My arms cannot bend due to the seven layers of clothing I am wearing on my top body. My lower half is clad in five layers. I am wearing four pairs of thermal socks and my toes are still aching. The only part of my body that is exposed is the horizontal strip of my face where my eyes are.
My breath is warm on the inside of my tightly wrapped scarf, contrasting with the biting air temperate at almost 5 000 metres above sea level (msl), as I attempt to survive a northern mountain chain in the Peruvian Andes. I turn around as if with a stiff neck, partly from the mound covering my body and partly from the cold which still filters through the fine spaces of the fabrics. Ma, as we call her, is gesturing that our evening meal is ready. Gratitude releases from all 12 of us, giving way to the warm steam from inside the cooking tent. The lingering colours of another South American sunset faded as hungry bodies, tired and weak from the day’s hike, fill the homely tent for a meal of soup, rice with beans and finally mate (local herbal tea made from cocoa leaves). We have been hiking for three days now and still have another five to go.
It seems like a lifetime ago when I soaking up the warm morning sun, waiting for a bed in the hostel along with a few other early arrivals. Like many other adventure seekers, mountaineers and climbers, I had come to use Huaraz as a base for the many outdoor activities and treks into the Cordillera Blanca and neighbouring Cordillera Huayhuash. A simple breakfast of bread, jam, coffee and mate was served to those already awake. The 21 people inside were to depart shortly on one of the many trekking expeditions into the snow-capped peaks. Those of us having just arrived on the overnight buses sipped lazily on warm caffeine-and-sugar concoctions. I was welcomed to Hebrew coffee and sweet manly voices singing to the strumming of a well-travelled guitar. It was a bit too early for my smoke-free lungs to partake of the sheesha which was passed around by the friendly Israeli travellers, but I happily accepted their strong brew.
After scouting out the different companies in town and the options of hikes into the cordillera, I decided on an eight-day hike into the Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced core-dee-lear-a _ why-wash). With surrounding icy mountain peaks over 6000 msl, it is important to have acclimatised before heading out for a lengthy trek into the mountains.
The Cordillera Huayhuash has one of the best trekking circuits in the world. The range lies south of the well-known Cordillera Blanca, in the Cordillera de los Andes. It stretches 30 kilometers from north to south, and includes impressive snow-covered peaks such as Yerupaja at 6634 msl, the second highest peak in Peru, and Siula Grande at 6336 msl. It is some 420 kilometers north of the country’s capital, Lima.
The hub of Huaraz acts as a base for mountaineers, hikers, trekkers and climbers into the cordillera. This city is the provincial capital of the Province of Huaraz with a population of approximately 100 000 people and is also the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Bishop of the province.
In the Cordillera Huayhuash, ten of us were lost in a land of snowy peaks for eight days. As the pink hues touched the craggy peaks on our first day, we gathered back from our evening strolls. Having arrived at the grassy spot just after seven hours in a bus from Huaraz, it was bliss to be able to stretch our legs and give our lungs a taste of what was to come over the next week. At over 4000 msl it was a bit of a pant to the small waterfall hiding between the cracks. The temperature dropped immediately as the sun sank behind snow-capped peaks. The smell of fried onions and soup lingered around the kitchen tent, inviting cold bodies to partake of the heat.
Donkeys carried tents, food and excess luggage, meeting us each night when we set up camp. Our guide, Betsy and her mother, the cook, accompanied us through Spanish explanations. The two “polers”, as they were nicknamed, used their walking poles religiously. The three Australians babbled on sweetly about surfing. The extravert Tasmanian farmer ate his chocolate stash and scroggin (trail-mix) as if we were not going to be fed for another week. And I continued along in a dream land of beauty.
After a swim in the icy Lago Gangrajanca on the second day, the hike to the top of the 4830m ASL Siula Punta thawed the joints out. The views from the top were worth the lung-stretching gulps of air which just didn’t satisfy at altitude when muscles demand oxygen. It was quite amusing watching everyone with mouthfuls of coca leaves. By slowly masticating, chemicals are released which dilate the blood vessels, allowing oxygen to be pumped through the body faster. This helps with the high altitude and relatively low levels of oxygen which cause altitude sickness. As we descended, slow flakes drifted peacefully onto beanies and exposed noses. Enigmatic lakes and mountain rivers were flanked by cliff faces and steep mountains.
The most important addition to our team occurred on day three. The beer man met us after another tough day on our arrival at the much-awaited hot springs. While sinking our bodies into contrastingly hot water; we were amazed to discover this angelic hillbilly selling beer in the middle of the mountains. The altitude, hot water and grand size of the bottles left us feeling quite merry. He continued to surprise us by hiking over the mountain with his backpack to fetch us more beers, earning all respect and undying gratitude. Where the beers came from, we still don’t know, but they were some of the best we’ve ever tasted!
The fourth morning began with the sound of rain on the tent and proceeded to wet us on and off as we cleared the highest pass at over 5000 msl. This we hiked in the snow and descended in the continuing sleet. There was a second, equally high view point further on. As it was off the route and an additional assent, this part of the day was optional. Three members of the group decided to stroll to camp along with the donkeys while the rest of us punished our bodies further. The view at the top was one of the most bizzarre I have seen, with unimaginable colours and shapes, well worth every painful step.
Every night the campsites had panoramic views of an ice-cap amphitheatre. Some played chess in the evenings while others strummed away on a guitar purchased specifically for the trek. After stubbornly carrying the instrument on the first day and suffering the extra load, it got a ride with the donkeys from then on. As soon as the sun sank we squeezed into the kitchen tent to keep warm where supper was served.
Sleepless nights followed hearty meals as temperatures dropped to below freezing. Waking up to the cold air countless times each night made the tent episodes almost unbearable. At one stage I slept in two down sleeping bags in my thermals, jeans, four pairs of socks, a down jacket, a fleece jacket, two fleece tops, beanie and gloves. On two occasions I took sleeping pills and on another night tried to warm up with red wine which proved to be very ineffective against the cold. One particularly cold morning we woke up to ice on the inside of our tent and my underwear which I put outside to air had frozen. What I am trying to get at her is that it was cold!
The last few days were just as challenging. Lungs still begged for oxygen as we conquered high altitude passes, but we had acquired a comfortable walking rhythm. Near the top of one pass, a farming couple was on their hands and knees busying themselves with a hole in the ground. After a detailed explanation, our guide informed us that they had buried potatoes here a year ago. They eventually dig them up and prepare eat them to eat as dessert.
There was a knee-jerking amount of downhill on the last day, with increasing temperatures as we descended. Sounds and smells of civilization punctured our isolated escape as we neared a small village. Children watched intently as cards were played while we waited for a bus back to Huaraz. Dust from the passing vehicles and donkeys settled on tired bodies desperately in need of a shower. It was shell-shocking to be around people and the mood was subdued on the five hour bus ride back to an even bigger town.
Best time to go
Dry season; May to September. Although it is their dry season, it is winter. It gets extremely cold, especially at high altitude places such as Huaraz and in the mountain ranges where treks often follow the snow-line. Travel with extra thermal underwear and socks, a good pair of walking shoes, and a winter jacket. A beanie and gloves are a must, but these you can buy at the markets in Huaraz (clothes knitted with llama wool insulate really well and will keep you warm).
The currency in Peru is nuevos soles (S) or locally referred to as soles. Because of its close proximity to North America, many people operate in US dollars (US$). Both currencies are widely accepted and it is a good idea to travel with US dollars. US$1 = NS2,85 and S1 = R2,60.
In Huaraz, BCP does not charge commission on traveller’s cheques and has a Visa ATM. Interbank has a Global ATM and Oh NaNa changes US dollars and euros.
Getting to and from Lima:
Flights from South Africa do not go directly to Lima. Book a separate ticket to Buenos Aires, Argentina, followed by a flight to Lima with a South American airline. There is also the option of getting a bus to Lima, but this takes three days. Flight schedules and prices change frequently and reconfirmation of flights is best done at the airline office or through your travel agent rather than at the airport counters.
Most international flights use Buenos Aires’ Aeropuerto Internacional Ezeiza Ministro Pistarini (5480-6111; www.aa2000.ccom.ar). The departure tax is US$18 (R130), payable in Argentina’s currency, pesos ($) or US dollars (US$1 =. $3,87. South African Airways (+27 11 978 5313) and Malaysian Airlines (+27 11 88096 14) fly between Johannesburg and Buenos Aires. Expect to pay between R10 000 and R15 000 for a return flight.
Aerolineas Argentinas (0810-222-86527; www.aerolineas.com.ar) and TACA (0810-333-8222; www.taca.com) fly between Buenos Aires and Lima. The international dialling code for Argentina is 54. For return flights from Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chavez (517-3100; www.lap.com.pe) international departure tax of about US$28 (R200). Expect to pay around US$350 (R2 600) one way.
Getting to Huaraz from Lima:
Buses are the way to travel in South America. There are many bus companies that run mid-morning or late-evening between Lima, Peru’s capital city, and Huaraz. There is no central bus terminal in Lima or Huaraz although many of these individual companies are located in the same area. To get from the airport to the bus companies take a taxi, of which there is no shortage. They all cluster outside the airport. Most taxis in Peru are unofficial and start at about US$1,50 (R11). There are no meters so negotiate a price beforehand.
The bus trip to Huaraz is seven to eight hours and costs between US$6 – US$16.50 (R45-120) depending on the company and seat on the bus. Cruz del Sur (431-5125; www.cruzdelsur.com.pe) is the more luxurious non-stop option whereas Mobil Tours (332-0004) is also comfortable but stops on route to pick up other passengers. Taxis also cluster around the bus company offices and they are an affordable way of getting around the town.
Carolina Lodging (42-6398; firstname.lastname@example.org) charges US$6 (R45) for a dorm room and US$12 (R90) for a private room. Call ahead for pick up from the bus. This is a popular and delightful home-stay. It is possible to organise all trekking and climbing activities with them; they are very informative and helpful.
Way Inn (42-8714; www.thewayinn.com) is run by friendly UK team and also has a remote Way Inn Lodge in the Cordillera Blanca. This guest house charges US$12-15 (R90-110) for a private double room.
Albergue Churup (42-2584; www.churup.com) is a popular hotel with rates of US$7 (R50) for a dorm room and US$16/25 (R125/185) for a single/double room respectively.
B&B My House (42-3375; email@example.com) offer single/double rooms for US$14/21 (R105/155) respectively.
Be wary of locals that offer tourists rooms as they get off the bus. Don’t agree until you’ve seen the room.
The best treks are in the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash. All equipment, donkeys and guides can be hired from one of the many companies in Huaraz. Organising through a company is about the same price and much less hassle than organising a trip on your own. Check that guides are certified and inspect rental gear carefully before booking. All-inclusive treks climbing expeditions cost between US$30-50 a day per person. Reputable companies include Galaxia Expeditions (42-5691), Montanero (42-6386), Monttrek (42-1124), MountClimb (42-6060) and Skyline Adventures (964-9480; www.sladventureschool.com; based outside Huaraz).
If you prefer a sit-down meal, try one of the many hole-in-the wall restaurants which feed the locals as well. They are cheap and filling. Each day there is also a set menu which includes two or three courses, juice and tea for a ridiculously low cost. However, there are also more formal restaurants with just as good food. Ask for Cafe Andino, Huaraz’s ultimate hangout, or Encuentro for well prepared Peruvian cuisine.
Best street snacks
Queso con choclo (mielies with cheese) and empanadas (meat, vegetable or cheese turnovers).
iPeru (42-8812) is open Monday-Saturday 8am-6.30pm and Sunday 8.30am-2pm.
Casa de Guias (42-1811) arrange mountain rescues. Purchase travel insurance before leaving South Africa. The Tourist Police are Policia de Turismo (42-1341). The Clinic, just north of town, is Clinica San Pablo (72-8811), but Farmacia Recuay (72-1391) restocks expedition medical kits.
Spanish is widely spoken (Latin American Spanish). Quechua and Aymara are spoken more in rural areas.
GMT minus five hours; seven hours behind South Africa.
Much like SA, 10% in bars and restaurants (tip all guides).
Best news of all – no visa is required for South Africans entering Peru or Argentina.