Amid Peru’s stunning splendor

By CHRISTINA COOKE
The Oregonian, Sept. 26, 2009

The empty saddle on the horse following us up the 15,700-foot pass in Peru’s Huayhuash Mountain Range looks awfully enticing. As I plod up the rocky mountainside, one slow step at a time toward the blue sky, my calves are screaming, my thighs are burning and my lungs are begging for a break.

Our guide, Benito Rivera, points toward the horse, which is along in case the altitude or incline becomes too much. “Want to ride?” he asks.

The saddle leather glints in the sunlight, beckoning, but I decline. I’m in some of the most spectacular mountains in the Andes, and I don’t want to miss out on anything — not even pain.

The Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced Why-Wash) is a compact but high range running north to south in central Peru, near the Pacific coast. It’s about 70 miles southeast of the region’s capital, Huaraz, and far less traveled than the nearby, more accessible Cordillera Blanca.

Though it’s only about 18 miles long, the remote range contains the world’s second-highest tropical mountain, the 21,700-foot Yerupajá, and five others that measure more than 19,700 feet. Siula Grande, site of the near-fatal climbing accident captured in Joe Simpson’s book and the subsequent movie “Touching the Void,” is among them.

Once I finally crest the Quesillococha pass, I collapse on a low, flat rock and take in all that made this excruciating climb worthwhile: I look out over a land of contrasts and extremes, of rock and ice and sturdy shrubs, a place distinctly different from the mossy leafiness of the Pacific Northwest and everything I’m used to.

I see towering, ice-covered mountains with near-vertical faces, grooved granite rocks overlooking turquoise lakes, and streams ribboning across grasslands.

Rivera says the power of the place overwhelms him, too, although he’s worked in the area for the past seven years.

“In this place I feel at peace,” he says, speaking Spanish. “When I don’t feel strong, I feel the strength the mountain gives me.”

Several travelers my sister Laura and I encountered during our three months in South America raved about the Huayhuash trek. It’s one of the most stunning hikes you’ll ever do, they said.

We decided not to miss it.

When choosing a guide agency in the Andean adventure capital of Huaraz (elevation 10,000 feet), it can be hard to distinguish between the good, the mediocre and the downright dangerous. We turned to the Peruvian Mountain Guides Association for help. The professional guides staffing the office on Plaza Ginebra offered us information about area treks and a list of accred- ited guides.

The standard hiking routes circling the massive, snow-covered peaks are 70 to 115 miles long, take seven to 14 days to com- plete and are best tackled during the dry winter season that runs May to September. Short on time, Laura and I opted for a week-long trip.

In addition to Rivera, a leather-faced donkey driver named Lincol Garcia accompanies us on the hike. He works constantly, loading, unloading and managing the eight donkeys that carry our tents, food and clothing.

Each night, he brings my sister and me bottles of hot water to keep us warm in the below-freezing temperatures and passes them into our tent saying, “Aquí están sus novios,” or, “Here are your boyfriends.”

Our hiking companions are six young men from Israel who teach us the Hebrew words for “It’s all good” and “jam.”

The 10 of us follow the trail across grassy hillsides, over cushiony mounds of moss, along the edge of glacial rivers and through herds of bleating sheep. When avalanches crash down from the immense white mountains above, we alternately admire the spectacle — and question whether we should be running.

The trail is strenuous, crossing at least one 15,000-foot pass daily. But each time we stop for an extended break, our hiking companion Dror boils up water and serves everyone sweet, fresh hierba luisa (a lemon-scented herb) tea from the set of glasses he’s carrying in his daypack. Meanwhile, the others discuss the American fast food chains that didn’t make it in Israel.

As we lower ourselves into the steaming water of the hot springs near Río Pumarinri, it begins to hail for the first time. Almost shoulder-deep in the pool, I watch the ice land on my skin and melt from white to clear to gone. It’s day four, and we’ve stopped hiking in a grassy valley midafternoon to set up camp and soak. A welcome break after all that walking.

The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture named the Cordillera Huayhuash a “reserved zone” in 2002 to protect the 272 plant and 79 animal species living within its limits, including trout, weasels, foxes, condors and gnarled, red-barked queñua trees.

The designation prohibits mining and other kinds of industrial development, but allows the residents of the seven indige- nous communities within the zone to con- tinue their traditional herding and farming activities.

On the last night of our trek, we camp near a cluster of stone houses on the shores of Lake Jahuacocha and purchase a sheep from a campesino who lives there. Immediately, Garcia sets to work preparing for a pachamanca, a traditional Peruvian dish that originated with the Incas. Natives say the process, which involves cooking meat in the ground under a pile of hot rocks, honors Mother Earth.

The following morning, we descend a steep, dusty trail toward the village of Llámac and the end of the trip. It’s tough to leave behind a landscape that inspires awe at every turn. But I won’t forget the Huayhuash anytime soon. My legs won’t let me.

Huayhuash circuit

Getting there: People generally fly to Lima and then take a bus to Huaraz, although LC Busre does offer one flight daily between Lima and Huaraz. Buses take about eight hours to get to Huaraz and cost $20 to $25 one way. Cruz del Sur and Móvil Tours offer bus service.

Huaraz: Spending time in Huaraz helps visitors adjust to the elevation and allows for arranging logistics such as food, gear, transportation, guides, cooks and donkey drivers. Or travelers can sign up here for a trek with a tour agency.

Peruvian Mountain Guides Association:

casadeguias.com.pe — use the translation tool.

Getting to the trailhead: You can find public transportation to certain starting points, specifi- cally to the towns of Llámac and Pocpa, but its reliability depends heavily on road conditions. Because the distance between Llámac and the higher-elevation town of Matacancha is now navigable by vehicle, many people also choose to start there to avoid walking along a road the first day. Most tour agencies arrange private transportation.

Cost: We were traveling on a tight budget so sacrificed quality for price. The guide service through Andes Camp for our eight-day trip cost $250 a person and included transportation, food, a guide, a donkey and donkey driver, and an emergency backup horse. We were not impressed with the guide or the food. Also, hikers have to pay a total of about $55 to villagers throughout the hike to pass over their land. You can find solid, longer trips for about $500. Some companies, such Skyline Adventure School, charge from $1,500 to $3,000 for a Lima round- trip.

Hiking: The average hike is five to seven miles. You cross at least one 15,000- to 16,500-foot pass daily. The town of Llámac is the lowest point, at 10,800 feet, and most of the valley floors measure around 13,000 feet in elevation.

See the original in The Oregonian here.

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