Cordillera Huayhuash: Hiking the Peruvian Andes
By Titik Wahyuni
South America had always been at the top of my travel to-do list, so I was thrilled when I finally had the chance to visit Peru last summer. But with only a three-week holiday, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the whole country, as Peru has so much to offer! You could easily spend several months exploring the country’s many wonders, and still have more to experience.
I had been planning my trip for months, spending hours researching where to go and what to do. This left me confounded with the endless choices of interesting places to visit. I wanted to see more than just Machu Picchu. Of course, Machu Picchu is the top sight in Peru, but I also wanted an experience that was a bit less ‘touristy’. I stumbled upon a mind-blowing image on the official Instagram account of Peru – the caption stated that it was the ‘Cordillera Huayhuash’. I had never heard about this place before, and without thinking twice, I decided that this is where I would go.
I spent the first week in Peru wandering around beautiful Lima, and of course, I also visited must-see Machu Picchu. It was truly amazing to see this wonder of the world firsthand, while learning about the history and culture of the Inca. How they managed to build this place, and how they preserved its environment was particularly fascinating. Apart from being so touristy, it somehow still feels really special when you visit this place.
I flew from Cusco to Lima to catch the night bus to Huaraz. I’m not a big fan of bus rides, especially when I am so tired; but this bus was surprisingly comfortable and I managed to sleep the entire trip. We arrived early in the morning in Huaraz and I went straight to the Akilpo hostel, conveniently located near the bus station. It was time to rest, as before doing any heavy physical activity here, I needed to acclimatize to the altitude for at least 3-5 days.
Thankfully, I didn’t have any problems on my first day, so on the second day, I decided to join a day hike with other travellers to a small mountain – I wanted to see if could handle the altitude. We called it the ‘baby mountain’. It was hard; I thought I could just run right up it, like I would normally do when I climb a mountain, but this time it felt really heavy. I had nothing in my bag except for a liter of mineral water and some snacks, but walking up this ‘baby mountain’ felt like I had ten kilograms of stones in my bag, and with every step, it seemed to become heavier and heavier. We finally reached the top, where I could see the vista of much bigger mountains. I stared at those majestic peaks while trying to catch my breath, and wondered, “how I could ever climb those mountains?”
The next day, with legs still sore from yesterday, I joined another day hike – this time to ‘Laguna 69’. The Akilpo hostel has a daily tour which travellers can join for 30 soles (about 10 US dollars). The entry ticket for the national park, which is not included, is just another 10 soles. We departed early in the morning in a bus full of travellers from all over the world. Laguna 69 is one of the most popular lakes in this area. It was a two-hour ride to the base camp on a typical mountain road, snaking to the top with terrifying deep cliffs on the left side. The narrow paved road could only fit one small bus, and I could really feel the adrenaline as the bus passed huge lakes only 30 cm from the road’s edge. Instead of focusing on the dangerous drive, I closed my eyes and imagined the beautiful places we were about to see.
A two-hour walk would take us up to the lake, our muscles burning as we pushed through the last difficult 45 minutes. The way up was so steep, and aside from the physical exertion, everyone was struggling with the lack of oxygen. Altitude really affects you when it comes to climbing mountains; even walking upstairs is a burden. In the end, it was more than worth it the effort (and pain!), as we laid eyes upon a beautiful blue glacier lake, complete with a perfect waterfall plunging down from the mountains behind it. Laguna 69 was like a delicious appetizer to the main course, and I desperately craved for more!
We then had two days to recover and prepare everything for the big trip – the 8 days of trekking through the Cordillera Huayhuash. The guys from the hostel were so helpful; they arranged everything for us, including getting a quality tour agency for a fair price. They helped us check the quality of the provided gear, which is especially important when visiting remote areas with extreme weather.
The next day, we headed to the village called Llamac. This is the last town before heading into the wilderness, and our local guide, Wilder, was waiting for us there. He is such a humble, small guy, with a great smile; an amazing guide and chef; and as a bonus, quite funny too! We were so lucky that we had him as our guide. After picking him up from Llamac, we continued on to the campsite, a short 20-minute ride from the village. It was almost dark when we arrived, so we directly set up camp. We spent the first night in the million-star ‘hotel’, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Who would have thought?
The next morning Juan, our porter, came to the campsite with his three donkeys that would carry our stuff during the trek. We loaded everything up on the backs of the donkeys and began our trek through the Huayhuash circuit which would last for an amazing 8 days. We walked for 6-8 hours per day, passing through mountain after mountain, pass after pass, and lake after lake. The whole trip was a real life challenge, testing our patience and energy levels. We dealt with various difficulties – pain, sickness and lack of sleep – but the whole journey was unforgettable. I learned a lot during this trip; the most important being that when you want to experience beautiful things, you have to work hard and fight for it – it doesn’t always come easily.
Ultimately, I know this will always stand out as one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. Nothing could rival the feeling of sitting on the edge of Lake Carhuacocha surrounded by the majesty of the Huayhuash mountains, while sipping my cup of coca tea. And those mirror images on the lakes – oh my goodness – I felt like I was the luckiest person on the planet to be able to witness such beauty. The only thing that was able to break through the peaceful silence of this moment was my mind, screaming, “I need more of this!” I couldn’t wait to see what adventures my next trip would hold. If the world could be this amazing and beautiful, how could anyone be happy to just stay at home?