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Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash

Latin America


Views from the first night on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek.

Views from the first night on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek.

The Long Ride There

I jolted awake as the bus took another perilous turn on the dirt road that would supposedly deposit us at our start point for the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. Surprised that I could see my breath, I wiped away some condensation and sleepily peered out the window into the darkness. Everything was white. Confused, I turned to the seat next to me. Quin was still asleep, beanie pulled securely down over his eyes. I shook him awake. “It’s snowing. I thought this was supposed to be the dry season!?” Panicking, my voice betrayed a level of urgency more indicative of Chicken Little exclaiming that “The sky is falling!” Unamused by my early morning theatrics, Quin mumbled something, and pulled his beanie further over his face.

The Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced ‘why-wash,’ with the second syllable rhyming with ‘rash’) occupied a space in my sub-consciousness before I knew its name. I’d fallen in love with photos before I knew where it was. And, I planned theoretical trips to the razor-sharp peaks, bejeweled alpine lakes, and rock faces in those photos before I knew they were all located in the same location – The Cordillera Huayhuash. Needless to say, expectations were high.

Miles of alpine eye candy stretching out under an impossibly blue Peruvian sky. That was the image of Huayhuash I had been cultivating for months. Snow flurries simply didn’t fit. Freezing, I closed my eyes and pulled my knees tight into my chest. I slowly started checking off the gear in my bag as if I were counting sheep: 2 bikinis, a snapback and sunscreen, a tee-shirt, flip flops for camp. . . . it was all wrong. I closed my eyes again: 15 degree sleeping bag, down jacket, 2 long sleeve base layers, 2 pairs of pants, beanie, and a pair of hiking boots. Make that two pairs. Ok, I’d live.


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru are some of the best I’ve ever seen. But don’t miss these other Beautiful Places That You Have To Visit In Peru!


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

I woke up as the few remaining passengers on the bus brushed past me. We had arrived in Pocpa, the last stop on the bone-rattling journey to The Huayhuash. Outside the sun was shining, and there was no sign of snow – perhaps the whole thing had been a strange altitude induced nightmare. Quin had already gathered our gear and was looking for our arriero (porter).

A False Start On the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek

There are a few different ways to tackle the Huayhuash. You can join an organized guided trip through an agency, you can hire an arriero and mules to transfer the bulk of your gear between camp along the trail, or you can do the trek independently. After some back and forth, Quin and I had landed on the middle option. Neither of us relished the idea of lugging 10 days worth of food and supplies, plus photography gear, and camping equipment in a backpack on high altitude trails. But, we weren’t ready to relinquish our freedom to an organized tour. Gnarly headaches during our first couple days in Peru while we were still acclimating made it an easy decision – we paid for the arriero back at our hostel in Huaraz, and arranged to meet him at the bus in Pocpa.


Trekking Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash


Relaxing after our first full day of hiking on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

Relaxing after our first full day of hiking on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

We sat in the dirt and waited until the last person at the Pocpa bus stop (and by “bus stop,” I mean literally where the bus had stopped) disappeared. And then we waited some more. The hours slowly drifted past. Occasionally someone from the village would wander by just close enough to stare at us inquisitively. Quin and I started to talk worst case scenarios. Maybe we should just start hiking? Do it independently. It was getting late, and if we didn’t start soon we’d miss our 10 day window.

And then the rain started – turns out I hadn’t dreamt up the snow after all. Throwing on a jacket I pulled my pack under some shelter. Gasping for air from the effort, I plopped down next to Quin. Out of breath, we laughed at the absurdity of our situation. There was no way we could trek The Huayhuash independently at this point – we hadn’t packed for it. Our bags were prohibitively heavy. Reorganizing his bag Quin turned to me, “You’re going to have to leave one pair of Keens behind.” I smiled, “Which do you think will go better with the landscape? Pink or grey?” We laughed. The road we had been sitting on a few moments earlier was now a river of mud. Grey Terradora hiking boots it was.

By this point, word that two Americanos were sitting on giant bags out in the rain had spread thought the village. Little kids stared and giggled, while old women peered out from behind doorways to get a glimpse. A pair of men wandered over and introduced themselves. I watched as Quin explained our situation in Spanish. Traveling with a person fluent in Spanish can be a real advantage in a remote, exclusively Spanish speaking town. Apparently these men knew our arriero. He was working the mines, and probably would not be back for hours – if not days. I watched intently as their conversation continued, convinced that sooner or later it would all click and I would magically understand Spanish. But no.

As it turned out, the two men were guides, and they were leading an 8 day trek through The Huayhuash starting the next day. A million doubts, questions, and logistical issues flooded my mind. But really what choice did we have? I was in. After all, it was the best plan I’d heard all day! And so, the next morning after twelve hours of planes, fifteen hours of buses, two days of acclimation, and one day of sitting in the rain, I took my first steps on The Huayhuash.


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

On The Trail

Hiking at elevation is no joke. At 15,000 ft, a hundred yards with a daypack feels like a 10K on a bad day. Muscle recovery slows, sleep and hunger become elusive, and every time you catch yourself sounding like a chain-smoker after a hundred yard dash, you’ll silently apologize for wondering why the characters in Into Thin Air didn’t just walk a little faster. Altitude sickness is unrelated to your general level of fitness, and the only real cure involves descending to lower elevation. Which, all ego aside, is difficult when you’re trekking a circuit, with a group, on a strict schedule. Head down, I slogged up some of the longer passes memorizing every detail of my Terradora boots. The different textures, the “Keen” logo on the tongue, the twisted lace. Anything to distract myself. “One foot in front of the other” became my silent mantra.

But at night, when I squirmed into my sleeping bag, none of that mattered. Every day there was a new pass to conquer. And at the top of each pass there was one inescapable truth – The Huayhuash was the most beautiful mountain range I had ever laid my eyes on. Every step further into it’s depths felt menacingly remote and exhilarating at the same time. No hordes of hikers, no helicopters, no turning back. Just us and the mountains. And the fifteen mules, five horses, four guides, and eleven jubilant singing Israelis that made up the rest of our ragtag Huayhuash family. . . but mostly just mountains.


Taking photographs on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

Taking photographs on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.


The highest point on the Views the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

The highest point on the Views the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

On the fourth night of The Huayhuash, we camped at some man made hot springs. You’d never guess they were there. Forty miles by foot from any sort of civilization. Waiting to hold your tired body in their warm embrace. But here they were, like a mountain mirage, daring you to question everything you thought you knew about remote alpine landscapes. I sat in the luxuriously hot water under a moonless sky, and slowly scanned the ocean of stars above for one of those rare twinkling ones meant for wishing upon. I found a promising star, but my mind was blank. I didn’t know what to wish for. I was exactly where I wanted to be. And that is a very rare thing indeed.


Hot springs on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

Hot springs on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.


One of many basecamps along the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

One of many basecamps along the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.


Feeling small in big landscapes on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

Feeling small in big landscapes on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

The last four days went very much like the first four. There is a certain rhythm to trail life that brings everything into focus. The smallest comforts are amplified, food taste scandalously good, and the world talks to you. Like most true adventures, this trip turned out to be less about capturing the beauty of a foreign landscape, and more about discovering and pushing past my own boundaries. Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often uncomfortable – it forces you to collide with the world on its terms. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. And yet, even when it’s not what I imagined, nature always finds a way to surpass my expectations. There are few things as uncompromising as nature. You take what it gives you. And then you thank it for the time it allowed you to have it. The Peruvian skies were not always blue, and the famous peeks were often obscured by clouds, but in the end, The Huayhuash was everything I needed it to be.


Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

Views from the trail on the Cordillera Huayhuash Trek in Peru.

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  1. Renee Hahnel says:

    This was such a beautiful and well written post Jess! I can only imagine how tough hiking at that altitude was. I’m thinking of taking my Terradoras on a 10 day Alaskan backpacking trip (sadly no porters for us… eeek), so glad to hear they stood up to the test!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks so much Renee! Really appriciate that. They definitely stood up to the test. I wore them on the Kalalau Trail too, and they were great. I’ve never had a pair of hiking boots that I actually forget I’m wearing before – but it happens all the time with the Terradoras. Pretty cool.

  2. Justin says:

    I was doing the Ausangate Trek with flashpackerconnect when you guys were doing this. I saw pictures and was like crap I have to come back to Peru! Cordillera is breathtaking! A must trek imo. Awesome blog!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Justin! Ausangate also looks beautiful. I can’t believe the diversity of landscapes in Peru. Huayhuash was absolutely stunning, and I’m glad we spent the time we had trekking it, but I was also like "crap I have to come back to Peru," after! Could easily spend a month there just trekking. Next time! 😉

  3. Andrew says:

    Wow. I’m very impressed with the images and trek of course but your blog was a great read. Well done. This trek has been on my list for years. You just reignited my South American travel bug.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Glad to hear it! It’s definitely a bucket list worthy trek. Thanks for stopping by and checking the blog out!

  4. Omar says:

    OMG great post Jess. Incredible pictures. The Andes are amazing and Peru has wonderful sites like Tumbes Manglares, The Manu Park in the jungle, Reserva natural de Paracas in desert, Huayllay, Nor Yauyos, Pacaya Samiria, Gocta en Chachapoyas… well lot of places. I like your blog. I am going to share in fb.
    I miss my home Peru and you help me to know more about the nature.
    Sorry about my english of you find mistakes.
    Omar

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much Omar! I really appreciate you sharing it. Peru is such a diverse and beautiful country. I only had the opportunity to visit this very small corner of it, but I hope to make it back some day to see more! 🙂

  5. Meghan says:

    Thanks for the post! Have been wanting more info after I saw your photos on Instagram. What an adventure. Hope to tackle this some day!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks so much for stopping by and checking out the post Meghan! It truly was quite the adventure. Everything just felt BIGGER there. I hope that you do get the change to explore the Huayhuash some day! It’s worth the time and effort. 🙂

  6. Mirza says:

    Awesome shots. Looks like a great place!

  7. Botello says:

    Keep the adventure alive!!! ⛺️⛰

  8. Jack says:

    The written word drew me in like a good story. The photos are excellent. The location is amazingly beautiful. Your butt looks fine in those hiking pants. It’s excellent work. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jess Dales says:

      LOL thanks Jack! I really appreciate the feedback. All of it. 😉 Blogging is kind of a new adventure for me, so it’s always helpful for me to hear what people are interested in seeing/reading on here. Have an awesome weekend!

  9. newatthis says:

    Hi Jess, Do you recall the name of the tour org that you went with? Looking to hike in September and tours are starting at 2500usd. Your pictures are amazing and I can’t wait to experience it as well.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi there! I actually do not remember the name of the tour company (or know if they even had one). Because we were not planning on doing a tour, I never did any research, and I didn’t get to chose who we went with. I just had to play the cards I was dealt with! That being said, I know you can go for MUCH less than 25000usd. If you are planning on being in the area for a while I would highly recommend picking up a copy of "Peru’s Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash: The Hiking and Biking Guide," by Neil Pike. He recommends Quechuandes for more budget minded trekking tours. Have a wonderful trip!!

  10. Emilee says:

    Captivating words and stunning photography! My father-in-law is from Ecuador and I’d love to travel through South America some day.

    Cheers,
    Emilee
    Epic Wipes

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Emilee! Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to read my blog. I hope that you make it to Ecuador. I hear that it is an amazingly beautiful country!

  11. Matt says:

    Really glad we came across this post – inspired and booking this trek instead of the over trodden inca trail for our upcoming Peru trip

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Matt! I’m so glad that you liked it, and even more excited for you to see it in person. I don’t think there is any way you will regret your decision. Easily one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. Have a wonderful trip!

      • Matt says:

        Update… did not regret it at all 😉 one of the best experiences we’ve had. For anyone looking for a great guide, we found a local family run organization based in Huaraz and they were fantastic – I built them a new website: http://www.huayhuash-trek.com

        • Jess Dales says:

          Thank you so much for the update Matt! That is awesome to hear. And I really appreciate the recommendation. I wasn’t in love with the guide that we used, which is why I didn’t specifically recommend them in the blog. We didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, and I’m happy to have a tried and true option now!

        • Smarika says:

          This website is gold! Thanks

  12. Edú says:

    Hi Jess:

    It’s my first time in your blog. I like it very much.

    I’m glad you had enjoyed a piece of Perú, my country.

    Good Luck for your next trips

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much Edu! That means a lot to me. I had a wonderful time in Peru. It is truly a beautiful country.

  13. Andy says:

    Hi Jess,

    Awesome write up. We are planning on doing this on our own next year… just wondering – what dates were you on the trail and did the weather improve or was crappy the norm? I take it your 15 degree bag worked out okay?

    Cheers

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hey Andy! I’m assuming I way to late on this. In which case I hope you had a wonderful time! But if I’m not, we were on the trail the last week or so of May. The weather was pretty crap the entire time – but I don’t think that is necessarily the norm for that time of year. In fact, the guide told us that the entire month of April had been beautiful, and we had a friend go a couple weeks later, and he also had great conditions. So go figure!

  14. Nimrod Guide R says:

    Nice i like it

  15. Eileen Hemeryck says:

    Thanks for sharing your trip! Leaving to do the Huayhuash Circuit in one week! Super excited! 🙂

    • Jess Dales says:

      I’m so excited for you! I didn’t talk too much about the hike itself in this blog, but it really was breathtaking the entire time. I hope you have a wonderful trip. Safe travels! 🙂

  16. The location is beyond gorgeous and the fantastic photos are top notch. I HAVE to ask – what equipment/lenses are you guys using ?

  17. Terry Woodburn says:

    Follow you on Instagram and stumbled on to these remarkable photos and essay. Thanks for the inspiration. Hoping to hit Huayhuash in April 2020 to celebrate retirement with a couple of months in Patagonia, Lakes District and Peruvian Andes. Have dreamt of it for decades. It’s time. Again, love your posts, photos and ample inspiration. Best, TW

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Terry. I’m so glad you found my blog! That sounds like an amazing way to kick of retirement. I haven’t been to Patagonia or the Lake District, but they are certainly in my bucket list! Huayhuash is unlike any other place I’ve ever been. I hope you have a wonderful journey!

  18. Michelle says:

    Hi Jess.
    Love this post. My fiance and I are doing it ourselves soon and are trying to decide on a route to take. I can see you did the San Antonio Pass but also did the hot springs by Lake Viconga. The routes I’ve been advised on/researched don’t seem to cover both those- it seems to be one way or another. Could you explain the route you took please and the passes you went via? Thanks so much! 🙂

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Michelle. I honestly can’t remember our exact rout anymore. But we did not hike through San Antonio Pass, we simply hiked up there to photographed the view because we heard it was one of the more beautiful passes along the rout. We then hiked back down and to the hot springs by Lake Viconga. I hope you have a wonderful trip!

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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