Travelblog SA#17: Hiking the Cordillera Blanca (Santa Cruz Trek) – Peru

20th-22nd September 2018

I didn’t sleep too well the night before leaving. Partly because I knew I had to get up early, and I think I was also excited and a little nervous too. I have done high-altitude treks before (such as Langtang Valley in Nepal and, more recently, the Quilotoa Loop) but during those, there were lodges to stay at.

This was my first time going it alone, carrying everything I needed to survive upon my own back. Still, Santa Cruz is supposed to be quite safe as far as altitude treks go, and it is also quite popular, so I knew I was likely to meet people along the way…

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Day 1

By 4am, I gave up on sleep. It was only an hour till I needed to leave anyway, so I showered, checked my backpack one last time to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, and headed for the bus station.

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I first had to catch a colectivo to Yungay, and then I transferred onto a minibus. The road to Vaquería – where the trek began – was rocky and narrow. It twisted through the Andes like spaghetti and took over three hours just to reach a distance no more than 40 kilometres away as the crow would fly. The views were incredible but unfortunately, we only made one stop during the whole journey, when a group of climbers departed, destined for something much more adventurous than myself. I took a photo of this view of Orkoncocha and Chinan Cocha Lagunas.

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Once the bus pulled up into Vaquería, me and the other gringos got off and began hiking. A German guy called Simon seemed to have a similar pace to myself so the two of us walked together.

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Most of that first day was a steady upward climb. We passed through a village and then into a valley. We reached Paria (the campsite most people stay the first night) at around 2pm and decided that, as there was plenty of daylight left, we would go further to give ourselves a head start for the next day.

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The trail became steeper. The last hour was gruelling, but eventually we reached a campsite. An unofficial one recommended by previous hikers on the app Maps.me. A Spanish couple was already there, and later on, we were joined by a pair of Canadians.

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I was feeling dizzy, so the first thing I did was make myself a big cup of cocoa tea with ginger. It made me feel better, but the altitude was affecting me. I discovered – after speaking to the others – that everyone else who had hiked this far up the mountain the first day had been in this area much longer than me, and some of them had even done other hikes. Two days ago, I had been in Lima (which is at sea level). I had jumped to over four thousand meters.

We ate supper together. They laughed when they saw my sleeping bag (which only had a comfort temperature of 4-8 degrees) and saying I wouldn’t survive the night, but the cold wasn’t a problem. I happen to know that an inflatable mattress – when inserted into a sleeping bag rather than placed beneath it – adds a few degrees of warmth.

No. The cold was the least of my worries that night…

As soon as I got into my tent, I had a splitting headache. I couldn’t sleep because my brain was all fuzzy. I realised I had altitude sickness. Which surprised me as I have broken the rules for acclimatisation much more dramatically in the past and always got away with it. I had a temperature too. I actually panicked for a while, because I took out my thermometer and it gave me a reading which was off the scale, but then I realised it must be broken. Otherwise, I would already be dead.

I took a paracetamol, but it didn’t seem to help. Later, I remembered that the Spanish couple had altitude sickness pills, so I woke them up. That made me feel a little better, but it was the early hours of the morning by then, and I realised I had passed almost the entire night without sleep.

 

Day 2

By dawn, my headache had gone and I no longer felt short of breath. I had begun to acclimatise. I ate a breakfast of porridge and began to get ready. It rained during the night, so I had to pack away my tent still wet.

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Simon and I carried on up the mountain. It was a steep two-hour slog up to Punta Union Pass – the highest point of the entire trail, at 4750 meters. We passed many lagunas on the way.

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When we finally reached the top, we took a break and admired the view from both sides. I believed, back then, that most of the hard work was over.

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The views were spectacular that day. Towering white summits surrounded us as we made our way down the valley. We saw the iconic Artesonraju, the peak said to be the one used on Paramount Picture’s logo.

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We reached Taullipampa campsite at around lunchtime. It was very windy, so putting up our tents was a frustrating process, but they needed to dry.

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Being able to leave our things at Taullipampa that afternoon was a blessing, as it meant we could make the side-trek to Laguna Arhuaycocha with a much lighter load. This part of the Santa Cruz circuit turned out to be both a highlight and one of its most difficult challenges…

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Skirting around the side of a mountain, we passed through into a grassy plateau. Beyond the trees, in the distance, I saw a steep incline ahead and I began to feel weary. I realised we were going to have to climb it.

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The altitude was giving me a hard time again and I kept having waves of dizziness and having to catch my breath. I told Simon to go on ahead. I would catch up. I considered giving up a few times, but I wasn’t going to have come all this way to just turn back.

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It was worth it in the end. I reached the official mirador and looked for Simon, to see him waving at me from up a steep ridge he had climbed to appreciate the view from a higher angle. I wasn’t well enough to join him so I rested for a while and watched the lake. Every now and then, I kept hearing loud noises as chunks of ice from the glacier fell into the water. It sounded like thunder.

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Simon stayed there a little longer than I did. I decended, hoping the lower airs would clear my head. We reunited by a stream in the plateau and refilled our bottles using my filter before heading back to camp.

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After another cup of cocoa and ginger tea, I was feeling much better. I made a dinner of quinoa, sweet potato and peanuts in a spicy sauce, and ate it all. I climbed into my tent and slept very well that night.

 

Day 3

I had to pack away my tent wet again in the morning. And I couldn’t be bothered to make porridge or tea, so I ate a breakfast of bread and cheese. Simon and I carried on making our way down the valley. Cashapampa – the village at the end of the trek – was just over twenty kilometres away but it was all downhill, so it was possible I would be drinking beer back in Huaraz that evening.

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I passed through many different landscapes that day. Deserts. Moors. Forests. Dried up lakes filled with reeds. Even the remains of old villages which had been abandoned. The icy peaks of the Cordillera were replaced by waterfalls cascading down the steep ridges of the valley.

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At some point, Simon and I parted ways. He wanted to camp by the river and relax for a day before returning to civilisation, whereas I decided to keep on going. Cashapampa was only a couple of hours away, and the weather had cleared. I wanted to see the rest of this valley while the sun was still shining and it was at its most picturesque.

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I reached Cashapampa in the afternoon and bumped into a tour group who had just finished too and were having a celebratory drink outside a hostel. They had space on their minibus heading back to Huaraz and offered me a ride.

 

For more photos from the Cordillera Blanca, click here.

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Travelblog SA#16: Lima & Huaraz – Peru

13th-19th September 2018

After my jaunt into the rainforest, I spent a couple of days relaxing in Iquitos before I left the Amazon behind and boarded a plane for Lima.

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My time in Peru’s capital was enjoyable but ultimately uneventful. I stayed in Miraflores; a modern district with clean streets and international restaurants. It was a pleasant respite but not all too interesting, so I wandered around other parts of the city, enjoying the cool air as I explored the coastal parks and the civic centre, where I wandered around its museums and churches. I made a friend who took me to a market in Barranco where I tried ceviche.

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Apart from the Lugar de la Memoria – a poignant memorial for Peru’s violent period during the Sendero Luminoso uprising – Lima’s museums weren’t much to write home about, but the Cathedral Basilica had the best collection of religious art I have seen so far in South America.

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Another highlight was the Monasterio de San Francisco, which is over three hundred years old and has a library which looks like something out of a Harry Potter film.  As part of the tour, I also got to see its catacombs, which was home to thousands of human bones.

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I also took a day trip to Pachacamac – a pre-Inca site on the outskirts of the city – which is not the sort of place which photos do justice, but I am glad I went there as it was interesting to see the crumbled ruins of an old civilisation scattered across the desert.

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After a few days I ran out of things to occupy myself, so I left Lima and hopped on a night bus destined for Huaraz.

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At over 3000 meters above sea level, Huaraz is the capital of the highlands and a launching point for exploring this region. My intention was to embark upon a trek but first I needed to acclimatise, so I passed the time by seeing some lighter attractions such as Wilkahuain; a nearby village which is home to a remarkably well preserved series of ruins dating from 600 AD, where people of the Wari culture people used to store their deceased ancestors.

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I also went for a hike to Antacocha Laguna. I was joined by a German girl called Lisa that day, and together we caught a bus to Ayacayana and hiked up the mountain, passing through quaint Andean hamlets, farms, and forests on our way to the lake.

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When we reached the top, we ate lunch together while admiring the view of the Cordillera Blanca. It was the place I was destined to venture the following morning when I embark upon the Santa Cruz trek.

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Click on the links for more photos from Lima and Huaraz.

 

Travelblog SA#15: Amazon Rainforest – Peru

6th-10th September 2018

 

Day 1

Leaving early, myself and a group of girls I was sharing this Amazon experience with left Iquitos for the jungle.

It took the entire morning to get there. First, we had to be driven to Nauta – a small port town on the bank of the Marañón river – where Vily, who would be our guide for the next five days, showed us around the market while he purchased some last-needed supplies. And then we boarded a boat.

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It wasn’t long into the journey that I began to see herons, cormorants, and other kinds of birds. When we reached the channel where the Marañón, Amazon and Ucayali rivers met, schools of dolphins appeared. Most of them were the grey kind – which are plentiful throughout the Amazon – but we also saw some of the rarer pinks ones too. I caught a video of one of the grey ones breaking the surface of the water in front of the boat.

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Arriving at the lodge, we were given a lunch of fried catfish and shown to the rooms which would be our homes during our stay. Jungle Wolf Lodge is located within a privately-owned reserve of primary rainforest. I took some time to wander around the grounds whilst waiting for the afternoon activities to begin and spotted lots of tropical birds. I also saw stirring in the branches of one of the trees which I suspected to be a monkey but it was too high up for me to see.

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We were taken on our first boat safari, where we spotted three kinds of kingfisher, a yellow-headed vulture, buzzards, blue macaws, and other birds.

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We also encountered a sloth and our first species of monkey; a group of pygmy marmosets which were busily drinking sap from a tree.

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Day 2

I had been coughing and sneezing the previous day and didn’t think much of it at first but overnight it escalated and by the morning I had accepted I had a cold. I didn’t have a temperature though so it was more annoying than debilitating. I slept quite well throughout the night, as the air seemed a little cooler here in the forest than in Iquitos with its concrete buildings.

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Just after breakfast, I spotted a group of squirrel monkeys in the canopy near the lodge and ran to alert the girls. I caught some videos, including this one. Later on, Vily along with Norbi (who was our secondary guide and boat-driver) took us for a hike in the jungle and showed us lots of interesting things. A tree whose sap can be used to treat stomach complaints. Another whose sap can be used to form a cast to set broken bones. We were shown an Acai tree, whose berries have become fashionable among health gurus in the west but here they use the roots to prevent malaria and the sprouting leaves at the top are an ingredient used in salads. Termite nests, which can be broken open and smeared across your body to ward away mosquitoes (the termites can’t bite you and they eat so many leaves they have a woody aroma).

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Vily also spotted a green-backed trogon, some big spiders, a frog, and the infamous bullet ant, whose sting is the most painful in the world. We also came across the nest and a ‘highway’ for a huge community of leaf-cutter ants, whom Vily explained do not actually eat the leaves but use them to help encourage mushrooms to grow (which they eat).

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In the afternoon we were taken on another boat safari but this time down the other side of the river, where we saw woolly monkeys, a monk saki (which are exclusive to this area and north-western Brazil), and a green iguana resting on the branch of a tree. We also saw a Chestnut-eared aracari.

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And then, just before sunset, we moored up on a beach by a small lake, where we swam, took mudbaths, and saw more dolphins.

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That night, we were taken into the jungle again to see nocturnal life and found lots of spiders, scorpions and tarantulas.

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I walked on ahead for a while at one point and saw a small mammal scurrying across the ground. At the time I believed it to be a rat, but when the others caught up and I told Vily about it he said it was more likely a possum.

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The highlight of the night for me was a huge toad we saw towards the end.

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I didn’t sleep well that night. My cold was getting worse. I had a temperature and I didn’t get much sleep.

 

Day 3

In the morning I was still feeling unwell but I was determined to power on through and experience all I could during my limited time here. I took a paracetamol and got onto the boat. That day we were going fishing, and our main objective was to catch a piranha. We weren’t very lucky in that regard but we did come back to the lodge that afternoon with several catfish which we gutted ourselves and ate for lunch. We didn’t see much in the way of new wildlife, but there was a large group of macaws in the trees above us and it was interesting to see them interact with each other. On our way back, Vily spotted a tiger heron on the bank (video here).

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After lunch, we packed our things and got onto the boat. We were camping in the jungle that night.

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The boat took us down a river we had not explored yet. One which doesn’t have an official name on the maps but runs all the way to Brazil. On the journey, I fleetingly saw a small monkey – the size of a tamarind, but a different colour – leap between the trees, which was likely a coppery titi. An hour later, Vily chose the place we would stay for the night and we began to set up shelters using a series of tarps and sticks we gathered from the forest floor as frames.

Vily and Norbi took us on an evening safari further up the river to try to spot caiman but we were unlucky and only saw a group of electric eels jumping the water. The ride was pleasant though and it was interesting to float through the Amazon at night. There was a storm going on in the distance which occasionally lit up the sky.

When we returned to camp, we lit a fire and were just discussing what to have for dinner that night, when we were suddenly hit by a series of gales followed by heavy rain.

It seemed the storm had caught up with us.

Our shelters had no walls, just a roof and groundsheet, so the winds blew everything around. Myself, Vily, and Norbi ran around the camp, taking down the mosquito nets and storing all the blankets, food and bags in places safe from the rain. As I was adjusting one of the ropes, a gust knocked a dead branch from the tree above me, missing my head by inches and breaking the frame of our main shelter. We made a quick fix to ensure our possessions were safe from getting too wet and then huddled together in the second shelter while we waited for the rain to end.

Eventually, the thunder stopped and the rain weakened to just a light downpour. Vily and Norbi began to rebuild the shelter in a place with better wind cover and further from the possibility of falling branches. Mosquitos, less shy now the winds had gone, came out in swarms. I covered myself from head to toe – and the few parts of me which weren’t covered, I kept spraying with repellent – but it seemed that nothing could completely stop them. They bit my fingers, my face, and even my legs and knees through my trousers.

By the time Vily and Norby managed to get the shelter ready again, I scrambled under the mosquito net but some of the mosquitoes followed me inside so I caught them all in my hands and crushed them.

Just as I was drifting to sleep, I heard a voice outside. It was Vily, saying that he and Norbi had managed to get a fire going again and were making food. I thanked them but declined. It was late, and I finally had a haven safe from the mosquitoes. It would take much more than a fried egg to give up my sanctuary.

 

Day 4

I slept surprisingly well and it seemed my cold had lifted. I was the first up and I went for a little walk around the forest and then sat by the river to watch birds. I saw a yellow-headed caracara.

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Once we packed up camp, we went fishing again and this time were luckier. One of the girls finally caught a piranha.

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We then returned to the lodge, where we showered and had a lunch of rice, vegetables and the fish we caught. We went for a trip to San Pedro village in the afternoon, which was a little bit touristy, but not untastefully so. It had a pond full of Victoria amazonica lilies, the biggest in the world.

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There was also a place where, for a small fee, you could pet a sloth but it wasn’t a form of tourism I wanted to encourage so I politely declined. When I first saw the sloth, I asked how it had come to live with them and they claimed it was an orphan they found and rescued, but that story didn’t quite add up considering that (I found out later) they had a total of four of the creatures. I also happen to know (from my time volunteering at Merazonia) that sloths are one of the easier species to rehabilitate and adapt very quickly once set free. They belong in the wild, and I was pretty sure the only reason the family was keeping them was to make money from tourists (many of whom are naïve and experience warm, fuzzy feelings when they get the chance to pet fluffy creatures, but don’t properly consider their wellbeing).

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I enjoyed wandering around the village and soaking up the atmosphere as adults sat on their porches listening to music and kids played football on the street. One of the houses had a display of some rather interesting ayahuasca-inspired art too.

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Day 5

The final morning we were taken out on the boat one last time and for a short walk. Our guide happened to know where a pair of night monkeys were nesting so he took us to see them.

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Their tree nest was also home to a pair of bats (which the monkeys do not mind sharing with because they eat bugs, including mosquitoes). Night monkeys are nocturnal and always live in pairs.  During the day at least one of them is always keeping watch for intruders and predators, but we were lucky and got to see both of them. I have a video which you can see here.

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At the end of the tour, we were taken to see the ‘Avatar Tree’ (which is actually a group of parasitic figus trees strangling other trees). Apart from being stung by a wasp and seeing a woodpecker, the rest of my last day in the Amazon was uneventful.

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Overall I had a great time with Jungle Wolf Expeditions. I got to see lots of wildlife, the food was great, the lodge was a comfortable base to explore the jungle and, most of all, Vily and Norbi were very dedicated guides who have a genuine passion for nature. I highly recommend them.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.