Trekking in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash: Part 1 – Cuartelwain to Huayhuash

With every step we climbed a little higher, a little closer to the day’s goal. Finally, out of breath, we reached the mountain pass where we had an expansive view of the snowy peaks in Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes. This was going to be an incredible week.

The world-famous Huayhuash Circuit trek is 130 km long, crosses over 8 high altitude mountain passes and climbs to 4 viewpoints. There are a few variations that allow you to make the trek longer or shorter. We think 8 days is the perfect amount of time to see the best sites and not tire of the journey.

Since it’s a high altitude hike it is imperative that you are acclimatized before beginning. Anything above 2,400 m (8,000 ft) is considered high altitude and requires the body to acclimatize. This hike begins at 4,000 m (13,124 ft) and climbs to as high as 5,200 m (17,060 ft). Most people will do their acclimatization from the city of Huaraz. Located at 3,052 m (10,013 ft), it provides a good base to prepare for the hike.

From downtown Huaraz you can enjoy excellent views of the mountains in Cordillera Blanca. A few years ago we hiked around this mountain range. Our story is here. Peru’s highest mountain Nevado Huascarán (6,768 m/2,2204 ft) can be seen right from Plaza de Armas in Huaraz.

There are many day hikes near Huaraz that can get you to even higher elevations. It is recommended to spend a few days hiking in the area to acclimate. A walk up to the top of Cerro de Rataquenua helped us acclimitize and gave us a better view of the Cordillera Blanca.

Day 1 – Driving from Huaraz to Cuartelwain

It’s called an 8-day trek, but there are actually only 7 days of walking. The first day is spent driving to the first camp. The four-hour drive from the city of Huaraz allowed glimpses of the Andean range we’d spend the next week exploring.

There’s not a lot of time to acclimatize on this trek as the first campsite, Camp Cuartelwain, is already at 4,180 m (13,714 ft). It is located in a long valley bordered by grass covered hills that block your view of the giant peaks. We took a short walk to the top of one of the hills for a better look.

We were to spend the next 7 days trekking the circuit around Cordillera Huayhuash with 12 other trekkers from Ireland, UK, Australia, USA, France, Germany and Denmark. At first we thought this was too large a group for an enjoyable trip, but it turned out to be a great group of Gen Zs, Millennials … and us.

Day 2 – Camp Cuartelwain to Laguna Carhuacocha

Trekking Time – 6 hr, 5 min (plus breaks); Elevation Gain – 505 m (1,657 ft) & 450 m (1,476 ft); Elevation Loss – 485 m (1,590 ft) & 420 m (1,378 ft)

The first day of trekking doesn’t let you ease you into the trip. It begins with a steep climb up a narrow gully, made even tougher at an elevation over 4,000 m. Each step is harder and harder the higher you climb. You struggle to breathe and your heart is racing when you exercise at this elevation. And yet, you have to keep going.

A small ledge halfway up allowed us to look directly down on our first campsite far below while condors soared over head.

Pushing up yet another steep slope brought us to a narrow ridge and our first pass, Cacananpunta, at 4,686 m (15,375 ft). Apparently the Quechua people have a sense of humour as the name translates in English to shit pass. They’re not far off with the name as it was a pretty tough slog for the first day.

From the pass we looked down to the bright red coloured Laguna Pucacocha. Laguna translates to lake in English. From the pass we were supposed to be able to see mountains such as Rondoy and Ninashanch, but clouds prevented much of a view.

Not only did we start the trek with a steep, tough pass, but this first day of hiking has a second pass. The next one was a little more gentle at least. We left Cacananpunta and hiked across grassy hills, slowly losing elevation. Looking back we had a different view of Laguna Pucacocha and the tall peaks behind.

The trail passed a cross that commemorates a Polish explorer who died in Huayhuash. There weren’t many animals but we did see a few Andean Geese landing on a small pond and further on a pair of Andean Ibis.

Before beginning to climb back up to the next pass we had to cross a small farm. Our guide, Hector, opened the farm gate and looked around as we entered. No one else was there, and we didn’t know what Hector was looking for. As we walked across the paddock we saw a rancher in the distance. He was running as fast as he could across the fields toward us. It turns out there is a fee to cross his land and he didn’t want to miss out on the payment.  

Punta Carhuac 4,650 m (15,255 ft) didn’t offer much of a view so we had no preview of the scene that lay ahead. After a little more walking though we reached a lookout where we had a view of the cloud covered Yerupajá Chico. Further on we saw how the gorgeous Laguna Carhuacocha provided the perfect base below this giant.

Our campsite, 4,230 m (13,878 ft), was set on a ridge above the lake offering unbelievable views right from camp. It poured soon after we arrived, but once the rain stopped, the skies began to change. At first the clouds were still angry and were swirling around Yerupajá.

As they began to lift we walked down to the lake shore and enjoyed the breathtaking scenery. With the lake in front, the snow-capped Yerupajá Chico, Yerupajá, Suila Grande and Jirishanca above, it was a magical spot. Somehow all of the hard work to get here was forgotten.

Day 3 – Laguna Carhuacocha to Huayhuash

Trekking Time – 6 hr, 22 min (plus breaks); Elevation Gain – 570 m (1,870 ft) & 50 m (164 ft); Elevation Loss 433 m (1,420 ft)

After the views we had at our campsite above the lake we didn’t think the scenery could get any better. The cloudy skies in the morning had us even less convinced that today would be a stellar day. The trail took us around the lake and then up a long wide valley with the mountain sides covered in long ichu grass and small bushes. In the distance we heard avalanches and within a few seconds could see them coming down over a rocky cliff.

When we reached the end of the valley, Hector suggested a short side trip to a viewpoint 60 m above. It was a steep climb but the scenery made us say ‘wow’ when we arrived. The avalanches we had heard before were now right in front of us. Yerapaja’s glacier was dramatically calving off into Laguna Qangrajanca. Icebergs were floating on the blue water. It was magical.

From the ridge we looked down to see Laguna Suila reflecting the nearby peaks off its clear, flat water. Looking up we had our first close look at Suila Grande and Yerupajá with Yerupajá Chico nearby. Three massive peaks in one view.

This was an incredible surprise, but the views weren’t done yet. We returned to the main trail and continued to climb toward Mirador Tres Lagunas (Viewpoint of Three Lakes). On the way we spotted a couple of cute vizcachas who were posing for pictures on a large rock. They look like small rabbits, but are a type of chinchilla.

A little higher up we arrived at the lookout and stood in awe as Lagunas Qangrajanca, Siula, and Quesillococha sat under the massive peaks of Siula Grande, Yerupajá and Yerupajá Chico. Even on a cloudy day these three glacial lakes were stunning below the magnificent white peaks of the Andes.

Another 350 or so meters of climbing on loose rock brought us to Suila Pass at 4,830 m (15,846 ft). The cloudy sky added more drama to the rocky scene.

From the pass it was a long walk down grassy slopes and over strange sponge-like plants. We passed cows grazing in pastures and could see small farmhouses in the distance. Finally we reached a few modest farm homes collected together on the plain that make up the community of Huayhuash, our next campsite (4,367 m/14,327 ft). One industrious local sold beer and pop as you approached. We bought Inca Kolas. The sweet drinks really hit the spot.

We decided to join a guided group for this hike because we didn’t bring any of our gear from Canada. Being on a guided trek means that your large backpacks are carried on a donkey. As well, the guiding company sets up camp and prepares all meals including snacks and tea. It was a really nice treat to arrive at camp and be treated to a tea and popcorn rather than having to set up our tent and cook dinner.

We spent each night in the dining tent with the rest of the trekkers. It was a lot of fun listening to stories of their crazy mishaps and adventures. As we got to know each other, more and more stories were shared. We’ll share some of the funnier stories that were told on coming posts.

That night in Huayhuash Camp, Hector warned us to keep all of our belongings inside our tents overnight as there are banditos in the area and thefts have occurred on other trips. This was certainly turning out to be different from our usual trekking trips.

Coming Next – Trekking in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash: Part 2

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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