Wandering the Why wash (Huayhuash) in Peru (120km, 5 days)

So next up is the Huayhuash – pronounced Why wash – which absolutely tickles me.  Most of my friends who are excellent day hikers spurn coming to the mountains with me for longer trips as they don’t want to sleep in a tent and they would like to have a shower from time to time.  So I am quite tickled to be going hiking in a place where I can ask why wash? (I definitely didn’t do much washing, the water was bloody freezing)

This circuit has some variations though most of the tour groups offer a ten day version.  I reckoned it would take me 4.5 days to get around, and I did the alpine routes down the eastern side and the standard routes up the western side (as the alpine routes this side require technical mountain gear).   I liked the route I did, and would recommend it for fit hikers carrying their own gear

Unlike Huascaran, where it was necessary to buy a ticket for the national park – here in the Huayhuash each community charges you a fee for passing through their area and using (or not using) the camp sites.   I quite like this as it means the money goes direct to the community, and the fees in sum totalled about 270 soles (or £60).  The region had a bad reputation in the early 2000s for muggings, the sendero luminoso (shining path terrorist group) and a couple of tourists were murdered.  These days the local communities work hard to make sure the tourists, who are a great source of supplementary income, are safe.

Day 1 – Lazy half day to Mitucocha, – 9km, 3 hours,

The very reliable Daniel picked me up at 5am in Huaraz to head to the trail.  He thought it would take five hours, but actually we arrived in four.   As I arrived there was a huge group of mule drivers and camp staff loading up mules for a tour group that had just departed.  I headed up the hill, slowly and steadily, as the trail started at 4200m, and began overtaking the group.  They were Czech and seemed to be not well acclimatised as they mostly were stationary versus moving – it was like a still life painting.  At altitude, my view is to just keep moving, however slowly that needs to be.   It was a lovely easy hike, passing through scenery that alternated from rocky Dolomites like peaks to Scottish/swedish green boggy arctic circle.   I passed three tour groups setting up camp at Janca, but continued up the edge of Mitucocha lake to pitch in a quiet spot by myself.  Or at least it was quiet until the locals came and entertained me spear fishing in the lake.  And when they left a herd of cows surrounded my tent and breathed noisily outside – I was worried they might get carried away and end up eating some of the tent itself.   Luckily the tent emerged from the night unscathed.  

Day 2 – Two alpine variant stages to Carhuac and then via the Siula pass to Huayhuash – 26km and 1400m of ascent, 10 hours strolling

I didn’t realise to the end that this was probably going to be the longest day.  I decided to be creative and take the alpine route from Mitucocha over to Cardiac via Laguna Alcaycocha.  There was no path but the navigation up a hill and through a long high boggy valley was very straightforward.  The pass was at 4800m, and the last 100m of vert was a hands to ground steep scramble up a rock face.  It was nothing too taxing but a bit tricky with a full pack on my back, and it was easier to go up than go down.  It was just a little bit unexpected after a relatively smooth morning.  I would definitely not want to do that section if it was wet and slippery. On the other side of the pass there was also no path, but it was largely easy enough to pick a bearing and wander down the hill to rejoin the main trail after a few kilometres.

I met one of the crew supporting the Czech tourists that morning – Hernan the cook.  His observations on the tour groups were quite amusing.  Apparently gringos can only walk about 6 hours a day then they need to sleep all afternoon.  And Europeans (Czechs in particularly) eat a lot of sugar, his team were getting through a kg of marmalade every day for 12 trekkers.   

I left Hernan just before carhuac as was doing two sections in one day and there was no point passing through the Carhuac camp site.   I found a sunny spot and a water source on the way down the hill and had brunch at 11am.  I drank my tea and contemplated how I would get across the boggy Carhuac valley. There was no obvious solution, so I just ploughed across and got my feet very wet.  There was a lot of bog (but I reminded myself, not as horrendous as Scottish bog).  Then there was an inconveniently located barbed wire fence which necessitated my best tough mudder ‘roll under’ approach, and then finally a nice freezing thigh deep river ford.  Fun and games

From the valley I headed up the alpine path up the Siula pass which was was well used and easy to follow if steep in places.  The pass is the best route to take as passes three very lovely lacunas.  It took me to 3pm to get to the pass but it was easy if slow going to get up to 4850m.  

Happily over the pass, I was welcomed with a hail storm – small hail for about ten minutes and then a respite – yay I thought.  Nope – then I had an hour of massive pellet like hail (again, not as brutal as anything I have had in Scotland).   I was very grateful that for the first time in years I was travelling with a proper Goretex parka as I needed it.   I squinted through the rain and mostly guessed the path down past Laguna Carnicerio and arrived at Huayhuash campsite around 4.30pm.  It had been easy (if wet) walking for about 10 hours.  The campsite was a zoo of groups, and I would have preferred to press on, but it was (briefly) dry and the local guy was adamant I shouldn’t work further (he mimed how dangerous it would be to camp by myself with a knife across his throat).  So, I reluctantly pitched my tent far from the groups and beside the river for some white noise, cooked dinner, played with the dog and shut my eyes around 7pm.  

Day 3 – a beasty day with two 5000m passes and more scree than desirable – 16k 1400m ascent, 8 hours of walking 

I woke up in Huayhuash to rubbish visibility – lots of mist and it was still dark at 5.45am when I left.  Luckily one of the enthusiastic dogs decided to escort me out so I found the trail.  Today I had decided to take the more rugged (and beautiful) alpine variant over teh Trapecio pass, rather than walk around to Viconga to go to the hot springs (which is apparently a warm not particularly clean bath outside with a lot of stinky trekkers).  But I was worried the views would be rubbish given how misty the morning was.   Fortunately the rising sun burnt off the mist and the last hour up to the pass I had stunning views of Jurao.  I was slow and steady on the ascent and had the most amazing views out from the pass over beautiful lagoons in a rock red volcanic landscape.  

I descended slowly across the rock, looking for the shortcut across to Cutatambo, but didn’t see an obvious path, so decided to be safe and continue down to Elefante campsite before staring to ascend again  over the Jurao pass (longer, more up and down, but at least on a clear safe path).   By about 9am I was having a moment, a bad headache and a sore shoulder, I am not that accustomed to carrying such a heavy pack.   I stopped, ate, had two coffees and a couple of ibuprofen and felt a bit better.   As I got going again I met Genevieve – a Canadian hiker – the only other person I saw on the whole trail who was also hiking in shorts.  She was also carrying a bonkers 25kg pack, so wasn’t having the easiest time.  She told me she was planning to try to find that back way over the glacier to Cutatambo, and as she was explaining this a mule driver stopped for a chat and told her she was definitely going the wrong way.   I wished her luck, and said I would probably see her eventually at Cutatambo.  

The mules loaded with gear passed me as I was descending to Elefante camp site – where they would all spend teh night – so much gear!! The mules here are also very fast (significantly faster than Nepali mules) and I could not keep up with them.   The teams pointed me to the path up over the Jurao pass and told me to be safe.   The ascent was ok, if a bit short of oxygen for the final 200m up to 5030m, and the views out the other side were incredible.   That is, until I look down and saw an unrelenting blimmen scree slope.   It turns out that this pass and San Antonio (which is more sketchy) are now less used by the tour groups given the difficulty of the descent.   Most of the guides send their tourists up from the Elefante camp site to look at the view and then go back the same way and then exit the area without going through Cutatambo.  I didn’t know that at the time.   The descent down Jurau was long and yucky – an unrelenting scree slide or sidle.  The only bright spot was that I had seen Genevieve about 40 minutes behind me as I reached the pass (she had clearly turned around to come back via this route) so I knew someone was behind me.  I guess the other bright spot was that this was the less dangerous descent  (James and katzia who I saw later at Cutatambo campsite came down the other pass on their bums as it was too hard to stay upright).    

I was delighted to arrive at Cutatambo at 3 just before the rain hit and see only one tent (James and Katzia who I had originally met on the collective and the on Santa Cruz).   

Genevieve arrived after with her 25kg bag.  The four of us had a quiet night

Day 4 – an easy stroll down the valley and back up and over a nice gentle 4750m pass, c. 7.5 hours walking, 25km, 1300m ascent

Much of the hike was between 3500-4500 which made a hell of a difference to the breathing, so I didn’t feel like I needed to stop all day

I woke up to a crunch frosty tent with two pairs of paws poking under the tent’s vestibule.  I opened the door to shoo the dogs away but they were very keen to come inside.   I had a few coffees and enjoyed my excellent sleeping bag (best investment ever) and then roused myself to break camp.   I headed out at around 6.30am when both the kids’ (as I call them) tents were silent and still in place.  

My two dogs escorted me the three hours down to huallapa.  It was a nice, if not spectacular walk for 12k.  As I passed the top of the village, I considered popping into the village for some fresh food, but couldn’t be bothered, so instead, paid the nice man the village fee and kept going.   (Side note- almost everyone I pass here, mostly men, guides and mule drivers, has the same conversation with me, ‘ which country are you from?, are you walking alone? where is your husband? How old are you? How many kids do you have? Why do you not have kids? How many days are you hiking the circuit in? Where are you going next? Then the conclude with – you are very strong and beautiful, take care of yourself.    It was uncanny how the questions were exactly the same, and I suppose I could have just kept walking but the mountain hiker in me means I feel compelled to stop and talk to those coming the other way.  

From Huallaypa I started uphill and was expecting to feel buggered but as I was at 3500m weirdly my legs and lungs were fine – it was like normal hike.   I stopped at 11 and cooked brunch at around 4200m, it started hailing so I crouched for some shelter under a rock

Then I kept meandering up the hill – this was definitely the easiest pass of the trek so far, pretty gentle incline, stopped for 5 mins every now and then as my shoulder is playing up, but lungs working fine

I was over pass at two, and had amazing views of the stunning Sillacocha lagoon.  I could see Gashpapampa campsite with four big tourist groups, also a sign saying wild camping prohibited, so I walked to the official campsite and pitched in what I will call the business class zone – on the hill above the rest about 100m away.  It was very peaceful, and it was sunny when I arrived at 3pm so I dried my gear, and swept out my tent.   Olivia the camp custodian came and collected her fee but then weirdly sat and rearranged her bag in front of my tent for 30 minutes.  I asked her about a potential storm or rain that afternoon at 3.30 and she said there would be no problems (Garmin had told me to expect a storm, but every local I ever met would swear that it would absolutely not rain that day).   Unsurprisingly at 4pm we had an hour long hail storm in the sun.  I was pretty happy that the tent fabric was great at repelling the hail.   

Day 5 – the official stage done by 9.30am so had a day to spare to wander around some lagoons, read a good book and hang with the dogs and donkeys – 18km, 500m ascent, 4.5 hours walking

I had budgeted five days for the circuit – getting dropped at lunchtime on day 1 and picked up on day 6 at lunchtime – so five days of walking.  I had made really good time, and only had a 10k walk to jahuacocha to do today.   

A big group left at the same time as me and a few of the guys tried to catch me up the trail (which they should have been able to do as I was twice their age and carrying a full load and they only had light day packs).  I kept my head down and dropped them after ten minutes.  Looking back half an hour later I was amused to watch them walk in a close bunched single file line talking loudly – my idea of hell.  

It was an easy 10k walk, over a 4800m pass and I arrived at Jahua in under three hours at 9.30.  There were two hilarious Swiss hikers already there with a tent and a teepee – they were walking the route with two llamas carrying their gear, which was causing quite the gossip amongst the locals.  We had a chat about llama vs mule economics while I had a leisurely brunch and lots of coffee.  I also put up my icy tent to dry. 

I did an amazing and easy 6k return hike to Solteracocha, escorted by an adorable dog, and then returned to camp to laze around, sunbathe and enjoy the gob smacking view.   James and katzia arrived at 4 had dinner together (yes hikers eat dinner at 4.15pm) and then Genevieve and her 25kg pack rolled in at 5.  We were camped on the hill with the other independent hikers – about eight of us – versus the big groups down lower, quieter and with a better view.   I could have easily made it out to the trail end at llamac today but no point as my ride would not be there until 11 tomorrow and this is a glorious spot to hang out in 

Day 6 – an easy 4 hour walk out to Llamac farewelling the mountain range

I had offered the ‘kids’ a direct ride back to Huaraz with me in the car I had arranged with Daniel, provided they gave him some money also.  This would save them 2-3 hours of waiting for, and changing, collectivos.  But I had said I was leaving Llamac at 11am and I would not wait.  I was amused that they were all up and moving when I got up – Genevieve left at 6, and James and Katzia left about 15 minutes after I did.  The walk was an excellent bench balcony trail over an easy pass with lovely views back over the Huayhuash and then an easy 4 hour wander into Llamac.   Daniel was early as always, and we eventually found each other in the small town, and picked up a couple of extra French guys who needed a ride and drove back to Huaraz.   James, Katzia and I met up for a very big dinner (at 4.30pm) and then I was in bed by 6pm – a perfect hiker bed time hour. 

Eating a bit more….

I had some extra time in Lima on my way home, and did go out for lunch at Maido – voted the 7th best restaurant in the world. Amusingly my lunch cost the same as 7 nights in El Jacal and/or 2 nights at the Dazzler hotel in Miraflores, and I thought it was great value for money and delicious after eating dehydrated camp food for weeks.

Additional info

I didn’t really like the massive trekking groups taking over the trails and the campsites, but I think it is probably good financially for the locals.  IMHO the groups go too slowly in any case, and spend a lot of time (most afternoons) doing nothing, so they would not be for me.  

Verdict – Huayhuash was lovely and much easier than the alpamayo circuit – with more people around and better/easier trails.  But the trail was quite crowded (even though the locals say it is less busy than pre covid).  The groups largely didn’t detract from the hiking day as I as mostly left before the groups in the morning.   

For logistics on Huaraz – see the previous blog on the Alpamayo.  For a reliable driver to drop you and pick you up at trail heads, I highly recommend Daniel….

Lima June 13, 2023

Route details below

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