Category Archives: camping

Posts about where we stayed the night.

Ecuadorian highlands: Cuenca to Quito

16,000 miles in the shadow of Volcan Chimborazo

16,000 miles in the shadow of Volcan Chimborazo

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I am happy to report that our days of torrential rain in Ecuador are behind us. Since we last updated, we spent a mostly restful day in Cuenca, five challenging days of riding on the PanAmerican highway, and two fun (but not very restful) days in Quito. We have been able to do longer days without the rain and mudslides, but our constant companions, wind and mountains, are still with us. First, some pictures from our lovely day in Cuenca. Everything was closed because it was a Sunday (yet again!!), but we still did a good deal of wandering.

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Leaving Cuenca was surprisingly easy. We flew downhill on a huge highway, taking up a whole lane. Other cyclists had told us that the PanAmerican in this stretch was pretty rough trafficwise, but we found it to be just fine. All the vehicles gave us plenty of space. The best part of the day was lunch – pizza! Our last night in Cuenca we bought two large pizzas, and we carried one of them down the highway and ate it for lunch. Deelish!

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That day we made it even farther than we expected, and we ended up in the tiny crossroads town of Zhud. It turns out that there is nothing in Zhud except a long line of stalls selling fried pork with corn and potato dumplings. There are no hotels, nothing. We ended up camping at the local covered football field after watching the local kids play until sunset. It seemed like a great place… then the wind picked up.

All night long the wind blew and blew. The tin roof over the field was breaking. It banged against the rafters continuously, and chunks of it ocassionally were fell off and were blown across the concrete field below. In short – there was very little rest for us!

The supposedly very busy Panamerican highway became a barely trafficked two lane road that wove up and down along the Ecuadorian Andes. We had two days of fantastic riding under blue skies. We spent a night in a town that runs on train tourism.

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Downtown Alausi

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We also decided to take a dirt road shortcut to avoid a major city (and a major climb!). This shortcut was actually very pleasant, and even included some bonus pavement. That night we slept in the only hotel in the city of San Andres. It was a very fancy place! Strangely, there was not a single restaurant in the entire city (we asked multiple people), so we ended up making soup on the roof with our camp stove.

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Our last night before Quito we spent in the city of Latacunga with a host family. This was our first time using Warmshowers in all of South America! We spent a nice evening with them chatting about how Ecuador has changed in the last decade. They told us that in the past year the polic installed many traffic cameras along the highways to enforce speed limits. Apparently one city to the south has made $2.6 million in tickets over the last 6 months alone!

The last day of riding into Quito was all along a busy two or three lane highway, but we rode safely and made it without any close calls. It was a surprisingly simple entrance to a massive city. Our friend Tarik, who we first met before we were even a couple, is living in Quito right now and offered to host us for a couple of nights. We found his place and were welcomed by his girlfriend, Zora.

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There were several great volcanoes along the route

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Ridiculous $5 (each) breakfast

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We’re wearing normal-people clothes, ah! (Laundry time)

We spent three nights and two days with them, and had a blast chatting, eating, and seeing Quito. We went to old town, climbed up a church tower, saw an outdoor concert, rode in a cable car, and hiked up a volcano. We also made granola, ate their delicious cooking, and used their fast internet to find an apartment in State College for when we return. In all, it was an action-packed weekend for us! Thank you, Tarik and Zora, for being excellent hosts. You really tired us out though!

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A delicious ‘tortilla’. Those are some Washington State apples the background, by the way.

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Looking down to Quito

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In our next update (sorry we got a bit behind): visiting an Ecuadorian market town, a dire mechanical problem, and entering our final country.

Welcome to Ecuador!

Map_SanIgnacio_CuencaOne week ago we entered our eighth country: Ecuador. It then proceeded to pour rain for the next week. Charmed as we were by the lush jungle, new architecture, and very nicely painted churches, it has been a tough week. We are now resting in the colonial city of Cuenca in the Ecuadorian Andes, where it has finally (!) stopped raining for a bit.

Waiting at immigration...

Waiting at immigration…

 

Leaving Peru was a bit of an adventure. The road is paved all the way to the border, where there is a very quiet immigration building and a lovely ‘peace bridge’. As we rode towards the border a man on a motorbike yelled at us ‘Gringos! Wait for me! Wait for me there!’. We were a bit confused, but carried on to the border. When we arrived the immigration building was empty. Humph. We figured that the yelling motorbike guy must be the border agent, who had left his post to head to town. A half hour later, he returned and proved us right. The rest of the border formalities (on both sides) were very easy. Apparently almost no tourists pass through here, so everyone was very friendly and mellow. The only downside was the lack of ‘Welcome to Ecuador’ signs!

First view of Ecuador, across the river.

First view of Ecuador, across the river.

As soon as we crossed the border the road became dirt and the grades became severe. We think the grade neared 20% on some stretches right after the border, but for the most part it hovered around 12%. This means we were in our lowest gears, and still barely able to keep moving. The road climbed and dipped and climbed again quickly on the steep hills. In only 14 miles we climbed AND descended over 4,000′ on dirt roads, and of course it was raining by the end of it.

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The church in a teeny town.

The church in a teeny town.

We noticed right away when we entered Ecuador that the living standard was higher. The houses were constructed differently, and most had very nice covered balconies and porches. The churches were all nicely painted in bright colors. We stopped seeing three-wheeled motorcycle taxis and started to see yellow pick-up truck taxis and the classic bus transportation: the Rancheras. We spent that first night in a nice hotel in the lively city of Zumba. Everyone was very friendly to us and called out ‘Good morning!’ to us all evening. Oh, and did I mention that Ecuador uses the US dollar? It is truly bizarre to us to pay for things using five dollar bills and one dollar coins. They LOVE one dollar coins here; there are designs I have never even seen back in the States!

Plaza in another tiny town.

Plaza in another tiny town.

Classic 'ranchera' style transportation.

Classic ‘ranchera’ style transportation.

The next day we woke up to pouring rain. We debated just staying in Zumba for another day, but in the end we decided to make a go of it. This ‘do we ride or not’ discussion would be repeated each day for the next 5 days! On this day, though, we sometimes REALLY regretted not resting! You see, the heavy rain had caused even more mudslides and landslides than usual on the lightly trafficked dirt road. We had to drag ourselves and our bicycles through thick mud that sometimes went higher than our ankles. By the end of the day we were filthy and exhausted. Our bicycles were ok, since we had spent time in mud puddles to wash them off, but our brake pads were wearing at an alarming rate. We stayed in a small, simple hostel in a tiny town. At first it was obviously a quiet place, but then the whole hostel was suddenly packed. We learned that the road was closed due to a massive mudslide 10 km up the next climb. Oh goodness…

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There were a few clear moments though!

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July27_011The road became pavement (mostly), and we made our way past the mudslide the next day. The wind and rain just kept coming, however. At the top of every pass visibility was minimal, the temperature hovered around 40, and the rain blew sideways. Every day we arrived in the next town soaked and exhausted. We took a rest day in the town of Vilcabamba, AKA Gringolandia. This little valley made headlines for having the perfect climate for longevity, so a whole herd of ex-pats and hippies moved there. We found the place a bit bizarre, but were thrilled at the availability of peanut butter.

Welcome to Gringolandia - where they will do your US taxes for you.

Welcome to Gringolandia – where they will do your US taxes for you even though you live in Ecuador.

At least there are coconuts!

At least there are coconuts!

Definitely an American ex-pat's mansion.

Definitely an American ex-pat’s mansion.

After leaving Vilcabamba we were out of the truly lush jungle area, but the rain continued. We spent an afternoon in the lovely city of Loja. It had a fantastic feel to it, and we loved the mix of modern (cell phone shops, fast food stands, cupcake stores, etc) and historical. There is a good university here, so the students made the place feel alive.

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Jason pretends to be thrilled with the weather.

Jason pretends to be thrilled with the weather.

After Loja it was three more days of rainy up and downs. We realize that we have gained an ability to just keep riding in very adverse conditions. Nasty rain, wind, and cold? Just don’t stop, and eat crackers when you get hungry. We continue to eat lunches and dinners out at small roadside restaurants. In Ecuador everything is about twice the price as in Peru (meals are about $3 instead of $1.50), and they have lots of different names for different kinds of bananas. We are becoming banana connoisseurs!

Typical view in the mountains.

Typical view in the mountains.

 

 

 

We camped one night at a local school.

We camped one night at a local school.

Got to dry the clothes somehow!

Got to dry the clothes somehow!

Now we are in the city of Cuenca. It is a big, modern city with a huge historical core. There seems to be a church on every corner. We will spend the day wandering the streets, looking for new brake pads, and eating fried bananas from street vendors. Yippee!

Down to the jungle: our last post from Peru

Our last section of Peru

Our last section of Peru

I can’t hardly believe it: tomorrow we leave Peru and enter Ecuador.  It has been almost three months since we entered this country!  I can say without hesitation that Peru is an incredible place.  Maybe someday we will get around to writing a good summary, but for the purpose of this post I will write a bit about our last week here.  Highlights include one last, epic descent and climb, and our arrival to the land of bananas, coconuts, and rice paddies.

 

Playing cards and drinking coffee.  Rest day.

Playing cards and drinking coffee. Rest day.

We last updated in Cajabamba, which is about 100 miles from the similarly named but much much larger city of Cajamarca.  We took a nice rest day there.  As usual, it was mostly filled with eating, resting, and internet.  A few pictures:

Big market in Cajamarca.

Big market in Cajamarca.

 

Chicken feet, anyone?

Chicken feet, anyone?

Jason was too tall for this restaurant!

Jason was too tall for this restaurant!

Our first day of riding took us up and down yet more hills, and through many bustling towns.  There were the usual views, but also some fun experiences eating cookies, watching crazy cars, and riding through rain for the first time in weeks.

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July19_002We had no desire to go into and out of yet another major Peruvian city, so we were overjoyed to find a shortcut on our second day that not only avoided Cajamarca, but also saved us 23 miles of riding.  Sure, it was 4 miles uphill on dirt, but we got to go through a tiny hamlet, agricultural fields, and get chased by still more dogs.  Taking the shortcut was also exciting because we finally left Peru’s highway 3, which we have been following (more or less) since we entered the country over 1,000 miles ago.

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Two little kids on one little bike.

Two little kids on one little bike.

Next up was the craziest descent and ascent that we’ve ever done.  We crested a small rise (ok, it was 1,500′)  to look out into the next valley.  The road wound below us, dropping over 7,000′ all the way down to the river below and then rose back up 9,000′ on the other side.  Nearly all of this was in full sight!  It was a bit dizzying to stare down almost two vertical miles, and it was a bit terrifying to descend all that in one go on narrow roads carved into the cliffs.

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July20_019At the bottom it was HOT.  I am talking 90 degrees kind of hot, with mango trees and bananas everywhere.  We spent an entire afternoon climbing halfway up the other other side and back into cooler temperatures.  Because of the steep cliffs there were no towns, so we camped in an old quarry next to the road before finishing the climb (finally!) the following morning.

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The top!  Finally.

The top! Finally.

July22_011On the other side of the mountains from that mind-boggling dip we found a whole new Peru.  We were on the Amazon side of the Andes, and boy was the difference apparent.  Everything was so much more green.  We could see waterfalls from the road, and we followed ever larger rivers downhill for over a hundred miles.  It was joyful, lovely riding.

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As we bottomed out around 1,500′ the air became hot and humid, and fruit stands became common along the road.  We started to see rice paddies everywhere, and banana trees, and coconuts.  Even the people look different here, and they all seem to ride motorbikes in flip flops.  The locals seemed very excited to greet us and yell ‘Gringo!’, especially a pair of young guys who passed on their moto three times to take videos with their phones.

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Rice paddies are everywhere

Rice paddies are everywhere

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Now we are only about 30 miles from the Ecuador border, in a lively town full of motorcycle taxis and small restaurants.  It feels like a rest day because we got here at 1 pm, so now we are ready for an early start tomorrow.  We’ve been told the hills in Ecuador are vastly steeper than those in Peru, so we want to give ourselves plenty of time to make it to our first real Ecuadorian town tomorrow.

Last dinner in Peru: Bistek a lo pobre

Last dinner in Peru: Bistek a lo pobre

Like always, I am both excited and nervous for our next country.  Ecuador uses the US dollar as their currency (crazy, huh?  Since 2000!), so at least that will be familiar.  Peru has just been so wonderful to us that I am a bit sad to leave it.  Where else can we stay in a decent hotel and eat every meal out without spending more than $30 a day?!  But… it’s time to move on. Ecuador here we come!

11 days hiking around the Huayhuash mountains

Hiking success - finally!

Hiking success – finally!

This time, our hiking experience was a complete success. Yippee! There were no gastrointestinal problems, no blisters, and no awkward guides. In short, we had a great time. In this post I will try to give you an idea of what this trip was all about. Highlights include the stunning scenery and all the fun we had with the friends we made in our hiking group.

The Huayhuash mountains are a stunning, high altitude range in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. They contain the world’s second highest tropical mountain, and many incredible glaciers. We hiked around the entire range, and enjoyed (nearly) every moment of it. Hopefully you won’t be too overwhelmed with all the photos of fantastic scenery!

Incredible vistas in the Huayhuash

Incredible vistas in the Huayhuash

Huayhuash_091To start with, we arrived in the city of Huaraz on June 24. That same day we decided to book a tour. After talking with three different agencies, we decided to use Huascaran Adventure Travel. One agency was very sketchy (just a guy at a desk making calls to donkey drivers), and another sounded really great, but their tour only had one other hiker signed up. Huascaran Adventure Travel, however, offered a very nice alternate route into the mountains, private transportation, happy (and cute) donkeys to carry all our gear, five meals a day, and five other travelers in the group. We committed to the tour that night, and paid (in US cash!) the next day. On the 26th we were picked up at 5 am to drive to the mountains.

This post is much longer than usual, because I didn’t feel like breaking it up into two (sorry). For those of you that don’t feel like reading the daily reports, I provide a summary. You can read it, then skip straight to the pictures!

Summary:

The Huayhuash circuit lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s premiere hiking destinations. Each day we saw fantastic vistas and the trail was mostly in very good condition. The campsites were always scenic and comfortable, although some had truly horrendous toilet facilities. In one case, the unflushable toilet literally fell over! The route passes through many privately managed ‘conservation areas’ where we were charged almost daily. In total, we paid 205 Soles (about $65) each to cross through and camp in these communities. In some cases we resented the charges, since the bathrooms were in such horrible condition that most people didn’t bother using them.

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Toilets of doom

We were very glad to have taken the guided tour, despite the cost ($60 per person per day). It was relaxing to have everything taken care of, and the guide, cook, and drivers were all competent and professional. We did bring our own tent, but in retrospect wish we had not. The donkey drivers never managed to put it up correctly, and each day we had to rearrange things to ensure our tent wasn’t stretched too much or damaged.

We were also very happy to have joined the group that we did. We really had a blast with Tarunya and Adam, and enjoyed spending over a week with them. The rest of the group was also friendly, but they were less prepared and we were often separate from them. Eduardo’s shoe made his progress pretty slow for a number of days, and Alexandra spent many days riding on the group’s horse instead of hiking. We learned that this was actually her very first camping trip! I cannot imagine embarking on an 11-day high altitude trek without at least a bit of practice! She was a trooper though, and did tough it out all the way to the end.

If you are considering a major hiking excursion at some time in the future, I would absolutely recommend that you consider a trip to the Peruvian Andes, and to Huayhuash in particular. We were definitely skeptical about committing so much time to a hiking trip, but we are very glad we did it!

Day 1:

Napping away the nausea before setting off.

Napping away the nausea.

The drive took about 4 hours. I (Daisy) was reminded of why we don’t take buses, as I was seated near the back and had a couple of lovely vomits into plastic bags as the bus wound its way up and down the steep Peruvian mountains, bumping along some of the roughest dirt roads we’ve seen on this trip. Luckily, I bounced back into full happiness once we were out of the bus. It was so exciting to be starting our hike! We were let off in the tiny hill town of Quero, where we ate a snack, shouldered our packs, and set off for a gentle stroll uphill.

That first day was mostly about getting to know the folks in the group, and letting unacclimatized group members get a bit more used to the altitude. Our group consisted of an Australian couple, Adam and Tarunya, a Peruvian couple from Lima, Eduardo and Alexandra, and a Peruvian American currently living in Arizona, Juan Carlos. Our guide, Hector, was friendly and easygoing. Hector kept the pace very slow all day to make sure everyone was comfortable, so Jason and I were fresh and full of energy the entire time. We ended in a rustic town called Maguey. This town is only accessible via the 5 mile long hiking trail we had just completed, and that night it seemed like every child in town came out to play soccer in the field where we were camped. The cook, a young fellow named Jesus, prepared us a traditional dinner called ‘Pachamanca’ that is cooked in a pit of hot stones. Yum!

 

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All the food for 11 people for 11 days

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Making Pachamanca

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All children are free range in Peru

Day 2:

Rain ready

Rain ready

The next day was just as easy as the first. We spent the morning walking slowly uphill through a lovely agricultural valley. The only catch was the weather: it was raining. Yuck! Jason and I were fully decked out in rain gear and ponchos, though, so we were still comfortable. Once we got to higher altitude the rain turned into snow, and the group decided to push on towards camp instead of eating a picnic lunch.

Each day on the trail the two donkey drivers, Ronald and Joffrey, were responsible for taking down all the tents, packing up all nine donkeys, and getting to camp before us. In camp they also set up all the tents for us! This was great on the days with bad weather, because there was always a warm, dry place waiting. On day 2 we had our highest camp for the whole trip: 4,500 m, or 14,800′. It was windy and cold, but in a beautiful spot far from everything.

 

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Neither of us remember taking this picture

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Day 3:

This was our first morning at high altitude on this trek, and it was sure cold! Hector woke us up with hot coca tea when the ice was still thick on our tent. The first couple hours of hiking were in the shade of the mountains, so we kept all our clothes until the sun finally reached us. Over the top of our first pass we finally got a glimpse of the Huayhuash range in all its snow-capped glory.

The trail was mostly in good condition, but there was one tricky section that was more akin to rock climbing than hiking. The donkey drivers had to help push the donkeys up this part!

That night we camped with other groups for the first time. For most hikers, this is where the circuit begins. We were very glad to have hiked the alternate approach, as it gave our group members more time to get used to the altitude and it gave us more time to get used to the super relaxed pace. Each day we felt ‘fresh as lettuce’ (a common saying here), even after doing the full day’s hike.

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I’m wearing so many clothes that it looks like I gained 45 pounds overnight!

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Hiking success - finally!

Hiking success – finally!

Day 4:

Every camp had at least one dog, and this one had a puppy, too!

Every camp had at least one dog, and this one had a puppy, too!

Another cold morning, and another slow climb out of the valley where we camped and over a pass. Today was another easy day for us, but not for everyone in our group. The two Peruvians from Lima had all the fancy gear, but they apparently hadn’t used it prior to this trip. One fellow found that his shoes had a small defect that irritated his ankle so much that he spent the second half of today limping down the trail until he finally made it to camp. His partner began to suffer from the effects of altitude, as she has lived at sea level her entire life and spent almost no time acclimatizing. She was also very cold at night, and unused to hiking. These facts combined to make it a tough day for her.

We had lunch in camp, which was located in an absolutely stunning valley. After eating, Hector took us and the Aussies to see a nearby laguna. We had a great afternoon hike with them. That night Eduardo, the guy with the shoe defect, asked us if we thought the hike was hard. We had to reveal to him that it was essentially rest for us, and he looked incredulous. Really, we didn’t plan to tell him, but we certainly couldn’t lie!

Snack time at the top

Snack time at the top

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Full moon on the mountains

Day 5:

The giant avalanche looks like a white waterfall.  Can you find it?

The giant avalanche looks like a white waterfall. Can you find it?

Today was when the views really started, and we even got to see a massive avalanche! It was also even easier than normal, since Eduardo and his lady, Alexandra, were both struggling for most of the day. All the hiking was still done before lunch though!

Our camp was right next to lovely glacial lake. It was such a beautiful location, and the daytime sun so warm, that we took a little dip to get some of the dirt off before dinner. It was also sad though, because even in this pristine and isolated location there was still litter and garbage strewn about. Even directly in the lake we could see empty tin cans, and shampoo containers. That night we learned that Alexandra was still feeling the effects of the altitude, and was considering evacuating to a nearby town. She decided to see how she felt in the morning though.

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Day 6:

The day dawned foggy and cold. Alexandra thankfully was feeling better, but Hector still decided to split our group into two. The slower group would stay with him, and we would join Jesus and the Aussies. Today was one of the most challenging days of the circuit, but also with some of the most spectacular scenery. We climbed up Siula Pass at 4,800 m (15,780′), which was steep and cold. It was absolutely worth the effort though, as there were fantastic views of the mountains, glaciers, and glacial lakes.

Because our group was split, we arrived in camp over 1.5 hours before the rest of the hikers. Alexandra was a real trooper, and made it up and over the pass. On the descent, however, Hector called for a horse to come get her for the last bit into camp. Everyone seemed pretty tired by the time they arrived! We spent a wonderful afternoon playing cards with Adam and Tarunya while everyone else laid down to recover.

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The "postcard" shot

The “postcard” shot

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Day 7.

9 bottles down and at least 4 to go... This was well before dinner was served.

9 bottles down and at least 4 to go… This was well before dinner was served.

Can you believe it – another short day! We had a small pass to climb in the morning, which we took at a reasonable pace. Alexandra decided to ride the horse all day today, so the group was smaller but we stayed together. In fact, she ended up riding the horse every day from here on out. Today though, we were in camp before lunch, and what a wonderful camp it was: hot springs!

We spent all afternoon soaking in the luxurious heat, washing our hair and bodies, and generally lazing about. There was also more cards with Adam and Tarunya before dinner. Most notably, there was beer available at the small store next to the pools. The Peruvians bought copious amounts of beer for Hector, Jesus, and the donkey drivers. They were having such a good time that we were worried no one was going to make dinner! Luckily, Jesus did manage to cook up a tasty meal despite his obvious inebriation. The revelry continued long into the night, but we were quickly asleep in our cozy little tent.

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Day 8.

Cold!

Cold!

The group was a bit slow getting moving this morning, since most of them had been up too late and gotten too drunk. Us and the Aussies were ready to go though! It was supposed to be a big, double pass day full of gorgeous views. The first pass was our highest yet: 5,000 m (16,400′). We felt great at the top, and even managed a group photo. The poor donkey that had to pose with us got so skittish that he almost backed off the cliff, but in the end it all worked out just fine.

The descent was steep and on loose dirt. At least half of the hikers in our group fell down at some point! No one was hurt though, thankfully. When we reached the bottom we stopped for lunch and watched the clouds roll in. It looked like a storm, and snowflakes started to fall just as we finished. Hector made an executive decision and called off the second pass for the day. We headed straight to camp instead, and good thing we did. Just after we crawled into the tents the sky opened up and the hail came down. The storm stayed all afternoon, but we were snug in the dining tent playing cards.

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Day 9.

The storm cleared overnight, and it was another sunny day when we woke up. We spent all morning descending for a change, and then spent all afternoon climbing back up. At the bottom of the valley it was HOT, and we were down to our short sleeves for the first time in over a week!

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Day 10.

This trek saved the best for last, as today’s hike was rich with fantastic views and surreal ridgetop hiking. In short, it was perfect despite the clouds. Everyone was hiking fast all morning, so we had time to do a bit of a detour on the last descent into camp. It led us to a viewpoint of the entire Huayhuash range, and then descended steeply for over 800m (2,500′).

There were glaciers looming over three lakes and our campsite, which we gratefully reached just before 4:00 pm. At 19 km, this was by far our longest and most rewarding day.

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Day 11:

Our last day hiking was clear and lovely. We spent the first part of the morning climbing gently uphill with views backwards towards the mountains and forwards toward the river valley. We spent even more time going down down down into the heat of Peru’s lower altitudes. Ok, it wasn’t actually that low, but it felt like it! We reached the town of Llamac around 1 pm, where we hastily bought some soda and some fresh plastic bags. I was expecting another rough ride back to Huaraz, and wanted to be prepared!

Miraculously, I didn’t get sick at all on the four hour drive. It helped that I sat in the front, and also that the driver blasted classic 90s songs the entire way. We joined the Aussies in singing along to songs that transported us right back to high school. It was so fun!

Once back in town we gratefully showered, then met up with the group for one last meeting. The agency owner made us Pisco Sours and we spent a fun hour chatting and drinking. We had done it – 11 days in the Huayhuash.