Surviving the hike: Eight days in Huayhuash, Peru


Nilton informed us not to give candy to kids along the path, because it was a bad habit for the kids to learn. I said no problem; I would not want any kids to lose their integrity and cultural dignity. Nilton especially mentioned that now that we are in the Lima province, children tend to do this more so than any of the other provinces. We descended from the pass to find ourselves looking down upon a huge blue lake. There was a small house to our left where I saw a small child approaching us. And to my amazement, when the child was close enough to me, he asked for chocolate or candy. I simply relied, “tienes que trabajar por tu chocolate,” you need to work for your chocolate. I was astonished that in the middle of nowhere, I confronted a city style attitude.

As soon as we passed a small ridge to our left, like a peninsula, we could see a huge snowcapped mountain; Leon Huacanan (Kuajadajanka) or the colloquial name of Leon Dormido, which made up part of Rauro Range in the Lima province. We made it to a ridge were we could eat and appreciate the view. I personally found the view to be one of my favorites. I loved the solitariness of immense Viconga Lake at the foot of a massive white mountain.

Leon Dormido. (Photos by Maarten Warnaars

But we moved on in order to beat the other trekking groups to the thermal baths down the other ridge. Our guide told us that on the fourth day of our journey we could wash and relax at the thermal bath at Viconga. We quickly made it to our campsite, where Elmer, as usual, already set up camp before we arrived. We put on our bathing suits, grabbed our towels and headed to the baths.

This was a great opportunity to wash ourselves and we took it immediately. We had to soap and wash ourselves outside of the pools, for hygienic reasons, but it was magnificent to be clean after four days. We finally sat in the larger pool to rest and let the hot mountain spring water relax our muscles. It felt as if our bodies were melting, dissolving our muscular pain. My neck pain went away and I felt great. We were then accompanied by an Aussie, a Belgium, a Canadian and a Brit. The conversation was fun with little anecdotes of the trip, especially uncomfortable tent sleeping, such as snoring and bodily gas.

That evening we discussed with our guide what we would do the next day. He presented us with several hiking options, which all included going up San Antonio pass, where we could appreciate the view of Huayhuash from a different perspective. We decided for a more conservative approach. We would camp in front of San Antonio pass, hike the pass and return to camp the same day instead of camping on the other side of the pass that required more hours of hiking. We then played cards in the cooking tent with our guide and ariero before going to sleep.

Day Five
That night I slept terribly; I tossed and turned, felt the cold come up from beneath my body and as a result of the cold I used my pillow, or my polar vest, as an extra blanket underneath me to stop the cold from penetrating into my sleeping bag. With no pillow my neck suffered gain and unfortunately for me, the fifth day would be the day I needed all my strength in order to go up the two passes. After a strange breakfast of heated Gloria yogurt with corn flakes and tea, we headed up toward Cuyac pass (4,900 meters).

At the top of the pass, my right shoulder and neck was screaming in pain. It must have been my poor excuse for a pillow. The pain would shoot up from my neck to the back of my head and even to my forehead. This prohibited me to appreciate well the view, so just took a picture. There was a snowcapped mountain right in front of my face, but I could not stare with amazing. I grabbed a large wad of coca leaves and stuffed them in my mouth, hoping they would give me some energy. My friend massaged my neck and shoulders to alleviate some of the pain so we could continue down the mountain and reach San Antonio pass. I looked down the rock faced trail, accumulated all my energy and literally ran down the mountain, jumping in ski like motion from rock to rock, ignoring any pain I had. I made it all the way down to an open pasture so fast that I had about 20 minutes to rest and wait for Roberto and Nilton. I heard an avalanche nearby but took no interest. I lied on the grand trying to stretch my neck but that did not help. The others arrived and we headed down to the valley floor. We continued together into the valley where our campsite (Huanacpatay) was, however our guide said there was no time to go to camp and rest, because we will need all the time of day to go up San Antonio pass. I was mortified, I was hoping for another rest and take a pain-relief pill that the airero has in order to stop the pain, but he disagreed.

We passed the valley and headed up a pebble-faced incline toward San Antonio pass. I literally walked up by making baby steps, unsure that I could make it. Nilton convinced me to leave my rucksack and continue, because the view was worth it. He told me that I will remember this pass for the rest of my life after struggling to get up it. After a time that seemed an eternity I joined Roberto at 5,100 meters at San Antonio pass. Nilton was not lying; the view was really worth it.

After reaching the pass I was filled with energy, all my fatigue and pain disappeared. I absorbed the view and collected new energy. In a short while we all headed down the mountain to our campsite. Again I ran down the mountain, picking up my rucksack and looking at the valley below. We ran into the group of 12 Israelis just starting the climb and thought it was a bit late to head up. (The next day we learnt that some of them made it to the top and then made it to their campsite after dark.) At our campsite we threw ourselves on the grass trying to relax our bodies. We ate and walked around the valley to help our digestion before going to sleep. We would need all our energy again for the next day would be the longest hiking day we would have. We played cards again and drank tea before going to bed.

Day Six
As usual we woke up at around 5 a.m. on our sixth day, waiting for time to pass and the temperature to warm before finally getting out of the tent at 6 a.m. We ate our breakfast of omelet, tea and bread and headed down into a large open valley. The walk was soft and pleasant. The valley was almost flat, covered with soft rug-like grass and some sheep farmers. We reached a river and followed it, passing many farm lands.

Plaza de Armas of Huayallapa
Ruins, or maybe ruined homes, along the trail.

We were making good time and decided to eat in the small village ahead, Huayallapa. We reached the doors of the town and payed 35 soles to the community collector, who informed us which national soccer teams had made it to the World Cup finals. We entered the village and walked through its narrow dirt roads looking for a little restaurant or somewhere to eat. We were convinced that it would be too time-consuming to ask someone to cook for us, because there were no restaurants in the village, so we entered a bodega, bought Inca Kolas and ate our packed lunch.

We continued our journey. Passing above the valley we found what seemed like ruins. Not too far away we saw another area that was similar to the ruins but the rock wall formations had a thatch roof. I came to the conclusion that the previous rock formations were not ruins but an abandoned house and that these style of houses has not changed since the times of the Inca empire. We finally arrived at the camp site on the banks of a dried mountain lake near Tapush pass at 4:30, ending a nine and a half hour day of trekking. We were literally exhausted, but the cold forced me put on all my clothes on to be able sleep, making it unbearable to be comfortable to sleep.

Day Seven
I woke up early; I could sleep no longer, and walked around in the cold waiting for the others to wake. Eventually 6 a.m. rolled around and I was no longer alone. We ate breakfast and headed to Tapush pass at 4,750 meters. We reached the pass in 20 minutes and were welcomed by Sasacocha Lake on the other side. Nilton told us that there was cell phone signal; I turned on my phone in hope that I could call my wife and let her know things are fine, but Claro’s cobertura nacional seems to be a false advertisement gag, because our guide was able to call his girlfriend using his Telefonica phone.

A hut along the trail.

At the next check point, a kind elderly man greeted us and charged us the usual 15 soles. From his little thatched roofed house the trail began to rise. I was exhausted; the long day hike before and the lack of a good night sleep caught up with me. My shoulder pain and head pain returned and I needed to rest. Roberto went ahead while I found a nice little place to lie down for 20 minutes.

The rest helped me accumulate some energy. I looked at the trail and where the 4,800 meter pass was. I did not want to take the long route, so I told Nilton, let’s go straight up. He agreed. I shoved a large wad of coca leaves in my mouth and headed up. I finally made it up to Yaucha pass looking at the awesome view, regardless clouds covering some of the peaks, the first time during out trek.

View from Yaucha Pass.

After some pictures I headed down the ridge of Huacrish (4750 meters). Roberto and I walked gently down the mountain, finding pockets of hay and sliding down them. We slid down the mountain until there was no more hay and we eventually found the trail near the bottom of the mountain close to the valley floor. As we descended we could appreciate better the two lakes (Jahuacocha and Solteracocha) that were in front of the snow capped mountain of Rondoy (5,670 m), Jirishanca (6094 m) and Yerupaja Chico (6,089 m).

Our plan to get to the campsite early that day and wash out clothes, especially underwear, but upon arriving there was no sun and it was already late afternoon. We decided it was imperative to wash, so we ended up hanging up wet clothes by the cooking tent in hope that the wind could dry them, and later hang them in the cooking tent. We ate our last meal of mash potatoes, tuna and rice in the tent with glee. We played cards for the third night in a row with Nilton and Elmer, laughing and passing the cold night with good company.

Day Eight
That night, while asleep, I could hear several avalanches from the glacier, hoping that no big avalanche occurred that would sweep the entire camp site away. I woke up an hour later to find my ears listening to the sounds of fallen rain on the tent. It was soothing; much better that the distant dogs barking the two nights before. For the next four hours I was unable to properly sleep. I was hoping that 6 a.m. would come soon so I could get up and get ready. We had to leave a little bit early in order to get to Llamac before 11:30 in order to catch the only bus back to Huaraz. There were many other trekking groups at the site, some leaving to Llamac in the morning like us and others staying to rest and continue their longer journey. So it was important we got the bus on time to make sure there were enough seats for us.

A quinal tree, native to the Andes.

Our last day of hiking, I fully appreciated the quinal trees. These short trees are majestic creatures of the high Andes — it was marvelous to see indigenous forest in the Andes, since you often see imported Eucalyptus trees. We made it around the mountain and descended finally down to the village. We were greeted by some children eager to know what country we were from. And like many other local people on our eight night hike, were surprised that one of us, Roberto, was actually Peruvian. Apparently Peruvians don’t usually hike the Huayhaush trek. We arrived well in time for the bus, allowing us to buy Inca Kola and bid farewell to Elmer and his donkey’s Campeon and Zoro. We jumped on the bus exhausted but content with our 8 day hiking adventure, the spectacular mountain views, the fresh mountain air, and the sense of tranquility, peace and having nature surround us.

When we arrived in Huaraz, we quickly took a taxi to the Monterry thermal baths. Unfortunately for us, they were closed. Our bodies were a aching for hot relaxing water and our skin was desperate for a wash. To our luck, the taxi driver knew of a small sauna back in Huaraz. For 10 soles a piece we were able to shower and sit in a eucalyptus sauna for one hour. I could feel all the tension leave my muscles and all the sweat and dirt drain off my body, leaving a nice clean feeling all over. After a glass of wine accompanied by rich dinner, we were physically ready for the eight hour bus ride back to Lima.