If you do an internet search on the Cordillera Huayhuash trekking circuit in central Peru you are bound to be inundated by tour companies offering their guiding services on one of the “best alpine treks in the world”.
There are a few different variations of the circuit, which has having recently changed from the advance of roads but our plan was to hike the main circuit clockwise starting in Pocpa, the end of the public bus, and finishing in community of Llamac.
Our route would cover about 150 kilometers, including a side trip to the base of Siula Grande, location of the famous mountaineering story as told in the book by Joe Simpson “Touching the Void” and have us cross six passes over 4,600 meters over 10 days. Contrary to the touts of tour operators and the overwhelming percentages of gringos who do this hike with the aid of mules and porters we had decided to join the fewer percentages who do the hike alone and self-supported.
Why would we do something so crazy when options were limitless for taking the easy route? It wasn’t the money, even though it would have cost us 3x as much had we decided to take the luxury route or the fact that we needed to prove something to the world. I don’t know if it is our stubborn determination, our stoic individualism, our Canadian independence or what, but to us part of spending time in nature was about being part of it as much as possible.
Back-country trekking or biking to us is about the experience of nature which usually involves depriving ourselves of some of the comforts of our modern society with the reward of a stunning mountain view at the foot of a glacier with no sounds other then the wind and the occasional avalanche. The deprivation of modern comforts generally doesn’t enter your mind because your senses are so overloaded with the experience that you are having in the natural world. When the time comes to return to those comforts you feel more enriched and appreciate even more the softness of your bed, the hot water coming out of the tap and the taste of a meal with fresh vegetables. The more simply we travel, even if only for 10 days, brought us closer to that connection with nature. We had the packs on our backs, our own 2 feet, a map, and time at our disposal. The freedom to do what we want, when we wanted and to go where we wanted, on our own time frame without a schedule. That’s the way we wanted it, no more no less.
I’m going to write a quick aside here simply because I want people to know that it’s not that hard to do it on your own and because in my opinion the experience can be much more rewarding. You might think to carry 10 days worth of food and all of your camping gear up and down mountains would require fitness worthy of an Iron-man triathlete, but it does not! It does require spending some money on quality gear (or renting some) that is light and durable, planning out your meals in advance and spending some time exercising and acclimatizing before the trip.
Further, you need to buy a good map and compass and know how to use both. If you have the fitness but lack the gear or feel uncomfortable about you navigation skills or lack the basics of Spanish, which can be important in asking directions, then by all means hire one of the wonderful highly accredited local guides. In addition, a guide also has a lot of local knowledge and can contribute to your greater understanding of the area, its people, cultures, landscapes and wildlife.
Hiring a guide is one thing but setting out on the hike with all the comforts of home on the backs of several donkeys, cooks and portable outhouses (like we witnessed on this trip) is another. The donkey is a traditional form of transport for the local people but the sheer numbers of donkeys being used by gringos for their “hike” is unnecessary and causing major damage to the trails and increases grazing pressure in already over grazed landscapes. In addition to the damage, it is embarrassing to me how many things these donkeys are carrying just for people to go trekking in the face of the locals who live with so much less. Notably, the locals who I would think would be resentful of gringos walking around their pastures for pleasure while they while away trying to make a living were far from it and were extremely pleasant and friendly.
What about the ‘best alpine trek in the world”? Here’s a little photo preview to showcase the highlights:
Some final thoughts on the Cordillera Huayhush circuit. It’s easy to see why the trekking agencies tout the hike as one of the best in the world. The mountain range is one of the most gorgeous you will ever see, the local highland people are extremely friendly and the reward of 10 days of hike with numbers passes with an average elevation well over 4,000 m is truly unforgettable.
However, I thought I should include some little known or talked about realities about the trek:
1. THE LACK OF REMOTENESS.
This is not a remote wilderness trek as you may have thought. You are trekking through the lands that are used by the local highlanders which is mostly a grazing reserve for various livestock that includes cattle, sheep, horses and donkeys. You will find all of the above right up to the edge of the glaciers. This includes their “shit” and the occasional dead animal in high mountain streams. Water purification is essential.
Dead cow just downstream of the lake “Jahuacocha” where we collected our water from, there was also a dead donkey close to the stream not far away from this
However the locals have been utilizing these landscapes for thousands of years and interacting with them and witnessing how they live was an experience in itself.
2. THE PAYMENT SYSTEM.
Contrary to many great hikes by which you would pay ahead of time and possess a ‘back country pass’ to anyone who may check. This hike has a very poorly organized payment system. As the trek meanders through 9 communities and of which several claim their territories over the land and none of which work together as a whole you are then forced to pay a direct fee to each territory that you may either pass by or utilize one of the the back country campsites. The problems here are multitudinous, starting with the fact that each community charges a different amount and in some cases for no apparent reason. This makes it difficult to know exactly how much money to carry on the trek as we had quotes from anywhere from 140 soles to 200 soles per person. The best example of this was on our first day when we disembarked the bus in the community of Popca where we were asked to pay 10/S each (about $4) to lave the town. Now you may think this was fair if the community was providing expensive trail maintenance but we were set to walk up the public road which was probably paid for and maintained by the nearby mine.
Other communities were charging seemingly exorbitant fees to camp in areas with non functioning or unclean toilets. One community charged us 40/S each to pass through which was more than our wonderful hostel in Huaraz (with warm water, beds and internet). After a heated discussion over what we were actually paying for it was finally understood by us that this community’s territory was large and most trekkers camp at an average of 2 of their campgrounds to justify the cost. This made it a bit more understandable but we feel this was still really high considering to poor state of the facilities if any existed at all.
The whole payment experience created an uneasy feeling for us during our trek as we were hesitant to be approached by any person in fear to be asked for another fee. It’s not that we do not want to support the communities along the way as we did see some exceptional hard work along the trails by the placement of stones in wet areas and some signage. It was the lack of clarity of which we were paying for and the haphazard way by which we were required to pay. Because there is a lack of communication regarding the payment structure and no such organization on two occasions were felt taken advantage of. In one instance we were asked to pay a higher fee than what was printed on the official ticket until we questioned the man about it and in the other case we were told that our price was 10 soles per person but 20 soles per person if we wanted an ‘official receipt’.
Because of this corruption and the lack of clarity as to where the money actually goes leads to the next issue.
3. THE GARBAGE.
While I don’t have any substantial evidence of this and is just a hypothesis I feel that the amount of garbage and sanitary waste along the trail may be a result of high fees and inadequate facilities. I would suspect the fees charged would help pay for at least some form of bathrooms in the back country, and although each campground did have some form of toilet, most if not all, were either not functioning or extremely dirty.
Baño at Jahuacocha that was donated by a trekking agency, but hasn’t been up kept, and this was the fanciest one of the 4 that were available.
This is what appears to happen after a pit toilet is full, they fill it (albeit with garbage) and cap it. The pits don’t appear to be lined and are very close to the lake by which I am sure it’s well within reach of the groundwater that seeps into the lake. In other places on the trek there were baños with flushing toilets, most were filthy and not functioning with no indication as to where it actually “flushed” to.
I think, as a result, many hikers have become disgruntled and have decided to leave their garbage for the communities to deal with rather than pack it out themselves, as they should. In honesty I had the same thought after paying 80 soles for the two of us, but didn’t act on it.
This is an unfortunate reality on this trek right now that needs change. The communities need to be supported but the trekkers need to understand what they are paying for and need to be charged a fair price.
Side note: After this trip Karen had an unfortunate diagnosis which forced us to stay in Huaraz for longer than anticipated.
I hope I haven’t underscored the sheer awesomeness in the true definition of the word of this hike as it truly is an amazing experience. However given the realities of what I have mentioned I would not place it in my top five list, but probably in the top ten. The El Cocuy circuit that we hiked in Colombia rates within the top three for overall experience.