Peru Part 4: Cordillera Huayhuash & Cordillera Blanca
The decision to honeymoon in Peru was due in large part to Machu Picchu; however, after reading into the various mountain treks in the country, Apryle and I quickly became engrossed in planning other adventures. After ample research by Apryle, we landed on the Cordillera Huayhuash trek as our apex adventure.
We pored over various trip reports, purchased the Alpenvereinskarte map, and plotted out our own journey. Logistically, the easiest part of the trek would have been the trek itself. This was due to the amount of planning that was required in regards to obtaining enough food, coordinating transportation, and carrying enough supplies to handle the harsh weather of the Andes.
After our time at Machu Picchu and Ollyantaytambo, we flew from Cuzco back to Lima, then took a bus from Lima to Huaraz. Huaraz served as our launch point for the trek, we purchased food and supplies and organized ourselves before making our way to the starting point in IIamac. Because our packs and gear were rather bulky it did not leave much room for all the calories we would need to consume. In the market many of the vendors were laughing at the quantity of spaghetti and oats we were purchasing, but it was the best we could find in Huaraz.
Hauraz is a the capital of Ancash and is home to over 100,000 people. The city sits at an elevation of about 10,300 feet. Hostels are around 40-60 soles per night and many will store packs for the day. There are plenty of grocery stores and market places throughout the city that offer a relatively limited selection for long trek foods. The town is easily navigated, but many of the downtown streets look similar and it is very easy to loose a nondescript hostel, so take note of memorable signs and landmarks. In terms of entertainment, Apryle and I were fortunate enough to sit in on Inkafest, which is a mountain film festival and also see an organized street breakdance battle in the downtown.
Once our packs were loaded to the brim, we coordinated our busing to the start of the trek. The first bus is easy to get tickets for at the local bus stop but it only goes as far as Chiquian, 111 kilometers to the south. From Chiquian we caught a bus that stops most mornings and also serves as transportation for many locals, which appears to be subsidized by the tourists.
This bus took us on a precarious 27 kilometer road to the town of Llamac, which is the traditional starting point of the Huayhuash trek. As the bus nears the city, foreigners must sign into a registry book and pay a small fee, then a few locals guided us out along the first few kilometers of the trail.
Apryle and I set off on the trail with a Peruvian friend we met in Chiquian named Victor with plans to camp in Incahuain that evening. It was a warm day despite being upwards of 10,300 feet and in the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. The first few miles of our hike were slow going, there were dozens of switchbacks and our packs were about 25 and 15 kilos respectively.
We were treated to our first views of the glaciated peaks after cresting Pampa Llamac (14,015ft). From this point we descended along a forested trail that eventually spit us out into a meandering valley floor. The meadows were inhabited by livestock and there were make shift stone walls and huts dotting the landscape. However, my favorite part of the valley was the prevalence of my favorite plant – Cephalocereus senilis or Grandfather Cactus.
Overall our first day on the trek went very well, we covered 8.5 miles in 4:12:16 with 4,268ft of vertical gain and 1640ft of vertical loss. We kept a leisurely pace and were able to appreciate our surroundings. Our first night on the trek was a nightmare… The wind was whipping down through the canyon so aggressively that the tent was barley able to stay up right, the temperatures dipped below freezing, and on top of that, there was a midnight confrontation just outside our tent walls.
When we awoke our friend Victor informed us that his boots were stolen in the night. He said that his guide was able to gather all the other guides together and locate the thief. Unfortunately for Victor, this incident ended his trek for fear that the thief would attempt to take revenge on him and his guide at a later stage in the circuit.
After learning of Victor’s evening confrontation and his abandonment of the hike, Apryle and I debated whether we should continue for fear of our own safety. Ultimately we decided to continue to press onward. The second day started with some great birding, we saw a Ruddy Duck, Andean Geese, Mountain Caracara, and Andean Ibis. The first 5 kilometers transitioned quickly from valley floor up a steep gulley toward Sambuya Punta at 15,551 feet. After 1,729 feet of ascending we stopped to eat some packaged papas fritas and drink some iodine treated water.
The next stretch was about 4 kilometers of snaking along a scree strewn ridgeline, followed by a series of gradual switchbacks back into a valley. This was a beautiful stretch of trail, but also a little scary with the wind gusts threatening to send us off the ridgeline due to our large pack altered center of gravity. We toped out at 15,584 feet when we passed over Rondoy Punta; the highest we had ever been.
It was also during this time that a local farmer lead us down the difficult to discern trail that meandered through pastures and over rambling streams. We stopped to refill and treat our water before following a dirt road for 3.5 kilometers to our next campsite – Quartelhuain. When we arrived here we decided to camp near a little stone hut with a thatched roof. It was still early in the day, so we decided to cook down some of the weight in our pack. It seemed however, that we were loosing our appetite for some reason…
The camp was filling up with guided tour after guided tour, and it seemed that this was the spot that most started the trek. Personally, I could not imagine missing out on the stretch from Llamac to Incahuain; but I understand logistically it is probably easier. As darkness engulfed our tent, we tried to get some rest before our next segment that would lead us to either Mitucocha camp or Carhuacocha camp (depending on ambition).
Unfortunately the night was anything but restful, nausea and diarrhea set in making sleeping impossible. When we began to pack up the next morning we were so fatigued that it took twice the time to even pack up the gear. After recharging from the strenuous packing, we decided to start out down the trail and see if we could overcome the extreme fatigue that comes with our suspected ailment – giardia. Unfortunately we only made it a quarter mile before we realized that our trek was over.
We descended back to the hut and this time set up our tent inside. We rested the whole day and ran through scenarios that could have caused us to ingest the parasite. Although the streams were the obvious culprit due to the burro and cow feces, we treated all of our water with iodine, so this was improbable. We eventually landed on the fact that we probably contracted it from a restaurant where the vegetables were washed with dirty water.
We decided to stay another night to see if the symptoms would miraculously resolve, and when we awoke the next morning we were even more fatigued. So we were in one of the most beautiful places on earth, unable to move more than 200 meters at a time, it was like a cruel prank. We began to worry about how we would get back to Huaraz and how we were going to recover in such an inhospitable place.
We got extremely lucky, a German family that spoke both English and Spanish offered to give us a ride to Huallanca. When we arrived, our first stop was to a pharmacy to buy some Ciprofloxacin, and fortunately in Peru there is no prescription needed. We then purchased our bus tickets back to Huaraz, and though this was an extremely sad end to our trek, we were so sick and so relieved to be returning to a hostel that we did not even focus on the negatives.
The bus ride from Huallanca to Huaraz was the most scenic of my life, the views of the high Cordillera Blanca that popped up after each bend turned the depressing bus ride into an adventure in itself. The next two days in the hostel consisted of more nausea and diarrhea, movies dubbed over in Spanish, and much needed recovery time. We were still sick but we were chomping at the bit to get back out to the mountains, so on the fourth day after the onset of our symptoms we took a cab up to the Hof Hostel.
Apryle read about the Hof prior to the trip and thought it looked like a great place to stay for day hiking. However, since we decided on the Huayhuash trek instead, we did not plan on staying at the Hof. But due to the unforeseen, we were glad we had the back-up plan. The Hof Hostel is a Sustainable Eco-Hostel complete with huts, a kitchen/common dining area, compostable toilets, gardens, chickens, and campsites. We elected to save money and camp as opposed to staying in one of the huts. During our stay we met many interesting travelers from English speaking countries, which allowed us to more easily share our stories. Most evenings consisted of dinner and games, which was a fun and different alternative to the previous couple of evenings.
We spent six days total at the Hof and went on three rather long hikes that led us to the base of some of the Cordillera Blancas highest peaks. On the off days I typically ran along the stone roads that carved through the high mountain ecosystem. Although I put in some good mileage, I was still fighting off the extreme fatigue that comes with giardia. In the six days I managed about 81 miles with about 12,000 vertical feet, all above 12,000 feet in elevation. The three main hikes were: Laguna Churup, Cojup Canyon, Llaca Lake.
Mileage from Hof Hostel: 8.4 round trip
This is actually a very short hike from the trailhead, which is manned and requires a small entry fee. But since we were staying at the Hof we just hiked up the stone road – Interoceanica to the entrance. The first mile or so is up a series of stone steps that climb about 800 feet.
Then a more natural dirt trail covers the next kilometer before approaching a series of fixed rope climbs. The fixed rope section was my favorite part of the hike as these cables line nearly vertical rocky walls. Once atop the fixed rope section there is only a short distance to the turquois Laguna Churup. The hike is quite easy, but if you want an added challenge I recommend contracting giardia and loosing about 20 kilos.
Mileage from Hof Hostel: 17.0 round trip
This distance is somewhat arbitrary; Apryle and I simply walked up this road until it became a trail, then took the trail until we felt that we got the best view of the mountains in the background. This hike was somewhat impromptu as well, we were both starting to feel more energized and decided that we would go as far as we felt comfortable.
Essentially we took a small ridgeline from the Hof until it spit us out on a stone road that parallels the Cojup through a narrow canyon. After a few miles the wide road gave way to a single-track trail, unfortunately it appears that this trail is to be widened into a road (large tractor was parked here).
The single track cuts through a myriad of native flora along an undulating path that crosses the occasional rambling stream. Unfortunately, like every other mountain valley in Peru, it is full of cattle and their feces in the creeks. After 8.5 miles and with picturesque views of Palcaraju Oeste, Palcaraju Este, and Chinchey in the background, we decided to make our way back to our camp. A leisurely 5.5 hour hike in the Andes that could not be beat, until Llaca…
Mileage from Hof Hostel: 17.5 round trip
From the Hof, we took the ridgeline to the road that we took to Cojup Canyon, except at the canyon entrance we made a left and followed the switchback in the road. The walk up the road is relatively peaceful until it meets up with another road coming up from Huaraz.
At this point a steady stream of taxis begin the ascent and kick up dust and exhaust fumes that make the ascent a little more challenging. Luckily there was a point in the road where we jumped onto a single track trail that continued for a little over a mile before emptying us back out onto the road. If my memory does not escape me, the trail picks back up again and crisscrosses the road a few times.
Most of the trail carves through fairly dense Polylepis trees (genus Polylepis; not sure of the species), adding to the high mountain tropic mystique. As usual, the only mammals present were cows… but there were several unique bird species along the way. In addition to the birds themselves, we also met a Hauraz local who attends Cornell University and was quite interested to share his ornithology knowledge with us! The final push to Llaca is barren, there is glacial silt strewn about and a faint trail that leads to a large glacier near the base of Oeshapalca. The eerily blue waters and backdrop of the glaciated peaks make this an unforgettable destination.
After our last big hike I did a two-a-day and reveled in the last hours in the Andes. It was at this point when a new friend and trail runner, Liam O’Donnell told us about the Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca in which there was a 75K run. Ultimately, Apryle and I had already made plans to return to Lima, and that along with our continued battle with giardia, led to the decision not run the race.
In order to return to Huaraz, Apryle, Liam and I walked down a unique trail that descends through many small neighborhoods into the city. Over six miles we lost 2,000 vertical feet and arrived in town thirsty and ready to crash in a hostel.
After enjoying Inkafest Mountain Film Festival, fresh avocados in the park, and the random breakdance competition, we were back on a bus headed for Lima. Overall, I was psyched about our time in the Andes, despite the giardia, we were still able to see two incredible days worth of the Huayhuash trek and take three memorable day hikes in the Cordillera Blanca.
In my opinion, the trip was salvaged, however, not finishing the Huayhuash trek has stayed in the back of my mind for months. Depending on which offshoots we take and how much we want to push it, I believe Apryle and I can fast pack it in 2 to 3 days. If my measurements from the map are correct, we have three options ranging from 69.3, 87.3, or 99.3 miles to complete the circuit.
Although the terrain is challenging, I do not believe that the elevation gain is that much different than the IMTUF 103 mile race I completed in 27 hours back in September. I would love to return to Peru to focus solely on the mountains, knocking out the Huayhuash and perhaps doing a more technical mountain climb with a guide.