Peruvian Adventure – Huaraz and the Huayhuash Circuit

A few months back, our friends the Swans decided they were going to move to Peru for a while after sailing their boat half way around the globe. Peru had been at the top of our list of countries to visit and we couldn’t think of a better reason to finally travel there.

Unfortunately, Josh had no vacation time left this year. We tried figuring out every loop hole possible to make this trip happen with no luck, but we knew we had to go. This was going to be a once in a lifetime trip with our friends, so we risked it all and Josh QUIT his job!

At this point we were ready for a change, we have been married just over three years, with Josh being offshore and away from home for almost two. He had already tried switching positions onshore with no luck and we saw our relationship suffering. We decided our marriage and this experience was worth risking his career, losing our health insurance, 401K and the stability of our finances.

We are CRAZY! We know. We’ve only been told that about 1000 times this last month.

Sometimes, when you know something is right, you just have to push through all logic and reasoning, the “what if’s?”, and the “you’re crazy!’s” because it’s WORTH IT!

While road tripping up to Mount Whitney for a weekend of climbing, we had plenty of time on the road to talk about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and decided it was time to bite the bullet and buy our tickets! In no time flat, my lightning fast fingers punched in the details on my almighty smart phone. Passport number, airport codes, address and credit card number…

$1450 later we official had our trip to Peru on the books!

Three days later as we drove out of the Whitney Portal and back to cell reception, I received an email stating I had booked one of the largest jobs of my career! Exactly in the middle of our trip to Peru…..

And so began the war with the airlines. Four hours, seven holds, three employees, a manager and multiple personalities later, I lost the war. Those money hungry bastards have no sympathy. I tried sweet Rachel, ditzy Rachel, angry Rachel, I asked for sympathy, grace and then began swearing vengeance, to no avail.

If we wanted to go to Peru, we had to switch the dates. I could not pass up the job, especially with Josh quitting his. Sooooo, another $800 later Peru was officially on the books again, only a few weeks later.

Soon enough we were driving to the airport and ready to hop on a plane for a month long adventure around Peru. Seventeen hours later we landed in Lima, grabbed our bags and hopped in a taxi to our friends place in Miraflores.

We had just enough time to completely unpack, sort gear and repack for our Andean backpacking portion of the trip. We had way more gear than we normally travel with, because not only were we going to be backpacking up to 17,000 ft this trip, but we would also later be exploring desert ruins and sleeping in hammocks on a cargo ship heading down the Amazon River in 95 degree heat and 85 percent humidity. We literally had gear for every climate.

Our bags were finally repacked with just enough time to get to the bus station for another six hours of transportation.

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Ride with a view.

Upon arriving to Huaraz we were exhausted and couldn’t wait to find a hostel. We found a little Israeli run place on a side street and booked a room with four twin beds for the night, We threw down our bags and passed out.

In the morning we rose early to try to square away a guide for our eight day backpacking trip to the Cordillera Huayhuash. To our surprise we didn’t have to go any further than downstairs. The man at the front desk said he could have a guide, provisions and donkeys ready to go for us the following morning at a price that couldn’t be beat. The trek would cost us each less than $300 dollars for the eight day trek, including the five hour transportation to and from the trail head, three meals a days, snacks, tents, the village protection fees, our guide, four donkeys and a porter.

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A map of the eight day Cordillera Huayhuash circuit.

We could have done it on our own but with limited gear, time and knowledge of the area we decided the $300 was a steal to have our heavy packs carried, food cooked and camp set up for us.

With the details of the trek worked out so quickly and plans to start the following morning we decided we needed to get better acclimated. Huaraz sits at 10,000ft and although that’s a huge jump from sea level, we still needed to get higher, since the first night of our trek we’d be sleeping at 14,000.
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We found a taxi to drive us the 17 miles east of Huaraz to the trail head up a dirt road for the trek to Lake Churup (14,600ft). The hike was a challenge and it felt hard to breath. We hiked slowly, realizing we were trying to acclimate probably faster than we should. After three hours of hiking we reached the lake and were rewarded with beautiful panoramic views. We ate lunch and decided to head back when it started to rain. Luckily no one showed any signs of altitude sickness.

We couldn’t believe it, only two days in Peru and we were higher than we’d ever been before, 14,600ft, and we were feeling great! We just hoped we’d feel as good on our upcoming trek.

Back in Huaraz we weaned down our gear as light as we could and packed our bags for our early morning departure. Feeling accomplished we decided to celebrate with a big dinner at a Mexican restaurant down the street. We gorged ourselves on fajitas and burritos, not knowing how much food we’d be served on our trek.

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Bad idea! Back at the hostel we soon discovered our toilet was on strike. It refused to flush, AFTER Mexican food…. Four people, in one room, with one bathroom, after gorging on mexican food. Just be glad you weren’t there!

Luckily our friendship never had an awkwardness stage, in those situations we skip embarrassment and head straight to laughter. We didn’t need to be embarrassed of a little poo, after all we were sailors, adventurers, and humans beings. Our bodily functions were no longer things to pretend didn’t happen but opportunities to laugh until our stomachs hurt even more.

Unfortunately the lady downstairs didn’t think it was funny. She marched into our room and began accusing us of putting paper down the toilet before heading in to the baño to wage war against the toilet. We knew better, we knew not to put paper in the pot. We had already been told countless times upon entering the country, “POR FAVOR NO ARROJAR PAPELES AL INODORO!”. It wasn’t our first rodeo abroad and we knew the septic systems couldn’t handle toilet paper.

She went in, wielding a heavily worn plunger, shut the door, and then I’m not sure what happened next. There was a lot of splashing and cursing in spanish. We tried to contain our laughter so she wouldn’t hear. Thirty minutes later she emerged from behind the door, wiped her forehead and exclaimed, “Esta quebrado!” It was broken. For the rest of the night we’d have to use the communal bathroom that had no working lightbulbs.

We laughed until it was time to sleep. Just as we turned off the lights a congregation of Israli travelers decided to rally in front of our door. We had to be up at 5am for our trek and we were in no mood to listen to the party going on outside our door. Seriously, whats the fun of eavesdropping if you can’t understand what’s being said?

We were all tucked into bed and no one wanted to get up and ask them to kindly leave. Somehow we guilted Josh into doing it, since after all he’s the “nice” one. He hopped off the top bunk, stuck his head out the door, and we waited to hear what he was going to say in lieu of the language barrier.

Silence…… then I’m assuming long awkward stare, followed by an exaggerated “SSSSsssssHHHHHHhhhhh!!!!”.

Well that did it! They shortly walked away and continued their rowdiness elsewhere.

IMG_10525am came soon enough and we met our guide Julio, who seemed quiet and reserved. We were then loaded into a van and driven 5 hours to the beginning of our trek. Well almost to the beginning of our trek. Of course, as our luck would have it, another hiccup.

A flat tire 30 minutes away from our starting point. Luckily they had a spare tire, but no jack… After situating a few rocks and some heaving and hoeing, they got the spare on and we continued on our way.

When we finally reached our starting point, we unloaded and set up camp at a place called Matacancha (14,000ft). We’d sleep there to acclimate for our first big pass we had to climb the next morning.

Camp was stunning! One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Already on our first night my breath was taken away.

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Julio, our guide, pointing to the pass we’d climb the next day and Josh laughing in disbelief.

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I can remember thinking, “I can’t wait to get up to the mountains and get out of the pollution of the cities. I can’t wait for fresh mountain air!”

WRONG.

Cow sh*t, everywhere! Sheep sh!t, everywhere!

I thought, “Well hopefully it’s just tonight we’re surrounded by stink, filtering water that cows are peeing in, and washing dishes in water that sheep are pooping in.”

IMG_9340WRONG AGAIN! Everyday and every night, the smell of poo lingered in the air. In the valleys and on the highest ridges, sh$t EVERYWHERE! We couldn’t escape it.

It makes sense, the locals who live in these remote areas make their living from their cattle and sheep. Add in the hundreds of tourists that come in every year to backpack with donkeys to carry their gear, and you have a ton of poop. After the first day we stopped trying not to step on it. It was impossible. So we succumbed to the inevitable and shuffled our feet through mounds of cow, sheep and donkey sh%t for eight days!

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After setting up camp we had a few hours before dark to explore the valley. We walked up along the base of the trail of the looming pass to meet a local woman and her herd of sheep.

She also had a puppy named Bobby who had a strange affection for my legs. The whole twenty minutes we spent trying to communicate with this woman, her dog uncontrollably humped my leg.

Finally I was able to kick him off and escape back to camp, only to find him waiting for me outside the tent the following morning. Not only did I wake up to Bobby’s pining, but I woke up to one of the worst headaches of my life. My stomach turned and I was nauseous. I went to the cooking tent for breakfast but couldn’t even look at the food. I went out and became sick. There was no way I was going to be able to eat breakfast let alone climb the steep pass and the 10 miles to our next camp.

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Rain clouds gathering above a neighboring camp.

I returned to the tent and gestured to Julio that I was sick. The altitude finally hit me and I didn’t know what to do. The last think I wanted was to hold up everyone for another day while I acclimated.

While I sat with my head in my hands, crippled over on my knees, Julio prepared a pot of mate de coca and handed me a glass. Five cups of coca tea later, the nausea went away and my headache subsided. By the time we got camp packed up and our gear together I was ready to take on the pass! Or so I thought.

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Donkey train reaching the top of the Cacananpunta Pass. (15400ft)
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Melissa Capturing the view as we defend the backside of the pass into the valley below.

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IMG_9580As beautiful as the hike was, it’s hard to remember that first day. It was a struggle and we all suffered from the altitude. Luckily we have pictures to look back on.

“I almost died. Like I might have died a little. Rachel and I both had to ride a horse for bit today. After the first pass my head was pounding and I could barely walk. We made it to camp at 3pm and it was all I could do to climb into the tent and sleep.” – Josh’s journal entry for the day.

Josh and I both suffered pretty bad that day from the altitude, while the Swans looked like they were out for an afternoon stroll.

That night it was apparent Josh was not only affected by the altitude but was also suffering from Giardia. He had a horrible night and in the morning he decided he was unable to physically continue the circuit on foot, and would be riding a horse with the donkeys along an easier route to camp.

Poor guy. I’m not sure which option was worse, hiking six hours over two passes with explosive diarrhea, or trotting horseback for three hours with explosive diarrhea…. Neither option sounded good but his body wouldn’t let him do the first.

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Photo by Ryan.

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Julio leading the way.
Julio leading the way.

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Reflections
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Cotton candy skies.
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Donkys approaching the top of the Portachuelo de Huayhuash Pass, 15,700ft.

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Over the next few days, Josh regained his strength little by little and was able to finish the circuit on foot, even though he continued to suffer stomach problems.

As the miles passed and the landscape changed, it was hard to take in all the beauty. Wild horses, waterfalls, green valleys, and glaciers. The landscapes are seared into the backdrop of my mind and I hope they will never fade.

 

 

 

 

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Approaching Lake Viconga.
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Somewhere near Mordor.
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It was dry season and all the lakes and rivers were running very low.

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Viconga hot springs.

 

 

Halfway through the trek we camped at some hot springs in the valley. It was magnificent! A hot bath after four nights of freezing our butts off and regularly sweating and refreezing while hiking, was AMAZING!

There were three separate pools. One small, excruciatingly hot pool for bathing, and two large hot pools for lounging in. If I could have slept in there without my skin falling off I would have. Sitting in those hot springs was one of the highlights of the trip.

 

 

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Typical dinner prepared by Julio.

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Julio has been a guide for over ten years and this was his eighth trip to the Cordillera Huayhuash this year. Not only was Julio our guide but he was our chef! He went to culinary school and takes great pride in his cooking. He fed us a feast every night, starting with a hot soup followed and by a main course loaded with veggies. We went to bed every night with fully bellies!

 

 

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Kiss asses.

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Portachuelo Pass, 15,600ft.
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San Antonio Pass, 16,500ft. The hardest and highest pass of our trek.

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Beginning our descent of the San Antonio Pass, 16,500ft.

Day five was the longest day of our trek. We hiked 15 miles and over two passes, one being the highest of our trip at 17,000 ft. We climbed over 5000 ft that day and descended over 6500 ft. It was one of the most physically and mentally challenging days of my life. By the end of the day my legs were barely holding me up, a few of my toenails had turned black and blue, and my head was pounding from the altitude and dehydration.

img_2125-2In the morning the effects of the altitude really hit us. I woke up with an unusual sensation, my face felt slightly numb and puffy. My lips hurt and felt extremely swollen. I woke Josh to look at my face and his reaction immediately told me I looked different. I took this photo to see for myself. My lips were twice their normal size and my face was puffy. I had a mild headache and breathing felt hard as it did the day before while hiking.

Once up and out of the tent we found Ryan also had some facial swelling near his eye and Melissa’s lips were slightly swollen as well. Julio prescribed more coca tea and said we’d be fine. Looking back now I realize we had minor pulmonary edema and probably should have stayed where we were for another day.

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Making our way to Lake Jahuacocha and our final camp of the trek.

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The next three days we soaked up all the colors and textures the Andes had to offer. We watched the condors soar above and below us, the boys explored glacier cravaces and swam in the freezing rivers. We watched the super moon rise and woke up at 4am to see more stars than we’ve ever seen before.

As John Muir once wrote, “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.”

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Andean condor. Photo by Ryan.
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Photo by Ryan.

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Camping under the super moon at Lake Jahuacocha, 13,500ft.
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4am start for our last day of trekking.

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Eight days later we had hiked over 75 miles. Our bodies were tired but we were exhilarated by what we had accomplished. To see more of our adventure in the Cordillera Huayhuash, watch the video in the post below.

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Julio preparing a steak dinner.

 

 

For anyone wanting to travel to Peru and looking for a guide in the Huaraz area, we highly recommend Julio. Contact him for more information at Juliotadeo@yahoo.com.

Thanks again to FLIR for an awesome camera to capture and record our travels. Stay tuned for our upcoming video from our cruise up the Amazon River. Check out their FLIR FX camera for your next adventure!