Alta altitud: vida in los Andes

Dog sitting by a house

Since last time, we’ve experienced the highs and lows of Peru; Chachapoyas, 2335 metres above sea level; to Trujillo, 34m; to Huaraz, 3052m; finally, Lima, 154m, which is where we find ourselves ahora.


Prior to our arrival in Peru, we’d fretted about the impact that high altitude has on humans; it’s common knowledge that the higher you are, the lower the partial pressure of oxygen, so simple things like walking up a slight incline can feel like a HIIT class.

With that front of mind, we felt that the best-and-only way to fight the altitude was to pack our schedule with brutally early cultural trips; night buses that cut across indecisive roads; and “very high” altitude, multi-kilometre hikes up-and-over mountains. Frankly, we only kept up high spirits through a blend of fatigued laughs, regretful beers and “sandwiches con queso y palta”. Vamos hard or vamos home.

Warriors of the Clouds

City centre at night
Chachapoyas en la noche

Chachapoyas – named after the Andean cloud forests near which it is situated – despite being home to approximately 4500 “Warriors of the Clouds”, was a city that never slept. The main centre – all four blocks squared of it – was in a perpetual state of motion! Nevertheless, it was also unbelievably safe, and we felt very welcomed by the local people, a few times with handshakes and tapped hats.

We developed an instant familiarity with the city, and our hostel, Chachapoyas Backpackers, became our home-from-home. The only small issue was the shared bathroom; the closest one to our room was in the reception area, and our increased water consumption – a means to combat altitude sickness – meant more frequent trips to visit Armitage Shanks. The hostel owners must maintain the belief that all gringos have weak bladders. Or diabetes.

In the city, we sampled a few Peruvian delights – lomo saltado (stir-fried beef with vegetables); tacu tacus (fried rice and beans); and lasagne (…); though one will stay front of mind: Amazonas 632. The restaurant had a Peruvian-combined-International menu. However, what made this place special, like the best Harvester or Toby Carvery in the UK, were the crayons and illustrations on the tables; buho (owl) drawings doubled-up as our placemats. One lunch and two dinners came with extra-large portions of mindfulness, which is why we don’t regret going back for the third time.

While we were in the region, we took two tours. Both of these trips – Kuelap ruins and Gocta Waterfall – involved bumpy bus journeys, and in hindsight, the overwhelming nausea that we felt was likely another manifestation of the altitude.

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Kuelap was a cultural wonder. The 700 metre-long, abandoned village, constructed over millenia (500AD-1500AD), was perched precariously atop a mountain. The location; the views from the village; the history; and how nature had taken over the ruins, were jaw-dropping, and a photographer’s dream. It’s an absolute must-visit, and we can see why people call it the “Machu Picchu of the North”.

It could have been a trip highlight on a different day. Unfortunately, we had the Peruvian Lee Evans as a guide, which is to say a high-energy, somewhat irritating comedian (a term used loosely here) who didn’t engage our group. The day was meandering, and it felt like the ruins played second fiddle to our guide’s repeatedly bad jokes. We also got back to our backpackers very late; the road out of Chachapoyas was closed daily between 2-6pm for roadworks and we just missed the access. In total, we spent 8 hours on the bus that day, which was less than ideal.

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Lunch near the waterfall

Luckily, we had booked to go on the Gocta Waterfall tour 48 hours later, which, while gruelling, was an amazing experience. These cataratas fall in the “biggest 20 on Earth” list, and despite some questionable time and distance estimations from everyone involved with this hike, plodding up-and-down mountain ridges, through the high jungle and around small Andean villages, and seeing the famous Cock of the Rock, turned out to be one of the most fun treks we’ve done in Peru. So far.

After four nights, it was time to leave our mountain home behind, and we felt like our Peru highlight reel was getting longer.

Humbled on Sunday

Trujillo for us will always be remembered as the Sunday that we met Luis, a 21 year old Venezuelan, who had fled his home country to find work in Peru.

Upon advice from our surly hotel manager, we found ourselves hailing “colectivos” – publicly-owned 16-seater minibuses – without any luck. After nearly an hour, Luis, who was also heading to the nearby beach town of Huanchaco, asked if we wanted to travel together. A seatbelt-less taxi (this is common) and twenty minutes later, we were in the sun on the beach learning more about our new friend.

It’s amazing how much you can learn about one person, a whole country, and even an entire continent, through a conversation about football. Luis, a Liverpool fan, talked through the nuances of the Venezuelan national team (it’s rubbish); supporting an English team in a country that is fanatical about Real Madrid or Barcelona; and the epic rivalries between Colombia-Venezuela, Brazil-Argentina and Chile-Perú. Over lunch, we told him about life in London and the UK, bonded over travel experiences, and found out more about his family back home. Our light-hearted banter about football was interspersed with darker stories of the situation in Venezuela, which both saddened and humbled both of us.

After lunch, we took a local bus to Chan-Chan to visit more ruins, located on the outskirts of Huanchaco. Luis had only been in Peru for three months, and this was the first time he’d been anywhere other than Lima or Trujillo, so it was nice to experience these new places for the first time as a group. After a quick beer back in the city, we followed each other on IG and said our goodbyes.

As for the city of Trujillo, it felt busy and dirty, but it had its own custom version of “charm”. The central district, close to the Plaza de Armas, was colourful, bustling, and possessed a one-way system that made it safe to take photos of the interesting architecture that strafed the pavements.

Departure day saw an early morning photoshoot of the city before we had a very lazy afternoon; we paid for a late checkout and caught up on Bake Off, The Apprentice (don’t judge) and Taskmaster because we knew that Huaraz was going to be very busy.

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More mindfulness at Trujillo Terminal

At seven hours, the night bus to Huaraz was the shortest overnight journey that we’d taken, but they still managed to show two extremely loud movies, much to our annoyance. 3 hours sleep and an increase of 3000 metres: what a great start to the week.

Old faces in new places

Apart from the Laguna 69 hike, another big reason that we visited the Cordillera Blanca was meet up with family from home, who also happened to be in Peru at the same time as us.

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View from El Pinar

As mentioned, Huaraz sits at an oxygen-sapping 3052 metres above sea level, so while we went to the region to hike, we couldn’t start straight away. In the four nights/five days, we all walked over 100,000 steps across three different hikes, increasing in difficulty, that finished with the epic Laguna 69 (4604m, 11.4% oxygen). Breaking the hike down into anything worth reading is difficult, so rather than labouring the point, here are some favoured shots from our day. We did see an avalanche though, which was bucket list stuff.

Unless you are a seasoned hiker, we do not recommend landing in Huaraz and heading up to Laguna 69, Churup or Shallap. These all sit around 4400m, which was savage for us even after a few days in the region.

There are a few one-day acclimatisation hikes that can be done from Huaraz though, such as the 2 hour hike to Laguna Wilcacocha (south; 15 minutes in Colectivo 10 from central Huaraz; 2 soles), or the 6km Wilcahuain ruins (north-east; 10 minutes in a taxi to El Pinar; 10 soles). If you visit in October, expect daily early afternoon rain deluges, so pack for all weathers; sun cream and waterproofs!

Travel tip: from our limited experience so far, if you have safe weather, a grasp of conversational Spanish (directions; common verbs and grammar) and don’t mind missing out on the deeper history of some of the places, we recommend doing some of these trips privately or self-directed. Gocta in particular can be done separate from a planned excursion. We are certainly going to be exploring on our own parts of the country that can be done so safely.


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We are now back on the Pacific coast in the Peruvian capital, Lima. In the 12 hours that we’ve been here we have ventured into Miraflores, and aside from the fascinating coast line and interesting buildings, it looks like the first decent place for a street 10km run, which is very exciting.

Also, tomorrow we are having an early Christmas treat and visiting Central, the restaurant from Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Belts and budgets are sure to be stretched.

After Lima it is Per Hop and southern Peru. The gringos are making headway.

Until the next time.

I/

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