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
To 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!
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.
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!
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!
All the food for 11 people for 11 days
All children are free range in Peru
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.
Neither of us remember taking this picture
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.
I’m wearing so many clothes that it looks like I gained 45 pounds overnight!
Hiking success – finally!
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
Full moon on the mountains
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.
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.
The “postcard” shot
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.