It was too early morning when I silently left behind both Toms in their dorm room in Cuzco. A little feeling of anxiety fell over me once I got in to the taxi that took me to the airport, from here on I would be travelling by myself. When you’re looking for the ultimate feeling of freedom, even one of your best friends can feel he’s holding you back at times. This is what we both chose for, let’s make the best of it now.
After picking up my credit cards in Lima, I boarded a bus going to Huaraz. This settlement in Central Peru is surround by three impressive mountain ranges: Cordillera Blanca, Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Huayhuash. Again I was setting off for another trip in nature. Definitely one of the introspective discoveries I’ve made during this trip, I’m far from the city boy I though I was. Instead I’ve fallen in love with the wild nature and the outdoor activities to which it challenges it you. Out of the 110 days I’ve been travelling now, I’ll have spent some 35 whilst trekking through national parks and nature reserves. Not what I had expected at the start of this trip.
This mountain range is located some 100 kilometres south of Huaraz and despite its small size – it’s only 30 kilometres long – offers some of the best hiking in the world. For years hiking through this area had been impossible due to terrorism activities in the area. A revolutionist group of terrorists, namely the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso, was fighting the Peruvian government from this remote location since the early eighties. After a radical counterattack by government forces at the end of the nineties, safety has been restored in the area and since the beginning of the new millenium tourism activities have slightly been taking over the region. Locals jokingly say that the only terrorism that still remains are the constant flow of Israeli hikers (or “sjaloms” as they are nicknamed here) that are furiously bartering for lower prices. Apparently I’ve been adopting a cost-conscious way of travelling as well, since during one of my negotiations the tour operators shouted to me “You’re haggling harder than any Sjalom I’ve ever met”. I guess this is where the economical thinking of my mum’s side of the family shows up.
After hearing different people talk about the amazing hiking around Huaraz, I had started looking up information about the region. The most popular trail around here is a four-day hike, called Santa Cruz. However, once I ran in to the following quote, I immediately added the hike through the Cordillera Huayhuash to my bucket list for this trip.
Huayhuash is dangerous. Hikers have died there. This is arguably the best hike in the world but is appropriate only for robust, experienced high altitude trekkers.
Since I wanted to get to the Galapagos Islands as soon as possible, I went out looking for hiking buddies shortly after I arrived. While looking at the notice board in Cafe Andino I started talking with Cody, who was traveling in South-America for 6 weeks before starting law school later this fall. It turned out that we did not only have the same age, but also shared the same hiking plans. We joined forces and had to make an important decision straight away. Setting off by ourselves and having to take care of hiring all the camping gear, wearing everything ourselves, cooking a decent meal every day and navigating through the barren landscapes of the cordillera … or we could go through an agency that could set us up with a guide, an arriero (donkeyman who manages the donkeys carrying all the stuff), gear and food. Taking in account the harsh experiences in Patagonia and the slightly tired state of my body, I pushed to go for the more comfortable second option.
However an even bigger decision awaited us once we got to the agencies. Basically there were two options: a cheaper tour where we’d join a bunch of Israeli hiking enthusiasts (one thing I really respect them for is the vast number of them that spends most of their travels hiking) with the downside that we’d hear Hebrew most of the time and that the level of quality would be very basic … or going at it with a smaller group (more expensive, more comfort and less Hebrew), for which we’d need at least one more participant to make it affordable. We were definitely in favor of this last option, we just didn’t have any idea where to find another hiker. The clock was running close to four o’clock – our dead-line – when we ran in to Hugh, another American who’d landed in my dorm room earlier that morning. A short information session later, we could convince him to join us. And so we were ready to hike around the cordillera the following day.
Eight days of hiking
After some issues finding a decent arriero on our first day, we had to change our hiking plans and limit ourselves to eight days. Together with my newfound American friends, Edgar our guide from Huaraz and Teddy our arriero from the area, we set off for an amazing experience. Trying to cover every aspect of the hike would be impossible, but I gladly leave you an impression of how day five (without any doubt the best one out there) went by.
At half past five in the morning – half an hour earlier than the other mornings – my ipod takes me out a night of short, consecutive pieces of sleep. Whilst Bob Dylan’s Hurricane is taking up volume, I wriggle myself out of the two sleeping bags I’m sleeping in before my two tent companions are woken up. Outside the sun is already lighting up the sky from behind the mountains, but the temperature is still very close to freezing. I quickly put on my clothes and struggle to open the tent. Just before I can close it, an awoken Cody asks me if I’m going to live up to my promise of last night. “Yes,” I tell him “I’m off for a swim”. In the bigger cooking tent next-door I can hear Edgar already preparing breakfast, but I speed by and head for the natural baths that are two minutes walking away. Upon arrival I see that I’m the only one there, neither my hiking buddies nor anybody of the group of Israelis has made it out here. After taking of my clothes I quickly get in to the pool and enjoy the gentle warmth covering my body. Sitting in these thermal baths (yup, that’s why I’m so brave) at 4300 metres high, whilst the sun is slowly colouring the magnificent surrounding landscape, I think I must be the luckiest guy in the world.
That’s the feeling I’ve been looking for every day since the start of my travels. Getting to a place and soaking in the experience with all my senses, before bursting out in laughter and thinking just how lucky I am. It’s been amazing how easy it is to find a moment like that every time.
After a delicious breakfast that consisted out of pancakes and a local quinoa based variation of oatmeal, we started the hardest day of hiking planned for this trip. We had convened with Edgar the night before and decided to change the original route to take on a tougher but more scenic path. We’d be crossing two passes that day and the first one was straight ahead of us. It was only six o’clock in the morning when we took on the gradual ascent to Paso Cuyol. Soon we got in our typical walking pattern, where Cody would speed away, I would be doing the climb at my own pace, with Hugh shortly behind me and Edgar somewhere in between. The morning bath had been good for my muscles and I comfortably made it up the pass. At 5000 metres of height we had a magnificent overview of the cordillera ahead of us. We rushed back down to the valley, because we had a long day ahead of us. Once we were back down at 4200 metres, we went through our lunch packs to find some energy for the climb ahead of us.
Getting up Paso Santa Marta would be more challenging. The ascent wasn’t as friendly this time and the previously joking conversation soon gave way to deep breathing and silent cursing. In under two hours we overcame the 900 metres of height difference to the pass, while slowly working through the scree. The closer to the pass, the finer the scree became, until it looked like I was way my way up through an almost vertical desert. The only orientation we had were the “apacheta” (or rockducks as the Americans call them), while the Incas build them out of respect for the “apu” or mountaingods, we gladly used them to find our way up on the pass. However once we got up the pass the view was a so rewarding: the summits of the cordillera covered in eternal snow topped off a vertical wall that reached down to a magically blue glacial lake far below us in the valley. An overwhelming experience, similar to stumbling upon Glaciar Grey in Torres del Paine so many months ago.
After soaking in the experience and several tries to make a picture that could slightly represent the experience, we took on the steep descent down to the valley where we finally had lunch. From there on we continued our way through the Quebrada Calinca for another three hours, before finally making camp on the football field in the tiny town of Huayllapa. After ten hours of walking, 1600 metres of ascent and 2200 metres of descent, we could finally rest our legs. At least that was until the local volleyball team challenged us for a game. We teamed up with two of the local “mamitas” and Briza, a four-foot tall, seven-year old talent at the reception position. Just before darkness took over the pitch we could finish our third set, unfortunately losing the very competitive game with 1 – 2. After a welcome snack of popcorn and a filling diner, we decided to make a walk around town and not before long we stumbled upon a local folkloric party. Without any doubt the perfect end to a perfect day.
– Getting here just in time. The years of terrorism threat are behind us, but other danger for this beautiful area is looming ahead. In the last couple of years prospectors have found large quantities of silver and gold in the Huayhuash mountains and two mining companies have already installed themselves in this area. In the coming years this area is going to be carved up by roads and industrial trucks will be cruising through it.
– Being confronted with the tiny houses of the migratory sheep herders. This region is still host to migrating families and their live stock, who live in tiny houses built of rocks, slabs of grass and reed. They move between different locations depending on the season to live in what for us would be primitive conditions.
– It wasn’t untill I got here that I realised this was the setting of “Touching the void“. This “real life story turned book/movie” is set here and covers the amazing survival of Joe Simpson during a climbing expedition. Some short contemplation about this definitely makes you respect the mountains that much more.
– Having an escort of 10 andean condors fly by on our last day of hiking. Condors are wonderful animals and we had been spotting one every other day of our hike, mostly far away near one of the summits. On our last day however we were walking over a mountain ridge when suddenly ten of them appeared around us, drifting away on the thermal currents. Some of them got so close we could actually hear them soaring by, similar to the noise of a fast kite passing by. Incredible.
– The unbelievable height of this hike. Almost all of the days we spend between 4200 metres and 5000 metres, mostly camping in the lower valleys and having at least one pass close to 5000 metres planned every day. If you put this in perspective to the European mountain ranges (I’ll not even mention the highest Belgian “mountain“), with Mont Blanc set at 4810 metres, it’s sometimes hard to fathom.
All in all this hike has been an amazing experience and has certainly lived up to the expectations I had before setting off. For me it’s right up there with our nine-day hike in Torres del Paine.
Right now I’m on the Galapagos Islands, maybe an even more mythical experience of which I’ll be blogging in a following update.