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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The day’s climb was yet another toughie, taking us up to the 4834m Siula Punta, with breathtaking views all along the way.
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
You can also subscribe to get updates by RSS or email by clicking one of the links top right.