Although we were having an amazing time exploring the mountains around Huaraz on our own, the Huayhuash Circuit had been calling our name ever since a fellow traveler raved to us about it back in Patagonia. The circuit is an 8-12 day loop through the Cordillera Huayhuash, almost entirely above 4000m. We had done an 8-night trip through Torres del Paine in Chile on our own, but we were wary of carrying 10 days worth of food - not to mention tons of cold-weather gear - on our backs for 10 days at high altitude. So, we decided to treat ourselves and splurged on a guided excursion with pack mules led by a Huaraz-based expedition company, Eco Ice, whom we really can't recommend highly enough!
Our first day started off bright and early when we were picked up at our guesthouse at 4:50am. The drive to the community where we would start the trek was a long one, which was nicely broken up by a quick hot breakfast in a town along the way. It was great to sit down and meet the other five hikers; aside from us, our group consisted of Ana, Walter and Heidi from the U.S.A. and Manon and Axel from France. Our Peruvian guide/cooks were Elyseo and Miguel, and there were also two arrieros, or mule drivers, from one of the local communities of the Cordillera. Everyone was incredibly friendly and we had tons of fun together throughout the trip, during both the hard ascents to the passes as well as in the leisurely evenings over hot beverages.
We only hiked a few hours on Day 1, as a precaution to ensure that everyone was properly acclimatized before venturing further into the mountains and over a pass that would make an evacuation much more challenging. The biggest surprise of Day 1 came as we were wrapping up dinner (soup, fresh fish, rice and chocolate cake!) and it started to snow heavily. We had accepted that we might see a few days of rain during the trek, but hadn't been counting on snow!
Day 2 dawned quite chilly and we awoke to a snow-covered tent. No more than a couple of centimetres had accumulated overnight, but the frosty white hills all around made for a spectacular sight at sunrise.
One of the added bonuses of having guides and cooks is the luxuries that they provided that we would never have bothered with had we been looking after ourselves. Each morning, the guides would come by our tents with hot coca tea, and we also each got a small basin of hot water to wash with in the morning and afternoon. We all thoroughly enjoyed our post-hiking "foot spas" while basking in the afternoon sun!
Our group of seven hikers was quite a good size in terms of group dynamics and staying reasonably close together on the trail. At the first camp, there was another trekking group of roughly 15-20 people that had paid appallingly low prices for their trek. Part of the reason we went with Eco Ice - which was definitely not the cheapest option - was to ensure that the staff would be fairly compensated for their efforts, that the pack animals wouldn't be mistreated, and that we wouldn't end up in a massive group of far too many hikers per guide. The first morning was great evidence that we had made the right call, as several of the hikers from the large group suffered greatly from altitude sickness on the ascent out of camp and weren't able to continue on the trek, and this caused massive confusion over how to proceed with splitting up the group and getting them back to the city.
Although each day of the trek starts with a steep ascent to cross a pass, the day's hike wasn't overly challenging, especially since we stopped for an extended lunch break in front of a beautiful lake before continuing down to our stunning campsite with million-dollar mountain views.
After a cold, clear night, Day 3 started with unbelievable sunrise views of the peaks facing our tents. It was an easy day of hiking, and after crossing the morning's pass, we continued down through an idyllic green valley and came to an incredible viewpoint over one of the most stunning lakes on the trek, Laguna Carhuacocha. The guides had explained to us that there are two areas apt for camping on the lakeshore, with one of them having more spectacular views than the other. Our arrieros were determined to secure the best campsite for the group, so once everyone was out of the tents, they tore them down with lightning speed and set off with the mules at quite the pace. Once we were in view of the lake, we were delighted to see that the arrieros had indeed beat the other group out and secured an unbeatable lakeside location for our group. Truth be told, there wasn't really a bad campsite at the lake, but we were happy to be right down at the lakeside facing the giant, snowy peaks, instead of perched up on the hill.
After having lunch in the sun at camp, Pravin and Walter decided that the sun was warm enough for them to go for a dip in the glacier lake. It was achingly cold just to get your hands wet in the water - I don't know how they did it! Because we got to camp quite early, we all enjoyed a lazy afternoon reading lakeside and watching some of the surrounding wildlife: vizcachas, eagles, condors, cows, sheep and dogs.
Because we crossed a pass each morning, it meant that we typically descended into a valley to camp for the night. Due to the extreme proximity of the tall mountains around us, we didn't usually get to feel the sun's morning rays until we were most of the way up the day's pass, and likewise, the sun set very, very early for us each evening. Given the cold temperatures, we were all eager to bundle up in our sleeping bags as soon as we were finished dinner and had received a briefing of the next day's route from Elyseo. This early bedtime schedule provided us with plenty of time to read and journal from the warmth of our sleeping bags.
Day 4 was hands-down the most spectacular hike so far. As we headed out of camp, the trail skirted the foot of the peaks and continued upwards through a valley with the first goal being a viewpoint overlooking three turquoise glacier lakes. The ascent to the mirador was steep but short, and with every step we were thankful that we weren't weighed down with giant packs loaded with our tent, food, sleeping bags, etc.! We took our time enjoying the breathtaking sight of the three lakes, before continuing upwards to cross the day's pass. There was a lovely sheltered area at the top, where we could see in almost every direction - the perfect place to break for lunch. The rest of the afternoon consisted of a long descent towards camp, which was in a peaceful sunny valley. After a long day of hiking, we were all eager to stretch out and relax in the warm afternoon sun.
Each day we passed through a different community and paid a fee to enter their territory and use the toilet blocks at the campsites that the communities had constructed. In reality, most of the communities were as small as one or two small huts that could be potentially several days' walk from the nearest town with proper facilities. The people of the Cordillera Huayhuash lead an incredibly isolated existence, relying on small plots of land to yield food such as potatoes, and sometimes raising cattle and sheep. Children in these communities might have to walk many hours to school, which means that if they attend school, they usually trek to school on Tuesday to attend 1-3 days of classes before heading back home a couple of days later. We were hiking through the Cordillera in the dry season, and although sunny, the weather was incredibly cold and harsh; it's quite hard to imagine eking out an existence in these remote areas year-round.
Day 5's destination was something we had all been looking forward to - hot springs! We ascended out of camp and as usual, crossed a pass around mid-morning. The weird thing about this one was that as we approached the high point, the ground was littered with crawling, fuzzy black caterpillars. We started having flashbacks to the hoards of stinging caterpillars that harassed us in some parts of Patagonia, but the guides assured us that these ones were harmless. As we continued down the other side of the pass, eventually we passed Laguna Viconga, which had been artificially dammed as part of a hydroelectric program. Once we were beyond the lake, the hot springs came into sight, and we were thrilled to see that we would be camping right next to the hot spring pools.
We couldn't get into the water fast enough, and it felt amazing to get (somewhat) clean in the steaming hot waters! The best part was that the local family that maintained the hot spring pools also sold beer, so we were able to enjoy an ice-cold Pilsner as we relaxed in the water. During dinner, we were all excited for a quick dip before bedtime, but once we stepped out of the dining tent, everyone chickened out due to the extreme cold. In the morning, a few of us did manage to brave the freezing temperatures and went for a sunrise swim. The air was incredibly cold - once we had gotten out of the water to change into our hiking clothes, our wet bathing suits froze solid within minutes on the branches we had hung them on.
Although we both had -7°C sleeping bags, and I also used a sleeping bag liner, the temperatures at night were so low that I was still freezing most nights and Pravin was also pretty chilly. Each night I slept in two pairs of wool socks, long johns and a second pair of pants, a thermal long-sleeve shirt and a wool long-sleeve shirt, a heavy fleece jacket, mittens, a toque, and I had my down jacket wrapped around my legs for extra warmth.
The pass we ascended on Day 6 took us to an incredibly spectacular viewpoint; Punto Cuyoc provided 360° views that kept us occupied for the best part of an hour as we tried to take it all in. The descent down from the pass was steep and slippery with loose gravel and dust, and I lost count of the number of times that I fell, but luckily they were just minor tumbles. We reached camp quite early again, and as the day's hike had been short, Pravin, Walter, Axel and I still had lots of energy left and opted to hike up to a nearby viewpoint. Our guide Elyseo was kind enough to accompany us, and although initially we thought we would just head up to the viewpoint, Elyseo led us much further to a beautifully still glacier lake that we hadn't even been able to see from the camp down in the valley.
Visiting these incredible locations each day made us incredibly grateful to get to experience such a beautiful landscape and to have it almost all to ourselves. Most days we would see only a few other people aside from our group, and it was hard not to feel quite small in the shadow of the tall mountains that constantly surrounded us. Having done a number of other hikes in Perú where we were constantly encountering many other hikers, it was very special to be able to hike and explore the Cordillera Huayhuash in such peace.
We knew we had a tough start to the day on Day 7 as we would be reaching our highest point of the trail (5100m), but luckily it wasn't nearly as bad as we had been anticipating. The climb was steep and unrelenting, but as it was still early and the sun hadn't reached us yet, we were still all quite bundled up against the cold in spite of the strenuous ascent. The last 200 metres before the top of the pass was covered in snow, but it wasn't slippery and it was easy enough to cross. We were absolutely blown away to see the view that awaited us from the top of the pass, as we were able to see the backside of the giant peaks that we had been facing earlier on in the trek.
One of the most intriguing peaks was Siula Grande, which starred in Joe Simpson's mountaineering book (and the subsequent feature film), Touching the Void. I had received the book as a gift from one of my high school English teachers, and the story was so intense that I had never forgotten it. It was absolutely surreal to finally see the mountain in person! Pravin and a few others had decided to read the book during the trek, knowing that we would be crossing some of the same ground as the two men in the story. From the viewpoint we were at, we could see the valley route that Joe and Simon had taken to begin their ill-fated summit of Siula Grande about 30 years earlier.
It was a very long day of hiking, as we first had a very steep descent down to the valley floor, and then had to continue down along the valley for another 10 or 12 kilometres until we reached the town of Huayllapa, where we were camping for the night. It was much, much warmer as we had descended to about 3500m - roughly one vertical kilometre lower than most of our previous campsites.
The hike out of Huayllapa on Day 8 was long and tiring, as we had to ascend about 1300m to make up for our big descent the previous day. Once we reached the top, we found a grassy slope out of the wind, and all settled down for lunch and then a siesta in the sun. We didn't have too much further to go after the pass, so it was a nice relief to get into camp and relax in the afternoon sun until dinner in the dining tent.
The scenery on Day 9 was very different than anything we had seen previously, but it was absolutely stunning in its own way. There were wildflowers and blooming bushes all around in hues of purple and yellow, and adorably fuzzy baby cows grazing sleepily in the sun. All kinds of birds were soaring in the skies overhead, and we took ample breaks to take in and take photos of our surroundings. Eventually, although I think we would have all been fine with the gentle, scenic hills never ending, we came to a beautiful viewpoint looking over Laguna Jarhuacocha, which was our final campsite of the trek. Once we made it down into the valley, we were delighted to find that the family living in the area sold beer, so we all stretched out in the sun in perfect view of the lake and enjoyed a cerveza! It was a super-relaxing afternoon and we took advantage of our last night together to play cards and split a bottle of (sickly, syrupy sweet) rosé purchased from the local family.
The morning of Day 10 was bittersweet; we were all excited to get back to showers and other comforts, but our experience in the Cordillera Huayhuash had been so much fun that we were sad it was coming to an end. Everyone slept in a little later than intended, so we had to rush a bit as we were getting ready to head out on the trail for the last time together. We had one more pass to cross, Pampa Llamac, and then it was alllll downhill from there. The descent was incredibly steep and the temperatures got hotter and hotter as we got closer to the valley floor. The vegetation we were hiking through was entirely different than what we had seen up at high elevations, and it was interesting to suddenly be surrounded by cactuses and other desert growth.
Eventually we made it back to the town where our transport was waiting, and we began the long drive back to Huaraz. Instead of going back to our various accommodation, we were invited to a traditional Peruvian lunch of pachamanca, at the home of Eco Ice's owner, Orlando. The meal was cooked by his parents, and it consisted of chicken, many types of potatoes, beans, corn and salsa. Being in Perú, the meal was also accompanied by bottomless pisco sours! It was the perfect way to wrap up an amazing 10 days with a great group of people and our wonderful guides.
Usually when we Pravin and I do a backpacking trip ourselves, we are more concerned with cooking something easy and filling, rather than worrying about packing in a variety of (heavy) fresh foods. This trip was completely the opposite; we had fresh fish the first night and chicken the second night, and consistently had vegetables for lunch and even fresh fruits for snacks while hiking. Dinner always started with a hot, filling soup, and our cooks were so good that we never had the same thing twice. The last day's lunch was absolutely phenomenal; Elyseo created a mushroom ceviche dish that almost had us licking our plates! Hot drinks were available at breakfast, tea time (which also included a snack like tequeños or popcorn) and dinner, and by the second or third day we had perfected the art of blending chocolate powder, powdered milk and instant coffee to create the most perfect trail mocha.
We had a fantastic experience in the Cordillera Huayhuash and being part of a fun group of people and having local guides made it all the better. Spending 10 days in the mountains certainly got us (even more) excited for more trekking coming up in Nepal this fall!