Trekking the Cordillera Huayhuash

Overview

The Cordillera Huayhuash, a comparatively small mountain range measuring at just under 20 miles (30km) in length, has some superb high altitude trekking. The trails wander from valley to valley over mountain passes of up to 16,400 feet (5000m), rarely dipping below 13k feet (4000m).

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Huaraz, a town of about 100k nine hours north of Lima, is the trekking hub for the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash. The former lies to the north of Huaraz, and the latter to the southeast. Both mountain ranges have trailheads easily accessible by public transit from Huaraz.

Organizing

The full Huayhuash Circuit tends to take 10 to 14 days, and the vast majority of hikers hire locals with mules to carry their belongings, cook, and do all other camp related chores. They hike with light packs, often starting around 8am and finishing by 2pm with one pass a day. I saw no other independent trekkers during my six days on the trail, but I found the ordeal pretty easy to arrange on my own. I carried all my belongings and managed two passes a day, finishing an extended route in 6 days.

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The first 7.5 miles (12km) are along a road.

Safety

The Huayhuash used to be home to an outpost of the Shining Path, a communist terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of almost 70,000 people. It was largely eradicated by President Alberto Fujimori in the 90s. Up through the 80s hikers were ransomed by the Shining Path, and you can visit their old camp near the trail (I didn’t realize I was so close to the guerilla outpost until afterwards, or else I would’ve gone to visit if feasible). In the early 2000s multiple hikers were murdered in robbery attempts on trail, which prompted the government to close the area for a few years. Nowadays the locals charge small amounts of money to cross their valleys as a form of “protection fee,” and the area is very safe. I ended up paying about $45 over the entire trip in these fees and had no issues whatsoever.

Trekking

The hotel owner thought I was totally insane for trying to do the hike in fewer than 14 days, especially without mules carrying all my stuff. “You know, you should really consider taking a raincoat with you,” he admonished. Did he really think I wouldn’t take a raincoat on a 6 day hike?! As I do with most people in life I just smiled, nodded, and ignored him.

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Two hikers in the distance heading along the road towards the trail.

He insisted on accompanying me to the main road to help me hail a taxi to take me to the terminal for my 5am bus. The taxis in Latin America are known for ripping off gringos so this was fine by me, and he negotiated the lofty sum of $1.25 for the 12 minute ride. Huaraz, where I based myself, has an abundance of tuk tuks and taxis roaming the streets and honking at anything that moves in the hopes of getting customers. The only other time I bought a ride across town, which took all of 10 minutes, the driver quoted an opening price of less than a dollar. So I just took him on it (though in bigger cities I use uber or its Latin American equivalent; way safer and cheaper than anything I could get with pale skin and green eyes).

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The entrance to the hike passes along mining areas, where employees seemed shocked that my pack weighed less than 25kg/50lbs (my pack with a full complement of food and water weighs around 20 pounds/9kg maximum). This sign is boasting that they’ve been 0 days without an accident, and have only had 85 incapacitating accidents.

The bus took two hours to reach Chiquian, where we stopped for an hour before continuing another 2.5 hours to the village of Pocpa. The whole trip cost about $9, and there were four Germans and one other American on board along with tons of villagers. Two of the Germans immediately lit up cigarettes upon disembarking at the end of the ride, which was a bit impressive considering we were already at around 13k feet (4000m). They ended up hitching a ride and skipping the first part of the hike, whereupon they set up camp at 2pm. I would get so bored spending 18 hours a day in camp, which seemed to be the norm for everyone else.

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I get a lot of flak from Europeans for wearing shoes instead of boots, but I haven’t had blisters in 2 years. Plus they dry out in 10 minutes in the sun if they get wet.

 

Rather than camp where the road curves away and the trail begins, I opted to head over the first pass and take a detour off trail. The other American on the bus was going to do the same detour and I found him pretty obnoxious, constantly bragging about how little he pays locals on his trip through South America, and to avoid spending the next week with him I went back to the official route.

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Taking a breakfast break in the morning as I head up to the second pass.

There are official campgrounds you’re supposed to stay in rather than wild camp, but this wasn’t enforced (partially because there’s hardly anybody out there). I got to the Mitucocha “campground” at dark and found it to just be a fenced area that was locked. The idea of being locked in a pen didn’t appeal to me, so I just camped a few minutes’ walk away. I spent every other night in the official campgrounds, largely because they had flush toilets, but only saw others one night.

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It would often be sunny in the morning and cloud up over the day.

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I had to take a lot of rest stops when climbing up to the passes.

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Looking back down the valley on my slow but steady way up the pass.

The second night, at Huayhuash Camp, I was surprised to find almost a couple dozen hikers after seeing very few people all day. I have a theory that the locals assign the village idiot to man the camps and collect the fees, which seemed to be confirmed by the Huayhuash attendant.

“There are lots of bad people around here. But don’t worry, I’ve got my rifle and if they come and try to take your shoes I’ll just-” he then mimicked holding a rifle and shooting people in the hills for much longer than was necessary to prove his point. Not that I was concerned somebody was going to steal my filthy shoes.

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Cooking my ramen noodles in Huayhuash camp.

“And I’ll lock the gate at night so nobody can get in,” he added. He must’ve noticed my disbelieving look, since he changed the topic pretty quickly. I wasn’t sure a gate, standing in the middle of a field with large openings on either side and a fence that just stopped after a few meters, would keep anyone out.

“Oh, you’re 26? I’m 30!” I would’ve guessed closer to 50, but I was hoping that if I gave monosyllabic answers he’d just leave me alone. After a few minutes it worked.

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Lake Viconga. The Shining Path camp is really close to here. I took a break on the ridge and was unfortunately joined by the local fee collectors, who asked me three times over the course of an hour how many people were behind me. If they asked for a fourth time I was going to say 7.5 people would arrive at precisely 12:42pm, but they seemed to take the hint when I ignored them after repeatedly saying I still didn’t know. The guides of the hiking groups were pretty cool and I enjoyed talking to them, especially when they trash talked their clients.

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The view from my tent the third night. A fox walked right in front of here shortly after I took this photo.

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A view from a pass on the third day.

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The clouds looked ominous so I hurried down the pass, hoping not to get caught in a storm at high elevation with no shelter.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I was heading up the wrong valley.

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Still in the wrong valley, but it was pretty. I spent half a day there and retracing my route, after which I headed straight to the village of Huayllapa through a storm. At the village’s only store I talked to the owner, who told me he’d give me a room in his hotel for $3. The room looked like the cellar from the Blair Witch Project, but the bed was comfortable and I got out of the rain.

 

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Heading through the valley.

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Descending from the higher route to the valley. The storm let up for a bit.

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This dog followed me for two and a half days. I hate dogs.

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Most of the time there was a trail that was easy to discern.

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Walking in the clouds.

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The early morning views.

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One last view of the snowcapped mountains.

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The very last pass! I got cell service here for the first time on the trip, so I made a reservation for a hotel room for when I got back to Huaraz.

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Llamac, the end of the hike. A bus leaves for Huaraz every day at 11am, and I arrived at 4pm. I wandered around until I found a “hotel,” where the very kind owner charged $12.25 for a room, two meals, and a large hunk of cheese. I have no idea why she had so much cheese, but she had me help carry the cheese to the bus for sale in Huaraz. Really good cheese, wherever she gets it from. In the village of Huayllapa you can supposedly resupply, but they only had crackers. After spending two days eating just crackers, I was glad to get hot meals in town.

 

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