I spent a lot of time researching our backpacking options before our trip. Once we decided to focus the last half of our trip on the Huaraz area, we still had a number of possibilities to choose from. We considered several options in the Cordillera Blanca. However, I was truly drawn to a separate range farther south, the Cordillera Huayhuash. Like the Cordillera Blanca, the Cordillera Huayhuash includes massive peaks, glaciers, and alpine lakes. Unlike the Cordillera Blanca, hikers aren’t required to be accompanied by guides. This was appealing to me, as I prefer to travel independently. I wasn’t enthusiastic about doing a trek with a guide, cook, porters, and pack animals. I like peace and quiet in the wilderness. I didn’t want to be part of my own little traveling circus.
During my research I concluded that independent hiking in the Huayhuash was allowed, if not specifically recommended. My only hesitation revolved around safety concerns. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, the Cordillera Huayhuash was the base of operations for a terrorist group, The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso). Although the terrorists were eradicated years ago, there had been occasional reports of bandits and violent attacks on trekkers in recent years.
However, several years ago a fee system was implemented in the Cordillera Huayhuash. Today, hikers are required to pay entrance and camping fees. The proceeds are distributed among the local farmers. The fees are relatively nominal to us, but the money makes a big difference to the local communities. As a result, the local people have an incentive to keep the trails and campsites safe. In the last few years, there had been no reported incidents of robbery or violence in the range.
With my safety concerns somewhat alleviated, we decided to backpack in the Cordillera Huayhuash. We planned to do the standard loop, which is approximately 87 miles starting and ending at the village of Llamac. From Llamac, we’d hike over the Pampa Llamac (Llamac Pass) and down to Laguna Jahuacocha. We’d then cross another pass to the Quebrada Rondoy before passing through Quartelhuain. From there, we’d cross the continental divide at Cacanampunta. We’d then hike along the east side of the range, passing numerous alpine lakes and small villages. From Laguna Viconga, we’d climb to Punta Cuyoc, at 5000 meters (16,000 feet). We’d then descend to the village of Huayllapa before crossing one more pass leading back to Laguna Januacocha. From there, we’d hike back to Llamac. We planned to take eleven days to complete the circuit.
After our consultation with Christian, we discovered that we could now take a bus beyond Llamac to the village of Pocpa. From there, an easy half-day walk would get us to the campsite at Quartelhuain. That would shave a fair bit of mileage off the trek, and eliminate two high passes. It would also make for an easier first day, when we were still acclimating to the altitude. With the shorter route, we reduced our trip to ten days.
It’s worth noting that Huayhuash is pronounced “why wash”. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate name for the place we planned to backpack for ten days!
GRINGOS ON THE WING
I slept poorly Monday night. I think I was just restless anticipating the beginning of our trip. We got up before 4am on Tuesday (this was something of a theme while we were in Peru). We left the hostal, but didn’t have any luck finding a taxi at that early hour. Instead, we walked all the way across town to the Nazario bus depot. This served as a final warm up for our trek, but it also made me realize just how heavy my pack was. I was carrying most of our food (10 days worth) along with the tent, stove, fuel, my sleeping bag, and winter clothing. We were expecting temperatures in the 20’s at night, so we had to bring warmer clothing than on one of our normal summer backpacking trips.
We checked in at the bus terminal at 4:30. The bus left at 5, and I managed to doze a little along the way. We had a 40 minute layover in the small town of Chiquian. We wandered around town for a bit, and encountered a drunk local at a store. It was an interesting encounter. He greeted us jovially, but referred to us as gringos. We listened to him babble in Spanish for several minutes before we were able to escape.
It was a relief to get back on the road, even if it wasn’t much of a road beyond Chiquian. We bounced along a rutted, one-lane dirt track, following the Rio Achin. We reached Llamac about an hour later. We disembarked there, and paid an entrance fee. A bit of confusion ensued, as we thought the bus we’d arrived on was to continue to Pocpa. However, this clearly wasn’t the case. We walked to the far end of town, where we spotted another, smaller bus. Apparently they had been waiting for us. We boarded, paid a nominal fee ($1), and enjoyed the ride to Pocpa. We disembarked in Pocpa, paid another fee (10 soles) and prepared to walk up the road to Quartelhuain. However, this wasn’t necessary. We found another bus waiting for us. It took us on to Quartelhuain, which saved us from having to walk up the road. Along the way we stopped at a police station, where we showed our passports, paid a fee, and attempted to answer a series of questions in Spanish. The officer was obviously frustrated with our inability to speak the language, but we somehow managed to get through it.
The final bus took us farther up the valley of the Rio Llamac. We passed some mines before finally stopping at a switchback in the road. We disembarked here, at the Quartelhuain campsite. It was only noon, and Quartelhuain didn’t look very exciting. There was a small ramshackle farm across the dusty road that consisted of a few tiny stone huts, a tarp, and small grazing area surrounded by a stone wall. An assortment of livestock wandered around.
I briefly considered hiking on and getting a head start on our trip. After all, we had arrived at Quartelhuain several hours ahead of schedule, and we’d hardly walked at all. However, sunset is early in Peru, and we had less than 6 hours of daylight to work with. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to cross Cacanampunta (4,700 meters / 15,000 feet) and get down to the next camping area before dark. Plus, my pack seemed ridiculously heavy. By spending the afternoon and night at Quartelhuain we could eat some food, lighten my pack, and continue to acclimate to the altitude without exerting ourselves. We were already at 4100 meters (over 13,000 feet), which is considerably higher than Huaraz.
We spent the next few minutes wandering around the official camping area looking for a cow-patty free spot to pitch the tent. Once that was accomplished we systematically began eating the heaviest food in my pack. Later that afternoon I took a stroll to stretch my legs. I climbed the grassy hill behind the campsite until I reached the crest of the ridge. There I was rewarded with a beautiful view of Nevado Rondoy (5870 meters). The view back up the valley towards the headwaters of the Rio Llamac was almost as nice. Far below I could just make out Christy and our tent sitting in the meadow just above the river.
By the time I returned to camp we had company. A large group of trekkers from Israel arrived while I was on my way down. They set up their “camp” – which had all of the subtlety of a small city – right next to our tent. It was quite the operation, with guides, cooks, porters, and cowboys hurrying around pitching tents and feeding their animals. This crowd had several large tents for sleeping and a circus tent for cooking. Their expedition included a small army of mules, which set about grazing all around us. We watched all of this in a stupor. The icing on the cake was seeing one of the porters haul a deep fryer into the cooking tent. What was for dinner, a whole turkey?
A couple of marginally smaller groups arrived later that afternoon. The whole scene was really kind of comical. Were we at Everest base camp? My pre-trip research had led me to believe that the Huayhuash was lightly traveled. Apparently it has gotten popular in recent years. In fact, we chatted with an Israeli girl while they were waiting for camp to be set up. She told us that the Huayhuash circuit is famous in Israel. Apparently there it is THE thing to do.
Regular truck traffic servicing the nearby mines added to the charm of the campsite. Noise and dust from the trucks nicely complimented the crowds and the assorted livestock crap surrounding us. I wouldn’t say that Quartelhuain is the worst place I’ve ever camped, but I have been to KOAs that offered more of a wilderness experience.
That evening we were visited by several dogs from the nearby farms. They were quite accomplished beggars, and we may have shared a few scraps with them. We probably shouldn’t have done that, but they looked so malnourished that it was hard to resist. The highlight of the evening was probably our dinner of dehydrated pasta, salmon, and veggies. We had prepared all of our dinners at home before our trip, and we had this one first specifically because it was the heaviest.
The temperature dropped quickly once the sun fell behind the ridge to the west. We bundled up, wearing everything we’d brought. This included a base layer of underarmour, alpaca wool sweaters we’d purchased earlier in the trip, down jackets, hats, and gloves. Despite the warm clothes we went to bed early. Although we hadn’t hiked much, we were tired from the long day of traveling.
I took a small risk prior to the trip bringing only a three-season sleeping bag (rated to 25 degrees). With lows regularly in the 20s, that was pushing my luck. I’m a warm sleeper though, and I was comfortable each night just wearing my underarmour to bed. Christy had brought a 15-degree bag, which kept her plenty warm, too.
I woke a couple of hours later disoriented. I heard cows mooing mixed with excited Hebrew voices. Where the hell were we? Briefly I wondered if we hadn’t walked back into the Old Testament. Then I remembered that we were camped in the middle of an Israeli circus. The rest of our camp eventually settled down. I did get up late that night to water the bushes, and was treated to a spectacular star-spangled sky. The Milky Way was out in all its glory, and there wasn’t even the hint of a single light to ruin the view.
We were up at 7 on Wednesday, ready for our first day of actual backpacking. However, our enthusiasm was tempered by the icy morning air. Our tent and gear was coated in frost, and we didn’t begin to thaw until the sun crested the ridge to the east. Our first trail breakfast included oatmeal and surprisingly bitter hot cocoa. Apparently the cocoa in Peru isn’t sugared the way it is back home!
We broke camp at 8:45 ahead of most of the circus that was also camped at Quartelhuain. Despite our best efforts to eat up the heavy food the previous afternoon, my pack was still easily 70 pounds. At that point, after a couple of weeks of intestinal distress, I probably only weighed 150 pounds. This is not a good ratio under any circumstances, and particularly not at high altitude. The good news is that the day’s hike wasn’t terribly long. I knew if I could make it to the pass it would be all downhill from there.
We found a braided, well-beaten path at the far end of the camping area. The climb began immediately, which went a long way towards warming us up. The down side to getting a marginally early start was having to endure a steady stream of slackpackers (trekkers carrying small daypacks) passing by. Almost everyone else we saw in the Huayhuash had pack animals to haul their gear. Christy only had me.
We did see one other pair of actual backpackers, but they were considerably younger than us. They seemed to be off to a better start than us, too. They had started from Llamac 3 days earlier though, so they were more accustom to the altitude.
We plodded on ever upward. Eventually most of the humans had passed us by. Then came the animals. An endless parade of overburdened mules followed, hauling the camping gear, the food, the deep fryers, and the booze. We frequently had to yield to a mule train, but we really weren’t all that distraught about that. The climb was a grind, and it was definitely going to be a day of frequent short breaks.
At least the views continued to improve as we climbed. We approached the pass at 11am, only to realize upon cresting it that there was a second, higher pass still ahead. We descended on a rough, rocky route that was extremely unpopular with the mules and us. This was disheartening, but once again stubborn determination kept us moving forward. We finally crested the true pass at noon. The view from there was nice, but for some reason I wasn’t interested in stopping. There was something foreboding about that spot, but I can’t really explain it. We were at 4700 meters (15,000 feet), which was 500 feet higher than I’d ever been. Maybe it was just too high.
We continued down the far side for 15 minutes or so before stopping on a flat, grassy bench for lunch. We enjoyed a long, well-deserved break there. We were both hurting, but at least we knew that the hardest part of the first two days of the trek was behind us.
I aired out the tent and fly to let it dry, which probably sucked a pound of water weight out of my pack. While we were lounging, we spotted a Condor soaring over the valley below. This was pretty exciting, as we’d never seen a Condor before. We ended up seeing several during our trek.
A bit later a family with a single horse and guide passed by. We chatted briefly, and found out that they were from Utah. We would end up running into them multiple times during the course of our trek.
We resumed the hike, descending on switchbacks. Finally that ended, and we enjoyed a more gentle descent high above the valley below. As we walked we were treated to occasional views of Rondoy peaking above the ridgeline above us. We finally reached a stream long after running out of water. We took another break so I could filter and replenish our supply.
A bit later we finally reached the entrance into the valley of the Rio Janca. We headed up the valley, walking towards a dramatic backdrop of snow-covered peaks and glaciers. We passed a pair of waterfalls cascading down into the valley. We then approached a stone wall and reached a gate. There we met a couple of extremely friendly locals that we struggled to communicate with. One was listening to a radio, which kind of blew my mind. What station was he picking up? The next city of any size to the east was probably on the Atlantic coast, in Brazil. It turns out he was listening to the World Cup. After a bit of difficulty, we realized he was giving us the score. Spain was ahead of Germany, 2 to 0. This amused me to no end. Who needs an Iphone anyway?
We paid the camping fee there (30 soles / $10 dollars). We then wandered through the farm and continued upstream. We eventually crossed the creek on a primitive bridge constructed of logs and mud. We arrived at the first camping area a few minutes later. The campsite is in the middle of a vast meadow with jaw dropping views of Rondoy, Mituraju (5750 meters), and Jirishanca (6094 meters). The Jirishanca Norte glacier spilled down from the peaks towards the Laguna Mitococha. I originally planned to camp at the lake, which was still a mile farther on. However, I had to reconsider. This campsite had everything we could possibly want, including easy access to water, a convenient toilet, and breathtaking views. Plus, there wasn’t anybody else around. I figured the herd of people we had camped with the previous night was in the process of swarming the lakeshore. Al things considered, the decision was a no-brainer.
We set up camp quickly. We had arrived at 3:30, so we still had a fair bit of daylight after pitching the tent. I decided to hike up to the lake. Christy was pretty worn out, so she elected to stay behind.
The hike to Laguna Mitococha was mostly easy. I hiked through a vast, flat meadow. The only challenge was avoiding the frequent marshy areas and hopping the occasional stream. I reached the lake 30 minutes later. Laguna Mitococha is beautiful, but the view from there certainly wasn’t any better than from our campsite. It wasn’t as crowded as I’d feared, though I did spot one large group as well as the family from Utah we’d met earlier. I lingered for a few minutes before heading back, eager for dinner.
That evening we dined on burritos, which I guessed was the second heaviest meal we’d brought. We enjoyed a bit of alpenglow on the peaks at sunset despite some evening clouds. The temperature dropped with the sun, and once again we retired early. We were in our sleeping bags by 7pm, looking forward to a peaceful night’s rest after a tough day on the trail.
We were up early again on Thursday after getting 12 hours of sleep the night before. Getting up was a bit easier on this morning, as our campsite on the east side of the mountains caught the morning sun much earlier than Quartelhuain. We had breakfast burritos with dehydrated eggs and the rest of the tortillas. While eating we watched a band of horses playing in the meadow. One was particularly entertaining, as he really seemed to enjoy rolling around in the dirt.
Our elaborate breakfast led to a late start. We finally hit the trail at 9:45. That wasn’t too tragic though, as the day’s hike to Laguna Carhuacocha was a short one. In fact, we expected it to be the easiest day of the trek.
Our tardiness left us behind a mule train coming from Laguna Mitococha. We walked through a cloud of dust for awhile before the mules left us behind. The hike started out with a fairly steep climb, but eventually the grade eased. We spotted two more condors, and met another group of friendly locals. At this point, all the locals we’d met had been exceptionally welcoming. I began to wonder if all the reports I’d read about terrorists and bandits were legitimate.
We reached the next pass, Carhuac, at 12:30. We had some nice views of the Nevados here, although the vista was partially obscured by the ridge above us. We had lunch at the pass before heading down into the next valley. This was a gentle, pleasant descent past a series of farms. We saw horses, mules, and cattle along with the occasional stone hut. Then we arrived at a vast meadow full of sheep. There must’ve been a couple hundred sheep in all sizes and colors. They must’ve been disturbed by our presence, as there was “baaaing” in every conceivable octave. Many of them ran ahead of us as we walked.
We arrived at the next campsite on a grassy bench above lovely Laguna Carhuacocha. This was an exceptionally scenic spot, with the lake below and massive peaks and glaciers beyond. The peaks included Siula Grande and the multiple summits of Yerupaja. Needless to say, we had no reason to walk any farther, even though it was only mid-afternoon. Surprisingly, there was nobody else here.
Christy was thrilled at our early arrival. Despite the easy trail, she had struggled again. She felt terrible, and her right arm was still swollen and achy. The swelling hadn’t subsided a bit despite the antibiotics. If anything, it may have spread further, having nearly reached her shoulder. Aside from this, she was weak and exhausted. I wasn’t sure if the problem was the infection or the altitude. We were both alarmed. What if this infection was more serious than the doctor had thought? We were a LOOOONG way from any sort of medical help.
The family from Utah arrived a bit later, via the scenic route. Instead of coming down the valley, they followed the ridge above. This route was probably more challenging, but the scenery must’ve been exceptional. They enjoyed uninterrupted views of the east face of the range as they hiked.
We endured a chilly, breezy evening. We spent a good bit of the afternoon relaxing and enjoying the scenery. Aside from the lake, the mountains, and the glaciers, we were entertained by several impressive waterfalls on the far side of the basin. It was hard to judge their height from our vantage point, but I’m sure they were at least several hundred feet high. The waterfalls were somewhat sporadic. The glaciers above calved on a regular basis, and each calving resulted in a flood of water cascading over each of the falls. I was looking forward to getting a better look at those waterfalls the next morning, as our route would pass close by.
We also each took advantage of the campsite toilet, which was quite an adventure. It was a wooden outhouse, but the floor consisted of rotten wood and sod. To be blunt, using it required delicate balance. One misstep there and it would look like a reenactment of THAT scene from the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”.
Later, we had spaghetti for dinner and discussed our options. I expected the next day to be rather challenging, and I was afraid Christy wouldn’t be up for it. More to the point, continuing beyond Laguna Carhuacocha meant a more difficult escape from the mountains. Should we continue on, with Christy’s condition so uncertain?
I was up fairly early the next morning. Christy wasn’t feeling much better. After a night to sleep on it, I’d decided on a change in plans. Although we had a schedule to keep, we did have some flexibility. By cutting out a side trip we’d planned later in the route, we could afford to take a rest day. I was hopeful that a day of rest would enable Christy to recover. Plus, it would give us more time to adjust to the altitude.
I chatted with the family from Utah again after breakfast. As luck would have it, their guide lived in that same valley. He relayed some important information. From the lake, we could hike downstream for about 3 hours to a village. There we could catch a bus to the small town of La Union. From La Union, there was regular transport back to Huaraz. The bus to La Union runs only on Wednesday and Saturday. It just so happens that this was Friday.
I adjusted our plans again. We would take a layover day there on Friday. That evening, we would see how Christy felt and decide whether to continue the trip or bail out.
I was determined to make the most of the day. I decided to hike into the upper lake basin upstream from our campsite. There were more lakes up there, and hiking that way would give me a close-up view of the waterfalls and glaciers. Christy elected to stay at camp, hopeful that a day of rest would enable her to finish the trip.
There were two possible routes from our campsite into the upper basin. One led all the way around the lower end of the lake. That route would be simple, but longer. I decided to try a shortcut. I walked past the campground toilet and descended the steep hillside towards the upper end of the lake. I descended towards a small farm, and several barking dogs approached. The guy from Utah warned me that he had been bitten by a dog down at the lake earlier that morning. Knowing this, I’d come prepared. I had a handful of rocks in my pocket, but I only had to throw one to scare the dogs away.
Beyond the farmhouse I tried to cut directly across the meadow above the lake towards the mouth of the upper valley. The map actually shows a trail here, but the line on the map isn’t as much a trail as it is a bad idea. There was no path, but there were plenty of marshes. I ended up sponge-hopping around trying to avoid the wettest areas. I jumped across several streams before finally reaching the bank of the main river. Crossing it wasn’t an option. The river was wide, swift, and glacier cold. I was just trying to determine my next course of action when I spotted a local woman on the far side. She waived at me and gestured that I should hike upstream. I waived back and took her advice. I followed the river upstream, curving around and into the mouth of an impressive canyon. The river is braided there, and I was slowly able to rock hop and jump across the individual channels. This wasn’t without its challenges though. At one point I jumped from a high bank down to a gravel bar beyond a torrent of water. I landed funny and came up limping. I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but it felt like I’d badly bruised my heel.
I eventually made it all the way across the river. I continued upstream, directly beneath neck-craning walls of rock and ice. I followed a cow path, which required bashing through willows and dodging lots of crap. Finally I merged with a better trail coming from the other side of the lake. Upon further review, my “short cut” may have been shorter in distance, but it couldn’t have been faster or easier.
The hiking was much easier here. I walked up a dry wash to a rock slide that had created a natural dam. Beyond was a small but lovely pond, and lots of cows. I dodged patties as I continued on up to the foot of another lake. This one was lovely, and I stopped there to take a break.
I was surprisingly tired and chilled despite the sunny morning. I ate some gorp and contemplated my next move. My original plan was to follow the trail all the way to the next pass. If we continued the trip on Saturday, this is the route we would take. However, my eye was drawn to a steep, rocky moraine above the lake. Judging from the map and the terrain, it looked like most of the glaciers and waterfalls spilled down into a basin on the other side. Climbing up the moraine didn’t look too bad, so I decided to have a look.
I scrambled up through rocks, shrubs, and cow patties. The climb was steep and the footing was loose, but it proved to be worth the effort. When I reached the top I was treated to one of the most amazing views of my life. The basin below was a vast expanse of ice, water, rocks, and mud. It looked like the surface of an alien planet. Dozens of waterfalls tumbled down the cliff face across from me, many of them hundreds, if not thousands, of feet high. Multiple glaciers also spilled down, their ice occasionally breaking off to feed the basin below.
The view was astonishing, and I couldn’t pull myself away. Instead of heading back down, I followed the rim of the moraine towards the upper end of the basin. This required quite a bit of caution. The side I’d climbed up was incredibly steep, while the side leading into the basin was nearly vertical. The rim was only a few feet wide, and the footing was loose. I watched my footing carefully, stopping every few steps to take in the view. It only seemed to get better as I went. I finally stopped at the far end for lunch. I wasn’t even hungry. In fact, I felt absolutely lousy. I was weak and exhausted. This was puzzling, as a hike of this difficulty wouldn’t normally faze me.
I eventually pulled myself away from that view. I descended the back side of the moraine towards the lake below. However, I didn’t drop all the way down to the shore. Instead I contoured above the lake, working my way along the hillside. At the upper end of this lake I had another decision to make. Another moraine towered above me. The promise of another lake and more glaciers and waterfalls pulled me upwards.
Climbing that second moraine nearly killed me. I’ve never been so exhausted on a hike. Under normal circumstances I should’ve been able to jog to the top of the moraine in a couple of minutes. Instead I’d shuffle forward a few steps and then take a minute to rest. What was wrong with me?
I finally reached the top. As expected, I was rewarded with yet another beautiful alpine lake. An impressive glacier tumbled down from Siula Grande, ending in a series of waterfalls feeding the lake below. After another justified break, I followed the moraine
down. I eventually worked my way down to the foot of the lake and rock hopped the outlet stream. I picked up a trail on the far side and headed downstream. Before long I reached the main trail heading up to the pass. My original plan had been to climb up there, but there was no way I could pull it off. I was exhausted. Luckily a change in the weather discouraged me from making a bad choice. The sky had clouded up suddenly, and the high peaks were now lost in the murk.
The hike downstream was enjoyable despite my fatigue. This part of the trail was above where the cows grazed, and the mules take a separate route. As a result, there was a surprising lack of crap along here. A bit later I passed an interesting thermal area featuring some discolored water and a faint smell of sulfur.
I eventually returned to the foot of the middle lake, where I’d paused for a break several hours earlier. I passed back through the herd of cattle, treating them to my usual greetings of “Hola”, “Que Pasa”, and “Buenos Dias”. The cows just stared back at me, un-amused.
I decided to forgo my shortcut on my return to camp. Unfortunately, I began to realize that I really was sick. I was pretty sure I had a fever, along with everything else. Plus, I had to make one unscheduled stop due to yet another bout of diarrhea. Sigh. Now what?
Earlier that morning I’d prayed, looking for guidance. I was struggling with what we should do. Neither one of us wanted to bail out on the trip. After missing out on trekking the Inca Trail, we were determined to get in one good backpacking trip in Peru. On the other hand, we were both alarmed at Christy’s condition. What would we do if it got worse? I concluded my prayers with a request that God send me a sign indicating what we should do. Unfortunately I don’t always make the best decisions in these situations.
God sent a sign all right, but in doing so, he again proved that he has a sense of humor. He didn’t send an angel with a message, or deliver a booming voice from the heavens ordering us to “go home”. Instead, he delivered untoeth me the swine flu, or the monkey pox, or the Condoritis, or whatever the latest disease is. Whatever it was, it left me barely capable of walking back to camp.
The hike around the lower end of the lake seemed to take forever. I was just approaching another crowded campsite when I felt another bout of diarrhea coming on. Lovely timing! I made it into the campsite and found one of the guides. I asked him my favorite question of the trip: “Donde es el bano?” He pointed towards a small shed at the edge of the campground. I hurried that way, as there was no time to spare.
There was a giant rain barrel and a bucket outside the door. I was briefly puzzled by this. It didn’t take long to solve the mystery though. I entered the outhouse, and noticed that the floor was solid concrete. I was momentarily relieved that I wouldn’t have to balance myself above the hole. Then I realized that the outhouse didn’t contain an actual toilet. Instead, the concrete sloped down to a small hole. Yikes! This wasn’t going to be pretty. It was going to be like filling a Dixie cup with a firehose.
I ended up making several trips to the rain barrel. Once that unpleasantness was concluded, I grabbed my pack and crossed the outlet stream on a sod bridge. I hiked around the foot of the lake and began the long, slow climb back to camp. Getting back up there didn’t require a major climb, but it sure felt like a monster. Every step hurt, like I was carrying a monkey on my back.
Part way up I passed through another giant camping area featuring more circus tents, lots of mules, and plenty of crap. Finally our quaint campsite came into view. I stumbled over to the tent at 5:30, just a bit before dark.
Christy was feeling somewhat better after a day of rest, but her arm was still swollen and painful. Between her infected arm and my mystery illness, our decision was obvious. It was time to go home.
The family from Utah was still there, as they had also taken a rest day. I paid them a brief visit, and got all of the details we needed to get out the next morning. Their guide told us that Pablo’s bus to La Union would depart the village of Queropalca around 11 or 12. He told us the village was a 3 hour walk. In my mind, that meant it was a 3 hour walk for him. In our current condition, I expected it to take us a good bit longer. We made plans to break camp by 6:30 on Saturday morning so we’d be sure to reach the village in plenty of time.
We had tuna mac for dinner and got everything ready for an early departure the next morning. We then gave most of our remaining food to the family from Utah so they could distribute it to local families. We also thanked them for the invaluable information they provided. We may have eventually gotten out of the Huayhuash without their help, but things would’ve gone a lot less smoothly.
We made it to bed by 8pm. I slept horribly, thanks to a fever, chills, and difficulty breathing. Later it started to sleet, which didn’t help me sleep, either. Even when it changed over to rain, all I could think about was how much fun it was going to be packing up a wet tent in the rain before dawn.
The alarm on my watch went off at 5:30. Despite a lousy night, I felt a little better. The best news was the rain had stopped. We still had to pack up wet gear, but at least we didn’t get drenched in the process.
We were on the trail by 6:15. It was only first light, but we could see that this morning was going to be different from the last several days. Heavy, wet clouds clung to the surrounding ridges, obscuring the peaks. I’d hoped for one final view of Laguna Carhuacocha’s dramatic backdrop, but it wasn’t meant to be. We hiked back down towards the foot of the lake, passing several primitive farmhouses along the way. As we passed one, a rooster crowed.
We passed back through the circus campsite, where there was only minimal activity. Once at the foot of the lake, we abandoned the normal circuit and picked up the trail following the Rio Carhuacocha downstream. This was a bittersweet moment for me. Having to leave the trail early was disappointing, but part of me was ready to go home.
The trail we followed stayed high up on the hillside, northwest of the river. This was probably good, as the area close to the river looked rather marshy. On the other hand, there was plenty of water and mud (and yes, crap) on the trail, too. We passed numerous farms, and most of them featured an assortment of livestock. Horses, mules, cattle, sheep, and dogs were common sights. One farm even had several pigs in a sty. We saw several locals early on, too. Once again, they seemed to be exceptionally friendly.
We only lost the trail once. We didn’t realize it until we reached a stone wall blocking our progress. There was no gate or opening, but we had no idea what had happened to the path. We climbed over the wall, being careful not to dislodge any stones. A couple of additional hurdles followed before we finally found our way back to the trail. From here on the route was more of a superhighway than a trail. There were no vehicles of course, but there were lots of people. There wasn’t a single hiker among them though. We saw locals carrying crops to the village, and young boys on their way to the river to fish. It didn’t dawn on me until later just how special this experience was. The culture here seemed to be largely unaffected by the outside world. To be fair, we did see one little girl with a Dora the Explorer backpack. I’m not sure where she got it from, but I’m pretty confident her mom didn’t buy it at Wal Mart.
We continued down the valley, which abruptly turned into a rugged canyon. The river dropped through a series of cascades towards the placid village below. That final descent was rocky and tiresome, but at least we knew the end was in sight.
We strolled into the village of Queropalca around 10am. Queropalca is a tiny outpost on the edge of the Huayhuash, but it does have electricity and plumbing. We took advantage of the later after asking around for the nearest bano. Getting to it required passing through a small, muddy courtyard, where we scattered some chickens. With that taken care of, we headed over to a statue of a giant sombrero (which I inexplicably failed to photograph). We didn’t see any sign of Pablo’s van, so we settled on a park bench to wait.
It didn’t take long for us to draw a crowd. I guess we were something of a novelty. Three old fellows wandered over, and we made a poor attempt to converse with them in Spanish. One of them was quite persistent though (and may also have been drunk). This was quite a struggle, but it didn’t occur to us until later that he may have been looking for a handout. One of the other fellows got our attention and gave us the universal sign that our new friend was El Loco. This same guy saved us a bit later. He brought us a coffee table book of the Huayhuash. Although it was written in Spanish, we enjoyed looking at the photos.
Pablo arrived at 11:20. His bus looked just like Hurley’s van on the T.V. show “LOST”. If you find this surprising, you haven’t been paying attention. Pablo’s bus:
Hurley’s van from “LOST”:
We boarded the bus and stashed our packs. A couple of other locals also boarded. Pablo fired up the bus, and we drove about 3 blocks before stopping at a restaurant. A 90-minute lunch break ensued. We eventually went inside, though we both were feeling so poorly that we skipped lunch. While we were in the restaurant we were joined by a young Israeli girl who had been trekking the same route as we had. She had bailed out due to altitude sickness. Surprisingly, her guide had put her on a horse and sent her down from Laguna Carhuacocha solo. She seemed terrified. For our part, we were just glad to have someone who spoke English to talk to. We assured her that we’d help her get back to Huaraz. And the blind shall lead the blind.
A few minutes later two French guys arrived. They had trekked part of the circuit, but had concluded their trip at Queropalca according to plan.
While we were in the restaurant we heard Pablo fire up the bus. This was alarming. We walked outside in time to see it pull away. The bus was empty, although our packs were onboard. Yikes! We had committed the ultimate sin of overseas travel, letting our packs out of our sight. It was a huge relief when Pablo returned after filling the van up with gas.
GRINGOS ON THE WING
Leaving our packs onboard ended up being somewhat advantageous. When the van returned, it was packed. There were people in every seat, except the ones where we’d left our packs. The aisle between the seats was loaded with bags of potatoes. By the time everyone from the restaurant boarded, it was even worse. More folks were standing on the potatoes. Several people were crowded in the doorway. There was even one guy on the outside of the door, hanging onto the handrail with his toes clinging to the step.
This might not have been completely unreasonable if we were traveling on a smooth paved road. Instead, we went bouncing down a rutted one-lane dirt track. This was bad, but it got worse. Not far out of town we began to climb out of the canyon on narrow switchbacks. The road was so narrow, our side of the bus was practically brushing the rock wall, while the other side was virtually dangling over the edge of the cliff. I avoided looking in that direction, particularly since there was still a guy out there clinging to the door!
We reached the top of the canyon, crossed a brief plateau, and descended into another canyon. This canyon wasn’t really any better than the previous one. Finally we climbed out of that canyon, only to repeat the whole process once again. Who designed these roads, anyway?
We eventually left the canyons behind and passed through a long stretch of rolling farmland. We spotted more primitive farms and colorfully dressed locals. At this point, we were WAY off the normal tourist route. We actually stopped to pick up more people several times along here. Somehow they shoehorned their way onto the bus. I was relieved when the guy that had been clinging to the outside of the bus finally got off at one of these impromptu stops.
Just when I didn’t think the ride could get any more uncomfortable it started to rain. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue inside a bus, assuming that the roof doesn’t leak. Sadly, that wasn’t the case with Pablo’s hoopty. Of course, we happened to pick the seat that was directly under the leak. I would’ve gotten out my rain jacket, except that it was in my pack, which someone was using as a seat.
We arrived in another small town shortly after getting the flat tire. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, that this was pretty good timing. This brings up a question – how much more likely is a flat tire if the vehicle is hauling 3 times its maximum weight allowance down a rough dirt road? Everybody got off the bus and roamed around the village. At least the rain had stopped by this point.
Pablo made quick work of the tire. He could probably move to North Carolina and get a job with a NASCAR team. Just call him Pablo Junior.
We all re-boarded. Somehow everyone ended up back in the same places. A few miles beyond town a hideous burning odor began to permeate the bus. Another flat tire? I hoped not, as I knew exactly how many spare tires the van had started with (1). The van lurched to a halt, and everyone got off again. This time all of the tires appeared to be intact. Unfortunately, the problem was worse. The rear axle was broken. I’m certainly no auto mechanic, but I was pretty sure that this wasn’t good.
This brings up another question, which is remarkably similar to the previous one. How much more likely is a broken axle if the vehicle is hauling 3 times its maximum weight allowance down a rough dirt road?
A young boy – Pablo’s assistant – took off running back towards town. At the time I assumed he was going for help. After all, calling AAA wasn’t an option. However, he returned a few minutes later with an armful of wood, which he dumped in the road behind the van. “Oh goody”, I thought, “he’s making a campfire!” Who brought marshmallows? Were we camping there? At least we had a tent.
I walked down the road a short distance until I spotted a sign that said “33”. We had passed a sign earlier that had said “34”. I guessed that this meant that we were still 33 kilometers from La Union. That’s almost 21 miles. I began to debate how long it would take us to walk that far with our packs.
While we were waiting, we were entertained by two young toddlers playing in the dirt. The one little girl was particularly adorable. She was obviously new to walking, as she fell repeatedly. She would run full speed for a few steps and then do a face plant. Each time she picked herself up without so much as a whimper. When her Grandmother picked her up, I couldn’t resist taking a photo. For the most part I’d been reluctant to take pictures of the local people without asking their permission. It didn’t seem right. And asking for permission first wasn’t an appealing solution, because then the photos were posed. I wanted candid shots. This time I threw my misgivings out the window, and I’m glad I did. It may well be my favorite photo from the entire trip:
Pablo used assorted pieces of randomly shaped wood to build a Jenga-like stand under the axle. He then placed the jack on top of the stack of wood and began raising the bus. Uh huh. After a few minutes, he had lifted it enough to crawl under, and the stand was only a little wobbly.
I had to walk away. Watching this was giving me a royal case of the heebie-jeebies. I wouldn’t have crawled under there for all the money in the world. Pablo is fearless though. First he hammered a piece of wood into the break in the axle. Then he used an assortment of rubber straps to secure it in place. Apparently he was out of duct tape. Pablo McGyver – my hero.
We finally got going again. Every few miles, the awful burning odor would reoccur. Each time, Pablo would stop, get out, and readjust something. After a few of these pit stops, Pablo gave up and just kept driving. Soon I had a pounding headache from the odor. The headache went nicely with the fever and exhaustion I was still battling. I endured all of this by counting the kilometer markers as they passed. By the time we reached single digits I was feeling a little better. At that point, I knew we could walk the rest of the way if we had to.
We reached another small village and stopped briefly. I picked up some snacks at the local store while Christy waited. While walking back to the bus, I saw a couple of local kids elbowing each other and pointing at me. Subtle, huh? I heard one of them say “gringo”, and they erupted in a fit of giggles. I was glad I could be that entertaining for them.
The last part of the ride was the worst. Once again we wound our way in and out of a series of canyons. This time though, each time we rounded a right-hand switchback, the bus lurched dangerously towards the brink of the cliff. Most of the passengers would scream, barely calming down in time for the next hairpin turn. It was a lot like a low-speed rollercoaster, except that most theme parks offer a relative assurance of safety.
Now we know why Pablo’s bus only runs on Wednesday and Saturday. It must be in the shop on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Against all odds, the bus never rolled off a cliff (at least not on this particular day). By the time we reached La Union it was well after dark. We finally reached the terminal and disembarked. We paid Pablo 20 soles each ($7) and were greeted by a woman from the bus company. She asked us a single-word question – “Huaraz”?
“Si”, we responded. She sold us tickets for the 3:30am bus to Huaraz for 10 soles each. She then asked if we needed a place to stay. The family from Utah had given us the name of a good hotel, but we were so late arriving that we would only be there a few hours. Instead, we went with the woman, who showed us to a single room with two lumpy beds. The room was located between the bus terminal and the town dump. Outside, a pack of stray dogs roamed.
The price was 5 soles each. It’s hard to believe that a room at that price could be a rip off, but this probably was. It was hideous, but too convenient to refuse. We’d only have to walk a few yards to get on the bus. The Israeli girl was freaked out by the notion of staying by herself, so we invited her to join us. She had to sleep on the floor, but in hindsight, that couldn’t have been any worse than our beds. We slept in our sleeping bags on top of the sheets, but the mattress (?) was brutal.
It was late, and everyone was tired, but I had developed a hacking cough to go along with my fever. I decided to venture out into town in search of cough medicine. The ladies declined to join me. In fact, I don’t think either of them left the marginal safety of the room except to use the toilet. Then again, we didn’t have an actual key to our room, so someone had to stay behind anyway.
Venturing out into La Union was one of the more courageous (crazy?) things I’ve done. It was a Saturday night, and the party was in full swing. Throngs of locals mobbed the streets, wandering among cooking fires. Scooters went screaming by, weaving through the crowds, while stray dogs kept to the shadows. Pounding music throbbed from every direction. And I was the only gringo around.
I adopted my normal strategy in awkward situations and kept moving without making eye contact with anyone. After a few blocks I stumbled upon a drug store. I bought something that looked like cough medicine, along with a bottle of the Peruvian equivalent of Sprite. I then hurried back, eager to avoid any sort of trouble. Back at the room I cooked one of our backpacking dinners on our camp stove. We went straight to bed after eating, but slept poorly. The lousy beds had a lot to do with that. It was also surprisingly hot, and I swear there were some mosquitoes in the room with us. Where were we, anyway? The jungle?
That raises an interesting point. This was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t know exactly where I was. We were well off the map of the Huayhuash we’d used on our hike. This realization was really driving me batty.
We got up at 3am on Sunday and headed over to the bus. We slept off and on during the ride, and arrived back in Huaraz at 8am. We weren’t home, but it was a huge relief being back on familiar ground.
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