Barefoot Hiking Through Peru
“Come to Peru with us!” I laughed at the three drunken Danes facing me. We’d just spent a month bonding in Costa Rica and tomorrow they were leaving for South America. I was sad to see them go, but I couldn’t just up and follow them to Peru. I told them as much.
“Why not?” Maria challenged.
I hesitated. Well, why not? My time in Costa Rica would be up in a week. I had a vague idea of going north and visiting Guatemala. But why not head south? Why not meet them in Peru?
There were a few detours along the way, but three weeks later we were reunited in the sleepy town of Huaraz, Peru. It didn’t look like much. Nestled at the base of the towering Cordillera Blanca Mountains, Huaraz consisted of little more than a few rugged hostels and a local street market. But we weren’t there to explore the city. We were there to hike.
We left early in the morning and navigated the confusing combination of collectivos and taxis required to reach the trailhead. I tightened the laces on my brand new Timberlands — a gift from my grandparents presented to me before I left for Costa Rica. I was convinced they were the perfect shoes for a traveler: I could wear them around town or in the mountains and they would support me. I was certain they were a good idea. Turns out they were not a good idea.
I’d already formed a few blisters trying to break them in, but I figured they were nothing to worry about. But within the first 15 minutes of the hike I had to stop. The backs of my feet were throbbing. What was going on? I pulled off my crisp new boots to reveal two massive blisters on my heels. One had already popped and was oozing a worrying reddish-yellow liquid. My friends stared in horror. I tried to pull my shoes back on and ignore the pain, but every step was excruciating.
“Go on,” I told my friends, “I’ll meet you at the top.”
My parents have always called me stubborn. I prefer determined. I was not about to let a poor choice of shoes ruin my Peruvian adventure. I pulled the boots off and shoved them into my backpack, ignoring the added weight pressing down on my shoulders. I took a tentative step forward. The grass was damp and soft. I took another step. This isn’t so bad, I thought. I’d been barefoot hiking once before in the lush forests of Oregon and so far the Peruvian ground was inviting, so I walked on. I decided then and there I was going to make it to the top. After all, how hard could it be?
As it turns out, very hard. The hike to Laguna 69 in Huaraz is four miles each way. But it’s not just an eight-mile hike, it’s a 2,625-foot elevation gain, finishing at 15,090 feet above sea level. And to top it all off, the entire hike is a straight climb. By the first hour, I was questioning my decision. I had soon left the soft bank of the river and started climbing the mountain.
The ground was firm beneath me and covered in jagged rocks that pressed into my bare feet from all directions. I learned to walk on the balls of my feet and kept glancing at the ground, carefully landing on whatever rockless ground I could find. However, careful as I was, every third step or so my knees would buckle from the pain of a sharp rock digging into the middle of my foot.
I learned to walk slower. I learned to watch my step. I started to think maybe, with a little patience and a lot of mindfulness, I could do this after all.
By the second hour I was feeling the elevation. I forced breath into me, but no matter how hard I inhaled, I couldn’t get quite enough air. My lungs screamed in protest and I had to stop at regular intervals to catch my breath. My insides were angry. They couldn’t believe what I was doing to them. Still, I couldn’t help but laugh. At least I wasn’t thinking about my feet as much anymore.
The third hour rolled around and I saw a peak ahead. Am I here? Did I make it? Hope swelled in my chest as I climbed to the top and turned to see — shit! The trail continued straight down into a valley and at the other end of the valley was the final climb, a steep mountain face guarding the destination. I bitterly worked my way downhill, furious that I had to go down, aware that every step I took was another step I’d have to climb when I got to the other side of the valley.
At the bottom of the hill a group of women stood chattering. I couldn’t understand the language they spoke, but I made eye contact with one and the fear and anxiety in her gaze was unmistakable. I approached wearily, trying to see what had caused the alarm.
When I reached them, I saw the threat and I couldn’t help but laugh. A cow stood in the middle of the trail. He looked at me with his big brown eyes and chewed on a bunch of grass as if to say, “Well, what are you gonna do about it?”
I walked past the women and approached the cow. He kept chewing and swinging his tail from side to side. I placed my hands on his rump. His skin rippled, but he gave no other sign of acknowledging my presence. I gave him a little push — nothing. I gave him a bigger push — still nothing. I threw my weight against him and he gave a little snort. Then he picked up his feet and slowly meandered off the path.
I walked on. I reached the base of the mountain and started crossing the valley. I watched hikers around me try to pick their way across, avoiding the puddles of mud that dotted the trail. My feet felt hot and raw and when I reached my first mud puddle I sunk into it. The cool, damp mud soaked into my tired feet. I wanted to stay there all day. All week, really. In fact, if I could have it my way I would never move again.
I considered it. I considered waiting until my friends made their way back down. I would wave them over and together we would return to the trailhead and grab a taxi back to the hostel where I could take a warm shower and put my softest socks on. I didn’t have to keep going.
And yet, there was that determination. I had made it this far. Just one more climb and I would be there. It would be a long climb — over an hour at least — but then I would be at the top and I could forever say I’d barefoot hiked to Laguna 69.
I sighed and pulled my feet out with a loud squelch, then continued picking my way across the valley. I was going to make it to the top or lose a foot trying.
The fourth hour was by far the hardest. Every step felt like torture. I doubted myself. I’m not strong enough. I’m not a good enough hiker. I’m not fit enough. I can’t do this. The never-ending climb became a monster in my head that I was convinced I could not conquer. I didn’t know how I was going to make it to the top. My feet were cut and bleeding, my breath haggard and my spirits lower than they’d ever been. I stopped thinking about reaching the top at all and just focused on taking one more step.
One more step. That’s all you have to do, I would tell myself. Just one more step. The ground unexpectedly started to level off. My breath started to settle. I pulled my eyes from the trail and looked around. I didn’t dare to hope, and yet, could it be? The trail rounded a bend, but I couldn’t see any other peaks. Was I about to face another valley?
I rounded the corner and froze. This couldn’t be right. What I was seeing didn’t make any sense. How could water be this blue? I seemed to be staring at a strange aqua-colored painting. Reality just didn’t look like that.
The shock wore off and I sprinted to the edge of the cliff, immune to cries of my feet and lungs. I was here! I was at the top.
I tore off my backpack and dove into the crystalline water. My heart stopped for a half a second as I pierced the icy surface. Laguna 69 is a glacial lake, meaning it consists of melted glacier ice and is by far the coldest water I have ever felt, including the time I fell into the ocean in Alaska.
I saw my friends sitting on the bank, shaking their heads at my recklessness, but I didn’t care. The frozen water burned away the pain and in that moment, I felt stronger than I’d ever felt before. Because I had made it to the top, one step at a time.
Sarah is always seeking a new adventure. Join her as she travels the world and documents the wild and wonderful things she discovers along the way. You can follow her adventures at AutobiographyOfAnAdventurer.com.