Tag Archives: hiking

Ala-Archa National Park – Kygyzstan

One of the days we had in Bishkek we decided to head out to the nearby Ala-Archa National Park for some hiking. Archa means “many groups of Juniper trees” of which there are 4 types within the park. It is only 40km away and it was absolutely perfect weather to enjoy the scenery and get some exercise.

Decided to do the Waterfall Track (2hrs one way) with the possibility of continuing to the glacier, depending on ice/snow. The information panel at the entrance to the park pegged it as a low-medium demand hike, so off we set expecting a nice, not-too-strenuous walk.

Or not!

It’s actually a fairly steep hike up to the waterfall. Perhaps the low-medium rating was more relevant to the mountain climbers who originally used the area as an alpinist camp and training ground.

That said, it was really beautiful – with gorgeous views up the Ala-Archa river valley initially.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Followed by even more gorgeous views up the other valley leading to the waterfall and glacier.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

We came across some Eurasian Lynx on the way up

Eurasian Lynx - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

But unfortunately, the only snow leopard we found was this concrete guy at the entrance.

Snow Leopard - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

When we reached the waterfall, it turned out that it was too snowy/icy to actually climb up to the plunge pool (and hence waaaaaay too snowy/icy to head to the glacier without crampons etc), so we sat in the stand of pine trees at the base and ate lunch and explored the river in the immediate area.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Took my time trekking back down, stopping off for about an hour at my favourite viewpoint to take it all in

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Then took a quick walk up the first part of the Ala-Archa river valley trail while waiting for our transport to leave at the agreed time.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Have to admit, it wasn’t the most spectacular walk I’ve done in the past year or so, but it was a lovely day out and great to get some hiking in! Oh – and the sign translations were great too 😊

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Charyn Canyon – Kazakhstan

Breakfast this morning was porridge made with Manka (semolina). Sooooo much better than regular porridge, though this could be due to the unknown amount of sugar that was put in it before it was served to me 😉

Manka - Semolina porridge - Kazakhstan

We said goodbye to our hosts and left the village of Saty with greatly improved weather, calling in to take a quick peek at one of the ubiquitous Islamic cemeteries that dot the landscape here.

Rural village - Kazakhstan

Typical white house with blue trim in Saty (top) and images from one of the ubiquitous Islamic cemetaries that dot the landscape

We re-crossed the broad grassy plains with the herdsmen, but this time with great views of the Tian Shan Mountains

Tian Shan Mountains - Kazakhstan

Herder in the large grassy plain where the animals graze – in front of the Tian Shan Mountains

and stopped off at the Black Canyon

Black Canyon - Kazakhstan

on our way to our key destination for the day – the Charyn Canyon  

This is the most touted natural feature of Almaty region, and, although beautiful, it wasn’t quite as impressive as I had imagined.   It would have been great to have more time to explore more than just this famous part of the canyon, and to see it in different light – rather than the harsh midday sun.

Charyn Canyon - Kazakhstan

It is about a 3km walk along the bottom of the canyon – through the Valley of Castles initially (reminiscent of the Grand Canyon)

Charyn Canyon - Valley of Castles - Kazakhstan

Valley of Castles

and onto the “Witches Gorge” – so known because people would leap to their deaths off the cliffs, spurred on by the call of the witches – and the Charyn River.

Charyn River - Charyn Canyon - Kazakhstan

We ended up seeing 2 snakes (something that got Emil very excited) and quite a few of these little guys – gerbils I think.

Wildlife - Charyn Canyon - Kazakhstan

After exploring the Canyon for a few hours, we started the long road back to Almaty, stopping along the way for a very late lunch at an Uighur restaurant.  

We had our own private partitioned space, and I asked Emil to order something for me that I hadn’t tried yet.  He ordered Kazan Kebab and Etken Chay (Uighur milky tea) for me.

Uighur restaurant - Kazakhstan

Uighur restaurant – we had our own partitioned section. I had the Kazan Kebab and Etken Chay

Both were delicious – made even more so due to the fact that I was starving.   And it was a lovely ending to the trip.

 

Recommendation:   

I can highly recommend the 3-day Kolsai Lakes, Kaindy Lake and Charyn Canyon tour offered by Almaty Tours.  Although it is a bit pricey, you are really well looked after and the places you visit really are spectacular.

Time:  3 days

Cost:  USD$390 which includes everything: transportation, lodging, meals and entrance fees

Oh, and Almaty Tours also give you a welcome pack 🙂

Almaty Tours

Kolsai Lakes – Kazakhstan

After an early breakfast of fried eggs, bread, Baursak, jam, Hvorost (fried dough squares covered in honey and poppy seeds – very similar to the typical Kazakh sweet Chak Chak), and tea of course, we set off in the car to the first Kolsai Lake – altitude 1,818m.

Hvorost as part of Breakfast - Kazakhstan

Hvorost as part of breakfast – I like this idea!

A half hour up a bad road saw us overlooking a gorgeous scene of turquoise water nestled in between pine-covered hills.   Unfortunately, it was very overcast again, so the pictures don’t really do it justice.  

First Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

The first Kolsai Lake is accessible to everyone

From there we started the hike up to the second Kolsai Lake.   Trust me – the map at the entrance is not to scale!

Kolsai Lakes Map - not to scale!

Map of the Kolsai Lakes – we were only going to hike to the middle lake in this image. It was NOT to scale!

Of course, I should have looked it up before we left Almaty, but it ended up being a 9km hike one way.  It wasn’t particularly strenuous for the first couple of hours and there were some beautiful views of course.

First Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

But then we hit the snow.   This made it infinitely more challenging – partially just in trying to keep footing and partially because it ended up obscuring the path at a really critical point.

Hiking from first Kolsai Lake to second Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

Yes, we “took a detour” which ended us up in thigh-deep snow with absolutely no idea where the path had disappeared to (the National Parks service really needs to put some decent signage up.  The sparsely positioned blue arrows weren’t quite enough!)

Stuck in the snow - Kolsai lakes - Kazakhstan

In the end, after bush-bashing up the river for a bit trying to regain the path, and several shoes-full of snow later, we decided that we had to turn around.   Fortunately, it was only about 2 minutes into our retreat that we stumbled upon the trail again – so we resumed our push through the snow and mud for the second lake.

Hiking from first Kolsai Lake to second Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

The last hour up to the second lake is steep and, given this was Emil’s first time to the second lake, we had no idea how much further we had to go.  In fact, we had no idea if this really was the path to the lake, or a path used by illegal immigrants coming over the border from Kyrgzstan…   But eventually it flattened out into a saddle, and then we’d finally made it.

And it was totally worth it!

Second Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

The second lake is at 2,252m, and was still mostly frozen.   And apart from a couple of large ducks/geese, we were the only ones there.  

Second Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

Absolute tranquility surrounded by conifer-covered mountains – perfect place for a well-deserved lunch.

Lunch at second Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

Lunch at second Kolsai Lake – lots of carbs, and an Easter egg provided by our driver

We hung out up there for about half an hour admiring the view, before an increase in wind heralded a turn in the weather, at which point we decided to beat a hasty retreat.  We did not want to get lost in cloud coming back down!

Second Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

Yes, the lake was still frozen!

Eventually made it back down through the snow without major incident – loving the Salomon hiking boots I bought back in Australia – great grip on some dodgy surfaces!    And enjoyed the stroll back once we’d gotten past the snow.

Lots of fir trees in this part of Kazakhstan

Lots of fir trees in this part of Kazakhstan

Came across these blokes fishing back at the first Kolsai Lake, which again was just gorgeous in its tranquility.

First Kolsai Lake - Kazakhstan

Then it was back in the van for the slow trip back to Saty village.  Dinner was Lagman, an Uighur national dish adopted by the Kazakhs.  Noodles, vegetables and a little meat in a broth … with dill of course!

Lagman - Uighur national dish - Kazakhstan

Although I was far more interested in visiting Lake Kaindy, this turned out to be a really awesome hike with some great views, even if a bit hairy at times due to the snow!  Really recommend it!

Lake Kaindy – Kazakhstan

I’m meeting up with the Madventures Silk Road tour in Almaty, Kazakhstan – but decided to arrive a few days early to explore the surroundings.  A quick internet search revealed a wealth of hiking/nature opportunities around Kazakhstan’s old capital (the capital was moved to Astana in 1998), but the one that really caught my eye was Lake Kaindy.    With its turquoise waters and drowned spruce trees – it was a little different – and so I set my heart on seeing it.

I ran up against the usual issue where a minimum of 4 people is required for a tour to run, so ended up signing up for the 3-day Kolsai Lakes, Kaindy Lake and Charyn Canyon tour offered by Almaty Tours.  By some miracle, they had a departure scheduled for 17-19 April – perfect timing for me – and they assured me it would run no matter how many people they had.  It was pricey, but it was the only way I was going to get there.

I was met at the Almaty Backpackers Hostel by Emil, my guide, at 7am and it turns out that I’m the only one on the tour!   Emil is 23 with a degree in public relations, is actually from Kyrgyzstan, speaks excellent English and is a very friendly and talkative young man.   We got along well right from the beginning.

In case your Central Asian geography is hazy, Kazakhstan is a very big country!   In fact, it is the 9th biggest country in the world!  Given this, and the fact that many of the roads are in quite bad shape, it takes a long time to get to locations that look relatively close together on the map.   I’m Australian.  I should be familiar with this idea.  But somehow it always comes as a surprise in another country.

So, it took us almost 5 hours to reach the Kazakhstani portion of the Tian Shan Mountains and the village of Saty, where we based ourselves for the next 2 days.   Ironicially, the slowest part of the trip was along the perfect dual-carriageway highway leading out of Almaty, which, for some inexplicable reason, had a speed limit of 50 km/hr!    The most interesting part of the drive was the last hour or so – where we passed through a grassy region with farmers on horseback tending their herds.   Like in Mongolia, there are no fences here, but unlike Mongolia, the Kazakhs are settled in farms and no longer lead a nomadic lifestyle.  This is a result of the Russians who, in the 1930s, created cooperative farms across Kazakhstan and converted the population to a more settled way of life. 

Kazakh farms - Kazakhstan

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the family that runs the guesthouse where we would be staying.   Essentially, I have a room in the home of a local Kazakh family, and they feed us whatever they will eat themselves (normal Kazakh food) while we are here.   For lunch this consisted of Plov – a staple dish in Kazakhstan made from rice, carrot, meat (in this case mutton) and herbs – they are particularly fond of dill.   Quite heavy food (lots of carbs!), but very tasty!

Plov - Kazakhstan

This was served with pickled cabbage, biscuits, sweets, and an enormous basket of bread and Baursak (fried dough).

Baursak - Kazakhstan

Baursak

All washed down with as much tea as you can drink.   In this case, we had tea with milk, though it is also very common to have tea with lemon.

Kazakh tea - Kazakhstan

I also learned that there is a whole ritual around the tea.  In particular, to be hospitable, the lady of the house must sit with the guests and serve the tea for them. 

Kazakh tea - Kazakhstan

Tea is served in bowls with the milk added in first, followed by the brewed tea, followed by more boiling water.   The bowl is only ½ filled – if it is filled completely, it means that your host is trying to get rid of you and it is time for you to leave!

You finish your bowl of tea, and then hand it back to the host to refill to ½ way.   Repeat this until you’ve had enough, which you indicate by placing your bowl down on the table and covering the top with your hand.  It feels very strange to be waited on in this way, but an interesting custom.

Kazakh woman waiting to serve tea

Love this image

After lunch, we transferred into an old Russian van for the trip up to Lake Kaindy.  

Russian transportation to Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

We ran into another couple of Russian tourists who joined us on our excursion, managed to overcome a bit of an obstacle blocking the road, and spent the next 40 minutes crawling up a very bad 4WD-only road.   You have to give it to these old Russian-made vans!

Roadblock on the way to Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

Obstacles blocking the road to Lake Kaindy

From where we left the van, it was another 1.5km walk uphill to reach the lake.  But, despite the crap weather we had, it was amazing!

Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

It is only a small lake that was formed in 1911 when a powerful earthquake triggered a landslide, forming a natural dam.   As the water rose, it flooded the spruce trees which are now a bleached and eerie feature of the lake.

Drowned fir trees at Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

From the lake’s edge, we headed up to get a more eagle-eye view, traipsing through the last of the winter snow.

Snow at Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

Again, just a spectacular place – both the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

And from this vantage point, you can see a very cool thing – the water in the lake is so cold that it has perfectly preserved the needles of the spruce trees below the waterline!  Even more than 100 years later, they are clearly visible in the beautifully transparent water.

Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

Totally worth it to get up to the lake – though would have been nice to have about another hour there just to sit and contemplate the view.  

Then it was back to the guesthouse – and for dinner we had more tea, more bread and Baursak, and Manty – dumplings filled with meat, potatoes and herbs (dill, again).   Not quite as tasty as the Plov at lunch, but definitely filling!

Manty - Kazakhstan

Oh, and just for fun:  Turns out Emil is a keen photographer (though is saving up for a decent camera) – love this “supermodel shot” he took of me 😊

Kaindy Lake - Kazakhstan

My year of travel – a summary

Well, the year of travel is over.   And it was absolutely awesome!  So much so, that I’m avoiding “real life” for another year and heading off again!   So more to come…

Here is where I ended up going over the past year:

The Places

Many people have asked me what has been my highlight from the year, which is always a tough one to answer.  

As far as places go, most would expect me to say Antarctica.  And, while Antarctica was truly incredible, what has stayed most keenly in heart is the 10-day Huayhuash Trek I did in Peru back in September (yes, I know the blog post only just came out – too many pictures to process!).   I traveled with incredible people on both of these journeys, but I think the reason Huayhuash pips Antarctica is that I had to work for it.   10 days hiking above 4,200m, with a pass over 4,800m every day – that takes some doing, and delivers a significant sense of achievement at the end.  

The other thing that Huayhuash had going for it, is that the only time my brain completely turns off is while I’m hiking.   And trust me  – that that point in my trip, I really needed to switch my brain off for a while!  10 days of not thinking about anything except my immediate surroundings was absolute bliss!    And the scenery was amazing!

As far as the biggest positive surprise goes – El Salvador takes that one out hands down.   I loved it there, as did all the people I traveled with.   The El Salvadorean people know that their country has a reputation for being unsafe, and go out of their way to help you and ensure you have a great time.   And oh the pupusas…..

As far as the biggest negative surprise – unfortunately, Cuba.   The way everyone raves about it I probably went in with too high expectations – but most of the time I just felt like I was a walking money-bag.   A couple of caveats with this – I suspect most people go on an organised trip and only stay in the “tourist triangle” – La Havana, Viñales, Trinidad, Varadero.    This would give you a very different experience to the one I had during my first couple of weeks in particular – travelling independently in the eastern part of the island.  

I can only speculate, but I have met several other people who where there either at the same time as me (and who I traveled with) or around the same time, who also ended up with the same opinion.

The People

Apart from where you go and what you see/do, the other key aspect of traveling are the people that you meet.  I strongly suspect that this is even more keenly felt by long-term travelers and, although I shared my journey with many, many wonderful people, the following have left a particularly strong mark:

Nicaragua:   Pedro Torres, Keith Manyin, Caite Handschuh, Tom Rendulich, Sven and Caroline Hansen, Sekar Bala

El Salvador:  Andre (did I ever know your last name Andre?), Susan Jung

Guatemala:  Susan Jung, Julia Koch

Cuba:  Wendy Moors, Rebekka Wessels

Ecuador:  Jenny Waack

Peru: Max Abé, Niccoló Quattropani, Jenny Waack, Rebekka Wessels

Bolivia: Jenny Waack, Kimberley Carter

Chile:  My old ESO buddies, Jenny Waack

Antarctica:  Tyson Brooks, Carl Enfohrs, Remco Verstappen

And a very special thank you has to go to Eliza Hernandez – the most awesome spanish teacher ever!   I am infinitely grateful to have had Eliza as my grammar teacher over the total of 3 months I spent at La Mariposa Spanish School both this trip and on my previous visit.  It is largely thanks to her that my Spanish is almost fluent!

What did I discover?

The other thing that people often ask about when they find out I’ve been travelling for a year is “what did you learn by doing it” and/or “how has it changed you”?   Well, it’s not like I specifically set out to learn anything (apart from improving my Spanish), though I did have a few periods of pretty intense reflection of what I wanted out of life.  

So here’s some non-exhaustive dot point musings about travel from the last year: 

  • it makes you live more in the moment.  I was not really worried about the future and what I needed to do/should do next.  Well, right up until the point where I had to decide whether I would return to my job or not…
  • it allows you to relax and encourages you to take time to do nothing.  Though somehow the days are incredibly full and I have no idea how I managed to fit a full-time job in previously!
  • it gives you the opportunity to meet lots of new and (sometimes) interesting people, and have different conversations to what you would normally have
  • it highlights how little you actually know about the world, and that you should ask more questions, always!
  • it really cuts through the rubbish and highlights how similar we all are, no matter where we come from
  • it teaches you patience and resilience.  Fortunatley I already had a good amount of both, having lived in Latin America previously
  • it forces you to live simply.   You cannot fit very much in a 60L bag, and I’m here to tell you that you really don’t need many material possessions to have an incredible life
  • it doesn’t change the fact that Australia is home and always will be (no matter how much I love Latin America).  If anything, I become more patriotic (but hopefully not in an obnoxious way) when I travel.   It also showed me just how little I knew about certain aspects of my own country (e.g. politics)
  • it makes you really appreciate the luxuries we enjoy in our everyday, first-world lives.   Clean drinking water, hot showers with plenty of water pressure,  the huge variety of fresh and cooked food in Australia, being able to buy a truly cold coke on a hot day from the service station or supermarket…

And what do I want out of life?   Well, I’m still not quite sure I know.  But I’ve always wanted to go back and live in Latin America again for a while, and that now factors into my plan for this coming year 🙂  Living in Ecuador (Chile is too expensive 🙁 ), doing freelance work for organisations back in Australia – it’s kind of one of the ideas Tim Ferriss puts forth in “The 4-hour Work Week”, though I’d had the idea before I read the book.   If it all works out like I hope – it could make for a great life for a while!  

Stay tuned…

10 days – Trekking the Huayhuash Circuit – Part 2

Continuing the journey… 

 

Day 6:  Viconga (4,407m) – Punta Cuyoc (5,000m) – Huanacpatay (4,300m)

Awoke to yet another gorgeous day, and after our usual awesome breakfast (everything tastes so good when you are camping, and Eliceo is genuinely a master with a 2-burner gas stove!) we started our climb to Punta Cuyoc – one of the highest passes on the trek.  

Looking back down to Viconga Campground on the way Punta Cuyoc

Looking back down to Viconga Campground on the way up to Punta Cuyoc

Again though, with the slow altitude pace set by Eliceo – it was really lovely

On the way Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

On the way Punta Cuyoc

And we finally remembered to take a group photo!

Group Photo on the way Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Me, Eliceo, Nico and Max, on the way up to Punta Cuyoc

The gorgeous scenery continued as we approached the pass – Max went a bit too close and ended up with a boot full of mud…

Almost at Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Almost at Punta Cuyoc

Unfortunately, when we finally made the top of the pass, we ran into the rear-guard of the large Israeli group.  I will never understand why you would have (really crappy) music blaring when you are in such a pristine environment surrounded by such beauty.  But that was how they trekked 🙁   Tried to find a quiet bit of the pass to sit and contemplate … fortunately the wind helped in that regard.   Finally, after about 1/2 hour they started their descent and we stayed another 15 minutes or so to just enjoy the silence.

Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Punta Cuyoc

Although climbing up to these passes has given the old heart and lungs a fair bit of a workout, I actually find getting down the other side often more challenging.   This was no exception – very steep and slippery rocky paths where you are half the time skating down it trying to keep upright.   The first part of this was so steep that one of the dogs that was accompanying the Israeli group (this is where our inherited dog came from as well – apparently he liked us better – perhaps because we walked faster and didn’t have crappy music going all the time) wouldn’t actually start the descent!   He was still at the top when we went to depart, whimpering because he was being left behind.  In the end, Eliceo enacted a rescue and carried him down the first part of the slope – almost bringing himself unstuck in the process!

Getting down was harder than climbing up - Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Getting down was harder than climbing up – the other side of Punta Cuyoc

We made it to Quebrada Huanacpatay campsite with no real dramas though.   How could you not get used to these views!

Huanacpatay Campground - Cordillera Huayhuash

Huanacpatay Campground

Day 7: Quebrada Huanacpatay (4,300m) – Santa Rosa Pass (5200m) – Huayllapa (3,500m)

This was the day I was most fearful of.   Our highest pass at 5,200m and we were taking a different route to normal.   Almost everyone goes over the San Antonio pass (5,020m), but Eliceo’s opinion was that the adjacent Santa Rosa Pass had a more spectacular view of the mountain range, and at the bottom of the descent you could visit one of the lakes as well.

While we were camped the night before, looking across the Huanacpatay valley, I was seriously wondering where the heck the path was and how we were going to climb what looked to be almost vertical! 

Turns out – via a lot of switchbacks!

Switchbacks - Cordillera Huayhuash

These are only about a foot-width wide and zig-zag up what is essentially a scree slope.   You don’t want to suffer from vertigo here!

After the initial, very steep first ascent, we encountered a nice flat valley which was a wonderful surprise.   It was only a temporary respite, however, we still had a ways to climb to reach the pass.

Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

“Respite Valley” We are heading up and over the high valley you can see

But oh how it was worth it!   One of the most spectacular views on the hike, and there have been so many of them!

Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

The view from the Santa Rosa pass is stunning! 

We were actually really lucky and arrived in time to get the complete view without clouds – you can actually see the clouds starting to roll in on the right hand side of the above image.   About half hour later, the tops of the mountains were obscured.  It was very much worth getting up at the crack of dawn to see this!

Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Max and Nico on top of the Santa Rosa pass. Yes we were still travelling with the dog who had adopted us

We stayed up there for quite a long time, but eventually the cold and wind drove us down the other side.   The way down was ridiculously steep – I would hate to think what coming down the even steeper San Antonio pass must be like!

Descending from the Santa Rosa pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Descending from the Santa Rosa pass.

We took our time with plenty of rest stops along the way, and to give the shaky legs a bit of a break from the steep descent

Rest stop along the way down from Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

We availed ourselves of plenty of rest stops so that we could take in the incredible views

And finally reached the turquoise Laguna Juraucocha.   It would have been brilliant to have an extra day camped in this area to explore the lakes (that would have been one of the extensions I would have made), but we had to push on to get to the small village of Huayllapa.

Laguna Juraucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

We got to visit Laguna Juraucocha because we took the Santa Rosa pass.

This involved trudging down a long valley, following a river with some pretty cool waterfalls along the way.  

Valley to Huayllapa - Cordillera Huayhuash

It was pretty, but the least interesting part of the walk.    Also hurt to know that we were descending to 3,500m … and we would need to regain all that altitude again tomorrow!

Huayllapa - Cordillera Huayhuash

Entering the village of Huayllapa

Rather than camp on the soccer field at Huayllapa, we all decided to take some very basic rooms in one of the two hostels in town.   Even paid a few Soles more for the opportunity of a hot-ish shower 🙂   Was luxury to sleep in a bed and was not as cold as we have been throughout the rest of the trek

Day 8:  Huayllapa (3,500m) – Punta Tapush (4750 m) – Laguna Susucocha (4,654m) – Cashpapampa (4,400m)

Ok – so regaining all that altitude was not my favourite part of the trek.  It wasn’t technically challenging (always a good distraction), and it wasn’t particularly beautiful for the first part either (always a good excuse to stop for photos) – rather it was a long, 4 hour slog up a hill.

Regaining altitude - Huayllapa to Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

Not the most inspiring scenery of the trek … along the 4 hour slog up to Punta Tapush

Fortunately, after about 3 hours, it did get more beautiful

Approaching Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash And the last part up to Punta Tapush was really cool in my opinion.  Very rocky, almost seemed volcanic to me.

Cool rocky bit approaching Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

Finally made it

Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

and made a special friend too 🙂

Donkey and me at Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

Spent quite a bit of time hanging out up there given it was warm and not too windy, and then headed down to Laguna Susucocha.

Laguna Susucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Laguna Susucocha. Diablo Mudo (which the boys climbed the next morning) is in the snowy peak in the background

And our slightly swampy campsite at Cashpapampa

Heading down to Cashpapampa campground

Heading down to Cashpapampa campground – we camped near those green patches in the middle of the image

Day 9: Cashpapampa (4,400m) – Paso Yaucha (4,800m) –  Laguna Jahuacocha (4,150m)

I happily stayed warm in my sleeping bag listening to the guys get ready at 2am for their ascent of Diablo Mudo (the Deaf Devil).   Eliceo went with them of course, which meant that I started the day trekking by myself.   Elijio pointed me in the right direction, said that I really shouldn’t get lost and off I set.   

The valley I ascended on the way to Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

The valley I ascended on the way to Paso Yaucha

On the way to Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Vistas on the way to Paso Yaucha

It was quite a different experience hiking by myself rather than following Max and Nico and Eliceo from a distance.  On the couple of occasions where I thought the path was not entirely obvious – I had to go looking for myself to find the way.  And, on top of the pass, I had to try to take my “pass photo” as a selfie … this is quite difficult to do with an actual camera (rather than a phone)

Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Selfie on Paso Yaucha

The nice thing about it, however, was that I was able to spend as long as I wanted at the top!   And the view did not disappoint, even though the light at that time of day wasn’t the best for photos.

Vista from Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Vista from Paso Yaucha

It was also an  inspired idea to sit and contemplate for a while, as it meant that a couple of Israelis (yes there are lots in Huayhuash) and their guide caught up to me.  Their guide was a good friend of Eliceo and so I joined them as they went for a slight detour out to another viewpoint.

Heading out to the lookout from Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading out to the lookout from Paso Yaucha

Eliceo later told me that he specifically didn’t tell me about this viewpoint because it can be quite dangerous to get down from there.   But can you imagine being so close and not getting to see this?!

Viewpoint over 3 lakes near Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Viewpoint over 3 lakes near Paso Yaucha

I take Eliceo’s point though – the descent from here was incredibly steep and I fell (softly) several times before finally arriving at Laguna Jahuacocha and our last campsite for the trek.

Camp at Laguna Jahuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Yet another incredible campsite at Laguna Jahuacocha

It was quite a popular place actually – saw more people here than at any other time on the trek.  Fresh fried trout (caught especially by Elijio) for dinner was the perfect final meal, and the others washed it down with a bottle of red wine which had somehow survived the entire trip!

Day 10: Laguna Jahuacocha (4,150m) – Llamac (3,238m) – Huaraz (3,053m)

The area around Laguna Jahuacocha would be another place to spend an extra day exploring if you had it.  But unfortunately we had to meet our transport, so it was up, up, up, up another interminable climb.  

The interminable ascent to Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

The interminable ascent to Pampa Llamac

It all looked so similar that you would swear that the corner you were facing was identical to the one you rounded about 10 minutes ago, and because the gorgeous mountains of yesterday were directly behind us, we didn’t have any awe-inspiring views to distract us.

But, one foot in front of the other at Eliceo’s snail’s pace, and we made it to Pampa Llamac eventually.

Pampa LLamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Final pass of the trip – Pampa Llamac

Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Max and Nico made it too!

Elijio caught up to us at the top, made some adjustments to the donkey’s loads, and led the way for our final descent.

Elijio adjusting the loads on the donkeys - Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Elijio adjusting the loads on the donkeys – Pampa Llamac

Descending from Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Descending from Pampa Llamac

We past the ruin of the house (almost nothing there now) of where Eliceo grew up, and finally reached our destination – the village of Llamac – where our transportation was awaiting us and we had to say goodbye to Elijio and his donkeys.

Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

The village of Llamac.

Then it was the long road back to Huaraz – dropping Max and Nico off at the highway as they were heading directly back to Lima.

Really amazing feeling to have finished the hike – the sense of accomplishment really is something spectacular.   And I’m just infinitely grateful that I had the opportunity to do it, and share the experience with such amazing people!

Right… time to wash some clothes that are almost walking for themselves :-/

Recommendations

For those of you who have been inspired by the above (and it’s very hard not to be!), a few things to note.   This trek is probably not for you if:

  • you don’t like camping
  • you haven’t done an extended trek before (I did the 8-day Torres del Paine Circuit Trek in Chilean Patagonia last year, which was also awesome.  Actually, it is what inspired me to do more multi-day treks like this)
  • you suffer badly from the cold (OK – so this describes me, but I survived 🙂 ) Make sure you bring a -20 degree sleeping bag – you are going to need it!
  • you aren’t in decent shape – it’s 10 days of trekking at altitude – enough said
  • you don’t do altitude well – you are above 4000m 98% of the time so make sure you can handle the altitude before committing
  • you suffer from vertigo – there are many, many places where there are very, very steep drop-offs as you skirt around the edges of mountains on scree-slopes
  • you have bad knees – there are 3 days that involve very, very steep descents of more than an hour – they are knee killers!
  • you don’t have good balance – read last 2 dot points!

Best months for the trek are May – September and most companies only offer hikes during this time.   I organised through Peru Qorianka which must have some sort of affiliation with Active Peru, and was very, very happy with the trip and the quality of the equipment provided.

Cost:  I paid USD$720 + a tip for Eliceo and Elijio.   This included transport to and from Huayhuash, guide, donkey driver + donkeys, 5 meals/day and all equipment.  Couldn’t ask for more.

Time:  I really liked the relaxed nature of the 10-day trek where we had time to really appreciate the journey and also have some downtime from walking.   Some do it in 8 days, which would be much tougher – especially as there would be at least one day with multiple passes to climb.  12 days would be ideal – so you could add in a few day hikes around Laguna Juraucocha and Laguna Jahuacocha.

 

10 days – Trekking the Huayhuash Circuit – Part 1

The Huayhuash Circuit Trek (pronounced Why-wash) is widely regarded as one of the best alpine treks in the world due to its remoteness and the proximity to enormous mountains that you can almost reach out and touch.  Even better, the number of visitors is still relatively low.   Most opt for the shorter and more famous Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca, though this is changing with the success of the movie and book Touching the Void” – Joe Simpson’s remarkable survival of Siula Grande (one of the highest peaks in the Cordillera Huayhuash).

So after a single acclimatization hike to Laguna 69, and a couple of days in Huaraz arranging logistics, I got picked up at my hostel at 8am to head out into the wilderness for 10 days.   The trek itself is about 130km in total, 98% of which is between 4000m and 5200m, and there are 8 passes above 4500m to cross.  Hmmm… about that acclimatization…

Our route (and where we camped each night) is mapped in purple on the below (thanks to Peruvian Soul for the best illustrative map I could find). 

Huayhuash Circuit Trek - where we walked

Peruvian Soul also have the cool altitude chart of the trek, and although not quite correct (given we didn’t exactly follow the Peruvian Soul route), it gives you a pretty good idea of what we were dealing with though (the major difference is that we did the Santa Rosa pass @ 5200m instead of the San Antonio pass @5020m).

Huayhuash Circuit Trek - where we walked

I was sharing this adventure with Nico (Swiss-Italian) and Max (German) – two awesome, awesome guys who I really loved hanging out and trekking with.

Max, me and Nico - Cordillera Huayhuash

Our guide – Eliceo (an amazing guide/cook)

Eliceo - Cordillera Huayhuash

and our donkey-driver-come-general-helper-who-really-doesn’t-feel-the-cold-at-all – Elijio (along with his entourage of 6 donkeys and 1 horse) rounded out our very small group.

Elijio with donkeys - Huayhuash

I have to say, I was really, really thankful for the smallness of the group … we came across a large (12 people + guides + donkeys) group on about Day 3 for a couple of days (fortunately we were walking much faster and so only really saw them at the campsites) and that really would have driven me mad!  I was relishing the peacefulness and loneliness of where we were hiking – that would have been destroyed utterly with a lot of people.

To be honest, I’m mostly just going to let the images do the talking in the following 🙂

Day 1:  Huaraz (3050m) – Quartelhuain (4300m)

Actually, there was no hiking this day given that they have extended the road all the way to the first campsite.  4 hours in the van getting to know each other.   Set up camp.  Enjoy being in the outdoors.  Read.  Eat.  Sleep.   That was pretty much the extent of it 🙂    So happy to have awesome trekking companions and brilliant to meet a real-life James Herriott (Max is a ruminant vet).

Cordillera Huayhuash

Approaching the Cordillera Huayhuash along the road

Quartelhuain campsite - Cordillera Huayhuash

Quartelhuain campsite and surrounds

Day 2:  Quartelhuain (4300m) – Cacanan Punta Pass (4700m) – Mitucocha (4220m)

 Our first day of hiking.   It was absolutely freezing when we started out (even the -20 degree sleeping bag didn’t keep me warm last night – camping at altitude is a cold, cold business) and it took quite a long time for the toes and fingers to defrost.    

Chatting with locals on the way up Cacanan Punta Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Chatting with locals on the way up the Cacanan Punta Pass

I have come to the conclusion that the first and most important thing they teach the high-altitude guides in guide school is how to walk slowly.  Eliceo set a VERY slow pace up the steep first pass – and while it was not easy, it actually wasn’t that difficult either.  I think the problem I have usually is that I try to walk too fast.   There is a reason they look like they are barely plodding up Everest!

The view from the top of the pass was absolutely spectacular, though I was still not quite warm enough to strip off all the layers!

Me at the top of Cacanan Punta Pass

Me at the top of Cacanan Punta Pass – almost defrosted!

Cacanan Punta Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Cacanan Punta Pass

We then hiked over to check out an absolutely gorgeous lake and to have our lunch, running into some Vicuñas along the way.

Vicuña - Cordillera Huayhuash

Vicuña

Lake - Cordillera Huayhuash 

Lake - Cordillera Huayhuash

Then down to Mitucocha Lake for our second campsite.  What a view!

Mitucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Day 3:  Mitucocha (4220m) – Punta Carhuac pass (4650m) – Carhuacocha (4150m)

Although it was freezing, there are definitely worse places to have breakfast than this.  Yes, Max and Nico are crazy wearing shorts at this time of the day!

Breakfast Mitucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Breakfast at Mitucocha campsite

Packed up our tents, left Elijio with the rest of the packing job (guided treks are awesome!) and headed out towards the Punta Carhuac pass.  

Our donkeys and packing

Elijio was in charge of the packing and unpacking efforts – his donkeys always waiting patiently

A fairly easy day of hiking actually and the scenery just continues to be spectacular.’

Heading towards Punta Carhuac pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading towards Punta Carhuac pass

Punta Carhuac pass

Me at Punta Carhuac pass

Max and Eliceo at Punta Carhuac pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Max and Eliceo at Punta Carhuac pass

Heading away from Punta Carhuac pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Laguna Carhuacocha – our next campsite

Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Campsite at Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Not a bad view of the Laguna Carhuacocha and Cordillera Huayhuash from my tent

Day 4: Carhuacocha (4,150m) – Siula Pass (4,850m) – Huayhuash (4,350m)

Woke up to a perfectly calm and gorgeous morning – a beautiful start to one of the toughest days of hiking.

Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Stunning morning at Laguna Carhuacocha

It didn’t start out too bad – a nice flat walk along the edge of the lake towards the mountains.

Hiking along the side of Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Then around the corner and past a farm with arguably one of the best views in the world.   Interestingly, the Huayhuash Circuit is not within a National Park.  It passes through farming communities and the trail fees go directly to the community who provide basic facilities and look after the campsites.

Farms - Cordillera Huayhuash

Farms (with dogs!) in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Hiked around some gorgeous lakes as well

Cordillera Huayhuash

Cordillera Huayhuash

before the going got tough!

Straight up a very steep path to the lookout over the lakes and mountain range.  Yes, even at Eliceo’s snail’s pace – this was a tough climb!    

Hiking to the lookout above the lakes below Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

You can see the guys above me on the very steep path to the lookout over the 3 gorgeous lakes (Qanrajancacocha, Siulacocha and Quesillococha) below the Siula Pass

But the reward was worth it 🙂

Lookout over Qanrajancacocha, Siulacocha and Quesillococha - Cordillera Huayhuash

At the lookout of the three lakes: Lookout over Qanrajancacocha, Siulacocha and Quesillococha. Still not quite at the Siula Pass!

But we were still not done…  There was still quite a lot of uphill to go to actually reach the top of Siula Pass.

Heading towards Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading towards Siula Pass

Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Siula Pass

But I did make it 🙂

Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Me at Siula Pass

The rest of the day’s hiking was a doddle – decending towards Huayhuash campsite.

Away from Siula Pass towards Huayhuash Campsite - Cordillera Huayhuash

Away from Siula Pass towards Huayhuash Campsite

Huayhuash Campsite - Cordillera Huayhuash

Huayhuash Campsite

Day 5: Huayhuash (4,350m) – Portachuelo Pass (4,795m) – Lake Viconga (4,407m)

This was another fairly easy day, and our long-awaited reward of thermal baths lay at the end of it.   I was hanging out for that – especially since I hadn’t had a proper wash for 5 days.

On the way up to Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

On the way up to Portachuelo Pass

Donkeys approaching Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Donkeys for the Israeli group approaching us on top of Portachuelo Pass

Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

On top of the Portachuelo Pass

Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Rest stop on Portachuelo Pass. This dog had adopted us 2 days earlier and walked with us for the next 3 days. He was a great addition to our group

Lake Viconga - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading down to Lake Viconga

Viconga Hot Springs - Cordillera Huayhuash

Enjoying the Viconga Hot Springs at the Viconga campground. Stunning place!

Petroglyphs – La Silla Observatory

Much closer than Cerro Vizcachas, in fact just below the road where it passes below the 3.6m telescope, are the rock engravings, or petroglyphs, of La Silla.   I visited these a couple of times when I first arrived at La Silla about 15 years ago, but haven’t been back since.   

Given I was wandering around the mountain anyway, I decided to pay them another visit, and was very happy to find out that there is actually a bit of a map to help find them these days.

La Silla Petroglyphs Map

Map courtesy of Stefano Berta

Previously I was only aware of, and had therefore only visited, those marked ‘A’ in the map so was keen to see if I could find some of the others.  

According to researchers, there are 2 main types of petroglyph at La Silla – abstract designs (mostly repeated geometrical designs) and figurative drawings depicting human outlines and animals in stick-figure format.   Those at site ‘A’ tend to be mostly abstract designs and there are lots and lots of them clustered together in this site.

Site 'A' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

These are located directly below the 3.6m telescope and only about 100m from the road to Vizcachas.  Be careful – it’s very steep and rocky!

Group A petroglyphs with 3.6m telescope in the background - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there, I found a couple of petroglyphs only at site ‘B’ and so headed over to site ‘C’ to discover drawings that started to look a little more figurative.

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Including this amazing example – one of my favourites. 

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

According to the ESO website linked above: “The delicate central spiral symbolizes a serpent while the rest of the space is taken up by strange little figures, together with some simple geometric motifs and quadrupeds“.

View from Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Site ‘D’ was actually my favourite and had many more figurative drawings than what I’d seen elsewhere – particularly of quadrupeds!  The image at bottom-right has the most animals of any stone on the entire site.

Site 'D' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there I wandered over to Site ‘E’ … I think!  Not entirely clear that I’d arrived at the right place, but again, more cool petroglyphs along the way.   Basically you just look for decent-sized rocks and go check it out.

Site 'E' (I think) petroglyphs looking back towards the 3.6m telescope - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Had a great time scrambling over the mountainside searching for the petroglyphs and am thankful for the map as it did help guide me.  Of course, the site has had a complete photographic and topographic survey (in spanish) of the engravings done on it (back in 1990), but it is still fun as you stumble across each one for yourself.

BTW – unfortunately there is now a 3rd type of “modern” petroglyph as well 🙁  Disappointing to see.

"modern" petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Las Vizcachas – La Silla Observatory

If you walk around the La Silla Observatory site at all, it’s hard to miss the road that starts just below the 2.2m telescope and heads out to Cerro Vizcachas.

Sunset view to Cerro Vizcachas from road to the SEST - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Cerro Vizcachas is the second peak you can see – if you squint you can see the white marker

It was constructed back in the 1990s when the European Southern Observatory was conducting site testing at various locations to determine where they would ultimately build the Very Large Telescope, and gives easy access to the petroglyphs that can also be found on the mountain.

Ever since I first arrived at La Silla, I’ve wanted to do the 12km return hike out to Cerro Vizcachas, but never had the time while I was working there.  So, after almost 16 years, I decided that this visit that I would finally do it.

I had to abort my first attempt due to freezing wind and cloud rising out of valley.  I went back and curled up with my Thomas Covenant books instead 🙂

Freezing wind and cloud aborted my first attempt at Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

The next day, however, there were no clouds and not much wind, so off I set.  

To be honest, there isn’t much to see along the way that you don’t already see from La Silla.

Views along the way to Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

The exception being La Silla itself of course.  There are some great views back to the 3.6m and SEST telescopes!

Views back to La Silla - on the way to Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

And when you finally arrive, there really isn’t much there.  A radio antenna, the white platform that used to house the DIMM (Differential Image Motion Monitor) and some foundations.

Radio tower and remains of DIMM - Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Still, it was good to do some exercise and satisfy a (minor) bucketlist item.   And have I mentioned the view?

View of La Silla from Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

View of La Silla from Cerro Vizcachas radio tower

Hiking Cerro Guanaco – Tierra del Fuego

Given my very limited time in Ushuaia before I headed off to Antarctica, I really wanted to get out for 1 day to the Tierra del Fuego National Park to do some hiking.  There are quite a few trails but after reading some descriptions I decided to do the Cerro Guanaco trail, that promised an “outstanding view of the Fuegian mountain range and its peatbogs”.   Given the day was absolutely perfect (no clouds, sun shining, no wind!), how could I pass up the opportunity!

Tierra del Fuego National Park Map

Got let out of the park transfer bus at the Lago Roca visitors centre, and started walking along the the edge of the lake to get to the trailhead.  Spectacular views and almost perfect reflections!

Lago Roca - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

The description I’d read initially also promised that this was a “strenuous” hike, and signage at the trailhead suggested 4hrs one way.  For 4km?  I hope not!

Cerro Guanaco trail - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

Turns out, they aren’t fibbing about the strenuous part!  Reminiscent of the Brewster’s Hut trek in New Zealand – the first part is a bit of a scramble up through the shade of beech trees, using their roots as stairs and following yellow poles and red dots.  

Cerro Guanaco trail - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

After about 3/4 hour I reached a bit of a clearing which I thought might be the first viewpoint indicated on my very rough map, but a little further along there was a yellow marker that said “3km”.    Hmmmm…. now does that mean that I’ve walked 3km and have 1km to go (it sure felt like it!) or that I’ve walked 1km and have 3km to go?     

I was hoping for the former, but unfortunately it turned out to be the latter 🙁

The next 1.5km actually wasn’t too difficult until I hit the peat bogs.   There had been a fair bit of rain a few days prior so it got very muddy on the trail, and this eventually spilled out into the bog itself.  Having not done too badly getting through the mud while remaining essentially clean and dry, I had to give it up as a bad joke trying to get through the bog.   My hiking shoes have long since lost their waterproof protection (turns out that Keens hiking shoes last about 8 months when you wear them continuously and do a fair bit of hiking – even the tread is coming off now), and by the time I’d managed to cross, my feet were soaked.  Oh well.

The bog! Cerro Guanaco trail - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

The peat bog!

Once across the peat bog, the terrain changed absolutely, from beech forest to scree slope, and yes, the last 1.5km was bloody hard work as well!    Walking up a slope of 45-60 degrees is not easy, especially with arthritic toes – it’s just the wrong angle it turns out…

The scree-slope! Cerro Guanaco trail - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

But the view from the top – absolutely stunning!   From there you can see the entire Cordillera Darwin, which forms the final part of the South American continent.   And such a perfect day to sit up there for an hour or so admiring the view – it’s extremely rare to not have wind!  

The incredible view! Cerro Guanaco trail - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

You also get a nice bird’s eye view of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel.

The view to Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel - Cerro Guanaco trail - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

And more spectacular views down into the valley behind.

The view to valley behind - Cerro Guanaco trail - Tierra del Fuego National Park - Argentina

Turns out it only took 2.5 hours to reach the summit and, just like Brewster’s hut, it took almost as long to get back down (2 hours).   Those 60 degree scree slopes without hiking poles are kinda tricky!   

 

Recommendation:  If you have a gorgeous day – this is definitely the hike to do!   But, it is tough and probably not great if you suffer from vertigo, so be prepared.

Cost:  There are transfers from Ushuaia to the National Park each day that cost 400 Argentinean Pesos round trip.  It’s expensive (captive audience) but cheaper than hiring a car or taxi.   210 Argentinean Pesos for the entrance to the National Park.

Time:  It took me 2.5 hours to reach the summit and 2 hours to descend.  Add on about 40 minutes to walk from the Information Centre to the trailhead and back.