It was good to be back in Huaraz in Peru’s Ancash region after a three-year absence. I had been there in 2007 for a two-week adventure in the Cordillera Blanca that included a walk up the Quebrada Santa Cruz and climbs of a few peaks. They included my first 20,000 ft / 6000 m summit, Nevado Tocllaraju above the Quebrada Ishinca. It had been a great experience and now I was back for more.
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Getting to Huaraz is pretty simple. Start with a direct flight – in my case, from Toronto to Lima. (I avoid non-direct flights when I have all sorts of specialized gear in my duffel – and this time I had climbing harness, ice axe, helmet, crampons, and an extra pair of heavier leather mountaineering boots along. I figure a direct flight means one or two fewer chances for the baggage handlers to screw up.) The plane arrived in Lima around 1:00 a.m. My trekking partner and I ended up catching some sleep at the airport itself – camping out in a corner on the second floor along with a dozen or more other travellers.
When it got light we washed up, had some breakfast, and headed to the Cruz del Sur – or was it Movil? – bus depot by taxi to catch the 9:00 a.m. bus. (Click here for info on dependable bus companies in Peru.) By 4:00 we were in Huaraz, having driven along the dramatic Pacific coast road (the Pan-American highway) for 200 km and then up into the mountains and on to Huaraz for the final 200 km. Also on board had been two American trekkers from Colorado who would be joining us. There to greet us at the bus station were the Morales brothers, the owners of the company we had booked our trek with.
Huaraz is a lively town of about 50,000 which has become the #1 trekking and climbing center in South America, helped by the fact that it is smack dab in the middle of the biggest collection of 6000+ meter (19, 685 ft for the metrically-challenged) peaks outside of the Himalayas (22 according to the Lonely Planet count). If you recall that Denali is North America’s only 6000 m peak, you’ll get the picture! The Cordillera Blanca includes Alpamayo, considered the prettiest mountain in the world by some, and Peru’s highest peak, Huascaran Sur (6768m).
Huaraz is not a pretty town, having been devastated by an earthquake in 1970 that wiped out whole towns further north. (The town of Yungay was destroyed and 20,000 inhabitants died.) These days, Huaraz has everything a hiker and climber could want – an infrastructure of guides, arrieros, supplies. It also has some excellent local companies that put it all together at a very reasonable price.
The one I chose was Peruvian Andes Adventures, the same company I had used for my Quebrada Santa Cruz trek with a summit of Pisco three years previously. The company is owned and run by the Morales family from an office around the corner from the Morales Guesthouse where I began and ended this trip. See here for their current tripadvisor score!
Our guide would be Manuel Vargas, the younger brother of Cesar, who had been my guide for the 2007 adventure. Manuel would prove to be an excellent group leader. Amazingly enough, Cesar Henostrosa, the cocinero extraordinaire (and capable assistant guide) from 2007 would also be coming along again. I felt right at home!
To the south of Huaraz was my destination for this trek – the smaller and more isolated and less-visited Cordillera Huayhuash. (A quick pronunciation tip – it is pronounced Why-wash. And yes, you’ll know why at the end of your trek! )
Before setting off on the trek, we spent two days in Huaraz adapting to its 3000 m/10,000 ft. altitude. One day we did a hill walk above Huaraz and were rewarded with great views on a clear day. The other day we did the classic acclimatization hike – the one up to Laguna Churup. This was all very helpful and meant that the Diamox container could remain closed. Taking the time to let your body acclimatize is always the best approach.
Now it was time for the trek itself. The satellite image above shows you the mini-range of Huayhuash in the shape of a T; it is about 30 kilometers from one end to the other with six peaks over 6000 meters and a couple of dozen over 5000. It’s like walking in the Mount Everest region in Sagarmatha National Park but without the prayer flags!
Most of the 125-km long trek is on trails above 4000m and above the tree line so you have a very stark mountain scenery. It is obviously much more of a commitment than, let’s say, hiking in the Monte Fitz Roy area near El Chaltén in Argentina’s Patagonia; it is also more demanding physically than the eight-to-ten-day Torres del Paine Circuit in southern Chile.
However, the reward is even more stunning scenery – and nobody is there! It is not everyone’s cup of tea; but if, like me, you enjoy the idea of “leaving” civilization behind while donkeys carry your gear for a couple of weeks of wandering along incredible mountain trails then look no further! It also won’t hurt to have a bit of experience camping and hiking elsewhere although I am sure that newbie trekkers have done it and done it just fine.
Going over the day-by-day itinerary I could see that we would be sleeping over 4000m for all but the first night of the trip. What was also good to see was the built-in safety factor of walking high during the day and sleeping low that night. A quick look at altitudes listed on the day-by-day chart above will show that we almost always slept at a lower altitude than that day’s high point, which was usually a pass, but also included two summits. Most days involved five or six hours of walking; we were usually in the dining tent by 4:00 p.m. for tea and biscuits.
our approximate route is marked in black – do not use for actual trek! Peruvian Soul is an adventure travel company which offers a shorter trek in the Huayhuash. See here.
Until the early 2000’s when the road to Llamac was finished, the Huayhuash trek usually began 25 km further away from the large village of Chiquian. Our trek began with a ride to the new trail head at Llamac in a mini-bus with room for the seven clients, the two guides and cook and his assistant and a whole lot of tenting equipment and food. Our campsite was on the edge of the soccer field just across the river from the village itself. The World Cup was going on at the time and some of us went with the guide to a house in the village where we watched Holland defeat Uruguay 3-2!
At Llamac we met the arrieros (muleteers) and their burros, all ten of them. They would carry the bulk of our stuff for us; we would walk with day packs containing rain gear, cameras, and a water bottle. I cannot imagine doing this particular trek unsupported, weighed down by all the things you’d need to bring. Maybe that is one advantage of being 23 instead of 62 – you would just go ahead and do the trek by yourself anyway!
The walk from Llamac to Quartelhuain is along a gravel mining road. It makes for a good easy first day – and I’m sure it gives the arrieros time to make adjustments before the trek begins in earnest. Some trekking groups (e.g. the Exodus crew) just drive right to the Quartelhuain camping area and set up their first camp there.
On our third morning out, we came to Paso Canacon, our first pass. Flying overhead as we took in the grand view at the top was a condor. It made everything feel just perfect.
From our campamento on the east end of Laguna Carhuacocha we had a superb view of the heart of the Huayhuash range. In the photo above (and the one below), we see (from l to r) Siula Grande (6344 m) , Yerupaja (Peru’s second highest at 6617m), El Toro, Jirishanca (6126m) and (I think) Jirishanca Chico. Quite the starting line-up for any league!
Most trail maps show two ways of getting to the Carnicero camp site from Laguna Carhuacocha – a more moderate route that involves heading a bit east from the Laguna and then gradually up and over to the camp site or a tougher route over a higher pass (Siula). I am glad we got to experience the truly stunning views that the second option provides. The arrieros did take their animals the easier way and the camp was all set up when we got there – including tea in the dining tent. Being on an organized trek has its benefits!
At the hot springs in the early afternoon of Day 7 we got our first real full-body shower/wash of the trip. Otherwise, in true Nepalese trekking style, bowls of hot water were placed before our tent doors first thing every morning. I did go through the basic cleaning ritual but I’ll admit I was more interested in the cup of hot tea that came shortly afterward.
The two days we spent at the top of the Calinca Valley were a major bonus; most groups do not include this side trek as a part of the package. We got to the ridge above Laguna Jarau for lunch and then spent a couple of hours making our way to the camp at the top of the Quebrada Calinca. We used the two days there to do laundry and relax – but the real attraction was a pilgrimage up to Laguna Sarapococha to see first hand the setting of Joe Simpson’s epic tale of human survival as told in the mountaineering classic Touching The Void.
Simpson and his partner Simon Yates were two British climbers who came up to this area in 1985 to tackle the last major unclimbed objective in the range. This was the West face of Siula Grande, whose peak is lost in the clouds in the picture above. They did succeed in their attempt – but as they say, “When you get to the top, you’re only half-way there!” It is the story of how they – and in particular Joe, since the book is his first-person narrative – got back down that makes it one of the must-read books.
I had purchased a copy of the book in Nepal a few years previously. By this point in the trip I had read it a second time to refresh my memory on some of the details. During the two weeks that we were on trek almost everyone borrowed the book for a couple of days – with all agreeing it was one compelling read.
A bonus of this particular version of the trek was the option of trying to summit Pumarinri and Diablo Mudo, two non-technical peaks. While they still required our respect, as well as experience in handling rope and ice axe while moving up, they were in the PD range of difficulty – that is, un peu difficile, but not overly. They were fun to do and certainly provided us with lots of great shots. (If you’re wondering just where those supposedly great shots are, please see the very end of this post for the explanation.)
Day 13 was a big day, beginning with a 4:00 a.m. breakfast, the just after dawn approach to Diablo Mudo. After sitting on the top for a while and enjoying the views, we made our way to the camping area at Laguna Jahuacocha. For the first time we were not the only party with our tents set up; there were perhaps four other groups there.
On our second day at Jahuacocha some in our group walked up to Sambuya Pass and looked down the other side to see where we had walked up from Llamac about two weeks previously. I contented myself with a lazy day and a walk up towards the top of Laguna Solteracocha. An image below shows how far I got.
The best map available (2004, the second edition of a 1:50000 scale Cordillera Huayhuash) is one that Brad Johnson’s Peaks and Places Publishing put out. Unfortunately, it is no longer available from the publisher (see the notice here), but I did see a few copies at the Cafe Andino when I was there. I think it was going for $25. Unless you are planning on doing the circuit on your own (i.e. unsupported by arrieros and burros), it is something you might pass on. You’ll be with locals who have done the circuit often! Then again, you could just get the map and benefit from all the detail it provides.
Other than trip reports and images posted on the net, there isn’t a lot of information on Huayhuash. I did buy Climbs and Treks in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru (2006) by Jeremy Frimer from High Col Press. You can see a preview copy here. It was overkill, given we were just trekking – but I do get a bit obsessive about these things.
If the Cordillera Huayhuash sounds like a space in which you’d like to spend a couple of weeks as a part of an organized group, then check out these adventure travel companies for typical itineraries that will give you an idea of what is involved –
Exodus U.K. is a reliable British adventure travel company – their Huayhuash Circuit can be accessed here. It isn’t cheap at about $2800. U.S. but you can count on them being well-organized and providing excellent service. See below for a cheaper but just as good Huaraz option – the one I chose.
Brad Johnson’s book on the Cordillera Blanca – complete with excellent 3D renditions of the various valleys leading up to the various peaks – is now a part of my library. Johnson also has a trekking/climbing company called Peaks and Places. A Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit is one of the trips offered; prices are fairly close to those of Exodus. Click here to see the trip details.
I did the trek with Peruvian Andes Adventures, a company owned and run by the Morales family out of Huaraz. Initially there were just two of us slated to do the trip – at about $2200. each. Luckily for us, six more people had joined by the time we left for Llamac, including two Brits who signed up the day before! The trip price per person tumbled down to $1350.! The Peruvian Andes trip info can be found here. If you want to see how trip advisor contributors have rated, check out this summary here.
(The prices are from 2010. They will definitely be higher in 2017 – but they will be fair! Of all your trekking options in South America, Huaraz represents the best value. However, it is not Nepal so if is really cheap you want then head for the Annapurna Circuit.)
There are other Peruvian adventure travel companies that get good reviews for the trips they put together. A website named Andeantravelweb lists a number of them. Inexplicably, there is no mention of Peruvian Andes Adventure! One agency that I looked at briefly, Explorandes, offered something it called the Huayhuash Range Trek, a seven-day package with about five spent in the Huayhuash. Update: in January 2017 the above link is dead. The Explorandes site now has a nine-day Best of Huayhuash of which five days are spent in the Huayhuash region. No price is listed; it will obviously depend on how many trekkers the trip attracts.
Curious to get a better sense of the Explorandes offering I took the itinerary and mapped out the actual route. It looks like this:
In the map above the thin broken black line is the route we took on our walk around Huayhuash.
N.B. The first three days of the Explorandes trip are spent on acclimatization trips out of Huaraz. I will admit I am puzzled by the day spent driving north to the Llanganuco Lakes. It is four hours there and back and while the lakes are pretty you’d be better served doing some walking in the hills above Huaraz or up to Lago Charup and then coming back down in the afternoon to your hostal. Day 4 is spent driving to the trailhead at Queropalca. The trek begins on the morning of Day 5.
In the end, you’ll have to consider the various itineraries and the trip length and decide which one fits in best with your budget, time frame, and interests. Not all trips billed as “Huayhuash Circuit” are equal! As I mentioned before, our trek itinerary included route choices that other trekking companies often do not have:
- the high route to Laguna Carcinero from Laguna Carhuacocha on Day 6;
- the chance to summit two non-technical peaks (Pumarinri and Diablo Mudo);
- and taking the side trail over Paso Cerro Antonio to the top of the Quebrada Calinca where we spent two nights and had a chance to walk up to Laguna Sarapococha on a “rest” day.
Final note– It shouldn’t have happened but I have lost my all 600+ raw image files of my Huayhuash trip! I had a computer crash before I had saved them to an external hard drive backup. Unfortunately, I had already deleted them from the camera memory card.
I stitched this post together from emails I had sent to people with image attachments, as well as a few pix I had posted at Flickr or put in my desktop picture folder. Nothing like lugging a 3-pound DSLR around for three weeks and then having to accept the motley collection of 269 kb picture files I have used here. I am sure there is a message in there somewhere. Maybe it is this – You need to go back to the Huayhuash right now and get those pictures!
I’ll see you on the trail…
Let me know if you’ve done the circuit more recently than 2010 and what it is like. If you send me the link to your photos, I will put it right here so readers can see the trail as it is in 2017.