The Cordillera Blanca, the neighbor to the North, may boast the tallest mountain in Peru, but the Huayhuash holds the second tallest (Yerupaja, 6,617 m) and is the setting for the classic adventure story Touching the Void. The Cordillera Huayhuash is about a 5 hour drive from Huaraz, and is one of the most popular destinations from the city. The hardcore trekkers among us will circuit the entire mountain chain. Not summiting any major peaks but rather skirting around through high mountain passes. It’s a trek known as simply “The Huayhuash”.
According to National geographic, it’s the second most beautiful hike in the world. There is a standard circuit; the fastest it’s been done is 4 days, and the longest it’s been drawn out is 20, with about as many donkeys. The standard is 8 days. The entire trek stays high above the 4,000 meter tree line, so the way is rugged and sometimes almost desolate; huge boulders decorate the gold green hills as a replacement forest.
Somehow, the Huayhuash managed to find itself a prominent (but optional) step in the Path of the Hummus.
I’m not sure who coined that phrase, but the Path of the Hummus would refer to the South American Israeli trail, the string of long debated over, heavily researched tourist destinations that are flooded by groups of post army Israelis year round. The thing is, the Path of the Hummus is no secret; it’s the same gringo trail that every nationality bases their South American circuits on. Argentina: Buenos, Rosario, Córdoba, Mendoza, Bariloche, Ushuaia. Patagonia: El Calafate, El Chal 10, Puerto Natales. Up to Brazil: Rio, Iguazú falls. Bolivia: La Paz, The Salt Flats, Potosi, the death road, the jungles… and on to Peru. The difference is that Israelis seem to give little thought to straying off the path: They know what’s good cuz it’s been tested. And most importantly, they know other Israelis will be there.
Israelis travel in groups, of other Israelis. Nir was one of the first I met really trying to make an effort to try something new by traveling with me. But to tell you the truth, if you make even the smallest effort to get an in with a group of Israelis they welcome you into their ranks like a long lost sister and will have your back no matter what. It’s a cultural thing. Always watching out for each other. There are no pleases and thankyous in Hebrew conversations, only taking, giving and sharing. As an Israeli you’re safe in South America. If anything happens, you’re not alone because you’ll have a group of 50 protective friends to fight for you.
So began my Israeli experience. Despite having assured me he wanted a different, out of country experience for a while, as soon as we got to Huaraz Nir went off on a mission to find the Israelis. “They know what’s good.” He explained. “The good companies, the good tours, good equipment.” Ok, sure. Fine. We arrived in Huaraz in the morning and spent the day hunting for an adequate agency. Nir was never satisfied. Around 9 PM, after hunting all day, we FINALLY stumbled upon the pocket of town where the Israelis were hiding: a little hostel agency down a winding alley far off the main drag called Andes Camp. It was, no joke, 90% populated by Israelis; even the signs were written in Hebrew.
Surrounded by his brethren, Nir was finally satisfied, but only after checking absolutely everything. The tents, the sleeping bags, the flashlights, pads, photographs, licenses… I was surprised he didn’t feel the need to check the donkey’s veterinary records or the quality of our van’s tires. Above all, the entire group was immensely concerned about the quantity of food. “I eat A LOT,” guy named Ofir explained very seriously to our soon to be guide. “Look, if we don’t get enough food, I’m eating YOU first.” Of course, as soon as we booked the trek for the next day, with assurances that we would be very well fed, Nir went off to buy 10 cans of tuna and 5 gigantic packets of crackers and cookies. Just in case. Surprisingly, he managed to finish it all off by the end (true to the Israeli spirit, a lot of it was shared).
The Great Huayhuash kicked off with at 5 hour bus ride to our first camping spot. It was a long, sleepy, but beautiful ride: Rich blue rivers and lakes shimmered below, weaving through rolling hills of yellow velvet, which faded to a rich brown; then deep royal blue and purple mountains jumped from the planes, rising in deep shadowed contours, their white tips mingling with the wind and the clouds. Suddenly not a part of this world but in a shifting, ethereal passage between earth and heaven.
We arrived around 3, at the closest point the carrartera reaches to the cordillera. Our campsite was a long valley of rolling yellow brown pampa, and walling us in on either side rose dramatic granite spires shrouded by menacing, stormy clouds. It was a scene of deep shades of grays, and the clouds hung low and hugged the cliffs. Along the valley and scattering the hills were tiny cottages of sheep herders. Their sheep milled within small round circles of stone, crude circular rock walls only a meter of so high. Apparently, the walls are put in place only so that the horses can’t get inside- their front feet are tied together and they can’t get over the walls and eat the sheep’s grass. The Huayhuash is a fenceless wilderness, and animals roam free.
Our campsite was at 4,150 meters. The set up was just like Santa Cruz- individual tents, a cooking tent, a dining tent. Donkeys. Fourteen people had signed up for the trek, so we were divided into two groups: I was with Nir, four Israeli guys: Eli, Matan, Asif and Asaf. And an older UK couple, Nick and Jess.
I would grow to really like every single person in our group, and find that they are each amazing, individual characters. Eli and Matan had been traveling together and were very blond from being Israeli. I was discovering what a melting pot the country is. It´s just like the states- a mash up of individuals come to live in the same land for ideological reasons. In the good ol U S of A, it was for religious freedom, and now just the freedom to build the life you´ve always dreamed of. In Israel, it´s common history and culture, as well as religion. Eli is Russian. Matan is half Polish. Nir´s mom is from Yemen and his dad from Canada. There are mixes from literally all over the world.
Nick and Jess are an interesting couple- they´re not married, but have different bases, and meet up all over the world. And their base homes are pretty dang exciting- Nick spends much of his time in Chamonix, as a ski model turned photographer, while Jess is first mate on a ship in the Caribbean. WOW. They were hilarious, and constantly joking with each other, especially about the differences between England (Jess) and Scotland (Nick). They remind me a bit of Ann and John, which made me happy.
Before dinner, I climbed up one of the cliffs beside us to get a closer look at the cottages and sheep. An old woman stood outside of their home- a pile of rocks with a thatched roof- watching the sheep. When I approached I scared them out of their “fenced area” and she got worked up, yelling “QUE BUSCAS? FUERATE!” I almost tried to walk up and make peace, but she was pretty terrifying.
I climbed to the point where I could see the whole river valley, and the sun began to set, orange wisps flowing over the serrated stone like fire streaming out of a cauldron. Night settled in brooding dark purples and grays- When I couldn’t see the guys milling around outside I started to run down, just as Nir started up to look for me. We ended up missing each other and he interacted with the same campaseña woman with his limited spanish. “Donde chica?” “FUERATE!!!”
With my two sleeping bags, that night I was really warm. My stomach felt a bit odd though, a sensation scarily familiar to what I felt on Chachani, but I didn´t think anything of it. The next morning, we gathered in the dining tent for breakfast, and I noticed coffee was not a part of the array. After a curt discussion with our guide Marco, I found coffee would not be provided for the entire trek. “Los Israelitos no toman café normalamente,” he explained. Ok. I know it´s crazy, but I´m not from Israel. I´m an American coffee fiend who will not be in a good mood today if coffee is not part of my morning. But there seemed not to be much I could do, and I haven´t yet mastered the art of magicking nescafe out of thin air.
So the day got off to a bad start. I had assumed we would be walking along the river valley like in Santa Crauz; I was shocked when Marco lead us straight up the cliff I had climbed the night before. In the Huayhuash, the difficulty of each day is measured by the amount of mountain passes to climb, and the altitude of each. Day Two was one of the hardest, with two 4,700 meter passes. In our first two or so hours, we were to climb 600 meters almost vertically, lower down to 4,200 meters, and then repeat the whole process for a total of around 8 hours of trekking. This was no “Santa cruise”. This is the HUAYHUASH. This was hard core, and I soon found out, the hard way.
Since Nir and I were short on time and had decided to book the trek as soon as possible, I wasn’t really acclimatized. Somehow, he was- We started off walking together, and slowly I fell behind until I was near the back of the group. Behind me, Asaf wheezed along with a hacking cough that were pretty sure is pneumonia. The same cough had stopped him from summiting Chachani, around the same time I attempted the climb.
By the time I was half way up the cliff, I was in rough shape. I staggered to the landing where everyone was waiting and collapsed. Nir was shocked, and didn´t hadn´t realized I was struggling. He kindly told me I looked like I was about to faint and came to help me out. He stuck with me for the rest of the day, and for the rest of the day my internal mantra was to stay awake, stay alive, and breathe. The issue was simple: Lack of oxygen. It gave me a headache, a stomach ache, and most painfully, created lactic acid in all my muscles and back so that my entire body felt like it was on fire on top of searing side aches.
We climbed over the tips of the raking granite spires that had towered so menacingly over our campsite (and which I had never, ever assumed we would actually climb), out through a bowl of boulders surrounded by more cliffs, and climbed again to reach the pass around 10. Across the ridge, the green velvet valley unrolled below and a bright red brown lake, dyed by the sediment flowing from red mountains above, leaked onto the grass. Our emergency horse (named Viento), stood statuesque as if in a pose, gazing out at the view.
I tried to enjoy it. But really, most of the day was a blur. The next couple hours were all downhill, and real, glaciated 6,000 meter mountains began to appear. At our lunch spot, a herd of wild horses roamed on a hill in front of towering peaks. A handful of them started a fight, rearing and bucking; it was an incredible sight. Jess saw it too and went wild (she loves horses); Nick missed it and went wild (he loves taking pictures and missed a good opportunity). After lunch (sandwiches with avocado, cheese, tomato, tuna and onion) I passed out while Nir refilled and purified my water bottle. And then we pressed on for the next pass. Luckily this one was far more gradual, but I struggled still. Meanwhile, Matan´s stomach was not doing him well, and he discovered he had bad diarrhea. We were a broken group- me with altitude sickness, Asaf with his terrible cough, and now Matan with the runs…
Two horses watching the scene from above
I felt better at the second pass, but it was still a long way down. Ten minutes from our camp site, we came across a giant, gorgeous lake with snowy peaks rising right out of its reflective water, a mirror for their bright, chiseled complexions. Our campsite for the night was also along the lake, and possibly the most beautiful campsite I´ve ever slept at. With the mountains as a backdrop, the tents lined a ridge above the laguna, and the windless evening preserved the mountain’s perfect reflection. As soon as we got back, Nir and the Israeli guys sat down in a line and began to stretch. I´d been through the sequence before on Macchu Puicchu- it´s the same for everyone who´s been in the army. Some activities from the army just really seem to stick. Of all that they learned on the field in those three years, I’m relieved that stretching and pushups are what they’ve kept in practice.
Throughout that night, we heard regular deep roars from outside- bombs? Lions? After a while I realized they were avalanches. I was strangely cold that night, and shivered in my two long johns, sweater and two sleeping bags. Half way through the night I gave up and put on a couple more layers, assuming it was altitude sickness. But the next morning, we unzipped the tent and found everything coated in ice, our water bottles frozen, and a thick layer of frost on the grass… ah.
Top of the second pass
The morning got off to a good start. It was around 7 and the sun had risen to my favorite point, where slanting rays make long shadows and everything is aflame in a high contrast glow. I strolled over to the other group´s tent (we basically trek and camp together, just two loose circles of tents) to inquire if they were given coffee. Erez, a 29 year old Israeli guy in South America for this second time to travel with his brother, offered me a bag of real Israeli black coffee. Turkish grind, all the way from home.
Erez was one of my favorite out of our two groups; always smiling, he makes me think of a giant teddy bear, or a Buddha. I gladly accepted his offer, and when I introduced my newfound jewel to our group, there was a mild uproar. “This is Real Israeli coffee!!” They were beyond excited. After a session of lightning speed Hebrew and wild hand gestures, they told me they would make up the coffee for me, the RIGHT way, and proceeded to stir up mugs for everyone. I was a little concerned; was that ok with Erez? Did he want 15 people drinking his coffee instead of one? Of course he did. That’s really just the way they are. He had already been offering it to his whole group every morning.
Apparently, the trick is to not add milk, just scoop in some grounds with hot water, and let it steep without stirring, letting the grounds form a solid layer at the bottom. It was so warm and beautiful outside that we brought the stools out and sat in a line facing the mountains sipping our Turkish press. It was amazing.
The first part of the hike that day wound all the way around the lake, so we got to enjoy the cobalt blue for another hour or so. We walked along a river valley for a bit and then came across a series of gorgeous lakes, each a new shade of blue and turquoise. The sun was bright and I didn’t feel the least bit sick. Amazing people, amazing place. The three hours of mid day were climbing, and eventually we would reach 4,800 meters. Now was the time to test if I still had altitude issues. I didn’t. The climb was great; we stopped several times along the way to look down at the lakes and take crazy pictures. Israelis really know how to lighten the mood, mess around and have a good time.
Towards the top the climb was tough, but not because of the altitude, it was just tough. But I reached 4,800 without a headache. When we reached the pass, Nick pointed out that the massive mountain right in front of our faces was Siula Grande, the very mountain in Touching the Void! Sweet! I got really excited; that documentary was actually one of the reasons I wanted to go on this trek, and watching it with Tom in his apartment back in November, I realized the story was in Peru and set my mind to seeing that mountain face to face. And there I was, there it was, complete with avalanches roaring down its sides.
The way back down is always a bore. You reach the top, celebrate; you’re done! You’ve made it! And then there are 3 cold hours of slogging downhill on sore knees. But the descent was broken up by a moment of entertainment: About half way down, we came across as swampland of strange round balls of brilliant green high altitude grass rising out of a pond, each green hump about a meter tall and 3 meters wide. The water between the formations was a deep cobalt, and reflected the mountains perfectly. It was gorgeous, and Eli and Nir decided to add to the scene by taking a nude picture.
For the rest of the walk, I was in Hebrew School. Matan and Nir taught me several useful phrases, such as: (I know the spelling is wrong) “Capara alecha!” I love you! “Ma sha core Bedrom America nish ar Bedrom America!” What happens in South America stays in South America! Slowly but surely, I was being converted into an Israeli.
It seemed to take ages to get to camp; Nir and I were pretty sure we were lost, had passed camp, and were starting in on day 4. We took a break by another lake surrounded by dun brown hills and scattered with ducks; the moon rose in the dusty blue sky. When we finally got to camp, it was after 5, and I was exhausted. Stretching, tea, and dinner filled the evening and the day ended in a second.
The next day was our rest day: Only 5 hours of walking! I hadn’t slept well the night before because of a sore throat and stuffed up nose. So it was hard to wake up. Our breakfast was gourmet: pancakes, but after eating one I left my plate for higher priorities. Find Erez and his amazing Turkish roast.
The two groups had camped a bit farther apart. I could just see the tents, just wasn’t quite sure how to get there. The entire valley we camped in was scored with deep stream gorges rock sheep walls, hills and random pits: it seemed as if there were a good amount of obstacles to scramble over and hop across between me and coffee. But with hearty encouragement and direction from Jess, and a full mug of boiling water in my hand, I skipped across stepping stones, almost falling into river s and splashing scalding water on my hands; I climbed rock walls, feel down gulleys, tripped over grass mounds and slipped down overhanging stream banks. And finally, with now a half cup of water, reached the group.
Erez, the angel, served me a healthy amount and then doled it out to everyone else. Truly a saint. With coffee in hand, I looked back towards our group and realized in shock that our tents were just about 100 meters away, straight across flat grass. You’ve got to be kidding. I had created my own drawn out mission the long way around the other side of the sheep herder’s cottage which had blocked my view. So be it. I had my coffee now.
There was a 4,600 meter pass that day. Nothing. We didn’t even notice it, like a pea under a carpet. It took us 2 hours to cross it, and then the rest of the day was a casual downhill stroll to… the HOT SPINGS!
The highlight of the hike was a massive laguna, the biggest in the entire Huayhuash cordillera; vast and deep blue and surrounded by brown cliffs specked with sheep. A tongue of land stuck out into the lake, blanketed with sheep; they milled about and watched the bright white birds diving over the blue.
me and Viento
After a small climb, we found ourselves looking down at a valley that deepened into a canyon; with steep, dusty orange cliff walls and horses trotting out into the distance, it was a scene straight of the wild south west. The cliff dropped out below us, swept by a rushing waterfall, and beside the river we saw our cluster of tents and the HOT SPRINGS!!
The hot springs saved my life. My sore and painful shoulders and back were cured, my muscles relaxed, my headcold temporarily subsided. The springs consists of two tubs, one for socializing and a smaller, hotter one for bathing. They were ringed by rock and placed right at the edge of the cliff against towering red rock across the valley, an idyllic spot. Next door, a little store sold water, cola, beer, and… instant coffee1 I bought four packs. Everyone was there: both of our groups and a group of American Peace Corps volunteers. I chatted with them for a bit and found that they all live between 8 and 10 hours away from Huaraz (that may be walking distance), in the Ancash region. They were taking a vacation to explore Huayhuash, guideless. They said the volunteer work is hard, but they really enjoy it. Jeez, I said I wanted to lie with a host family for a bit, but it’s hard to imagine two years. Good for them.
Nir and I had a good chat gazing over the valley, of our motivations for traveling and trekking… we had similar conclusions, to be independent, learn about ourselves and another culture, about different environments and crazy beautiful nature. I never imagined my gap year would be so centered on the outdoors, but it really has been. Go figure. When you really get a chance to do WHATEVER you want, I guess you realize what it is you really want to do.
As we relaxed in the steamy waters, the next day, the infamous Day 5, swam in our heads. It was to be the hardest day of all: Two passes, one 5,000 meters and one 5,300 meters. We joked about how dumb it was to put us in a spa where they sold alcohol the day before such a major challenge. Erez was serious about the issue. The name of the 5,300 meter pass is San Antonio, but he couldn’t seem to remember the name, (especially after a couple beers) and kept calling it “San Benedeto”, which is the name of a bottled water company.
He kept repeating “No San Benedeto manana, no es possible, no possible San Benedeto,” with his big smile. “Aqui San Benedeto. Aqui San Benedeto.” He was the last to stay in the hot springs, and didn’t come back until long after dark, and long after dinner. “Donde esta Erez?” Apparently he changed in the little shop, still drunk. Meanwhile, I had finished dinner and was looking for boiled water to dissolve cold medicine Jess had given me. I looked in the cook’s tent but Marco wasn’t there… Partying with friends in the hot springs. Eventually I got hot water from the other group. I was walking back under the stars when Erez trooped in, still tipsy. Nir came outside and Erez started to dance, under the brilliant stars and glowing hill, and we started to dance too, wildly in the field. I couldn’t stop laughing, at how much fun I was having, at Erez’s dance moves, at the amazing stars, at where we were, at life.
I slept well that night. Maybe it was the medicine, maybe it was the hot springs, maybe it was the beer, but something worked. Good thing too, because I know manana would kick my ass……….
Erez, last in the springs.