Off the beaten path in the high peaks of Peru: Huaraz

As almost every one of my posts has mentioned, repeatedly, Peru’s diversity of ecosystems and landscapes is beyond anything I ever imagined when planning my trip and was a constant source of amazement during my time there. To top off seven months of amazing experiences I spent the majority of my last two weeks in Peru checking out the mountaineer’s destination, Huaraz, and trekking the 10 day Huayahuash Circuit in the Cordillera Huayahuash.
Huaraz is the jumping off point for endless technical mountaineering and non-technical, but still challenging, trekking trips in Peru’s largest mountain range, the Cordillera Blanca, and the equally impressive nearby Cordillera Huayahuash. I was determined to get there from the first time I looked at a map of Peru and saw the long necklace of peaks that rival the Himalaya in altitude, located only a few hundred miles from the equator. Towers in the tropics. So, as June approached and work ended I booked a flight to Lima from Cusco (I couldn’t stomach the idea of a 21 hour bus ride that winds through the Andes on a route rumored to give the most seasoned traveler motion sickness). From there it’s a 7-8 hour bus ride to Huaraz with regularly scheduled departures on several bus lines. I took MovilTours for 50 soles and got a clean bus with a bathroom, reclineable seats and no discernible ‘bus falling apart’ noises: good enough! If I had paid a little more for the Cruz del Sur bus I would have had fully reclineable seats and wi-fi…for a longer trip I would definitely recommend going this route.
The route to Huaraz from Lima follows Peru’s almost moonscape desert and coastline, a strange mix of aquamarine waters and beachside snack shacks and miles of untouched dunes and black volcanic rock. In June a thick fog usually hugs the coast so I felt lucky to have views of the beaches I’ll have to visit next time around. A few hours into the ride we turned away from the ocean and began climbing into the mountains, and spent the remainder of the ride gaining altitude and gorgeous sunset views on surrounding rock faces.
We pulled into a dark Huaraz around 9PM, and I was surprised by how big of a town it is. Given its mountainous location I suppose I was imagining an alpine village of sorts; tall pines and small cottages. Nope; Huaraz is full of hustle and bustle and the streets are lined with concrete buildings built almost entirely after a massive earthquake leveled much of the town in 1970. So, with that in mind, be a little forgiving when evaluating Huaraz’s architectural aesthetic…she’s no beauty queen, but she’s got heart. From the bus station I took one of the readily available taxis to Jo’s Place, a hostel run by a husband and wife team (he’s from the UK, she’s from Huaraz) that has done a great job of attracting mountain enthusiasts from all over the world. Immediately upon check-in I could see that I would have no trouble meeting fellow travelers who could recommend good trekking options and/or suggest guides and gear companies – there were several people in the courtyard packing up for their adventures in the peaks and gear covering every free inch of space. I felt right at home, and stoked for an adventure.
Over coffee in the commons area kitchen the next morning I met a guy from Scotland who was also looking to do the 10 day Huayahuash Circuit; a well-known trail in the Cordillera Huayahuash that promised to give glimpses of just how wild, dynamic, and expansive this range is. And, as a bonus, he had already been in Huaraz for some time making good contacts with local guides and mountain enthusiasts we could get reliable information on doing a self-supported backpacking trip from. So, we decided to go for it and set out to get the maps, gear, and 10 days worth of food we would need to complete this mission…oh, and the ticket for the 5AM bus out of Huaraz to ultimately arrive in the (very) small mountain village of Llamac. Love those pre-sunset departure times!
We hit up the local market and bought the essentials: dehydrated soup mixes, quinoa, rice, salami, porridge, and of course instant coffee within an hour. As any backcountry roamer will tell you, trying to decide on several days of provisions for a wilderness trip can be stressful in the super market. At least in a colorful local market of stalls full of overflowing provisions it’s more of a ‘cultural experience’, and you can get everything you could possibly want in the quantity you want. I really can’t emphasize enough how nice that is when every ounce you pack will be hefted up over mountain passes that exceed in 16,000 feet.
Then, on to the gear and map store! If we were looking for a guided trip (which I would suggest…and I will clarify in subsequent posts) we could have headed over to the Casa de Guias (house of guides) to pick from a list of internationally certified trip leaders; a very helpful resource for last minute trips.
We photocopied a 1:45,000 topo map, rented a tent and cook stove and got some route finding advice from a French ex-pat now running a gear rental shop off the Plaza de Armas. We were told the route we were taking would be relatively straightforward…though some sections would be ‘off the beaten path’. Please note: if somebody tells you that you will be going off the beaten path in the mountains of Peru, be prepared for something more along the lines of ‘so, is there really supposed to be a path here…?”. But, more on that later.
So, within 24 hours of arriving in Huaraz I had a trekking partner, all the gear and food I would need, and a determined route. Needless to say, I was impressed by the ease of showing up in a new place and finding adventure. If you’ll be traveling in Peru and really want to check out the high peaks I would definitely suggest making your way here for the endless trekking and mountaineering options and great opportunities to meet other people interested in the same type of adventures.