Here we go! We have one final leg of the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit to go, and it is quite possible that this incredible trek was saving the very best for last. On Day 7 we left civilization behind and headed back into the heart of the Huayhuash, traversing a grandiose valley and getting close up views of Diablo Mudo, a colorful landscape and a nighttime sky full of stars. An alpine ridgewalk to a spectacular viewpoint on Day 8 may just be one of the most magnificent miles of hiking we have ever done. Pair that with a treacherous descent down to a lovely lakefront campsite, and you’ve got one memorable day of hiking that we are not likely to forget anytime soon. Days 9 and 10 saw us trekking away from the mountains, into the desert and back to civilization. The Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit will definitely go down as one of the world’s Classic Hikes in our book. So read on to see how this wild ride in the High Andes of Peru ends!
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What follows is a detailed description of Days 7-10 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!
Huayllapa Village is a good 1000 meters lower than most of our other camps, and so our evening spent on the soccer field turns out to be comfortably warm for a change. Even so, just one night in this small village has us eager to get back to nature, and we are ready to hit the trail. We leave at our regular time and begin with a five hour climb up Quebradas Milo and Huatiaq. We are hiking mostly in the cool shade of the canyon for the first hour and a half, and there are many small waterfalls and wildflowers to photograph along the way.
When we finally reach some sunlight, we take a quick break to warm up and rest. As usual, our speedy crew and donkey train pass us by, despite the healthy head start we had on them out of camp. It is obvious that these hard-working men can hike circles around us, and all we can do is cheer them on as they run past. It is humbling to say the least!
We continue our ascent up, up, up. After crossing a final stream, the trail opens up into a beautiful wide, Scotland-esque alpine meadow with numerous streams meandering through. There are a few small, stone dwellings high above us that are used by the shepherds who pasture their animals in this grand setting. A small flock of sheep descend from above us with impressive agility and cross the trail just in front of us.
We feel dwarfed by the majesty and scale of this awe-inspiring setting as we hike our way through the meadow and then up the side of the valley’s wall toward the pass. After cresting a ridge we arrive at a mirador with wonderful views of Diablo Mudo (5350 meters) and decide to sit a spell so we can take it all in.
From here, the trail picks up an old mining road and switchbacks up a ridge, leading us closer and closer to Diablo Mudo. We hike for another hour or so on a bit more level trail walking past a dry lake and over the barren, rocky terrain. We stop for a leisurely lunch, and Matt nods off for a brief nap before we continue on to the pass at Tapush Punta (4800 meters). A collection of rock cairns stands here to mark the high point of the day.
After a short descent, two brightly-colored lagunas come into view. As we get closer, we see that the mountains surrounding the area are a riot of color, too. Eliseo tells us that a Japanese gold mining operation was in operation here not too long ago, and the surreal landscape we see is a direct result of the steady stream of minerals that have seeped out from the mining.
From here, the trail descends steeply to the valley floor. We are growing weary and are eager to find camp, but we have to keep walking. Even years after the mine has ceased operating, the water in the surrounding area is still too toxic to drink. The first camp we come to after crossing the valley has no potable water anywhere in the vicinity, so we press on.
Finally, we arrive at the juncture of three valleys: Quebradas Gashpampa, Ocshapata and Angocancha. We turn right toward Nuevo Campamento passing by some spiky quenual trees and a shepherd’s small stone hut, and then cross the stream into a lovely camp which we have all to ourselves.
We are camped in a bowl below a half ring of mountains. This looks like a great opportunity to attempt some astrophotography, so we set up for star shots while it is still daylight and carefully mark the focusing point of our lens as well as the position of the tripod on the ground with some rocks. In the middle of the night we have to will ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags and into the cold night air. As luck would have it, the stars have decided to join us on this moonless night and make a perfect backdrop for our tent. The skies are so incredibly dark out here since we are far, far from any man-made lights. Magical!
We wake up to the coldest morning we have experienced so far! The only way to beat the cold is to get our bodies moving, so off we go on a 300 meter ascent to Llaucha Pass (4850 meters) following long, lateral switchbacks that give us ever more impressive views back down to the valley where we camped last night. The higher we get, the rockier the trail becomes, and we take each step carefully to avoid twisting any ankles.
Before we reach the pass, we spot a small tarn off the trail that is reflecting the mountains all around us. The surface of the water is perfectly still, and we can’t resist stopping to photograph the beautiful scene.
From there, it’s a short climb up to the top of the pass. We rest for a bit and spy several condors soaring high above us. Eliseo points out the official trail that descends steeply down into the valley below, but he has a different plan in mind for us today.
Eliseo guides us along an alternate high route that follows along a level ridge at 4800 meters. Here we are treated to the most spectacular views of the Cordillera Huayhuash we have seen so far, and we quickly name this section of the trail “the Magnificent Mile” in tribute to its sheer awesomeness. All the major peaks of the Huayhuash range are visible from the backside of where we started, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that we will have kinks in our necks from staring constantly at the colorful, snow-capped range to our right. What a scene!
At Cerro Huacrish, we turn to our right and head downhill for about 35 minutes descending another 300 meters to a spectacular lunch spot that overlooks two lagunas, Jahuacocha and Solteracocha, and our campsite far, far below.
We are all in high spirits as we gaze in awe at the landscape in front of us. This is one of those places that reminds us of why we hike. Only on our own two feet and through sheer determination can we take ourselves to the edge of such beauty! We eat a late lunch and enjoy a hot tea from this incredible perch before packing up to move on.
Every choice comes with a price, and we quickly learn that the consequence for taking the high route turns out to be a 400 meter vertiginous descent down a lesser-used trail that, at times, seems perilously steep. It’s a slow, dusty and difficult slog, but the views are just incredible, so there is ample reason to pause and catch our breath. Once the trail finally eases, we convince Eliseo that we can manage on our own, and he heads off to camp without us to get a jump start on dinner. This going downhill business is tough work, and our legs are trembling like leaves once we finally make it to the valley floor. Looking back up from where we came, we are happy to be done and even more thrilled that this is a loop hike. Thank goodness we don’t have to do a return trip back up that trail tomorrow!
The last 20 minutes to camp follow the Rio Jahuacocha. Eventually we climb over a ridge and cross a bridge onto a flat pampa that sprawls before the shores of Laguna Jahuacocha, our camp for the night. Eliseo and the gang give us an enthusiastic greeting once we finally arrive. I think they are somewhat relieved that we made it down the sketchy descent in one piece.
What an incredible place to camp! There are birds swimming in the water and feeding near the shore, and the impressive view of Nevada Jirishanca and its glacier cascading down in front of us is truly jaw-dropping. We get out of our boots, warm up over a tea, and spend the rest of the afternoon photographing birds and the lake reflections.
Dinner tonight is a special treat. It turns out that one of the crew members lives above the second lake. He knows these waters well and sets off to do some fishing. We are in luck! He brings back fresh fish for dinner, cleans and cooks them and then, after a long day of work, hikes several miles back to be with his wife and child for a night. He will be back again in the morning to rejoin us, which impresses us because it added several extra miles to his journey. The people who live and work in the Cordillera Range are amazingly tough people!
We are treated to a glorious sunset—the kind that lights up the mountain and produces one of those Golden Hours that makes all the colors appear super saturated. We take some shots near the shore together, and then Alison makes a mad dash up to a hill just beyond the campground to catch the scene from a different perspective. It’s hard to say which view we prefer, so we are happy have both.
Once the sun goes down, the moon rises above the mountain and lights everything up so brightly that we do not even need a flashlight to see. We decide this is a perfect opportunity to take some night shots using only the moon as our source of light. The white snow on the mountains reflects the moonlight so brightly that our night shot could almost pass for a photograph taken in the middle of the day if the stars didn’t give the late hour of the exposure away.
Today is our last full day of hiking so we all sleep in until the sun hits the camp and warms up the tent, a rare luxury on a long-form trek like this. Sleeping close to a body of water always produces a lot of condensation, so there is a thick layer of frost on the tent when we climb out! Our crew treats us to breakfast al fresco with sleeping donkeys lounging nearby. It looks like we are not the only ones who are appreciative of the late start this morning.
We take the trail down the valley following the Rio Jahuacocha as it meanders this way and that and try to photograph an elusive heron who keeps flying ahead of us just out of range of our cameras as we approach.
Up and down we go, skirting the valley wall along yet another picturesque quebrada. This one is fairly arid, though, with cacti and quenal trees and flowering red bromeliads lining the trail. Every so often we glance back to see the view of the snow-capped Cordillera Huayhuash receding in the distance, and it makes us sad to realize that we will soon be parting ways.
We still can see this view all the way to Llamac Punta (4300 meters) from where we stop for a relaxed lunch. We snap a few last pictures before descending for another hour to our hillside camp at 3100 meters.
All day, we have been losing significant altitude, and the topography and vegetation has changed dramatically from what we have become accustomed to. The mountains give way to rolling hills and tall grasses with creosote-type bushes dotting the landscape. The views in front of us to the adjacent hillsides show signs of human habitation and cultivation.
Camp is a bit unlevel, small and infrequently used, but it does have an adequate water source. It’s a lot warmer now, too, at this lower elevation. We are distracted by hummingbirds buzzing past us, but we can’t seem to capture one in the camera. Oh well!
Today is Peruvian Independence Day, and it somehow seems fitting that this is the day we complete our Cordillera Huayhuash Trek. Our crew is eager to hit the trail and get home to celebrate with family and friends. We pack up our things one last time as quickly as possible and hurry to breakfast on this festive morning.
After a final desayuno of pancakes with mancar, we hit the trail for the last day of our journey. The route follows a single track path along rocky switchbacks for approximately 500 meters down to the town of Llamac. Along the way, we see a falcon, several hummingbirds and a merlin in addition to the giant agave and other interesting desert flora that cover the hillside.
Soon enough the dirt trail meets up with a paved sidewalk at the edge of town. There’s always a slightly melancholic feeling when we emerge from days on the trail far away from the sights and sounds of human habitation, but also a bit of excitement as we begin to realize that hot showers and cold cerveza are close by! We are meeting our ride on the far side of the village, and it is interesting to wander through this mountain hamlet and chat with a few of the locals who are preparing for their Independence Day celebrations.
Once in town we say farewell to Mario and Clemente and the burros, who will return to their villages here in the mountains. It’s time to pile our dusty selves back into the van and begin the drive back to Huaraz. We take a final group shot before saying goodbye to the gang.
We are treated to several great views of Huayhuash and Blanca Sul as we drive up and out of the valley. Once back in Huaraz, our journey has officially come to an end, and we bid Cirillo, our cook, and Eliseo a tearful farewell at the Hotel Santa Cruz. We will miss Eliseo, in particular, as he has been our guide and companion for 22 days on the trail in the Cordilleras of Peru. How lucky we were to have been paired with him. He has been so patient and accommodating with us and our constant trail photography. ¡Hasta luego, caro amigo!
The Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit was everything we hoped it would be and more. Now that it’s over, the only way we can get over it is to find another trail to hike. Hmmm…wonder where we will trek next?