With three days under our belt, we started hitting our groove on Leg 2 of the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. By this point, we were growing a little more accustomed to the steep trails, the extreme elevations, and even the frigid nighttime temperatures that are de rigor when trekking in the Cordilleras. And the scenery? Well, if we spent a lifetime in the Cordillera, we would never get used to scenery this incredible. Each day, the stunning Peruvian landscape continued to knock our socks off as we trekked past peaceful reflecting pools, roaring rivers, gargantuan glaciers and grand valleys so vast they appeared to stretch along the horizon forever. Other notable moments on this leg of our journey included soaking in relaxing hot springs, topping the 5000 meter mark on the trail and sleeping right in the middle of a soccer field. No joke. So, lace up those hiking boots and come along for the ride on Days 4, 5 and 6 of the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. You won’t regret it!
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What follows is a detailed description of Days 4, 5 and 6 on the trail. We hope that this first-hand information will be valuable to those planning to do this hike. If that’s not you, we hope that you’ll enjoy looking through the photographs anyway. Happy trails!
We wake up today to discover thick, low clouds hanging over camp, which makes for a chilly but atmospheric start to our day. We cross the small stream at the edge of camp and, for the next three hours, ascend gradually along a double wide, compact dirt trail towards the pass. The scenery here is reminiscent of Scotland with low stone walls, rolling hills and foggy skies. Before long, the fog burns off, and we are instantly transported back to the alpine wonderland of Peru.
The trail today is a gentle uphill by Peruvian standards, and there are many photogenic scenes along the way to distract us. There are great views of Nevado Trapecio (5664 meters/18,583 feet) and reflections of this impressive peak in a couple of small ponds. We see several “moss mounds” as we walk past Lago Mittacocha and Lago Patacocha, and we cannot resist playing around on these odd, fossil-like surfaces. As always, Eliseo is patient with us as we take photo after photo of the beautiful landscape.
We arrive at a “burro barrier” just as two Peruvian vaqueros are herding their sheep on horseback. They snap their whips, and—CRACK!—it sounds exactly like a gunshot going off. It takes us a second or two to realize what the loud noise was. These skilled horsemen are actually able to break the sound barrier with the speed of their whips. Imagine that!
We climb to a pass that is flanked by big grey boulders and reddish earth, a striking scene for sure. The pass is called Portachuelo de Huayhuash and is slightly deceptive as there are several false “summits” along the way. We eventually make our way slowly up to the high point at 4780 meters/15,680 feet where we are now treated to views of the smaller Cordillera Raura range to our left.
We stop for lunch before descending toward Lago Viconga with dramatic and colorful mountains all around us. As we approach the lake, the ruddy trail gives way to a grassy slope, and it feels like we are walking down a very steep golf course.
Lago Viconga is dark blue with a small island in its center flying a Peruvian flag. It turns out to be a reservoir that provides hydroelectric power to Lima. We skirt along a very narrow track beside and above the lake, and, when we finally reach its end, we climb to a mirador that stares down into the next valley with the Rio Pumarinri running right through it. A steep descent takes us past a raging waterfall onto the flat plain below.
Our camp tonight is located next to an aqua termal! We are excited to soak our weary muscles in the hot springs, so we toss our packs into the tent, change into swim suits and grab our soap and towels before dashing off for some well-earned relaxation. There is one small bathing pool where you soap up and get clean first, then two soaking pools of various temperatures. We find the one that is “just right” and soak for as long as we can manage. We once saw a girl pass out within minutes of getting into a hot spring in the Altiplano of Bolivia, so we are careful not to overdo it.
It is getting late in the day, and the air temperature now is considerably cooler than the water. Once we are out of the bath, it’s a mad dash to dry off and throw on some warm clothes again. The sensation of feeling truly clean after four full days on the trail feels like pressing the reset button, and we enjoy a relaxing night in camp.
It’s warmer in camp this morning! Hallelujah! It’s always so much easier to drag ourselves out of our cozy sleeping bags when the sun is shining and the temperatures are even the slightest bit more tolerable. We set off for a shorter hike to our next camp knowing that we have the option, once we get there, of relaxing in the afternoon or taking a bonus hike up to a mirador of San Antonio, which Eliseo tells us we won’t want to miss.
The trail begins by briefly backtracking toward the waterfall we passed late in the day yesterday, before turning left and going uphill. We climb gradually on a single-track trail above the valley toward Nevado Cuyoc and Nevado Puascanturpa, and the stark, otherworldly scenery reminds us a bit of Iceland.
The trail alternates between flattish plateaus and gradual ascents before climbing steeply again. After a mid morning rest stop, we ascend gently for another hour to the pass, our highest point on this trek. At 5000 meters/16,400 feet, Punta Cuyoc is a wide open, relatively flat pass marked by several rock cairns that affords us some close up views of the glaciers hanging precipitously off of Nevado Cuyoc (5550 meters/18,044 feet) as well as distant views down the other side into Quebrada Cuyoc. We can also see the colorful hills beyond and the white peaks of the Cordillera range peaking out from behind. We are all quite pleased with ourselves for making it here and break out the tripod for a group shot commemorating the occasion.
The descent from the pass is surprisingly steep and slippery, sort of like going down a waterslide while standing on marbles. Yikes! When we are brave enough to peel our eyes up from the trail, we note a cool, mushroom-like rock formation looming over us that is reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí-inspired sculpture.
After 10 minutes of the white knuckle slip n’slide-style trail, it mercifully starts to zigzag and become more gradual. The last 40 minutes to camp is a pleasant break from the steep descent, and we enjoy this easy stroll through fields of white cactus.
We reach camp at 1 pm in the heat of the afternoon and find that our trusty crew has laid out an al fresco lunch for us. It’s a pleasant departure from the usual routine to arrive in camp on the early side. It gives us a chance to rest a bit and dip our tired and sore feet in the cool stream. We can even dry them in the warm sun!
Our hiking companions, Glenn and Erika, opt to relax in camp for the afternoon, catch up on their journals and read, but we can’t resist Eliseo’s offer to take us up to Mirador San Antonio. So, feeling refreshed, we lace up the boots again and set off across the marshy pampa, crossing two streams before reaching the base of the ascent. We gain close to 600 meters as we pick our way up the valley wall to a plateau, then up a narrow, rocky canyon with a stream running down the middle to another high valley.
The final third of the ascent takes us beyond the vegetated zone on a barren sweep of gravel where the trail is barely visible. We place each step carefully as we complete the last 100 meters up to the viewpoint. There, we find ourselves out of breath and standing on a long ridge on a saddle between two rocky high points. There is a steep drop off on the other side down to the intensely aqua blue Laguna Sarapococha below. Eliseo tells us that this is where the base camp is for the ascent of Siula Grande, the mountain made famous by the book Touching the Void. We take our time photographing the scene and taking in the sheer grandeur of the mountains. We are staring into the heart of the Cordillera Huayhuash, and it is breathtakingly beautiful!
Eliseo has a thermos of hot water with him—good man that he is—and we all enjoy a hot cup of coffee as we marvel at the backsides of Trapezio, Siula, Yerupajá Grande and Chico. It’s cool to see the same mountains that we saw at the beginning of this trek from a completely different side.
We could stay on this ridge for hours, but the sun is going down and the wind is picking up, encouraging us to begin the long descent. We retrace our steps very carefully as we pick our way back down the steepest portion of the trail. We take a break on the plateau above the valley and converse with Eliseo who is talking only in Spanish to us today. He tells us about his family, and we are pleased to find that our Spanish skills are picking up. Even Matt can understand most of what he says. We cross the pampa back to camp just as the light of the setting sun hits the peak of Nevado Cuyoc turning it from gold to pink, a perfect ending to a long and physically challenging, but rewarding day.
By now we are like a well-oiled machine—up at first light, waking over coffee and breakfast in the mess tent and then eager to hit the trail by about 7:30 each morning. Eliseo runs a tight ship, so to speak. We spend much of today strolling down the gentle valley of Quebrada Huanacpatay. We make our way across a marshy section and then follow the wide grassy valley through a larger boulder field, crisscrossing the meandering river several times as we head toward our next campsite in Huayllapa Village.
At a turn in the valley, we descend into a section that is broken up by lots of stone enclosures that are used for sheep herding. The trail either begins to ascend above the river, or the river continues to drop below us as we stay more or less level. It’s hard to figure out exactly how that is happening, but, either way, the river slowly falls below us. We stop for a snack at a juncture of two valleys: one leads to the base of Siula Grande, the other to the village of Huayllapa, which is where we will sleep.
From there, we begin a steep, dry and dusty descent to the valley floor, cross the river and gaze at a tall waterfall before stopping for a trail-side lunch. We walk for another two hours on a path that winds close to the river and past several waterfalls. The path is lined with stone walls on both sides, and there are fields of trigo and other crops planted by the villagers on the other side of this divider. The final descent into the village is alternately rocky, muddy, dusty and fairly steep. We think about the farmers making this trip twice per day to tend their crops. They are getting quite a workout even before they reach their fields to do the real labor!
Our accommodation for the night is a bit strange. We arrive to find that our camp is set up smack dab in the middle of the village soccer field. As we drop our packs and wash up, we are surrounded by curious kids running around and playing. We have to guard our tents against the local dogs who attempt to “bless” them. We spend the evening strolling around the village to keep warm and enjoy this rare opportunity to witness village life in these remote mountains.
This trek still has one more leg. Be sure to check back for more.