Adventures in Peru - Hiking Across the High Plain
By Vic Hanson
A few years ago, I was planning on spending the whole month of July in the neighboring district of Ayacucho, working with other missionaries there, but as often happens here, plans change. I had to go to Arequipa to take care of paperwork for my car on July 1st and returned to Cotahuasi on the 5th, expecting to take the combi early the next morning to Oyolo. However when I checked on the schedule, they said there had just been a storm and there was too much snow on the high plain between Cotahuasi and Oyolo. The road wasn't passable now, maybe on Thursday or Sunday, if enough snow melted. I didn't want to wait up to a week and still not be able to go, so decided to consider other possibilities. One was to take a bus from Cotahuasi to near Lima and then transfer to another bus going to Pausa, which would take 48 hours, most of that on the bus. The other option was to walk, which I much prefer. The problem with that was that I didn't know the trail, I would be crossing the high plain in the snow at close to 16,000 feet and I didn't have anyone to go with me.
It sounded like a great adventure, so on Wednesday morning I took off with my too heavy backpack and went in a combi for an hour and 40 minutes to the end of the new road at Andamarca. From there I walked to Charcana, which took just over 4 hours, arriving at 11:15 am. At Charcana, which is at 11,000 feet, the trail climbs steeply up to the top of the canyon rim, and then gradually climbs up across the high plain before dropping back down to Oyolo. The road to Oyolo goes up to the high plain right outside of Cotahuasi and is from 14,000 – 16,000 feet most of the way. I thought about hiking up to the rim that afternoon but wasn't sure if there would be a good camping place below the snow line, so decided to spend the night in Charcana. I talked to a policeman there and he said he would find a guide for me, which sounded like a wise idea because I didn't know if the trail would be visible with the snow. I got different stories of how long of a hike it was, from six – eight hours, also that there were two trails. That evening the policeman introduced me to Orlando, a young man who said he would take me up to the road crossing for 20 soles. This was where Josue and I had waited for the combi when we returned from Oyolo in May, so I knew the way from there.
I was at the police station at 6:00 am in the morning as agreed but no Orlando. The policeman sent someone to look for him and he finally showed up at 6:30, in the normal rubber sandals common here, wearing a sweater and a light jacket with a thin poncho, no food or water. I had a 50 lb. pack with a tent, sleeping bag and pad, layers of clothes, waterproof hiking boots and gaiters. And of course food and water, as well as Bibles, tracts and study materials. After about an hour and a half, we were up to 13,000 feet and I was really starting to drag, due to the altitude and the heavy pack, so I asked Orlando if he would carry it for a half hour or so. He agreed and we took off again, what a change – now I could keep up with him and he was the one stopping to rest! He carried my pack for about an hour and then asked me to take it back. An hour later we still climbing through the snow and I was exhausted so asked him to carry it again. The trail finally started to level of and in 30 minutes we reached the road and a wooden cross along side of it, at about 15,600 feet. Orlando said we were at the "cruz" and if I was OK to go alone from there. I had asked (or tried to anyway!) to be taken to the "cruce" (road crossing), which was nowhere in sight. He assured me that Oyolo was "that way" and pointed off across the plain to where there was a valley that looked somewhat familiar. I had been on this part of the road before as well, and it looked like the road crossing might be up the road a few miles, on the other side of a ridge, so it sounded reasonable. I shared some cheese and bread with him and was ready to start off on my own but he offered to go a bit farther with me so I gladly accepted.
After about 15 minutes he again asked if I was OK to go alone and I said yes, as there two sets of footprints in the snow that were easy to follow. He stood and watched me for another 10 minutes or so and then went back. I was so thankful that I had decided to hire a guide and that God had provided a good one as I don't know if I could have made it alone. The trail wasn't that hard to follow and there was less snow than I expected, but I'm not sure I could have made it up carrying the pack the whole way. Even though it was all downhill from there, I had to stop to rest numerous times and was going much slower than I normally hike. I was hoping to make it in less than eight hours but it ended up taking 10 hours! Except for a couple of people with llamas, that we met right outside of Charcana, I didn't see anyone until I was almost to Oyolo. There were a few cattle on the trail a couple of hours from Oyolo but they let me pass with no problems (they all have long horns here).
As I was resting a bit after arriving in Oyolo, a little girl named Ada Luz came up to me and said, "Take my picture. Take my picture." She remembered that I had a camera and had taken photos of her before. After calling back to Cotahuasi to let my co-workers know I had arrived safely, I checked into the local hostel, boiled some eggs for supper and went to bed early. In the morning I headed off for Pomacocha, taking just over five hours instead of the usual four, partly because I got lost and ended up bushwhacking down the mountain from Ccahuanamarca, and partly due to the heavy pack. On the way I met Victor, a man living in a shack along the trail and he wanted a Bible. I was happy to give him one, for his benefit and mine - a few ounces less in my pack! At Pomacocha I lightened it even more, delivering a study Bible to Flora and a heavy large print Bible to Sebastian. Of course by this time I was at the end of my hiking so it didn't make any difference for the weight, from there I planned on riding down in a truck, as there wasn't a combi that day.
Unfortunately, it was the first day of the new bus service to Pomacocha so there was a big party in the village and the truck driver was in no hurry to leave. Finally at about 4:15, just as the beer bottle was about to reach him again, I went and asked him when we were leaving (they stand in a circle and pass a large beer bottle and a glass around). He said he would check to see if the truck was ready and missed his last "one for the road" and a few minutes later we were on our way. By this time the sun was just setting behind the mountain and it was getting cold in the back of the open truck. I put on one fleece jacket but couldn't find my other one, I must have lost it on the bushwhack down to the village. I was thankful that I had my sleeping bag and used that as a poncho for the last half of the four hour ride to Pausa, arriving at 8:30 pm.
In Pausa I met up with Cindy and Claudia, whom I had met there in May, along with a missions team from Florida, and spent the next two weeks working with them. At the end of that time, I found out that they had a leased 4x4 Suzuki that had to be returned to Arequipa, so I drove that back for them, rather than walking back to Cotahuasi.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
If you are interested in your own adventure in Peru, check us out!
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