Huaraz: Hiking at 5,000 Meters

After our mad dash back from Machu Picchu to Lima, Andrea, Dan, and I dropped Marina off at the airport and took a much-needed rest day. We hung out in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, chilled at the hostel, got a sushi buffet (such luxury!), and watched the newest Game of Thrones episode.

We also used our day off in Lima to plan the next 9 days of fun. Although we were still a bit sore from Machu Picchu, we were all blown away by the Andes and decided to do some more hiking in a town in northern Peru called Huaraz. We took a day bus up and spent the late afternoon shopping around for the best hostel deal ($15 soles or just under $5.00 USD each), having dinner, and relaxing. We knew we wanted to hike, but knew we weren’t ready for the altitude quite yet (The city of Huaraz is at 3,050 meters and the hikes can top 5,000), so we spent the next day getting to know the town and doing research on nearby attractions, hikes, and tours. In the end, we found a tour operator we liked and chose 3: a tour of Chavin de Huantar (archaeological site), a glacier tour, and the Laguna 69 hike. Luckily, we were able to bargain and get a decent discount since we booked all three with the same guy.

Chavin de Huantar (35 soles/person)

When I learned about Peru in school, the main topics were the Inca, the Spanish conquest, and subsequently the colonial period. It turns out there’s quite a bit more to the story! The area around Chavin de Huantar has been inhabited since about 3000 BCE and the ancient city was built by the oldest known civilization in Peru around 1200 BCE. The guy who sold us the tour said it was spectacular and we figured it would be a good history lesson and give us another day to adjust to the altitude. We spent that morning on a bus, zooming down narrow, windy Andean roads to what our guide called the “ugly lake” of the tour. I’ll let you judge for yourself:

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A little while later, we arrived at the Chavin Museum and the real history lesson began. The museum, paid for by the Japanese government as a measure of goodwill after the Fujimori scandal, has a TON of information, including decorative head statues removed from the actual site, scale models, bilingual explanations of the historical context, and reenactments of ceremonies with “plantas de poder” (plants of power) that were sacred to the people of Chavin.

After a quick lunch break (Andrea, Dan, and I didn’t want to get ripped off by the “recommended” restaurant, so we walked a few blocks down the street and paid 1/3 of the price for the same meal), we visited the site itself, which was quite impressive. We walked through the main plaza, by the original temple, and even got to go into some of the underground tunnels that the archaeologists are still excavating!

In those times, it was used as a ceremonial religious center due its ideal location at the meeting point of two rivers: the Mosna and the Huanchesca. We learned all about the geographical position of the city, the sacrifices they used to make, and some of the religious pilgrimages.

Pastoruri Glacier (30 soles/person)

The next day, we got up early and boarded another bumpy bus to the Pastoruri Glacier, which is at about 5,250 meters above sea level. To be honest, we spent most of the day in the bus and only a few hours at the glacier, but it was still quite a hike. I’d never been past 5,000 meters before and it is quite an experience! The path to the glacier from the visitor center is all paved (yay!) and only slightly inclined, maybe only a 20 minute walk, but we were all consistently surprised at how out of breath we were on the slight inclines.

Although we really enjoyed seeing the glacier, it was also pretty sad to see that it’s melting. To think that this walk simply won’t be the same in 10 years and may not be remotely similar by the time my children go backpacking one day is pretty sobering.

Laguna 69 (30 soles/person)

Our third day, we finally worked up the courage to do the big hike up to Laguna 69, which is in Huascaran National Park. We figured that we’d already spent a few days in Huaraz, done the glacier the previous day and didn’t have much more time to prepare, so we went for it. I don’t have a specific altitude figure here, but our guide assured us that the highest point was one or two hundred meters above 5,000.

IT WAS NOT EASY.

The hike is about 9 kilometers and starts off nice and flat, then gently sloping up. Eager to set a good pace, we sped ahead of the rest of the group and maintained a comfortable lead for the first hour or so. However, once we hit the first big incline, we slowed down. First just to drink some water, then increasingly just to catch our breath. We broke out the coca candies that EVERYONE had told us about back in Huaraz and found that they helped us maintain a steady pace for a while. Towards the top of the first mountain, it got much harder. The path became rockier and much steeper. I foolishly tried to sprint up a certain section just to see how I felt and was rewarded for my efforts doubled over catching up on breathing. Andrea and Dan took it slow and steady.

At the top, we thought we’d made it in record time. Everyone said the hike up takes about 3 or 3.5 hours and we’d reached the summit in about 1.5. Except we hadn’t. Although we had this beautiful view behind us, the lake we saw somehow didn’t match the photos in the tour office.

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The deceptive first lake.

We soon realized there was another mountain yet to climb. Knowing that stopping would made starting again all the harder, we powered through it. Luckily, there’s another nice flat section before the second mountain, so we took our time walking through it, taking photos, re-hydrating, and gathering our energy for the next big push.

Now, the thing about hiking at altitude is that the further you go, the higher up you are, and the more difficult it gets. Our pace up the second mountain was much slower than the first. The path was much smaller and became pretty rocky as it zig-zagged its way up the mountain. About one third of the way up, we started to stop at each switchback. Dan and I definitely felt it, but it hit Andrea the hardest. We made sure to stop often, drink water, and keep a steady flow of coca leaves and candies going to help combat the altitude.

So what does it feel like to hike at 5,000 meters? Slow, mostly. We were all breathing much more heavily than normal and Andrea got hit with a big headache. At one point, Andrea even said that she felt drunk: she was processing information more slowly, felt uncoordinated (try to put foot in one place, her foot ends up somewhere slightly different), and couldn’t think straight. She said her legs felt unnaturally heavy, was lightheaded, and even felt nauseous at one point.

After what seemed like an eternity, the path flattened out. We rounded a corner and were greeted by the spectacular Laguna 69. We took a few photos and immediately found a couple of nice rocks to sit on for lunch: tuna sandwiches. When I say that this was the best tuna sandwich I’ve ever had, I mean it. And I’ve had a LOT of tuna sandwiches. Growing up, those were my jam, but nothing came close to this one. I think there’s just something about breathing enough for a whole day in just a few hours that really works up an appetite. We ate and then closed our eyes for a quick power nap in the sun.

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The hike down was MUCH easier. None of us had headaches, our legs seemed to weigh the normal amount, and we maintained a steady pace the whole way. That being said, when we did reach the bus at the bottom, we piled in very gratefully and promptly went to sleep for the duration of the ride home.

That night, we rewarded ourselves with our favorite Huaraz meal: chicken. We found this place that literally serves just chicken, fries, and a bit of salad. You can pick between a 1/4, 1/2, or whole chicken. It’s fantastic.

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I LOVE CHICKEN!!!

Lima

At that point, we had our fill of hiking and wanted to get back to Lima since you never want to cut it too close with an international flight and Dan was headed back soon. We took a bus back to Lima the next day (given my tummy issue on the night bus from Cusco to Lima, Andrea’s motion sickness, and Dan’s sensitive stomach, we decided against a night bus). We spent a couple of fun days in Lima going to a local soccer game, hitting up an arcade for old time’s sake, and enjoying yet another fantastic episode of Game of Thrones.

Far too soon for anyone’s liking, the day of Dan’s departure arrived. After two full weeks of adventure and memory-making in Machu Picchu and Huaraz, we were quite sad to say goodbye. It’s always special to have friends visit and we thoroughly enjoyed having Dan with us in Peru. But alas, all good things must come to an end, so we reluctantly piled into an Uber and helped him navigate the complexities of international check-in in a foreign language and had one last ice cream together before seeing him go.

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Andrea and I had signed up for a Vipassana meditation retreat starting the next day where we wouldn’t see each other or talk to anyone else for 10 days. We were excited for the challenge, but definitely a bit nervous and took advantage of our last day of freedom by switching to a slightly nicer hostel with a private room, putting on our least bummy clothes, and going out for a nice dinner!

When you’re on the road with your significant other, you spend a LOT of time together. I’ve learned more about Andrea on this trip than I did during the entire time we lived in Seattle together. There’s just something about spending 24/7 with someone in foreign lands, no plans, and a helluva lot of frustration that really lets you get to know them on another level. We’ve found it’s really important to still have special time just for us, and date nights are a big piece of that. We picked a fun sushi restaurant nearby and spent the evening sipping on soju, eating our sushi, and spending time on romance.

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2 responses to “Huaraz: Hiking at 5,000 Meters

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Taking Your Time | Anemoscopio·

  2. Pingback: Peru: Quick and Dirty Country Guide | Anemoscopio·

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