Getting high in Peru

There are many reasons why I really wanted to go to Peru. Hiking in the Andes is the one that has been driving me, probably since I watched/read (can’t remember which came first) The Motorcycle Diaries (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318462/) some ten years ago. So when I unexpectedly left for Peru  3 weeks ago, I was thrilled to finally fulfil my dream.

I spent the first few days in the Ecuadorian Andes, but since the weather was clearly not on my side, I went down to Peru, straight to Huaraz after many hours in busses via Piura and Trujillo.

From Loja in Ecuador to Huaraz in Peru

The closer I was getting to the Andes, the more restless I was feeling to go out in the wild and explore. But no, you have to wait. Why? Because it’s pretty high up here, and you really need to acclimatize.

Acclimatize to what?

Many things, the dodgy street food you will have (and the stomach bugs you’ll probably catch at some point), the different cultures and languages (Spanish, but if you go to remote villages, people may only speak Quechua, although you’ll most likely always get by with Spanish), but most of all, the altitude, so you make sure you don’t get altitude sickness.

What’s altitude sickness?

The best way to find out is to climb a fairly high mountain (3000m+) straight after arriving and as fast as you can. DON’T DO THAT! Why? Because if you go straight from sea level to high altitude, your body won’t have time to adjust to the lack of oxygen that gets worse as you climb up. The best thing to do is to take it easy and stay a couple of days wherever you’re based at. You’ll need time to organise your hike and the logistic around it anyway. Then, go for a day hike somehere to check how your body reacts.

Most people are fine until 2500m and it seems that problems occur above that line. The thing is, the higher you get, the less oxygen there is. You will quickly feel that you breath faster and walking fast (particularly while backpacking) will be more of a challenge. I’ve met people in the mountains who suffered from altitude sickness which basically feels like being hangover: you’re tired, nauseous with headache. The funny thing is that it has nothing to do with your age or how fit you may be. The only way to avoid it is to give time to your body to get used to it. Don’t walk too fast and drink enough water, take it easy, and remember the benefits of slowlitude (https://audreyslangscape.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/the-apology-of-slowlitude/), particularly if you’re on your own.

Acclimatization in Huaraz

Huaraz is a lovely town in the Ancash region of Peru, some 8 hours away from Lima. It is already at about 3000 meters above sea level, which is perfect to acclimatize for a few days. Besides, it’s a really nice town, surrounded by high snowy peaks, without the hordes of tourists (at least in June when I was there) you meet in Cuzco for instance.

Plaza de armas, snowy peaks always hidden in the background.

Quechua women knitting everywhere all the time, selling their crafts either in the street or in markets. Knitted pair of socks (for about 2$) and other woollen (sheep or alpaca) devices highly recommended before you spend a night above 4000m!

There are tour agencies providing informations in Huaraz. Be careful and make sure you talk to different people before you decide on what to do.

What’s true: you do need a permit to spend time in the Huascaran National Park. It costs either 5soles for a day or 65soles for a month and you can either get it at the park office in town or at the entrance of the park.

What’s not true: Many people will tell you that you must hire a guide and arrieros (mule and driver), but that’s bullshit. If you feel like it and are confident enough, you can go independently armed with your map and compass, food and camping equipment (easily hired anywhere in town).

Acclimatization day hike : Laguna Churup, 4450m

The laguna Churup, some 2 hours away from Huaraz (by collectivo driving up on a path road), is a perfect day hike to check how your body is dealing with the altitude.

The collectivo (a kind of mini-van that takes up to 15 persons) will take you to Llupa or Pitek (which would save you one and a half hour of hiking).  There, the hike starts at about 3800m. At the beginning of the trail, a sign reminds you to “take nothing but picture, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time and mosquitoes”.  From there, it’s only uphill.

Slightly uphill, at first.

Then a bit more, with some fun rock-climbing sessions on the left side of the waterfall

After about 3 hours, we reached the laguna.

Which is really beautiful with all its shades of green and blue, ever changing in the sunlight.

beating my record for high altitude aeropress brewing!

Going down, after a long coffee-lunch-break-in-the-sun

A shepherd and his dog

And always those amazing peaks in the background, most of them are 6000m or more.

This was my first high altitude hike, I had never been higher than 3800m before. The only difference I noticed was that I needed to walk (even) slower than usual to not get out of breath. I felt I couldn’t breath as deep as I wanted to. Apart from that, nothing. I knew then that I was ready for new high altitude experiences in Peru…