Why go hiking in the northern part of the mountainous region in Peru? Well, apart from the interesting company you could meet while walking, the Cordillera Huayhuash hike, near the town Huaraz, has some of the most scenic beauty in the world.
(To view photographs of the hike click here)
With surrounding icy mountain peaks over 6 000 metres ASL metres above sea level), the first advice I took to heart was to acclimatise in the town before heading out for a lengthy trek into the mountains. Like many other adventure-seekers, mountaineers and climbers, I had decided to use Huaraz, a village nestled in the South American Andes, as a base for the many outdoor activities and treks into the Cordillera Blanca and neighbouring Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced core-dee-lear-a _ why-wash).
The Cordillera Huayhuash has one of the best trekking circuits in the world The treks are often compared to those in Napal, with their high altitude mountain peaks, turquoise coloured lakes, clear mountain streams, isolated forests teeming with rare bird species and overall spectacular scenery. The range lies south of the well-known Cordillera Blanca, in the Cordillera de los Andes. It stretches 30 kilometres from north to south, and includes impressive snow-covered peaks such as Yerupaja at 6 634 metres ASL, the second highest peak in Peru and Siula Grande at 6 336 metres ASL. It is some 420 kilometres north of the country’s capital, Lima. The hub of Huaraz was our starting point.
All of us were strangers travelling on our own, but by the end of the eight days we felt like old friends. The hiking team consisted of independent youngsters from all over: Australia, Tazmania, England, France, America, Israel and me, from South Africa. Hikes allow for a type of ‘idle time’, a special situation in which you get to know your fellow travellers well; the conversations and cultural interchange are enlightening. The human bonds came naturally in surroundings that were foreign to all of us.
In the Cordillera Huayhuash, ten of us were lost in a land of snowy peaks for eight days. Donkeys carried tents, food and excess luggage, meeting us each night when we set up camp. Our guide, Betsy and her mother, the cook, helped us us through the Spanish explanations.
After a swim in the icy Lago Gangrajanca, on the second day, the hike to the top of the 4830 metres ASL Siula Punta thawed our joints . The views from the top were worth the lung-stretching gulps of air, which just didn’t satisfy at altitude when muscles demand oxygen. It was quite amusing watching everyone with mouthfuls of coca leaves. By slowly masticating these, chemicals are released which dilate the blood vessels, allowing oxygen to be pumped through the body faster. This helps with the high altitude and relatively low levels of oxygen, which cause altitude sickness. Coca leaves do not produce a rush or a ‘high’, but rather a mild sense of alertness and reduction of appetite. The leaves can also be made into tea instead of chewing them. Coca leaves are widely available in all villages and locals sell the leaves at the markets. Of course, the ‘high’ that one gets on this hike is natural and found in the joy of physical exertion and the magic of these mountains. As we descended, snowflakes drifted peacefully onto our beanies and exposed noses. The scenery was of enigmatic lakes and mountain rivers flanked by cliff faces and steep mountains.
Every night the campsites had panoramic views of an ice-cap amphitheatre. You have to be prepared for keeping warm at night. (That means two sleeping bags and going to bed dressed well-padded, much like the renowned trademark, The Michelan Man!) On one particularly cold morning we woke up to ice on the inside of our tents and my clothes, which I hung out to dry, had frozen! But the early mornings were full of our the expectation of a hearty meal, necessary to refuel after these nights.
As we neared the end of the hike, our lungs still begging for oxygen, we realised that we’d acquired a comfortable walking rhythm. It was amazing to find that some people live here. Near the top of one pass, a man and woman, a farming couple, were on their hands and knees busying themselves with a hole in the ground. After a detailed explanation and various translations, our guide informed us that they had buried potatoes here a year ago. They eventually dig up the potatoes out of their protective “pantry” and prepare them in a type of dessert.
There was a knee-jerking amount of downhill on the last day, with increasing temperatures as we descended. Sounds and smells of civilization punctured our bubble of isolated escape as we neared a small village. Children watched intently while playing cards as we waited for a bus back to Huaraz. Dust from the passing vehicles and donkeys settled on our tired bodies, desperately in need of a shower. It was shell-shocking to be around people and the mood was subdued on the five-hour bus ride back to an even bigger town. We had just seen one of the most beautiful places in Peru. No, in the world!
Huaraz, Peru – relevant information
Best time to go:
Dry season; May to September. Although it is their dry season, it is winter. It gets extremely cold, especially at high altitude places such as Huaraz and in the mountain ranges where treks often follow the snow-line. Travel with extra thermal underwear and socks, a good pair of walking shoes, and a winter jacket. A beanie and gloves are a must, but these you can buy at the markets in Huaraz (clothes knitted with llama wool insulate really well and will keep you warm).
The currency in Peru is nuevos soles (S) or locally referred to as soles. Because of its close proximity to North America, many people operate in US dollars (US$). Both currencies are widely accepted and it is a good idea to travel with US dollars.
Getting to and from Lima:
Flights from South Africa do not go directly to Lima. Book a separate ticket to Buenos Aires, Argentina, followed by a flight to Lima with a South American airline. There is also the option of getting a bus to Lima, but this takes three days. Flight schedules and prices change frequently and reconfirmation of flights is best done at the airline office or through your travel agent rather than at the airport counters.
Most international flights use Buenos Aires’ Aeropuerto Internacional Ezeiza Ministro Pistarini (5480-6111; www.aa2000.ccom.ar). The departure tax is US$18 (R130), payable in Argentina’s currency, pesos ($) or US dollars (US$1 =. $3,87. South African Airways (+27 11 978 5313) and Malaysian Airlines (+27 11 88096 14) fly between Johannesburg and Buenos Aires. Expect to pay between R10 000 and R15 000 for a return flight.
Aerolineas Argentinas (0810-222-86527; www.aerolineas.com.ar) and TACA (0810-333-8222; www.taca.com) fly between Buenos Aires and Lima. The international dialling code for Argentina is 54. For return flights from Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chavez (517-3100; www.lap.com.pe) international departure tax of about US$28 (R200). Expect to pay around US$350 (R2 600) one way.
Getting to Huaraz from Lima:
Buses are the way to travel in South America. There are many bus companies that run mid-morning or late-evening between Lima, Peru’s capital city, and Huaraz. There is no central bus terminal in Lima or Huaraz although many of these individual companies are located in the same area. To get from the airport to the bus companies take a taxi, of which there is no shortage. They all cluster outside the airport. Most taxis in Peru are unofficial and start at about US$1,50 (R11). There are no meters so negotiate a price beforehand.
The bus trip to Huaraz is seven to eight hours and costs between US$6 – US$16.50 (R45-120) depending on the company and seat on the bus. Cruz del Sur (431-5125; www.cruzdelsur.com.pe) is the more luxurious non-stop option whereas Mobil Tours (332-0004) is also comfortable but stops on route to pick up other passengers. Taxis also cluster around the bus company offices and they are an affordable way of getting around the town.
Carolina Lodging (42-6398; firstname.lastname@example.org) charges US$6 (R45) for a dorm room and US$12 (R90) for a private room. Call ahead for pick up from the bus. This is a popular and delightful home-stay. It is possible to organise all trekking and climbing activities with them; they are very informative and helpful.
Way Inn (42-8714; www.thewayinn.com) is run by friendly UK team and also has a remote Way Inn Lodge in the Cordillera Blanca. This guest house charges US$12-15 (R90-110) for a private double room.
Albergue Churup (42-2584; www.churup.com) is a popular hotel with rates of US$7 (R50) for a dorm room and US$16/25 (R125/185) for a single/double room respectively.
B&B My House (42-3375; email@example.com) offer single/double rooms for US$14/21 (R105/155) respectively.
Be wary of locals that offer tourists rooms as they get off the bus. Don’t agree until you’ve seen the room.
Organising your hike through a company is about the same price and much less hassle than organising a trip on your own. Check that guides are certified and inspect rental gear carefully before booking. All-inclusive treks climbing expeditions cost between US$30-50 a day per person. Reputable companies include Galaxia Expeditions (42-5691), Montanero (42-6386), Monttrek (42-1124), MountClimb (42-6060) and Skyline Adventures (964-9480; www.sladventureschool.com; based outside Huaraz).
If you prefer a sit-down meal, try one of the many hole-in-the wall restaurants which feed the locals as well. They are cheap and filling. Each day there is also a set menu which includes two or three courses, juice and tea for a ridiculously low cost. However, there are also more formal restaurants with just as good food. Ask for Cafe Andino, Huaraz’s ultimate hangout, or Encuentro for well prepared Peruvian cuisine.
Best street snacks:
Queso con choclo (mielies with cheese) and empanadas (meat, vegetable or cheese turnovers).
iPeru (42-8812) is open Monday-Saturday 8am-6.30pm and Sunday 8.30am-2pm.
Casa de Guias (42-1811) arrange mountain rescues. Purchase travel insurance before leaving South Africa. The Tourist Police are Policia de Turismo (42-1341). The Clinic, just north of town, is Clinica San Pablo (72-8811), but Farmacia Recuay (72-1391) restocks expedition medical kits.
Spanish is widely spoken (Latin American Spanish). Quechua and Aymara are spoken more in rural areas.
GMT minus five hours; seven hours behind South Africa.
Much like SA, 10% in bars and restaurants (tip all guides).
Best news of all – no visa is required for South Africans entering Peru or Argentina.