Day 157: Goodbye South America … I’ll be back one day!

South America has tons of distinctive traits and before flying out of the continent two specials ones showed up once more. The first being the pleasant chaos that is always around, however this is every time accompanied by a smiling face that makes the caused discomfort much more bearable. The latter is the apparently cheap cost of labour that results in tons of employees where one could have been sufficient. My endeavour  to fly out of Cartagena was characterized by both.

A couple of days ago a plane, of the company I was flying with, was struck by lightning upon landing in Bogota. Although the plane broke up in three parts, most of the passengers survived, leaving only one deadly victim due to a heart attack. This disrupted the whole flight schedule in the coming days as well as the flight I was planning to take. On my last evening in Cartagena I got two emails from the airline company, the first one for the direct connection I had booked, the second one de-routing via Barranquilla and leaving one hour earlier. Just to be sure I got very early to the airport and passed on a final night out in town. When I showed up at the airport, I got referred from desk to desk until I finally queued up for my flight check-in which started one hour later than promised. There it turns out that I got two flight tickets for the flight de-routing through Barranquilla, nevertheless I would be taking the direct flight to Fort Lauderdale, only on a different hour than either the ones that was originally sent to me (things were starting to get slightly confusing for me at this moment). During check-in I all of the sudden needed different documents than the ones requested up front, but we managed to make our way around this. Then I had to wait for another hour to get to customs check, since that one isn’t open at the moment.

Customs check turns out to be like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. First an airline employee writes down my name, then I go for a first interview with a policeman. After this I drop off my bags to get them through the scanner, while I go through one of those walk-through scanners myself. Everything normal until here. Never minding the result of the scanner, I get scanned manually by an officer as well. Then I take my bag to another officer who goes through all my stuff as well. A next officer pads me down, before sending me up to the narcotics officer who takes X-ray shots of my body (so far for privacy)! Then I go back down to the migration officer who questions me once more before giving me my stamp. Then another lovely lady takes down my name and sends me to another airport employee who once more goes through my bags before finally approving me safe to fly. I got to the airport at 7.30am and at 1.30pm, I can finally board my plane towards the States.

Don’t let this short history give you a wrong impression however, I’ve absolutely loved my time on this continent. Before I left I heard horror stories about the freezing cold in Patagonia, the unavoidable food poisoning in Bolivia and the fearless para-military groups of Colombia. All the while during my five months of travelling here I only had amazing experiences, met incredibly friendly people, ate (mostly) really good food and saw fantastic sceneries. I will take all of these with me as beautiful memories while my trip continues and hopefully far beyond. I can only recommend everybody to travel here yourself and experience the absolute friendliness and beauty of this continent.

In an attempt to organize some of these memories I’ve drawn up some lists that rank the most memorable ones.

Best Countries

1. Colombia
2. Bolivia
3. Argentina
4. Peru
5. Chile
6. Ecuador

First place here had for a long while been in the hands of Bolivia, which without any doubt is an amazing country that has so much to offer at a bargain price. In the end Colombia took over based on two reasons: having a coastline (sorry for rubbing it in Bolivia) with all related advantages and the always present joy the Colombians show while smiling, talking or dancing. Having the prettiest looking ladies of my trip might have been important as well. As for the other places I’ve been, if Patagonia had been a country it would definitely been on the top of my list, same for Galapagos. Peru was good fun, but limited to Huaraz and Cuzco area.

Best Regions

1. Patagonia
2. Galapagos Islands
3. Caribbean Coast

Because the country question didn’t cover the whole spectrum, I started looking at specific areas as well. Patagonia is taking first place here because it is just plainly amazing and I would recommend everybody to go there and to discover it by himself. It’s also a region that has changed part of me as well, where I discovered that I loved being outdoors and go trekking, thus it has definitely defined how the rest of my trip would look like. Galapagos Islands have a mythical aura around them and were the place where I felt most like I was a kid again, looking in amazement at the animals around me. The Caribbean Coast in Colombia is a deserving third that has a lot to offer for anyone who is up for it, stunning beaches with abundant marine life are linked to the cloud forest of the Sierra Nevada rising just behind it, with a flourishing nightlife in between.

Relaxation in the middle of Patagonian peaks

Best Food

1. Caribean lobstertails in Santa Marta
2. Patagonian lamb in Cafayate
3. Filet Mignon in Taganga
4. Mangrove Crab in Guayaquil
5. Self-made food whenever eating out became too expensive

When eating, the people you’re sharing the food with are probably just as important as the quality of the food involved. So it’s no surprise that all off these meals were shared with great fellow travellers. The lobstertails with one of the final evenings of travelling with my parents came in giant portions with freshly grilled vegetables. The Patagonian lamb was a delicious dinner after Tom, Tom, Joss and I finished our trek around Mount Fitzroy. The filet mignon was once again shared with my parents (we tended to go to slightly more expensive restaurants when they were picking up the bill) and it was a pleasure to finally have a nice thick piece of meat (so much that I even went back later on with Tom and Roy). The mangrove crabs were shared when I met Sophie and Jay, a superb Australian couple that I kept running in to later. From time to time, the urge to cook our own meal took over and moments like those mostly gave us the most gratification.

Best Drinks

1. Fresh stream water in Patagonia
2. Malbec wine in Mendoza
3. Caipirinhas in Buenos Aires

Rarely good food goes without a good drink and definitely not in the wine regions of Chile and Argentina. But drawing up a list of my favourite drinks didn’t turn out to be that easy, apparently my alcohol consumption has been more limited than I had expected up front. This reflects itself in the first place as well, the fresh water out of the small Patagonian creeks and waterfalls. After being used to bottled and tap water for 25 years, it was an absolute revelation to be able to drink straight out of the little water streams. As a balance for all this healthy water, there were the famous wines of Chile and Argentina. The Malbec variety was our absolute favourite here and it was hard to have a meal where we weren’t drinking a bottle of wine when we were in the area. Caipirinhas normally are reserved for Brazil, but on a great samba party during our first weekend in Buenos Aires the combination of these strong cocktails and good company made us dance all night long.

Tasting Malbec wine in Argentina (still with beard then)

Most challenging activities

1. Kicking off this trip
2. Climbing Huayna Potosi
3. Biking back from Lago Desierto
4. Surviving freezing cold nights in Huayhuash trek
5. Keep going on the Torres del Paine trek doing everything ourselves

Without any doubt, making the decision to start on this trip was the hardest challenge to overcome. I had been playing with the idea for three years before I finally gave in to it and decided to go for it. Everything since passing that hurdle seems to be a piece of cake. Some things however were a bit harder than others. Climbing Huayna Potosi near La Paz definitely is the achievement I am proudest of. Whilst feeling physically ill, I had the guts and character to continue and make the summit. Afterwards the dredging walk back might have been even harder, but in the end it was all worth it. The mountain-bike trip back and forth to Lago Desierto must have been the most painful experience, neglecting the advice of the locals we set of on a 75km trip over the worst dirt road possible. When coming back there wasn’t a single muscle that wasn’t hurting and every single rock along the road had been personally cursed upon. Whilst trekking the Huaraz area in Northern Peru, each night the temperatures dropped to zero degrees Celsius and I was shivering inside the tent trying to keep my extremities warm by putting a hot water bottle near my feet and sleeping with my hat on. All of this made our trek in Torres del Paine even more impressive, where we were carrying all our belongings, pitching our own tent at night and cooking our own food in harsh conditions. But back then we were still full of fearlessness and courage.

Magical moments

1. The first look of Glaciar Grey
2. Sunset in Pacific with sealions and flying fish
3. Hatching baby turtles in Galapagos
4. Night dive in Taganga
5. Sunrise on Huayna Potosi
6. Sleeping in a hammock at Parque Tayrona
7. Swimming with river dolphins and cayman in the Bolivian Pampas
8. Biking through a deserted Atacama desert
9. Sunrise in a thermal bath during Huayhuash trek
10 . Sunrise at Ciudad Perdida (pictures click here)

The whole trip has been full of amazing experiences, but some of them are even a bit more special. I can vividly remember them straight away and I knew I was thinking to be the luckiest guy on the world at those moments. It’s hard to make a ranking of them, but I gave it a go. The feeling I had when stumbling upon Glacier Grey must be at the very top, after 7 days of intense hiking the majestic view of a 30 kilometre long glacier was extremely overwhelming. Sharing a sunset on a surfboard with animals as well as the hatching of sea turtles used to be things I would dream of as a kid, now I have actually experienced them myself. The night dive I did in Taganga as a part of my advanced dive course was great fun, slowly plunging into a dark unknown world with only my flashlight to guide me was just amazing. The sunrise on Huayna Potosi is without any doubt the most rewarding one I have experienced on this trip. After a couple of days on the Caribbean coast I had gotten used to sleeping in hammocks, but none was as overwhelming as the one in the tower up on the small peninsula of Cabo. Sharing a river with dolphins and cayman was pretty damn cool, as well as taking our mountain bikes and find a part of the Atacama desert that wasn’t full of tourist tours. The last two sunrises were equally magical, it’s only the amount of mosquito bites in Ciudad Perdida that bumped it down to the last place. (Pretty hard to make the selection here considering I had to bump Uyuni saltflats, Macchu Pichu and paragliding in Iquique)

Foggy sunrise at Ciudad Perdida

Best trekkings

1. The Circuit in Torres del Paine in Patagonia
2. Ciudad Perdida in Sierra Nevadq de Santa Marta
3. Huayhuash trail in North Peru
4. Salkantay trail to Macchu Pichu
5. Cerro Lindo in El Bolson

I had never expected to do that much hiking during my trip, but it seems like you’re never to old to discover new things you like. Out of the 155 days I’ve spent travelling, it turns out that some  45 of them were dedicated to (multi) day trek through nature. I believe the following five were my favourites. Doing the circuit in Torres was something we planned up front and one of the reasons we headed to Patagonia. It didn’t disappoint us and set the expectation level very high from the beginning on. The trek to Ciudad Perdida was something completely different, going through the jungle over ancient old paths of Tayrona indians we had to cross rivers and fight off mosquitoes to finally get to the old indian capital. The Huayhuash trail was equally beautiful as the other hikes done, only we did it a bit more luxurious having our own guide and horseman. The Salkantay trail was great fun to share with an amazing group of people and ended up in the mythical city of Macchu Pichu. A short two day hike to Cerro Lindo finishes of this list, it doesn’t happen that often that you can climb a frozen waterfall in the end.

Huayhuash trail

Most Played Music on my Ipod

Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriella
The XX – XX
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Isbells – Isbells
The Black Keys – Brothers

The music I’ve been listening most to on this trip, other bands that have been passing by a lot: Air, The Beatles, Beach House, The Black Box Revelation, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, Eels, Fever Ray, Fleet Foxes, The Hickey Underworld, Jef Neve, The Low Anthem, Monsters of Folk, The National, Soulwax, The Subs, Vampire Weekend, Warren Zevon, The Whitest Boy Alive.

Things I miss the most

1. Friends and family living their lives and big moments
2. My own kitchen
3. A good game of basketball

While I’m travelling around the world, I’ve taken a side track to the life all of you are involved with. This also means missing out on all the special occasions in your life: new girlfriends, family celebrations, couples getting married, buying houses and having kids, new jobs, … These are the moments I wished I could send myself back for a short moment and be part of all the joy in your life. Guess I’ll just have to catch up fast once I get back.
Asides from that it seems like the things I’m missing are rather trivial. Having my own kitchen with my own utensils, spices and ingredients to put together a nice meal as well as playing a bit of basketball at times. But I guess those two would be better with friends around as well.

Shortly going through these lists I can only see that this trip has been a great experience till now. Five months in six South American countries have flown bye and great memories will always be attached to them. Now it’s time for three weeks of cruising through the States before starting the final leg of my trip in Asia.

Take care,



Surf, sulfur, seafood and other strangenesses

Tired, but dazzled and once again amazed by the beauty of mother earth, the 4 brave Huayhuash-hikers got back to the Hostel. After an amazing shower and luxurious diner (back from a nine day hike a juicy steak is more or less heaven) we all went our own ways again. Australian Tom and I (TomTom) bought a ticket for the bus in the direction of Trujillo where we transfered towards the relaxed surfertown Huanchaco. Tears flowed when “la Furia Roja”  defeated the poor Dutch national team. More weeping when the golden pair TomTom was separated. Australian Tom got en route to the Galapagos islands. I decided to make a stopover in Huanchaco.

Huanchaco Hyves and Mancora malice

The small town of Huanchaco is known for its surfing, fishermen and cool vibe. The “pescadores” still use their traditional fisherboats or “caballitos de totora”. It is said that these watercrafts were the first to be used to surf waves. Thus, finding a symbol for this cool township wasn’t very difficult. I installed myself in “La Casa Suiza”, weird enough a French-owned hostel. Aside from that a perfect spot to stay: good value, comfortable beds and amazing home-made pizza.

Tom and the caballito de totora

During the trip I discovered the thrill of riding waves. So, I was pretty keen on further improving my skills in Huanchaco. Determined as I was, soon a new “golden duo” was founded. Surfing instructor Tommy was appointed as my private tutor, being incredibly motivated to pass on the surfing-vibe. My  surfing-Spanish improved considerably, as well as my handshake.

Slowly I got my surfing at a next level. I drank liters of seawater and suffered severe cold, lying there in the Pacific Ocean waiting for “la ola perfecta”. And… three days later I caught my first enormous (for me at least) wave. And it was well worth all torment and pain!

In the hostel, I met Sofia, a Swedish girl travelling her way up through Peru. And as we were both a bit sick of the lack of sunshine in Huanchaco, we agreed upon moving further north together.

We still had some time left so got to the “Huaca de la Luna”. Together with the Huaca del sol, the pyramids constituted the powercentre of the Mochica culture (100 to 900 a.C.) – Hey, a little history lesson won’t harm you. Another interesting phenomenon to be found on site is the Peruvian dog. The animal is characterised by its hairlessness and was a popular pet kept during the Incan empire.

Incan hairless Peruvian dog at the Huaca de la Luna

Following our brief encounter with one of Peru’s archeological treasures we progressed and headed for Mancora. Only to find out we both did not really like the vibe of this self-called beach paradise. Probably a result of the contrast with the adorable atmoshpere in Huanchaco compared to the “pushy” feel of Mancora. Thus, we spent some time wandering around the beach and surfing before scheduling our trajectory to Ecuador.

Flashy fishermen, mating whales and blue-footed boobies

We dropped our anchor in Puerto López, a small coastal village 5 hours away from Guayaquil.  In the morning, fishermen can be spot on the beach, dragging huge manta rays and marlins shorewards while pelicans are hanging around, waiting to get a tasty bite of the fish. In the evenings, we got some of the best seafood prior to hitting one of the well-lit bars with oceanview on the main strip, sipping a cocktail.

The charming village of Puerto López

Pelicans in line waiting for some tasty bites

Manta rays waiting to be taken to the local fish market

Besides the fishing, tourism is the main industry in Puerto López. The city is the headquarters for the Machalilla natural park, the only coastal preserve in Ecuador. Mid-june to october, the mating whales are the main attraction here. Tours can easily be booked, and you’re guaranteed to spot some coupling humpback whales. And indeed, it’s quite spectacular to see the huge animals jumping around while spraying seawater with their blowholes.

Humpback whales playing around in the Pacific Ocean

We opted for a combined tour, with stopover on the “isla de la plata”, an island a few kilometres offshore. The isle is referred to as “the poor man’s Galapagos”, as some of the same species can be found overthere. And well… Shuffling through my bank statements and hearing about the excessive prices of the Galapagos cruises, I was pretty fine with the “budget version”. We spotted quite a few birds of which the blue-footed booby and frigatebirds were the absolute highlights. We ended our day with an hour of snorkeling in the coral reef the island is surrounded with.

The blue-footed booby

Frigate birds relaxing

The next day, a mototaxi dropped us in Agua Blanca, a small community in the middle of the Machalilla park a few kilometres north of Puerto Lopez. The indigenous people make a living mainly out of agriculture and tourism. Guided tours take you into the community, where the most memorable spot is the sulfur bath. You are meant to cover yourself with some of the mud on the bottome of the lagune to get your skin purified. Allthough the smell of eggs did not really attract us right away, we followed the wise advice of our guide and smeared some of the delicious ooze over our tired bodies.

Sofia and Tom enjoying a smelly-sulfur-mud-treat

Getting back into the village, Sofia and I decided to go our own ways again. Sofia wanted to go kitesurfing, while I was fierce to go for the same thing, only without the kite. Moreover, in Puerto Lopez I got hold of  “the kite runner” through the book exchange, more then enough kite for me.  So a lot of whining and weaping and another adieu…

From Canoa to Colombia…

Shortly after, I arrived in Canoa, more or less the Ecuadorian equivalent for Huanchaco. The coming days I took the time to get some final surfing vibes in Latin America. Especially my last session I’ll remember for a long time.

In my early morning surf I got to know the phenomenon pointed out by locals as “el beso de agua mala” literally translated: “the kiss of the bad water”. While paddling in the ocean, all of a sudden my whole forearm felt as if it was burned and stung with 100 needles at the same time. Apparently I bumped into an audacious type of jelly fish. Luckily the pharmacist was able to give me a good antidote, so I was ready for a second surfing session.

Lying in the water later in the afternoon I suddenly heard a screaming sound. Scanning the ocean promptly I saw a girl struggling in the water. I did not hesitate and with my surfboard I got her back on shore. Quickly I speeded towards the doctor who got the unfortunate young woman back on her feet. A somehow scary experience. Nevertheless, all’s well that ends well!

Surfing Canoa

Leaving behind all the excitement, I packed my bag, ready for some new adventures. I am currently writing from the small Colombian border town Ipiales where I am awaiting the nightbus to Cali. There I will meet up with Roy, a good comrade from back home in Belgium. Together we’ll be cruising through Colombia the coming weeks.  In the meanwhile, I will ameliorate both my Spanish and Salsa skills. And believe me, especially for the latter, there is quite some improvement possible. But, more on all of this in my next post. To end I want to wish everybody a great summer and an exhilarating vacation!

The best to all of you!


Day 120: Huayhuash Highlights!

The feeling of travelling on your own is a bit frightening. We’ve been sharing all of our great experiences for the last 4 months. At the same time, total freedom is what we were both longing for. Moreover, we might meet pretty soon again in the United States for the burning man festival. Anyways, here’s my first real independent post!

After we got back from Machu Picchu, both Australian Tom and I decided to stick around in Cuzco to witness the Inti Raymi-festival in Cuzco. The event is held in the colossal fort of Saqsayhuaman (try to remember that name), 2 km outside Cuzco. The whole ceremony is quite lively and mainly consists of a lot of people dressed up dancing around and celebrating the once majestic Andean culture. Very interesting, but the urge to travel on was quite big.

Traditional dancing for the Inti Raymi

After a short stopover in Lima, mainly to pick up my credit cards and finally get my permanent passport (with the temporary one I am not allowed to fly into the States) I continued the trip towards Huaraz.

The only thing I wanted at this very moment was being close to mother nature again. I discovered that the hiking part of the trip has given me the most satisfaction, whereas cities somehow seem to have a numbing effect. So I decided to go for the nine day Huayhuash trek in the Cordillera Real. David already gave an extensive report on the history and specificities of the hike in the previous post on the blog, so I’ll try to stick with my personal experiences and in particular the things that made my hike special.

The cosy Churupp hostel is a perfect hangout to energize before starting one of the best hikes in South America. After having a haircut (that made several people refer to me as TinTin) Tom S. and I soon met two hiking companions, Eric and Adam. Later on, Sonia, a German girl was added to our group.

Huayhuash Hikers

Australian Tom: Besides the fact he has the smelliest feet known to man, a perfect hiking companion. Most of the time he ran up the hill with the elegancy of a kangaroo on speed and was never afraid to climb the “extra mile”. Even though this would mean ripping up his pants. Has a great taste of music. Can’t stand losing, especially whilst playing Yaniv, the Israelian game we played every evening. When Tom’s winning the game, it’s all about skill, tactics and strategy. When losing, it’s 80 percent luck.

Eric: a Proud canadian. Absolutely obsessed with camping gear, especially MEC is high-end and rock solid material according to him. The Nalgene water bottle he was carrying all the time seems to be the absolute pride of canada (Allthough it is “made in USA”). His water filter came in extremely handy though. Less useful were his nightly farts (allthough they kept us warm during the cold nights) and other weird noises during the night. Has a never disappearing smile on his face and has no clue how the whole Taylor Swift album got onto his ipod.

Adam: British guy and proud Londener with a Ricky Gervais accent. No, I am not having a laugh. Has the tendency to shoot papparazi pictures all the time. And mostly they are great quality as well. Worked as an engineer in a famous UK recording studio where he met the cream of the crop within the music industry.

Sonia: 100% German. Had tremendous trouble with the altitude during the hike. Consequently gave up the 6th day. “Schade”. Nicknamed “La Tortuga”. Complained about her walking sticks all the time. In German, forgetting that “Deutsch” is not exactly the main language in South America. So appointed me as being her official translator, great. When finally arriving on top of the hill, we would cheer her up and ask how she felt. Her reaction: “no comment”. Altitude can drive people crazy I heard. It can, I realise now…

Edgar: known for his catchphrase: “Tranquillo amigo”. Even if you would by acccident slip over a rock, cursing the whole mountain to hell. Other famous slogan: “muchos problemas”, most of the time when talking about Sonia. Next to his guiding skills an excellent cook and superb guide with an extended knowledge about any possible mountain or pass in the Cordillera Real.

Isaac: our faithfull arriero (or donkey “driver”). Catchprase: “Sjaloom”, the nickname for all Israelians doing the hike. Allthough large groups of them get over here and start hiking, most of the guides and arrieros do not seem to be very keen on them. Maybe because of the fact they are quite noisy and bargain rudely until they get “special price”. Even if this means running out of gas or food the 5th day of their hike.

From left to right: Edgar, Eric, Adam, Belgian Tom, Australian Tom


A summary of my personal best experiences during the trek:

– unbelievable views whilst doing the trek. When climbing towards the one after the other mountain pass, your breath gets cut off right away. Physically it is quite hard, but once reaching the top, the view makes you wanna cry, scream and immediately you forget all muscle pain and shortbreathedness. Here are a few shots:

After climbing the first real pass of the trek

Paso San Antonio

– Lots of condors flying above our heads while being at an altitude of more or less 5000m

Condors flying on top of our heads while having lunch

– Taking a dive in one of the many magnificent lagoons we encountered during our hike. The water temperature is not as freezing as in the Patagonian glacial lakes, but far from tropical.

Taking a dive in the ice cold water

– The thermal baths you get to take a plunge in on day five (or day six, clearly the altitude affected my memory) at the campsite. After having walked for several hours you enjoy the warm water source (temperatures around 38 degrees). Around you, an astonishing view, but most of all, the sensation of your muscles relaxing and the feeling of being one of the luckiest persons in the world. Waking up the next morning at 5, to get a dive in the bath before leaving for one of the hardest days on the trek is hard, but once you enter the bath, you easily forget how ridiculously early your alarm clock went of. Australian Tom and I were the only ones being able to struggle out of our warm and cosy beds.

Australian Tom taking an early morning thermal bath

Huayhuash horses/donkeys and other oddities

– For some reason I got nicknamed “the mule whisperer”. Maybe because of my compassion for the animals, carrying all tourists heavy bags up the mountains during the whole hike. The altitude and heavy carriage generally wears them out, so they only reach the age of 25. So here’s my little tribute to them.

The mule whisperer

– The altitude (the trek’s altitude varies between 4200 and 5000m) has some weird effects. While ascending you’re out of breath in no time, allthough you’re walking fairly slow. Apart from that, I had the craziest dreams. Other effects: peeing every 10 minutes and extremely cold temperatures at night.

– Whilst hiking we met with some extremely sympathic road workers. After a short chat, we learned they used to be mountain guides that climbed nearly every single pass in the cordillera Huayhuash. We all thought it should be the other way round (first doing heavy road work before guiding tourists). Absolutely amazing!

Retired mountain guides, now road workers

A short summar: once again a wonderful experience within wild nature. A lot of time to think things through, but above all to realize what a lucky bastard I really am!

Stunning view on the cordillera Huayhuash

Currently I am stationed in a town called Huanchaco where I am getting surf classes. Afterwards, I’ll travel through (coastal) Ecuador. First on the menu is the nature park Machalilla, in search for mating whales. But more on all that in a next update!

All the best to all of you and hear you later!


Day 110: Cordillera Huayhuash

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.

Cordillera Huayhuash

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.

Hopping through the cordillera

Hopping through the cordillera

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.

A happy hiker (with a new haircut) in the middle of the mountains.

A happy hiker (with a new haircut) in the middle of the mountains.

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.

Our campsite

Our campsite

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.

Paso Santa Marta

Paso Santa Marta

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.

Other highlights:

– 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.

Houses of migrating sheep herders

Houses of migrating sheep herders

– 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.

Sunrise at Lago Jahuacocha

Sunrise at Lago Jahuacocha

Right now I’m on the Galapagos Islands, maybe an even more mythical experience of which I’ll be blogging in a following update.