Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Colca Canyon

After nearly five months of traveling, I’ve got depressingly used to early starts for tours. But 3am was a new one for me, and waking up at that ungodly hour had me thinking that the Colca Canyon would have to be seriously special to justify it.

Yanque dancers

Yanque dancers

Those fears were magnified by our first stop, at a little village near the edge of the canyon where we were treated to a display of traditional dancing by local girls who could not have looked more bored, and the chance to have our photos taken with indigenous women & their cute alpacas. It was all quite a depressing spectacle. My mood failed to lighten shortly afterwards, as our bus broke down just outside the village. As we stood in the freezing cold outside the bus while the driver changed into overalls and disappeared underneath we all began to worry the whole thing would be a write-off.

Condor

Condor

Soon enough though, our luck turned. The morning sun gradually began to warm up, and soon the bus was fixed and we were on our way again, just in time to make it to the Cruz del Condor for the finest display of wildlife I’ve seen so far on the trip. The place is so-called because it’s a nesting point for condors, and every morning as they wake up they put on the most incredible show. From a viewpoint right on the canyon rim, we got to watch a dozen or so of these magnificent birds swooping, soaring and floating on the thermals coming up from the canyon floor. The birds are absolutely enormous, and the sight of them gliding over our heads was simply breathtaking.

Cruz del Condor

Cruz del Condor

Aside from the condors, the other reason everyone wants to visit the Canyon is because it’s the second deepest in the world (the deepest is a mere handful of metres deeper, and is about 100km further north and much harder to get to), and the most popular visit gives you the opportunity to walk all the way down to the bottom and back up again.

The Colca Canyon

The Colca Canyon

The hike down was impressive enough, although I must admit that despite being deeper it didn’t look half as dramatic as the Copper Canyon in Mexico, with its vertical sides. The real challenge however, was the hike back up. After staying the night at the bottom of the canyon, we had yet another ridiculously early start (4.30am) to begin the long slog back up.

The Colca Canyon

The Colca Canyon

I thought after my two weeks of trekking around Huaraz would prepare me for anything – but in fact this was the single hardest ascent I’d done. The path just zigzags relentlessly up the face of what is basically a cliff, and it seems to go on forever. After an hour or so the top looked like it was just another ten minutes or so away, so I sped up wanting to get it out of the way. Big mistake – that ten minutes turned out to be another hour, by which time my legs were burning and every step got harder and harder. When I finally got the top I was ready to collapse – but luckily enough there was a little old woman waiting for me with bananas, chocolate and Coke to sell me, so I ate my way back to life.

You can see all of my photos of the Canyon here.

Frog Juice and Fried Guinea Pig

So far on this trip I’ve eaten some strange things (grasshoppers in Oaxaca and ants in San Gil, Colombia), but I have to say the things I saw in Arequipa market have to take the biscuit.

As in all Latin American markets I’ve been to, there are plenty of stalls selling freshly squeezed juices and delicious smoothies. It’s just in Arequipa, the range of smoothies available contained the odd surprise – such as beer, milk & eggs. Which really sounds like one of the most disgusting concoctions imagineable.

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Or so I thought until I wandered further into the market and came across this little stand.

For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, Jugo de Ranas means Frog Juice. Yes, that’s right, that tank contains lots of little frogs all waiting their turn to be popped into a blender and served up to a local – apparently they are great for helping women get pregnant and for those with memory problems. And sure enough, there seemed to be a steady stream of people coming up to give it a go.

Did I give it a go? Of course not. It looked disgusting, and anyway, I have nothing to prove on the frog front after having polished off a plate of whole deep-fried Mekong river frogs in Laos a couple of years ago.

Strange smoothies aside, Peru has quite a few other unusual culinary specialities to serve up, so the night my friend Adrian arrived from the UK (for a three week visit), we took the advice of our guide book and headed out to ‘the best restaurant in Arequipa’ – one specialising in local cuisine that was apparently so good it was picked out as one of the five highlights for the whole chapter of the book. Located ‘a few blocks east of the centre’ we decided we’d walk.

And walk we did. Further and further out of town. Down deserted, slightly-menacing looking lanes (in a city we’d been warned to be careful about after dark). Past the ring road. Past a sign announcing we’d entered the next municipality. Down a lonely dual carriageway. After an hour of walking we eventually realised there must be two streets in town with the name we were looking for, and decided we’d cross the road to jump in the taxi waiting on the other side of the street.

As it turned out, the reason he was there was because he was sat outside the (signless) restaurant. It looked shut, be he assured us it wasn’t, so we went in – to find the biggest restaurant I’ve been to in Peru. A huge affair with giant tables and a dancefloor. The kind of place you might go to on a bad office party – of which there were two in place when we arrived. After walking that long, we decided to go for it anyway, only to realise just after we’d ordered that the office parties were leaving, the DJ had stopped playing, and we were sat alone in a rather cavernous, empty restaurant (the guidebook had neglected to mention the place is only worth going to at weekends).

Still, we’d heard the food was great, so we’d ordered some of the native wildlife to try. Adrian went for Cuy, and I figured I’d give the Alpaca a go. Turns out I made easily the best choice. Alpaca is fantastic – like a tender, lean beef, it’s great in stir-fries and as a steak. So good was it I ended up having it quite a few more times later on in the trip.

Adrian wasn’t so lucky. Cuy is better known in English as Guinea Pig. It’s native to the Andes, and is quite the delicacy, apparently. I’m not sure I can see why. The traditional way to serve it is cooked between two hot stones. Whole. So what you end up with looks like roadkill, with its legs splayed and head squashed. It’s really not the most appetising sight in the world, and after staring, rather disgusted for a while, he tucked in. Only to find about five mouthfuls of meat. Rather him than me.

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Other than our culinary adventures, I had a lovely time in Arequipa. Five days of chilling out and enjoying one of the most beautiful cities in Peru. Most of the town’s buildings are made of a nearly-white volcanic rock called Sillar. The Plaza de Armas is particularly fine, with the cathedral taking up the whole of one side, and the other three having terraces full of cafes with views towards the massive Volcan Misti rising up above the city.

Volcan Misti

Volcan Misti

The Nazca Lines (and a very lucky escape)

The last  stops had brought some real ups (trekking in the Andes, sandboarding in Huacachina) and downs (the Islas Ballestas). Arriving in Nazca it seemed to me that the Nazca Lines could easily go either way, and I was in two minds as to whether to bother with flying over them or not.

Eventually, I realised that while Huacachina and the Ballestas are hardly world famous, whereas I’ve known about Nazca since I was a kid. So I decided to give the flight a go, hoping the reason for that fame lay in more than just their mysterious origins.

The flight itself cost $50, which I suppose is quite cheap for a flight, but still a little pricey for a forty minute experience. The plane itself was tiny, with seats for just five passengers, and I got to sit right in the front, next to the pilot, which was pretty exciting in itself.

Co-Pilot Geoff

Co-Pilot Geoff

We were soon airborne, and within minutes were over the giant rocky plain that is home to the lines. Despite a lifetime of work by the archaeologist Maria Reiche, no one is quite certain why the lines are there, with various theories being espoused including suggestions that they pointed to water sources or were fertility symbols, or even left by extra terrestrials. Whatever the truth, the fascinating thing is that they can only be seen from the air, so flying over at around 200m is the only way to see them.

Ultimately, they are just giant stick symbols. I wasn’t expecting to see them all that clearly, but as soon as we were above them they stood out way better than I was expecting, especially the hummingbird.

The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird

My personal favourite was the monkey (probably because it reminded me straight away of someone I know), but they are all pretty cool.

The Monkey

The Monkey

Getting off the plane, I realised I was really impressed and I really couldn’t work out why. It’s not that they are ancient and mysterious – I just can’t manage to get very excited about all that for some reason. I think it’s partly because it was fun being up in such a tiny plane, partly because I was expecting so little, and partly just because it’s cool seeing giant animals drawn on the ground in such a way you have to fly above them to see properly. Whatever the reason, it was bafflingly good fun.

The Whale

The Whale

It very nearly turned out to be a bargain, too. When I went to pay the night before, I only had two 100 sol notes on me, and it cost 150. As per usual for Peru, they had no change, so I just paid 100 with a promise that the person collecting me would ask for the other 50 in the morning. What with it being an early start, I forgot entirely and no-one asked me for it. I didn’t realise until later when I was sitting in a restaurant and it suddenly hit me. At which point I was hit with a moral dilemma. Should I ‘fess up and pay? Or should I hide out for the rest of the day and hope I’d get away with it?

One the one hand, immoral Geoff was thinking what the hell, I know for a fact I’ve been overcharged for things recently (after comparing prices with other travellers), in one case by a fair bit more than 50 soles, so I’m due a bit of payback, and anyway, they’d probably never find me.

On the other hand, moral Geoff was thinking, they have costs to pay, tourism is down this year because of the crisis, it would be wrong to try and defraud them when I can easily afford it. Plus I’d had a very lucky escape earlier (jumping out of the taxi back from the airport my wallet had fallen on the pavement without me noticing, and I was lucky enough for it still to be there when I realised quarter of an hour later when I went back – I was in a real panic for a moment, as it had my only card in it), and if the locals were honest enough to not to steal from me, who was I to steal from them?

Luckily, my moral dilemma solved itself pretty damn quickly without me having to make a decision. Nazca’s a small town, and there are only so many cafes a tourist can hang out while they wile away the hours between the early morning flights and the late evening night buses. As I sat there pondering what to do, the travel agent turned up in the restaurant. Seeing her before she saw me, I realised the game was up and had the 50 soles in hand before she even got to the table.

What would you have done in my situation?

You can see the rest of the Nazca Lines photos here.

Sandboarding at the oasis

As has so often been the case on this trip, it’s the unexpected pleasures that turn out to be some of the fondest memories. Huacachina is definitely a place to fall into that category.

Just south of Pisco along the Panamericana sits Ica, which is surrounded by a desert landscape with some of the world’s biggest sand dunes. Right in the middle of those dunes sits the little oasis of Huacachina, a pretty little lake surrounded by palm trees, a pleasant little promenade, a few restaurants and cafes and a handful of hostels and hotels. And that’s it. It totally lived up to my expectations of what an oasis should be like, and I could have happily spent days hanging around by the pool in my hostel, soaking up the sun, chilling out with a book and admiring the gigantic dunes that towered all around.

The dunes of Huacachina

The dunes of Huacachina

Unfortunately I had no time for that, as I was headed south in a hurry, so I had to make the best of it and jumped straight into the other thing that makes the place a must-see on the backpacker circuit: the sandboarding.

Dune buggies!

Dune buggies!

I must admit, much like the mud volcano in Colombia it was something I was doing more because it was there than out of any real enthusiasm. Yet again, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The trip starts off round the oasis as we all piled onto a dune buggy to drive us up to where we’d go boarding. But far from being a simple means of getting from A to B, the buggy was as much as part of the experience as the boarding was. Our guide drove like a maniac across the dunes, bouncing around across the sand, shooting up the steep slopes at a rate of knots and then plunging down the other side again. It made the average rollercoaster ride seem tame and I loved every single second of it. I was giggling away like a madman as we got thrown around at ridiculous speeds, and the thought we might turn over any second made it all the more fun.

Doing stupid things makes me very happy

Doing stupid things makes me very happy

After all that, I was worried the sandboarding itself would be a disappointment, especially as I’ve never snowboarded before (I wonder why they don’t do sand skis??). We started off with three relatively gentle practice dunes, which I went down standing up, snowboard-style. And I was useless. I kept falling off, and even when I did start to get the hang of it it was all pretty slow. So when we drove off again to the serious dunes, I was hoping for something a little more fun – and I got it. The fourth dune was stupidly steep and very high, and we were instructed to go down lying on the board, head first, and using our toes to brake with. It was awesome, flying down at a ridiculous speed, with the knowledge that it would soon even out slowing you down naturally. After that, we had three more, with the final one being the biggest of them all. Most people were gingerly making their way down standing up, but I was having none of that. I wanted one final adrenaline fix, so I jumped on head first, keep my feet firmly off the ground (who needs brakes?) and plummeted down without stopping. By the time I hit the flat bit I’d gained so much speed the board was bouncing up and down off the ridges in the sand like a thing possessed (leaving me with a lovely bruise across my pelvis) but it was worth every bit of pain. I was just gutted I didn’t have time to stay another day to do it all over again.

You can see all my photos of Huacachina here

The Poor Man´s Galapagos

After finishing the Huayhuash circuit, stopping in Huaraz for a shower, a beer and yet another pizza at El Horno in Huaraz (my regular post-trekking dinner of choice), it was straight onto the night bus to Lima. After spending longer than planned in the mountains, I needed to head south pretty quickly  in order to meet my friend Adrian (who was flying over from London for a three week holiday) in Arequipa.

Grey morning in Paracas harbour

Grey morning in Paracas harbour

Rather than rush all the way south in one go, I decided to break the trip up with a couple of stops along the way. First stop was Pisco, jumping off point for the Islas Ballestas, also known as ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’.

Rougher seas later in the day meant it was yet another early start (I was quite used to that after 6am starts every day while hiking – funny how I’ve been up before 7am more times in the last five months than I have done in years of working) to catch the boat from the nearby port of Paracas.

Local Pelicans

Local Pelicans

After being herded onto a little motor boat, we were soon out to sea and heading towards the giant geoglyph called the Candelabra. Vaguely similar to the Nazca lines further south, noone is quite sure who made it, with some theories claiming it was created by an ancient culture similar to the one in Nazca, and others claiming it was as recent as the time of the liberation of Peru (the liberator of Peru landed in Paracas from Argentina in 1821). To be honest, it was slightly disappointing (although I’m not sure what I was expecting).

The Candelabra

The Candelabra

With no time to mess around, the boat soon moved on to the islands themselves. The reason they’re famous is that they are home to one of the biggest seabird colonies along the coast of South America. Thanks to the Humboldt current, which brings oxygen-rich cold water all the way up the coast from Antarctica, marine life is abundant. And where there are lots of fish, there are lots of birds. Thousands and thousands of birds in fact. Every metre of the islands is covered with them – cormorants, boobies, penguins and many more.

And what do lots of birds mean? Yes, lots of shit. Or guano, to use the technical term. So much of the stuff that for years guano was one of Peru’s biggest exports (it makes fantastic fertiliser). So valuable was it, that Peru & Chile even fought a war over the area. Even now today that it’s less important (thanks to chemical fertilisers), every seven years a hardy group of men from the mountains travel to the islands and spend the summer months systematically collecting it all – and after seven years, the guano is METRES deep. Not a job I’d fancy, personally.

Seabirds on the Islas Ballestas

Seabirds on the Islas Ballestas

It’s not just birds that are attracted to all that fish – the islands are also home to a pretty big group of sea lions, who we got to see lazing around on the rocks in groups. I’d never seen sea lions outside of a zoo before, so getting to see them in their natural habitat was pretty impressive.

Sea lions

Sea lions

Despite that though, I came away from the whole thing a little disappointed. Maybe it was because I’d just had the best experience of my life trekking in Huaraz, so anything afterwards was bound to be a bit of a letdown. Maybe it was because the uniform grey skies made everything look a little dull. And maybe I’d just seen too many recent photos of other travellers’ recent trips to the real Galapagos. But whatever it was, I just couldn’t summon up all that much enthusiasm (and to be fair, it was probably just me – other recent visitors seem to have had much better fun). Still, it was pretty good value (just 40 soles, around $13), so I’m not complaining, and I was soon on my way to my next stop, Huacachina.

Oh – and what of Lima? Well, far from being the dump that many travellers (and even my mother) had warned me about (recent quote from a friend’s email: “twelve hours in Lima is twelve too many”), I actually found it a really pleasant city. I spent a lovely four days there before and after Huaraz. However there are times when my blogging inspiration runs dry, and in this instance I just can’t think of anything particularly exciting to say about the place, especially when others – try here, here, and here – have done a pretty good job of it elsewhere recently. There was one thing in particular that stood out that’s worth a mention though – on the night I arrived back from Huaraz, I got to meet up again with my friends Cathal & Sarah, who I’d originally met in San Gil, and then seen again in various places in Colombia, and we had a fantastic night out in Barranco, at an indie club called Sargento Pimienta (i.e. Sgt Pepper). Easily the best night out I’ve had since I’ve left home, it’s a great club with fantastic music, and a very friendly crowd. If you’re in Lima I can highly recommend it, and it was a lovely way to say goodbye to two great friends who I’m really looking forward to seeing when I get home.

You can see all of my Islas Ballestas photos here, and the ones from Lima here

Trekking the Huayhuash Circuit (Part 2)

(You can read Part 1 here)

Day Six

Always delighted to make it to the pass

Always delighted to make it to the pass

After a tough first few days, it turned out the worst was yet to come for Aidan, my hiking companion – as if the physical exertion and affects of altitude weren’t enough, today was the day he inevitable came down with diarrhea, whereas yet again I was fine. I could tell he was beginning to get a little despondent, so I tried my best to cheer him up but I was beginning to fear it was no good. By the time we made it up to Punta Cuyoc (4950m), and some of the best views of the trip so far – in one direction to the Cordillera Riura to the south, in the other across to the highest peaks of the Huayhuash – he was starting to get too tired to even take it in properly. His state wasn’t helped by the fact that the other side of the pass saw our trickiest descent to date, heading down an exceptionally steep slope, on lose scree. By the time we got to the bottom he was beginning to talk of cutting his trip short.

Day Seven

View from the San Antonio pass

View from the San Antonio pass

I think his mental state wasn’t helped by the fact that he knew what lay ahead – the toughest day of hiking of the whole trip. It got tough straight away – within five minutes of leaving camp we’d began the ascent towards the San Antonio pass. Starting out on steep, loose glacial moraine was hard enough, but the fact that the climb carried on relentlessly up the steepest and toughest terrain to date for three hours made it quite an effort. It wasn’t helped by the fact the distance we had to cover that day meant an early start, and the valley was cold and in shadow the entire time. There was one nice surprise on the way up – our early start meant we surprised a family of Vicuñas, who darted off across the mountainside as soon as they saw us. Eventually we made it to the top, at nearly 5100m the highest of the nine days, and looked out across the valley below to yet another beautiful lake, and across to the peaks of the highest mountains of the chain. As we started to head down, I was feeling great – I’d now been hiking above 4000m for twelve out of the last fourteen days, I was fully acclimatised and my legs were feeling fit, possibly fitter than I’ve ever been – and I practically bounded down the mountain.

Inevitably enough, before I knew it the saying ‘pride comes before a fall’ came true literally, and within the space of five minutes I’d managed to fall over twice, in the process gaining two nice bloody cuts, one on each hand. Still, I didn’t let it knock my (over)confidence, which was probably the beginning of my downfall.

When we got to the bottom, the original plan had been to do a side trip up the next valley to see the basecamp from where Joe Simpson began his ill-fated ascent of Siula Grande (as told in his book Touching the Void). As we’d gone relatively slowly so far that day, to allow Aidan to keep up, we were running out of time. Furthermore, he really wasn’t in the mood for any additional unnecessary hiking that day, so he made it quite clear he was happy to skip that. Stupid me on the other hand, revelling in my newfound mountain legs, begged Nilton to let me give it a go, and he agreed, as I’d shown myself to be pretty quick so far.

Looking towards the Siula Grande Base camp

Looking towards the Siula Grande Base camp

Big mistake. The hike there and back had been billed as four to five hours. We did it in an hour and forty minutes. If we’d walked any faster, we would have been running. On the plus side, I’d never have managed it a week before. I was to realise the negative side the following day.

That night, even after sitting out the side trip, Aidan hit his lowest ebb, and was practically begging our guide to let him cut his trip short, after such an exhausting day (and his mental state was no doubt probably made all the worse by having to hike with a bouncy energetic me). In the end, they compromised on trying to find a horse to help ease the walking pressure, and by the knowledge that the worst was out of the way.

Or so I thought.

Day Eight

Relaxing with an Inka Kola

Relaxing with an Inka Kola

My overconfidence in my own abilities really came back to bite me on the arse today. It started out easily enough, as we headed down a valley towards the one and only village we’d see in the whole trip, where we got the chance to stock up on Inka Kola and chocolate. But straight after that my problems began. Rather than being a short, steep climb, which quite suits me (I’m more of a hare than a tortoise), it was a looooooong, steady uphill.

And suddenly, after the previous day’s exertions, all my energy deserted me, and my legs felt like lead. After being up to half an hour ahead of Aidan every day so far, I found myself struggling to even keep up with him. Each step was a nightmare and I realised I’d really pushed myself too hard the previous day. By the time I got to the top, I was ready to collapse.

On the bright side, I think my struggles put an extra spring in Aidan’s step, and he was helped by the fact that his fitness and especially his acclimatisation had finally caught up with mine, and that he was also feeling fully well again.

Day Nine

Camping at 4700m - the coldest night of all

Camping at 4700m - the coldest night of all

I think the fact that the final campsite was the highest yet – at nearly 4700m it was almost right at the top of the Tapush Punta pass – was what caused me to have my only bad night’s sleep of the whole trip, and I woke at the stupidly early hour of 5am to get an early start for the long trek back to catch my bus back to Huaraz, feeling rather tired and slightly grumpy.

Luckily though, my legs were feeling back to normal, probably helped by the fact my mind knew I was only a matter of hours away from civilisation, and I set off on the longest day’s hiking yet. The problem was that thanks to an agency mix-up, I was booked on for nine days but the others twelve – meaning I’d essentially only done about three quarters of the circuit and still had two days worth of hiking to cover off on my final morning.

With an 11:30am bus to catch, for the first time I was hiking with a deadline, meaning there was no messing around. Having left my guide Nilton with Aidan, who still had another three days left, I was left in the hands of a fifteen year old local boy who was helping out to make a bit of money. He may have been fifteen, but I was no match for his pace – we bounded down the valley at a ridiculous speed, leaving me panting in the attempt to catch up.

Matters took a slightly farcical turn as we forded the river – part of the crossing had been washed away, meaning I had to leap across the rocks. This turned out to be an unwise move. I had a small rip in the crotch of my trousers from earlier in the trek. As I leapt in the air, the loud tearing noise I heard told me that rip had got a whole lot worse – and it had – it had ripped right open, leaving a huge chunk of fabric flapping around and providing very little cover of underneath. With no spare pair of trousers I had no choice but to complete the trek with my fleece tied round my waste, using the dangling arms to cover the gap.

The final section continued at the same relentless pace – climbing up a slope to a long, flat path (on top of an aqueduct) that clang to the side of the valley all the way round to our final destination, the village of Llamac. With time rapidly running out, the pace increased even further, to the stage where even my local guide was getting exhausted. One final descent (mostly tackled in a run) later and we back in the village.

I just had time for a nice cold beer (oh, and to unwittingly flash at a horrified-looking indigenous woman after my fleece fell off revealing the torn trousers underneath. Whoops) before it was time for the bus back to Huaraz.

So did it live up to the hype? You bet. It was the physically most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but because of that, one of the most rewarding. I saw the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, and even better most of the time I had them all to myself, with not another person in sight. The tranquility was absolute, and I had time to fully take in the beauty, and plenty of time to think and reflect on life, my trip, and on my life back home. I’ve never been able to fully appreciate silence before (I’m far too energetic for that), but it felt like I really learnt how to relax and enjoy the calm properly for the first time in my life. Even listening to music on my iPod (until the battery died) was a magical experience – sitting there on my own on a high mountain pass waiting for the others, taking in the view with my favourite music in the world as a soundtrack, was almost enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Best hike in the world? Who knows. But it’s certainly the best thing I’ve ever done.

You can see all my photos here.

Trekking the Huayhuash Circuit (Part 1)

Besthike.com describes the Huayhuash circuit as ‘arguably the best hike in the world’. Other sources I’ve seen reckon it’s the second best after the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Reports like that meant that hiking there was the single thing I was most looking forward to in my entire year of travelling. I knew it’d be hard work, but as a keen hiker it doesn’t get much better than this.

Feeling fresh on Day 1 with the Cordillera Huayhuash behind me

Feeling fresh on Day 1 with the Cordillera Huayhuash behind me

The Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced ‘why wash’ – rather apt seeing as the prospect of washing in the freezing glacial streams along the way was none too enticing) sits just a few hours south of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca, and is the second highest section of the Peruvian Andes after its northern neighbour. It may not be quite as high, but it’s more remote, rather wilder, and gets far fewer tourists. It’s probably best known to the rest of the world as the location for the events that inspired the book and film ‘Touching the Void’, the story of an accident that befell two British people climbing the treacherous mountains of the region.

The circuit itself takes anywhere between eight and fourteen days, and there are a number of different routes. All of them complete a full circuit of the Cordillera, spending almost the entire team at an altitude of 4000m plus, with most crossing over high mountain passes (over 4500m) every day, and the shorter routes sometimes managing two in one day. This makes it a fair bit tougher than the Santa Cruz trek, and it was that challenge that got me really excited.

Day One

Freezing on the first day

Freezing on the first day

I realised it was going to be a rather different experience to the Santa Cruz trek as soon as I got in the car in Huaraz – originally I was booked to go in a group of five, but three had pulled out due to illness, meaning it was just me and a guy from Ireland. I’m not one for overly indulging in national stereotypes – but boy did he live up to the popular image of a jolly Irishman. Especially with one regard – I’ve never met someone with the gift of the gab quite like that. He talked non stop all the way to the trailhead, with pretty much any thought he had coming straight out of his mouth. Most of the time it was pretty entertaining, but I was worried that with just him and the guide (who didn;t speak much English) there was a risk it’d get pretty tiring quite soon.

After the long drive (four hours through the foothills of the Cordillera), the first day’s hike was short and pretty easy, gently heading away from civilisation up a winding valley. It didn’t take long after arriving for me to realise the other big difference we were going to face – being a little bit further south, a bit higher in altitude and a bit more exposed (as the valleys are wider), the nighttime temperature made the Santa Cruz nights seem almost balmy in comparison. Although at least I was finally able to make good use of all those thermal layers I’d been carrying around at the cost of a fair bit of weight for the last four and a bit months.

Day Two

View from Cacananpunta

View from Cacananpunta

After a warming breakfast of oats we were soon on our way, and with no messing about we were straight into the climb up to the first pass, the 4690m Cacananpunta. As if to show us that the Huayhuash circuit is no laughing matter, this was longer, steeper and tougher than any of the previous climbs I’d done, and by the time I reached the top, I was exhausted. Still, I was grateful of the preparation I’d had on the previous hikes, as my trekking partner found it even tougher, taking an extra half hour to make it to the top, a pattern that would be repeated for the rest of the hike – although at this stage I didn’t realise quite how tough he was finding it. The rest of the day was spent descending back into a broad valley, to our campsite at lake Mitacocha. At this point I realised I needn’t have worried that this trek would just be repeating similar scenery to the Santa Cruz trek – in the Cordillera Blanca, the valleys are narrow and steep-sided; here in the Huayhuash they are much broader, giving wonderful sweeping vistas across the landscape. My main worry was still my knee – yet again, despite the help of my poles, the twinge of pain was beginning to return on the way down – I prayed it wouldn’t get any worse or nine days would be torture.

Day Three

Looking back from Punta Carhuac

Looking back from Punta Carhuac

The third day was rather easier, for me anyway – but quite a different matter for my Irish companion. The day’s pass, Punta Carhuac, was nearly as high as the previous day’s, at 4640m, but the approach was far more gradual, which was fine for me. Unfortunately, it turned out that Aidan had been badly advised when booking the trek from back in Ireland, and he’d only had one day to acclimatise – and he was really feeling it. I felt really sorry for him struggling on his way up – with a further nine days to go for him (he was booked on for a twelve day trek, rather than my nine), we were both hoping he’d catch up in the acclimatisation stakes and be OK for the days to come.

Highlight of this day came right at the end, as we headed down a valley towards the gorgeous turquoise lake Carhuacoccha, beautifully framed by the peaks of three snowcapped mountains sitting behind, at the opposite end of the lake from our campsite.

Day Four

Carhuacoccha

Carhuacoccha

If I’d thought Carhuacoccha was beautiful when we approached the afternoon before, nothing could have prepared me for the sight I was to see on waking up the next morning. The rising sun behind us bathed the mountains in a bright golden light, the mountains shining like they were on fire, and with the three burning peaks reflected perfectly in the still, clear water of the lake in front. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and all the campers round the lake stood there in silence, in awe of nature at its most powerful.

Wow

Wow

The rest of the day couldn’t quite match a start like that, although it did its best, throwing at us some local wildlife (the rabbit-like vizcachas, hopping around at the bottom of the valley), and then a series of ever bigger mountains, each setting off a series of little (but very noisy) avalanches as the rising sun hit them. Sitting at the bottom of the mountain was another series of lakes, one dark blue, one bright turquoise, and one frozen. The saddest thing to see was the lines of glacial moraine clearly showing quite how much the glaciars here have retreated, a pattern I was to see regularly over the next few days, and Nilton, our guide pointed out quite how much of that retreat had been in the last couple of decades. Never before have I seen the effects of global warming quite so clearly spelt out in the landscape.

Another day, another stunning lake...

Another day, another stunning lake...

The day’s climb was yet another toughie, taking us up to the 4834m Siula Punta, with breathtaking views all along the way.

Day Five

Gateway to Viconga

Gateway to Viconga

I don’t want to sound like I’m getting blasé about stunning views, but the next day brought nothing particularly worth noting other than continuing awesome mountain vistas, as we headed past yet another huge lake up to the 4785m Punta Portachuelo. Instead, the highlight was of a different nature, as the campsite at Viconga (4453m) had natural hit springs. After five days of hiking and the closest to a wash being a good rubdown with baby wipes, the chance to spend a couple of hours getting clean, warming up, and soaking tired limbs in the almost scaldingly hot waters was bliss. I could have lain there all night.

More than half way through the trek at this point, even my knee was starting to feel better, and all was going as well as could be hoped. The hardest was yet to come…

You can read part two here

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