Most people who hike in the Cordillera Huayhuash have a guide, a cook and a donkey train to carry their gear. We decided to do it self-guided, which is generally our preference and better suits our budget.
Initially we thought our packs felt pretty good loaded up with 10 days worth of food and gear, that is, until we started to climb. The first day began with a hot and sweaty, up-mountain slog. A local man kindly directed us off course onto a less traveled route. We soon lost the trail, got stabbed by cactuses and eaten alive by massive flies. The morning was not going well, but there is nothing quite like snow covered mountains and phenomenal glaciers to brighten my mood. Laguna Jahuacocha was a beautiful, although crowded, place to spend our first night.
Every day we hiked for between 5-9hrs, roughly 150 km in total and over 11 mountain passes between 4,000 and 5,000 m in elevation. The circuit passes through picturesque pastural land, dotted with beautiful alpine lakes and follows one of the most magnificent mountain ranges I’ve ever seen. My lasting impression of these mountains is their incredible size and just how close we were able to get to them. I felt completely insignificant, but in a good way.
The farmland is governed by local communities, who we had to pay at intervals throughout the hike. Our fees totalled 145 soles each, but we heard of people paying more. It seems to be a fairly mismanaged system, and unfortunately if you are not on the ball you might get ripped off, like we did once. In one community we were sold two tickets for the price of one, so they were able to pocket half. The worst part is, that these individuals end up short changing their communities. Overall though, the locals were very welcoming, friendly and happy to help. Coming from hiking in the National Parks of North America, there is an obvious lack of wildlife which we found a bit sad. The land has been well and truly taken over by domesticated animals.
Searching for Cuartelhuain campground, where we spent our second night.
The stone fences in the background could have been built a week ago, or hundreds of years ago.
The view on our third night. At Laguna Carhuacocha
Domingo writes mountain poetry. We gave him way too much money for his book, and thought we might run out of cash before the end of the hike. A lovely fellow hiker kindly lent us some money, just to make sure that we made it.
Living in Canada for nearly five years has left us with pretty high standards when it comes to mountain lakes. The Cordillera Huayhuash however, has produced some serious beauties. One of the reasons we love to hike is the amazing views at the top. In that moment it’s possible to forget our heavy bags and aching bodies, if only for a while.
The weather cleared momentarily on the pass (Siula Punta). Also, which end of this dog is which?
This the longest hike that either of us have ever done, and we definitely experienced all the moods of the mountain. We got it all… rain, hail, snow, wind and sun. Still, there is nothing quite like mornings in the mountains, even when it’s miserably cold and everything has frozen. We tried to hit the trail early each day and would celebrate when the shadows finally receded and we could thaw out in the sun.
Shaking the ice off at Huayhuash campground, after night 4.
Our morning at the Huayhuash campground was brightened by a group of Canadians, who coincidently live in Edmonton. They warmed us up with hot milo, jam rolls and friendly conversation.
That day we pushed on quickly, arrived at our campsite for lunch and then had plenty of time to relax and soak in the hot springs.
Finally the hard miles and altitude started to take a toll and by day six we were absolutely wiped. We made seriously slow progress, and finally set up camp in the Cuyoc Valley late in the afternoon. The stars were phenomenal that night. All we wanted to do was lie on our backs on the grass and stare at the sky, but it was way too cold and the grass was frozen.
Now for my favourite couple of days on the hike. We hiked up to the San Antonio pass to be confronted once again by Siula Grande, the mountain made famous by Joe Simpson’s harrowing mountaineering story “Touching the Void”.
We loved having a detailed topographical map, purchased in Huaraz before the hike.
We thought that if we went around the the other side of the San Antonio peak, we’d get a better look at Lake Jurau. We’d also spoken to a guide who said that the descent from that side would be easier. Unfortunately we lost a lot of elevation and then had to climb AGAIN to make it back. I was not a happy camper, but the view was worth it when we finally made it back to the top. It was a long way down to the lake, which just looked so inviting in the warm sunshine. We braved the chilly glacial water for a quick dip and once the shock wore off, definitely felt better for it.
We saw a bunch of tents and set up nearby thinking and that it must be the official campground. Lucky for us it wasn’t, but rather the base camp for a group of five Italian mountain climbers. They were on a three week trip attempting a number of climbs in the area, including Siula Grande. They were super nice guys and kept inviting us over for tea in their nice warm cook tent and gave us lots of tips for the remainder of our hike.
Quinoa curry, with fresh peas and soy protein. One of our staple dinners using supplies from the Huaraz markets.
Sunset – day 7.
On the advice of the Italians, we hiked without our packs up to Laguna Sarapococha, the “Touching the Void” base camp. It really was an idyllic morning. The lake was sheltered from the howling wind, and we watched as the early morning sun gradually illuminated the magnificent colour of the water.
From this point on, it was all about getting out. It was home time, but we still had two and a half days to go. Arrrgggh! We had a long valley walk to get to the little village of Huayllapa, where we caved and booked into a cute little hostal, Bodega de Yerupajá, also recommended by the Italian climbers. We had warm beds, almost hot showers and the Peruvian classic lomo saltado (stir fried beef) for dinner. It was just what we needed.
Jack Kerouac was right. Salami, cheese and crackers is the only hiking lunch. After 10 days, we weren’t sick of it.
Rest stop on the long valley walk.
We saw a lot of different birds on the hike, and also Viscachas, which look like a cross between a rabbit and a possum. On our second last day we saw lots of these guys bounding around the rocks, however for the most part, everything was just a blur of changing colours and landscapes.
On our last day we were pretty down and out. That is, until Berta and her sons invited us over to their casa for some fresh milk (warm and straight from the cow) and some of the best fresh cheese that we’ve had since Mexico.
We rolled into Llamac late on the final day, toes screaming from the last brutal descent. The family who has the secure parking lot in town were still out in the cornfields, and we couldn’t bare the thought of walking any further to find them. So we just collapsed at their door, cracked a celebratory beer and waited for them to return. In case there were any doubts, I carried my pack the entire way, even resisting the offers of a very nice German man who wanted to carry it for me.