Four day hike in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru

Heading up to Punta Rondoy

As we arrived at the campsite on day one of the Huayhuash trek, the rain started. Putting up a tent in the pouring rain is absolutely no fun, I can tell you. The rain continued all night and the next morning Abraham, our guide, pointed out fresh snow on the mountains and advised against continuing up the pass. Conditions could be treacherous, he explained, due to snow melt.

Around the first campsite

I’ve experienced a lot of rain this trip as the El Niño phenomenon has been dramatically affecting the continent. The Sierra in Colombia and Ecuador experienced five times the average rainfall in March and April. A few months ago many parts of Peru were devastated by floods with roads and bridges washed away and many casualties. Luckily, I’d planned to arrive in the Peruvian mountains to do some trekking in the middle of May, the beginning of the dry season. Except it wasn’t. Abraham told me he hadn’t seen rain at this time of year for twenty years.

A moody start to day three

The city of Huaraz sits in a valley with the white peaks of the Cordillera Blanca looming above, including Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán. I’d originally planned to do the four day Santa Cruz trek, the most popular and busiest. The Cordillera Huayhuash, further to the south, looked more remote and enticing, but the trek demanded ten nights. But when I went into the agency, Monttrek, they told me they had a four day trek to Huayhuash leaving the next day. Despite not being fully acclimatised, I leapt at the chance.

Crossing Punta Rondoy

Unfortunately, several things worked against my enjoyment of the trip, not just the rain. The trek was badly and cheaply organised, with just one person looking after five of us. His priorities seemed to be taking care of the mules rather than guiding and we rarely saw him on the trail. Despite all that, however, the scenery was staggeringly impressive.

Pocpa

Day one began unpromisingly when it turned out that, instead of private transport, we were being put on local buses to the trailhead at Pocpa. Having been picked up at my hostal at 4.30am, I was too tired to argue. By late morning we were walking along a dirt track for three hours to the first campsite at Rondoy. Due to the heavy rains, we ended up staying there for the whole of the next day. There were a few breaks in the rain, which allowed me to do some short walks and acclimatise to the altitude. 

The descent to Laguna Solteracocha

On day three we began the long ascent up to the pass of Punta Rondoy at 4750m. The clouds and mist swirled around us as we set off at dawn, but luckily the sun came out later, giving us astonishing views of the mountains. We descended past the brilliant blue Laguna Solteracocha where we had lunch, then continued to the camp at Laguna Yahuacocha.

Admiring the view at Laguna Solteracocha

The last day involved getting up at 4am and beginning the trek in the dark, since we had to get a bus from Llamac at 11am. This made things a little stressful. The path led us over another high pass at 4300m followed by a knee-busting descent into the valley. We saw condors and humming-birds. 

Parade at Carhuaz

I decided to have a rest day in Huaraz and then took a day trip to the Lagunas Llanganuco. In the first village of Carhuaz, we witnessed a religious parade with school kids. Then we moved onto Yungay to visit the site of Campo Santo, the place where the original village of Yungay existed before it was totally destroyed by an earthquake and an avalanche from Mt Huascarán which towers over it. More than 25,000 people lost their lives on that day in 1970.

Huascarán seen from Campo Santo

The last stop was Laguna Chinancocha high up in a gap between the mountains with amazing shades of blue. Luckily, the sun shone all day, but, at this altitude, the wind can be quite chilly. The rains have passed now, but I’m heading to Lima on the coast, where it’s the beginning of winter and the notorious cloud cover envelops the coast blocking out the sun. At some point soon, I hope, I’ll be in the right place for the best weather.

Laguna Chinancocha

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Four day trek across the Hampta Pass to Lahaul – Spiti

View of Indrasan from the Hampta Pass

After spending 18 hours in a bus getting to Manali from Ladakh, I was in no hurry to leave. Manali is the main travellers’ hub in northern Himachal Pradesh, the kind of place where the restaurants try and cover all bases, from Indian to Tibetan, and Israeli to Italian. And you can also feast on apple pie. But after two days I was ready to move on. Just not by bus. So, I joined a group who were trekking across the Hampta Pass north to Spiti. It proved to be one of the best treks I’ve done.

En route to Chikha

I started in the village of Prini, close to Manali, and spent the first morning on a steep ascent to the dam, where I was due to meet the rest of the group, a mixture of locals and a party from Singapore. After lunch we continued to our first camp site at Chikha on a rather muddy patch of meadow. 

Camp site at Chikha

This part of the Himalayas receives monsoon rains in the summer, unlike Ladakh, but consequently the landscape is lush and verdant. For the following two days’ ascent up the valley, the river flowed rapidly, fed by numerous high waterfalls coming from the glaciers. We camped the second night at Balu Ka Ghera, an idyllic spot by the river, surrounded by mountains. 

The ascent to Balu Ka Ghera

The next day proved the toughest and longest, as we walked for about seven hours over the Hampta Pass at an altitude of 4270m and into Lahaul, where the monsoons don’t reach. It’s similar to Ladakh, the stark, arid and brown mountains offset by the brilliant blue sky. I sat and had lunch at the top of the pass and watched the clouds scurry in from the south and disperse as they hit the high mountains of Lahaul and Spiti. 

At the top of Hampta Pass

Finally though, it was time to descend to camp for the third night at Siliguri. Some clouds had come in to obscure the view, but the next crisp cold morning, they had cleared to reveal jagged peaks with snow on top. The final day’s walk began with a bit of a shock, fording the icy river. 

Siliguri camp site

It was an easy but scenic descent to Chatru, where we were to spend the final night, but first we had a long and bumpy jeep ride to Chandratal Lake, quite similar to Pangong and Tso Moriri in Ladakh. I’m not sure, however, whether it was worth the seven hour round trip, but it did give me a taste of the Spiti road, one of the worst roads I’ve ever experienced. And it was where I was heading next…

Chandratal Lake

The Jalapão – the secret interior of Brazil

Jalapão landscape
Jalapão landscape

Brazil is not just about beaches. It’s true that many of the major cities are strung out along the coastline, but there is a whole world in the interior of the country waiting to be explored. Much of it is still well off the beaten track. And I am not talking about the Amazon. There are places with vast deserts of scrubland and sand-dunes, along with waterfalls and natural swimming-holes. One such place is the Jalapão which I visited a few years ago on an organised trek.

Me on the jeep
Me on the jeep

It’s an immense savanna-like region, sparsely populated and with little infrastructure. But there are also rivers and waterfalls that break up the desert and meseta plateaus from the top of which there are uninterrupted views across the landscape, best enjoyed at dawn.

Dawn on the Serra do Espirito Santo
Dawn on the Serra do Espirito Santo

The only real way in is by 4×4 jeep and then to trek, climb and swim. I am always a little wary of organised tours as they totally depend not only on the efficiency of the agency, but also your fellow travellers. I was really lucky on my trip to book through the excellent Norte Tur (http://www.nortetur.com.br) based in Palmas and also to be in the company of a really great crowd of like-minded adventurers.

Pedra Furada
Pedra Furada

Palmas is north of Brasilia, and, like Brasilia, is a new town. I spent the first night there and it’s a weird place to say the least; huge avenues leading seemingly nowhere and baking under a relentless sun. It feels like a city still waiting to be fully populated.

Chuveirinho - a local desert flower
Chuveirinho – a local desert flower

There were about 10 of us in the group, all Brazilians except me, mainly from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It was great that we all got on since we were going to spend several days together, helping each other abseil down rocks and retain a sense of humour when you have to get up at 3am to climb a plateau and enjoy the sunrise.

Climbing down the slippery Lajeado Waterfall
Climbing down the slippery Lajeado Waterfall

It’s reminiscent of the outback in Australia or parts of East Africa and it remains one of the highlights of my time in Brazil.

Sunset on the dunes
Sunset on the dunes

2 Favourite Trekking Destinations

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Glacier Perito Moreno

The desire to escape to somewhere remote is never greater than when you’re squashed cheek by jowl in a crowded São Paulo metro carriage.

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Guanacos seen from Route 40, Patagonia

Patagonia is an incredible place where nature overpowers you instead of concrete skyscrapers and milling crowds of people. It’s one of my favourite places to trek and get outdoors, along with the Himalayas. You can trek for hours along glaciers without seeing another soul and the sky opens out above you with almost limitless expanse.

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Lago Roca, Patagonia

The land of Patagonia forms the lower half of South America, shared by Chile and Argentina, and eventually peters out in the island of Tierra del Fuego and the city of Ushuaia. One of the highlights of the region is the Glacier Perito Moreno and a four hour bus ride north of there takes you to Fitzroy (also known as Cerro Chaltén) where there are some spectacular treks to be done. When I finally made it to the base of the peak after a full day walking, the wind was so strong it was almost impossible to stand upright to have my photo taken. A distinguishing feature of Patagonia is the bizarre shape of trees bent almost to the ground by the force of the elements.

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Fitzroy

Last year I walked the Singalila Trek, a six-day route which follows a ridge along the border of India and Nepal north of Darjeeling. I was there in March just a bit before the main season and it was going to be expensive to do an organised trek, so I opted to go it alone. I was told I would need a guide and a porter, but in fact I managed to get away with contracting just a porter who also led the way.

Kanchenjunga or the Sleeping Buddha, the 3rd highest mountain in the world
Kanchenjunga, or the Sleeping Buddha, the 3rd highest mountain in the world

We stayed in small primitive hostels along the way, sometimes pitching in to help the hosts make “momos’ – a Tibetan style dumpling. On day four we arrived in Sandakphu to find the place shrouded in fog and clouds. The following morning it wasn’t easy to get out of bed before dawn in sub-zero temperatures, but a possible sighting of Mt Everest beckoned, so there was really no excuse to delay. As the sun rose and slowly illuminated the highest mountain in the world, it was hard not be awed.

Sunrise over Everest
Sunrise over Everest

It’s moments like that which I try to recall when I’m stuck on the commute to work.

Prayer Flags at a sacred lake
Prayer Flags at a sacred lake