Adventures in Peru - Hiking Over the Top From Pampamarca to Huaynacotas
By Vic Hanson
Looking out my front windows, I can see Cerro Teneccacca, a large mountain that sits between the Cotahuasi River and the Mungi River. It starts as a low ridge near where the Cotahuasi and Mungi Canyons meet, and climbs up out of my sight behind Cerro Huiñao. I have tried to hike up along the ridge to Huaynacotas, a village that is up there about an hours drive away. There is no real trail up the ridge, but enough remnants of old trails and use trails that it makes an interesting hike most of the way. However there is one spot that is too vertical, with a mixture of loose dirt and crumbly rocks, that I have not dared to climb. It is a long detour around which makes it too long for a day hike.
I had been told that there is a trail from Pampamarca, on the other side of the Mungi river, that goes up over the mountain to Huaynacotas, so on Wednesday I decided to take a few days and explore that. It takes an hour and 15 minutes to drive to Pampamarca, going up from 8,800 feet, down to 8,300, and back up to just over 11,000 feet, with lots of switchbacks. I got a late start as usual, leaving my house at 12:10, instead of 11:00 as planned, partly due to the fact that I had to walk all over town to find bread. I have driven the road often, but have never hiked the trail, which cuts across the road many times on a shorter route, so wasn't sure how long it would take to walk it.
My goal for the day was to get to the hot springs at Ccosla, about 45 minutes beyond Pampamarca, where I planned on camping for the night. After three hours of hiking, I was looking down on Ccochapampa, and could see Pampamarca beyond that, so set a goal to arrive at the hot springs about 5:00 pm. That was good, because I didn't want to have to do the hike down to the hot springs in the dark, as it follows on the rocky edge of an irrigation canal for a ways. The canal is hanging on the edge of a cliff, with a serious drop off below it. To make matters worse, the rocks overhang the canal in spots, so it requires crouching down under the rocks, as well as hugging them in other spots, to edge around the cliff. I had done it a few times before with a small day pack, but this would be my first time with a full backpack.
The next day I would have to come back towards Pampamarca to cross the Mungi River, and then do the climb up to Santa Rosa and up to the top of the mountain. I met a family with two little boys, and a baby strapped on the mother's back, who were coming from where the canal goes around the cliff. I didn't ask, but they must have come around there. I did ask the father if there was a trail from the hot springs along the river to get back to the bridge but he said there wasn't; so I expected to have to return this way in the morning. Aside from actually crawling on my hands and knees for a few feet, I made it around the cliff without any problem, but wasn't really looking forward to doing it again the next day. As I dropped down to the hot springs, which was right near the river, I was very happy to see a small bridge crossing the river, and a trail on the other side that looked like it went up to Santa Rosa.
Five hours and three minutes after leaving Cotahuasi, I arrived at Ccosla, and after setting up my tent on a nice grassy area, was soon soaking in the 98 degree water. As expected, I had the place all to myself, the locals don't normally do much hiking in the evening because they are all heading home with their animals, bundles of alfalfa for the rabbits and guinea pigs, and loads of firewood for cooking. They don't normally carry flashlights either, so I feel a bit guilty when I meet them with my LED headlight, which many have tried to buy! After cooking dinner, I was again relaxing in the hot springs, enjoying the peace and quiet under the almost full moon. I kept half expecting the rowdy party crowd to appear at any moment, but had to keep reminding myself that this wasn't California, and it was highly unlikely that anyone else would show up. As a matter of fact, the only problem was that I was all alone, and didn't have friends to share a beautiful evening with.
I wouldn't have been surprised to have someone show up in the morning, at sunrise, as often happens when I am camped along a trail. However the hot springs is quite a ways off the main trails, so didn't get the early morning traffic passing by like normal. Never having been a morning person, getting up before dawn is one Peruvian custom I'm sure I will never acquire. After another soak in the hot water, eating breakfast and getting packed up, at 8:45 I was ready to hit the trail for Santa Rosa. I had tried to find a path down to the river for water after dinner, but discovered that there was about a 15 foot drop off to the river hidden by the brush. With the light, I soon found a trail through a corn field and was at the makeshift bridge I had seen the evening before. When the river level goes down after the rainy season, they put in a small bridge made from three logs and a bunch of sticks. It wasn't very stable but was fine to cross the shallow and narrow channel. I still had about a liter of water, so decided to wait and get water at Santa Rosa, which I figured was only about an hour away.
The trail was just a narrow foot path, but thankfully it was in good condition and headed right up to Santa Rosa, about 1,000 feet above the 10,250 foot level of the hot spring. It was obvious from the reactions of the bunch of children I met as I entered the village that gringos were not a common sight there. I asked a young man where there was drinking water, and he indicated the cloudy stream I had just crossed. He said there were only about 40 people that lived in the village, so I assumed they didn't have municipal water. He did say it was better higher up, so I continued on up the trail to Huaynacotas, that he had also pointed out to me. He told me that there was an "estacion" up above, which is a cattle or llama ranch. The trail followed in the same general direction as the stream, but when I again crossed it about 15 minutes later, it looked even dirtier than before. For an hour after leaving the village, at 11 o'clock, I could still see or hear the stream off to my right, but hadn't crossed it again. I stopped for a rest, as it had been steady climbing, and ate a snack and drank the last of my water.
It looked like I was getting near to the top of a ridge above me, so was hoping that I would find a water source above where the animals were grazing. I was soon up on the wide ridge, where I found the source of the stream, a canal coming from a meadow up in a bowl. I could also see what looked like a drinking water tank, right above the village. Maybe their water system wasn't working or maybe we had a failure to communicate! At 11:50 I finally reached a small stream that had clear water, although the cattle were grazing not too far away. There was still some sediment in the water, so I filtered it with my handkerchief and then added Aqua Mira and continued up the mountain. As I was getting ready to continue hiking, a man came up the trail behind me and asked where I was going. I told him Huaynacotas and he confirmed that I was on the right trail. I expected him to go on ahead but he followed me for about 20 minutes, so we chatted a little. He was going to Tejcca, one of the first villages I had visited here about four years ago. However Tejcca wasn't in the same direction I was going, but he said the trail divided a ways ahead.
I told him he didn't need to wait for me, he could go on ahead, but he stayed behind me. Just after that, I passed a faint trail that was going in the direction of Huaynacotas but I didn't take it because I was looking for a well used trail. He then told me that was my trail, so I went that way and he went the other way. For the next 10 minutes or so, every time I turned around, he seemed to be stopped and looking at me, I guess he was making sure that I didn't get lost. Finally he went over a ridge and I didn't see him again. Since I had gotten water, the trail had been very steep and for over an hour I had been going up 200 feet in elevation and stopping for a quick break, and then going another 200 feet. At 1:10 I got to a large rock formation that looked like a tulip sitting on top of a stand. It was also lunchtime and I was hungry, so I took a break and ate, even though I had wanted to get to the top of another ridge, to try to see how much further I had to go to the top of the mountain.
Just after I started hiking again after lunch, I noticed a pack burro ahead of me, coming from my left, the direction of Tejcca. When I reached that point, I joined up with a major trail again, and could see a man ahead of the burro. I guess I had been on a short cut, which was why it was such a minor path. After passing a couple of stone houses and corrals, I could finally see what looked like the summit of the mountain up a ways. At 2:25 pm I reached the pass and it showed 14,502 feet on my GPS, a few feet higher than Mt. Whitney, my first high summit. I also had a great view of Nevado Fiura, an 18,033 foot mountain, that is on my short list. I had been wondering where the best route up from Cotahuasi canyon was, and here I was looking straight at it.
Ah, the joys of a tropical mountain range, here it is winter and I am in shorts and a short sleeve T-shirt at 14,500 feet! However with the sweat I had worked up on the climb, and the cool breeze, I didn't sit around for too long before I headed down. I could soon see Huaynacotas, which was still a ways above my goal of Luicho Hot Springs, on the Cotahuasi River. Fifteen minutes above the village, I met a couple of young kids heading down with their loads of alfalfa, and passed an old man picking something out of the dirt. At first I thought he must have dropped some money, he was searching for it so intently. Then as I passed him, I saw he was picking up toasted corn, which they eat like we do trail mix in the U.S.
At 4:45 I was entering Huaynacotas and could hear a band playing. I was wondering if it was a town fiesta, but soon passed a house with a courtyard full of dancing drunks, thankful that they didn't notice me pass by. It seems to be the duty of every drunk here to invite the gringo to the party and have some chicha, their homemade corn liquor. After leaving Huaynacotas, I met all the herders, usually young girls or old women, bringing the cattle and sheep from the fields back into the village for the night. I arrived at Luicho at 6:20, and decided to look for a camping spot after a long soak in the hot springs. However when I got in the pool, I met a tour operator that I know, and he offered me a ride back to Cotahuasi. I gladly accepted, saving me about a four hour road walk home today.
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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