoise lake that is literally hugged by snowy mountain peaks, jagged rocks and trickling waterfalls some 4,600 metres above sea level. It is both a steep and demanding ascent beginning at 3,800 metres, but the overriding challenge is being able to cope with the high altitude"
I took the above description from this travel blog because they describe it better than I was about to.
There were a lot of tourist groups who did the hike, it was fairly tough but I managed to win the race to the Laguna.
Oh and I jumped in and got out all in under 5 seconds because glacial water is fairly cold.
I look happy for the few seconds of it.
Santa Cruz Trek:
After getting back from Laguna 69 I had a think about what I would do before leaving Huaraz.
There was another hike people went to Huaraz for called the Santa Cruz trek.
50km of a trek through the Andes with the altitude reaching up to 4,750 metres.
That's only 5,250 metres less than 10,000 metres and no mountain is 10,000 metres.
The most popular approach for the Santa Cruz trek was a 4 day hike people did in tour groups with tour guides carrying all your stuff, setting up tents and cooking your food and all the other challenging things so you can enjoy the scenery and relax.
Then a Taiwanese girl told me how she had just done it solo and taking the reverse route which was more difficult.
This got me curious and sparked the side of me that loves challenges.
I asked her about what gear was needed, where she got it, what food she brought, what other recommendations she had and I took notes.
Then I went to some shops in town and shopped for 4 days worth of food making sure I had enough but being conscious that I had to carry it all on my back so weight was important.
Then I went to a hiking store to hire gear. This consisted of a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cooking stove, gas, cutlery and all that kind of stuff.I was almost ready.
I had everything needed apart from hiking boots which the shop didn’t have in my size.
After looking in several shops and being caught between €250 North Face Boots and €50 hiking boots which threatened to fall apart on impact with the ground I was stuck.
I went to a shop which sold the best gear in town and explained my situation in my broken Spanish with the man who worked there. I was looking for a place to hire hiking boots for 3 or 4 days which would last that long.
He listened and then told me to come back to the shop at 9pm and then said something else I didn’t understand....so I asked him to repeat what he said.
Come back at 9pm when the shop is closed and I will give you my boots.
Ok I said before saying thanks and leaving.
Now I understood as much as you do now at the time about what was going to happen at 9pm that night.
One of my rules of travel is to embrace discomfort and to be open to things which may make for interesting stories.
This was a test of that. I walked in at 9pm and the Carlos, the man I had spoken with earlier was there with a few more people.
One, a customer who they were dealing with and also the owner of the shop Marco and his wife. Carlos welcomed me with a hug and then introduced me to Marco, another hug and then they pulled up a seat and asked me to sit down until they are ready.
Ready to kill me was a possibility that entered my head as I sat down on the little stool.
If you could ever have felt highly amused with a decent touch of fear then that was how I would describe the feeling I experienced in that moment.
After locking up the shop the three of us walked in the city of Huaraz for a few minutes before coming to a big gate which Marco the shop owner opened and led us down to a house.
They sat me down in the kitchen and stuck on the kettle. I wondered whether boiling Peruvian water could kill me or if it was just a torture technique before they finished me off.
5 minutes later and that thought gone I was sitting across from Carlos, eating bread and pate with a cup of cocoa chatting away.
Marco joined in the conversation from standing.
We chatted for nearly an hour, with long silences and plenty of laughter at my basic Spanish ending the flow of conversation.
The funny thing is it was not in any way awkward, it was entertaining and I was relaxed.
After the hour, Carlos stood up said something which registered as sound alone to me and then a few minutes later he came back with his hiking boots which he had polished off after using them for cutting the grass in the garden during the week.
Size 9, perfect.
Then he put them in a bag and grabbed a few pieces of fruit and stuck them in my pocket.
Carlos was working in Marco’s shop and living in his house so it was necessary to hide them in my pocket although judging from Marco’s character he wouldn’t have cared.
Then the two men got up and walked me back to my hostel, wished me good luck on my solo hike and then each gave me a warm hug before saying farewell for a few days.
I walked into my hostel questioning what had just happened, smiling all the time and feeling incredibly grateful. I had heard of brilliant travel stories before and had a few of them myself but this was different, it was better.
The Hike Summary:
Fast forward through the hike as that is a separate story.
In summary the hike was incredibly tough in every way and enjoyable.
After 4 days of being in my own company, seeing more animals than people, eating plain foods, sleeping under a star filled sky, witnessing avalanches, having inner silence turn into deafening noise and physically pushing myself in the altitude, heat and cold I got back to Huaraz.
The Gift That Keeps On Giving:
After cleaning the shoes I went back to the shop to find Carlos once again.
Another embracing welcome followed by a quick summary of my 4 day solo trek and then
he asked me to the house for dinner that night.
The man had an unlimited amount of kindness, I said I would prefer to rest today and said I would call in during the week before I left and said thanks again multiple times.
Then he told me tomorrow is Dia De La Madre (Mother's Day) and that he is having a BBQ at the house. I couldn’t say no twice so said I would be back at the shop tomorrow at 1pm when it closed.
The next day myself, Carlos and Marco sat outside their house and ate good food, drank red wine, chatted and laughed more than I thought possible. Sitting in a garden in Peru in such a unique setting with people who allowed me to feel at home.
We spent that whole Sunday in each other’s company and I could not thank them enough for doing this.
A New Perspective:
These men living in the most basic living conditions with little money, welcomed me into their home, cooked food for me, entertained me and taught me more about human connection than I could learn in years of reading books or hearing other people's stories.
They had an abundance of what is important in life and little of the unimportant.
We often get these two piles mixed up.
It taught me many things; how kind people can be, how external environments are a poor predictor of internal ones and how the act of being open and seeking discomfort can show
you things you didn’t know were possible.
That experience is one of my favourite ones I have ever had.
A few friends have asked me how this happened and my only answer is that I was open to things like this happening, I can't put it into words better than that.
It's the very reason I travel, to seek new experiences and when one happens as this did, it gives you a new lens to look at life through, a better one.
Strangers connecting and becoming friends.
Maybe strangers don't exist.
Moral of the story: Being open to the unexpected and seeking discomfort can teach you the most.
Marco, Me and Carlos...happy out.