I woke up this morning nestled deep in the arms of Pachamama, the Earth goddess of the Indigenous Andean people. Huaraz is the largest town in this heavenly valley called Callejún de Huaytas. Pachamama's left arm, to the west, is the Cordillera Negra, a beautiful chain of green mountains that separate this valley from the dry coast. Her right arm, to the East, is the Cordillera Blanca, a range of majestic snowcapped peaks, sparkling streams, vertical rock faces, and beautiful alpine lakes.
This is an internationally known hot spot for hiking, rock-climbing, mountaineering, ice climbing, and admiring the Pachama. At 3091 meters above sea level, Huaraz requires one more day of altitude adjustment, but I just couldn't wait! Despite the altitude, I was invigorated by the fresh, crisp air and I was anxious to go for a hike. I set out for the hills with my zampoña (musical instrument), my digital camera, and a packed lunch, in search of an ancient ruin called the "Monumento National Wilcahuaín." I started up the road into the foothills of the Cordillera Blanco. Above the green rolling hills ahead of me appeared sharp, snowcapped peaks. A stream of cool snowmelt flowed down from the mountains above while Andean women tended sheep and cows alongside the road. Their typical dress is a short, poofy skirt (almost like the poodle skirts of the 1950's, only without the poodle), stockings, and a felt hat cocked sideways. Their long black hair is worn in one or two braids down their back. They look quite saucy, really.
With a digital camera and a zampoña, who needs M&M's to make friends? The kids loved posing for pictures and practically trampled one another trying to see the small screen on my camera. The zampoña also got passed around and my new friends all attempted to play it.
Even though all the kids speak Spanish, their first language is Quechua (an indigenous Andean language.) But when I tried to practice the words I'd been learning from my Quechua phrasebook, they didn't understand me. At first I thought it was because my accent was so bad, but I soon realized that the Quechua spoken in Callejún de Huaytas is different from the Quechua of Cuzco, where my phrasebook was written.
The kids were excited to teach me their language. We counted together and introduced ourselves in Quechua and they laughed hysterically at my poor pronunciation. I finally said "Awalla" (good-bye), and left them to return to math class, while I continued my journey up the hill and out of town.
By the time I reached the next village, the school day was just ending. Kids of all ages were walking home in their blue and white school uniforms. "¡Hola, Gringa! De que pais?" (What country are you from?) I was asked over and over by smiling kids.
Two brothers in their school uniforms, Jose, age 10 and Diego, age 9, offered to be my guides for a trip to the ruins. Off we went, up the hill, weaving our way on a shady footpath alongside a swift stream, through houses and fields. Diego spied my zampoña sticking out of my bag, and soon the two boys were taking turns playing it. I couldn't show off my skill because I was so out of breath from trying to keep up with them. By this time we were far above Huaraz but I still wasn't acclimatized to the thin air at such high altitudes.
We went higher and higher, past women and children tending sheep and cattle, and men with teams of oxen clearing land for planting. The white mountain peaks were getting closer and closer. Finally, we made it to the ruins, a small enclosure with a high wall and a few stone buildings that were relatively well-preserved. Jose and Diego immediately started climbing on top of the ruins, providing me with good photo opportunities. Not only did we scour the ruins, but we also climbed inside the chambers and small tunnels underneath which were dark, damp, and scary.
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