When the Mountains Are Calling: Eight Days in the Cordillera Huayhuash
Radiant lagoons, snow-capped peaks, huge glaciers and mountain passes with breathtaking views – the Huayhuash Trek is one of the most beautiful long-distance hiking trails in the world.
On 115 kilometres, the path around the “little sister of the Cordillera Blanca” offers a real hiking paradise in a concentrated space. Past heavenly peaks, which often rise above 6000 metres, you climb daily to passes of extreme heights.
It is regarded as one of the most difficult long-distance hikes that the South American continent has to offer. But aren’t it the most fabulous places which are waiting for us at the end of a strenuous journey?
Motivation is everything
The more I read, the more fascinated I am: by the height, the beauty, the challenge. But I am not only fascinated, but also intimidated. Can I even do that?
Although I like sports, I was never particularly good at it. Always mediocrity. And as an asthmatic also somewhat handicapped. So there’s no question that I probably overwhelm myself physically here.
But who knows if and when I will make it to Peru again? Exactly. Now is the time. This way will only be a question of will!
After some acclimatization tours in the Cordillera Blanca we set off into the fabulous mountain world, not knowing what to expect.
Already at the first ascent we meet a tour group. “Is that all your stuff in the backpacks?” a Finn calls out to us in disbelief. Moe explains: “If you have to carry the stuff yourself, you can only take what you need with you”. “Only the Germans are that crazy,” he notes shaking his head.
Even if we had too much money for such a costly tour: We wouldn’t do that on principle. Simply because it feels wrong for us not to do it alone. We want to bear the responsibility ourselves (and therefore also our things). Not to mention that the experience of nature is very limited by the presence of too many people.
It wasn’t always secure
In the past, the area in the mountains was a place of many criminal activities due to its difficult accessibility. It was therefore not safe to wander there. The saddest case occurred in 2005, when some hikers became victims of thieves who did not shy away from killing tourists for their belongings.
There have been no incidents since the seven neighbouring village communities took over the administration and safeguarding of their areas. Today the paths are well developed and full of hikers from all over the world.
Every day there is a summit schnapps at the highest point. Moe’s glance reveals: the local Pisco is really delicious!
Cows everywhere. You have to be careful where you fill up the water!
As just described, the paths are now managed by the communities themselves. Actually, we think this is a good thing, because the small villages here in the mountains are really disadvantaged.
In order to collect the money, there are checkpoints on the way, where you have to pay the total of 220 Pesos (about 60 Euro) per person.
But already on the first day this negative connotation comes again, somehow a constant accompanying phenomenon with all beautiful things in Peru. Alone on the bus ride to the hiking trail all Gringos have to pay three times (!) a hefty toll. We get receipts, nevertheless, some amounts of money are registered by hand. This seems strange to us.
Already on the second day we got rid of more than 200 pesos. Apparently the prices were raised without further ado. Questions about what the money is used for remain unanswered everywhere.
But this is not the only reason why we have a bad feeling. There is another thing that worries us: we don’t have enough money. Because we did not expect a short-term price increase, which speaks against all sources from the Internet. We calculated all costs in advance and took some more with us for emergencies, but just a bit. Wandering around with too much money in your pockets is not a good idea.
How are we supposed to explain to a Peruvian at the roadside that we can’t pay him any more money because we need the last pesos for the bus ride home? A stupid situation.
But it makes us inventive and so our hike suddenly gets a mission. Namely the one to bypass as many checkpoints as possible (and believe me, this is a damn difficult mission). Because the Peruvians are also not stupid and have erected the checkpoints in places which are particularly difficult to avoid. This challenge brings us some adventures and a few additional kilometres.
In the end we pay exactly the price I had researched before, although we bypassed three checkpoints. I don’t want to know how high the price would have been otherwise. Please don’t get us wrong: If the whole thing would have been more transparent and calculable, we would have liked to pay this price. But unfortunately we had no other choice.
Better than expected
After the first two days we feel like we had a good start. The daily stages are quite short, we are fast and confident tat we can handle more. If one has acclimatized properly, then this hike is not so demanding. So I was wrong to worry that I couldn’t make it. Compared to our distance hike back in Chile, the daily stages here are easy!
From now on we decide to cover two daily stages in one day. Since each stage leads over a pass between 4600 and 5000 meters, this means now that we must master a high ascent and descent twice per day. If we don’t want to sleep over 4300 meters (which we definitely don’t want because of the cold), there’s only one option: pull through.
Eight days in the mountains on our own – such a project needs to be well planned. We were previously in the Casa de Guías (House of the Mountain Guides) and have given us information about the different sections as well as a map. A mountain guide was especially enthusiastic about the San Antonio pass, which is not on the main route, but should be worth a detour. “You have to do it, there is the best view of the whole hike.”
We follow this tip on the hike and so on the fifth day after an ascent of 5000 metres we stomp the second time up to the San Antonio Pass. The contour lines on the map have already told us that the path is damn steep on both sides.
While we are snorting our way up the mountain, a guided group of four young men approaches us. The guide looks at me admiringly: “You do that with all the weight on your back? Respect!” “Sure, no problem.”
We reach the ridge, which has a really fabulous view to offer. Quickly a schnapps and then down again. But when I look down I feel completely different.
I’ve really walked a few meters in my life, but I’ve never experienced such a “path” before. It is so incredibly steep that I already have my pants full when I look at it. I fight my way down the first few meters in the loose scree, but finally get a panic attack.
Maybe it is possible going up, because you have more grip, but down? What the hell! Of course Moe thinks it’s “not so bad” again, while I think that my life is much too dear to me for such a shit, even if I like adventure.
“You could do funny races here: Who’s first down.” All right, Moe. Such trivializations don’t help me, because everything in me refuses to go into this abyss right now. After all, I only walk on the condition that Moe takes me by the hand (which he evenually accepts being a little annoyed) and are still sweating because of fear of death.
“Why didn’t the guide warn us?” Again I don’t understand the world anymore. We only make very slow progress, as the path has to be climbed down on some rock faces, which is quite hard for me with a medium-heavy backpack. One wrong step and you fall several meters deep! The fact that it slowly gets dark and that we are still far too high increases my nervousness.
Just climbing down a waterfall, maybe for the sporty Peruvians this is something quite normal! Under other circumstances I would only dare to climb down here with a rope. But it doesn’t help! If we are not down in time, we have a real problem… Suddenly I realize how fast such a hike can become threatening.
At dusk we make it to the last slope, which relieves me. Never again will I do shit like that! And why can’t one thing happen in Peru in a predictable way, without any nasty surprises?
After this hard day we reach Huayllapa, the only village on the hike. Here we can replenish our food supplies after six days. Three teachers lead us through a backyard into a small kitchen, where we all are served a delicious meal. A great blessing.
A nice surprise awaits us shortly behind the ridge. Wow!
Last day. The feet need fresh air!
At the end comes our personal highlight: the Laguna Jahuacocha. Even if we weren’t lonely on our way here: The hike once around the Huayhuash mountains was really breathtakingly beautiful.
Nothing stays the same as it was
Back in Chiquian we want to have a fresh juice while we wait for our bus. By chance we find ourselves in a small shop with a very charming old lady, who not only donates us the juices, but also tells us a lot about her beautiful home, through which we were allowed to walk the last days.
Another nice encounter
Unfortunately, it’s a bit sad: The snow on the mountains has decreased extremely in the last years. Many glaciers are now almost gone. Photos from the past, which are hanging in the shop, now look completely different. After such a nature experience it is already particularly painful…
At the end we have also some video material of this hike: