En route to Cashapampa the windows of the convi bus were foggy in the early mountain morning and I held my pack tightly between my legs, trying to make us both as small as possible for the busy commute. There’s no max capacity on these rides; bodies will touch, smash, lean, fall onto each other.
The ride was bumpy and we drove through and past the sunrise, the fog slowly dripping away from the windows and letting in the mountainside full of eucalyptus and patches of adobe homes. Mornings in the Cordillera Blanca stay with you. The air is crisp and it wakes up your lungs in this way I’ll never forget and the sunlight feels like you can touch it in its hazy golden thickness and the ever-colorful bustle of Quechua women who quietly understand the mountains better than any of us.
The convi pulled into a dusty lot in Caraz and unloaded. There was a small red car continuing on to Cashapampa and I climbed in. A little embarrassed by the size and strangeness of my pack, I again tried to compress myself and conserve the limited space. I made a joke about hiding a person inside of my bag and the woman next to me laughed shyly over the wide-eyed little boy she had bundled to her chest.
The car filled and we headed further up the mountain. The road became notably more treacherous and we were driving fast. The driver could not have been older than 15, I’m sure, but he was patient and good-hearted and stopped to pick up a slowly moving older man whom he warmly referred to as “tío” and who proceeded to slip into the fully loaded automobile with unbelievable ease—a skill surely acquired after a lifetime of Peruvian public transportation. We passed an empty park with a fountain at the center and it seemed like we’d arrived in a town. The car stopped soon after and we unloaded. At the time, there were no hostels in Cashapampa and because the tourism season hadn’t quite started yet there were no other travelers around. The driver advised me to ask around and see if anyone in town had space for me to spend the night.
There was a woman standing in the doorway of her home slightly up the road and I walked over to her. Her name was Milagro and she didn’t speak much Spanish but her husband did and she told me to wait while she went to get him from the garden. They brought me into what I learned used to be their son’s bedroom before he moved with his family to a neighboring town for work.The ceilings of the house were strung with dry cobs of blue and yellow corn and my bed was a thick stack of wool blankets piled on top of a thin mattress. My interactions with Milagro and her husband were small, but they were memorable. There was no electricity in their home nor in most of town it seemed, and when the sun went down I sat in silence with Milagro peeling potatoes by candlelight.
I left early the next morning to begin the Santa Cruz trek. A new day, a new mountain morning, a new vista, a new nervousness, a renewed excitement. I remember the beginning of the hike was a bit confusing because it wound through some residential areas where farmers stood and watched me. There’s a sternness that comes over me when I’m alone in unfamiliar places and I felt it on my face. I tried to swallow it away and nod my head at the curious farmers. One man passed me on the trail and we stopped and talked for a while. I don’t remember what we spoke about but I remember his face. The whole experience is in my memory as a series of still images: Pitching my tent in the wrong place and waking up in the middle of a herd of grazing sheep; coming up on the valleys and watching sky fill the gaps between the mountain tops; Milagro’s airy silhouette in the doorway in the bluish dusk on the otherwise barren road; the misty sunrise; the time I seriously considered trying to cross the white part of the river on a fallen tree.
The Santa Cruz trek is beautiful, but made so much more whole by the surrounding experiences and the humble exchanges that are made along the way. In unknown places we rely heavily on the kindness of strangers. I’ve found that everywhere I’ve traveled in the Andes has been the result of a collection of these small kindnesses.
Words and photos by Aviva Einhorn, June 2015