We both grew up in the mountains of Colorado, so heading up to Huaraz, one of the prettiest towns in Peru, and one ringed by two mountain ranges - including the amazing Cordilla Blanca, felt a bit like going home.
But we knew we had to wait until April to do it, for hiking is not nearly as fun when it's pouring rain the whole time. Our original plan was to hike the Santa Cruz Trek since there was so much info on it and it was supposed to be absolutely STUNNING. But we also knew it would be PACKED with people, and we don't like people (especially when we're out in nature). Luckily, we were told about another trek that was really similar in terms of time and distance, but was not nearly as well-known a.k.a would not have a lot of people.
The only thing we were worried about with the trek we chose, the Quilcayhuanca trek, was the fact that because it was not as popular, the trail would likely be a bit harder to find. But after talking to three different guides we were assured that we would be fine if we just followed the cairns (small rock piles that often mark the "trail").
But the first thing we had to do before starting the hike was rent some good gear. We ended up getting a tent, two sleeping bags, two nice inflatable sleeping pads, two normal foam pads, gas for our cook stove (a Jetboil), and two rain ponchos.
The guy we rented all the gear from also gave us two bowls, cups, silverware and an extra thing of gas, for there was a possibility the first might run out, all for free. He also threw in a second rain tarp for the tent, just in case (we were so glad he did after the first night). We also went out and bought a cheap piece of plastic for underneath the tent (cost us less than a dollar, but helped a whole BUNCH). We also bought a nice, detailed topographic map of the area for 80 soles (about $27).
All of the gear cost us about 220 soles total, or about 73 USD, not including the map. That's not too bad, especially since it was top-notch gear. Besides the gear, we ended up spending about 120 soles, or 40 USD, for food for the three days we were going to be out trekking.
Okay, so now for the actual trek.
We set off from Huaraz at around 7 AM. The guy we bought the map from, and who gave us lots of useful information, arranged a private taxi for us for 100 soles, which is kind of a lot, but it made for a nice relaxing first morning.
The gate of the national park, and the start of the trek, was really just a big stone gate in the middle of nowhere. You are expected to pay 65 soles a person to get in. But because we were there so early or because it was a weekday, no one was there to give us a ticket. The two older Peruvian men who were also hanging around just told us to jump over the stone wall, which we quickly did. While we felt kind of bad for not paying for the entrance ticket, we were also kind of glad to save a bit of money (#budgettravel).
The first day of hiking was in a big green valley, with super tall rocks and waterfalls on both sides. Right when you get inside the gate you will see a stone bridge to the right, while it looks like the right way, DO NOT take it. It will lead you along the wrong side of the river and will make it very difficult and slow to keep hiking (it is super marshy and only has one bridge to cross back to the right side).
After figuring out our mistake, and eventually getting to the right side of the river, we started to pick up the pace. We took a quick snack break at the first campground on the route. We started hiking just after 8 AM and reached the first campground at around 11 AM. While we are pretty quick hikers, this campground seemed to just be too soon on the trail to be a logical stopping point, especially if you are trying to do the whole thing in three days.
After the campsite it was another hour up through a second meadow, this one a bit more shrubby. Here it starts to climb a bit, nothing too terrible, but you will definitely start to feel the burn at such a high altitude.
We ended up setting up camp on a nice pampa (flat terrace) next to the river that snakes through the valley; and just below a very large lake. We got to camp around 12:30 PM, set up the tent and then walked up to the beautiful lake.
The lake itself is a nice turquoise-green color and the far side is just a massive glacier with a waterfall coming off it: talk about a glacier fed body of water.
It started to rain at 2 PM, something we were warned about beforehand, so we settled into the tent, unpacked everything and spent a good couple of hours reading. We also boiled enough water for the next day, which was super useful, but also kind of a hassle.
While the river next to us was really close to its source (the glacier) it was definitely not safe enough to drink. Why? Because while you will not likely see anyone else on the trek, you will for sure meet at least a couple DOZEN cows and horses (we never found out if they were wild or not...).
The horses and cows were EVERYWHERE. And we mean all over the mountains, by the rivers, up on rock outcropping and even at elevations above 15,000 feet. The animals were definitely skittish, but at the same time quite curious about us. We are not usually afraid of cows, but all of them had horns and were quite large, plus we didn't know how they would take two humans coming into their territory and setting up a large blue contraption in their field. In the end, a few came rather close to sniff us out but otherwise moved out of our way.
Day Two, the Pass.
We woke up just before 7 AM, made ourselves a nice bowl of oatmeal and coffee before packing up and heading out. We knew the second day would be the hardest from the get-go, plus Madalyne was still not feeling 100% (she still had a bit of a stomach bug from a couple days before).
The first bit of trail goes up some gradual switchbacks on the left side of the very large valley. It was foggy so we didn't get great views of the surrounding landscape, but we're sure it was stellar on a clear day.
Once at the top we stopped for some water, talked to a very curious young cow before dropping our bags and walking up to one of the bigger waterfalls in the meadow. This area was by far the prettiest of the trek: lush, with rock outcroppings, multiple waterfalls and rivers, and many, many "wild" horses. It was mystical standing up there, surrounded by massive snow-capped peaks with only horses to keep you company.
The fog began to clear, making it much easier to find the correct trail. The guides were right: as long as you follow the cairns you will be fine. There was also a pretty clear trail twisting its way up the hill, something we were surprised about, but thankful for.
The first bit of the next "hill" was STEEP. We had to almost crawl on all fours in a few areas. But then you get to a small plateau (make sure to keep looking around at the views), then another gradual uphill, then another flat part, this time with a small pond and a campground (the last before the pass), before the one big, super steep climb that eventually leads to the pass.
We had lunch halfway up, just when it began to snow (we were almost at 16,000 feet). It was pretty slow going up to that point: we definitely had to stop every couple feet to catch our breath and give our calves and hamstrings a break. But once we reached the top of the last climb it flattens out (somewhat). Then it is just a short walk across a lot of granite rocks, with plenty of cairns to guide us.
We could almost see the pass from there, at least the ridge that it sat on. For the last 15 or 20 minutes it was relatively "easy," or at least not as bad as the previous three hours of hiking.
We ended up heading straight for two clear cairn pillars that stood majestically along the ridge, and while it looked like THE PASS, it wasn't. The right pass was just around the corner; we had to walk
through a bit of snow to get there, but
seeing the finish line, in a sense, made us feel so happy.
We wanted to enjoy our celebratory sweet at the top, but it started to snow HARD so we both said screw it, let's just get down the other side so we can set up camp before we get stuck in a blizzard.
This was the point in the trek where we started to question our sanity.
On the other side of the small rock outcropping that is "The Pass", there was just snow and a steep looking drop-off. Our stomachs got that slightly knotted feeling you get right before you do something scary, like bungee-jump off a bridge or ride a roller coaster. We stood there, shivering, our socks already soaked, and stared at what looked like a glacier with a sheer drop on the other side. We almost turned around. But we knew we couldn't wimp out, we hadn't any other time something got hard, so we couldn't now either.
The mountains test you, Mother Nature tests you. But sometimes you just have to push past your limits in order to understand what those limits really are.
So we tightened our backpacks and slowly started making our way down. The beta told us to keep following the cairns down a steep trail. Luckily, someone had been there the day before so we had his footsteps to follow. We felt, unless he ended up making a wrong turn and falling off the side, that this was a smart move. At least it meant we didn't have to break trail the whole way.
It was the right call and eventually we got out of the snow (it really only took us twenty minutes before the trail became quite clear). But it was SLICK. We went slowly down the wet, muddy hillside, using small rocks to brace our feet on. The snow started coming down harder, making it tough to see the valley below. We crossed a couple streams and a cool waterfall before reaching the first of two large flat pampas. The beta suggested camping on the first one, and we wholeheartedly agreed.
Luke ended up getting a terrible headache from the altitude (we camped at about 14,700 feet; higher than any mountain in the continental United States). We both chugged the rest of our water and filled up on extra salty ramen for dinner, and fell asleep quickly.
Day Three: The Return
On the last morning we awoke to about an inch of snow and some absolutely AMAZING views of the valley and surrounding mountains. We finally had picture perfect clarity of the snow-capped peaks that ringed the area. It took our breath away, and even though it was freezing outside, we stood there in our sandals and just stared for a while, taking it all in.
We didn't even make oatmeal for breakfast, it was just too cold and we just wanted to get out of the snow (plus we knew the hike out was easy). Our socks hadn't dried from the day before so we had to slip and slide down the snowy hillside in freezing socks and somewhat wet shoes. For a second we even thought Luke had gotten frostbite on one of his toes.
Once out of the snow (yay), and about 2,000 feet lower in elevation, the weather was absolutely perfect: warm and clear with that weirdly beautiful smell of clean you only find in nature. We sat and warmed up our toes before setting out for the trail on the other side of the river. This time it wasn't even a trail but a nice two track dirt road. And it was flaaaat. Talk about a nice walk out.
The trail out is almost exactly 12 kilometers (there were markers every couple kilometers until the very end). The road followed the river the whole way before reaching another stone wall, with another closed gate and unmanned guard building. We hopped over, asked a nice woman walking with her dogs the way to Llampa (the town we were going catch the bus at) and began walking up the road to the left.
Even though the hike out was relatively easy our legs were still tired. We reached the town and asked another local where the bus stopped and how often it ran. At the bridge where she said the bus stop was, we found almost the whole town partaking in a nice animal skinning and cleaning party. From the look of the pile of heads on the left bank, it seemed the animal of choice was sheep.
The bus arrived not long after and we heaved a sigh of relief at being able to sit and rest our legs for a while. The ride back to Huaraz took 20 minutes and only cost us 2.50 soles, though we believe the guy didn't realize Madalyne was trying to pay for two people, so we would say expect to pay 5 soles total, which is obviously a way better deal than coughing up another 80 or 100 soles for a private taxi.
The entire trek took three long days and by the end we were completely wiped. By the time we got back to Huaraz we were both dreaming of a nice soft bed, warm shower and Mexican food (something tough to find in Peru). So we splurged on a nicer hotel and hit up a relatively expensive Mexican restaurant near the main square (#treatyoself).
Hiking in the Andes of Peru was something we had looked forward to the most when planning our trip down to South America. And the Quilcayhuanca Trek definitely was everything we wanted, if not more.
So if you are considering trekking in Peru, and Huaraz in particular, we recommend foregoing the popular Santa Cruz Trek and doing one that is more off-the-beaten path (but still just as beautiful).