Hiking in the Peruvian Andes – My First International Camping Trip

Venturing out into the backcountry to go camping in a foreign country is exciting, daunting, and soooo worth it! I was still a bit of a camping noob when I decided to undertake a relatively unknown hike in the Peruvian Andes. Here’s some of what I did and learned while hiking in this truly spectacular part of the world.

Where – Huaraz, Peru!

Choosing where to go, I usually leave to my partner. His passion is maps, and he has spent hours scouring them for cool places to go. Apparently the Cordillera Blanca mountain range near Huaraz, Peru had caught his eye, so that’s where we headed.

You’re probably thinking, “you went to Peru and didn’t go to Machu Picchu?!? ” Its a matter of hiking style, and ours is to go a bit more off the beaten path. There’s a couple reasons for this.

Travel Style – Off the Beaten Path

First, fewer people make enjoying the outdoors better for me, personally. Second, it can be less expensive. More popular places sometimes require that you go with a guided group, buy expensive permits, etc. You often have to book extremely far in advance, as well. That is sometimes hard to do, and not always in your best interest to be locked into things. More about that later under the Travel Style section below.

Main Plaza in Huaraz

Huaraz is a ten hour, very exciting bus ride from the capital city of Lima. The city sits at 10,000 ft, at the base of some of the tallest mountains in the Andes. It is the gateway to Huarazcaran National Park, filled with spectacular peaks, glaciers and lakes.

Mount Huarscaran Looming Large Behind the Huaraz city.

We arrived at 10 pm, with one night of accommodation booked. After a short taxi ride, we were plopped off in a busy area. We quickly learned that in Peru, car horns are used conversationally. By that I mean, they are tooted very frequently, in short little chirps. They can mean, “hello!” or “need a ride?” or “I’m here”…and the conversation is constant.

Travel Style – Being Flexible

This is where having some flexibility in our plans came in handy. After one night, we felt the place we were staying was very noisy, with all the horn talk. After a quick walk around town the next morning, it appeared that there were better places for us. So, we checked into a new place for the next couple nights while we readied for the hike.

Now, we knew we weren’t going at the extreme peak season, and had checked that there were many options before we left. But rather than pour over every listing beforehand, we decided that we’d rather determine first hand what the best fit for us would be.

Main Mercado – the heart of everything

We were able to find a much quieter hostel that catered to hikers. They would be able to help arrange transportation for us, and hang onto a bag of stuff for us while we were out on the hike. It would not have been possible to know this place would do that for you from a booking website.

Leave Room for Adventure!

I have known people who pride themselves on having every detail of a trip planned down to where they were going to eat each meal. To each their own, but I’ve found that you often miss out on a lot when you lock in your preconceived notions about what you’re going to like, what you’re going to want, etc.

Leaving room for spontaneity is essential to cultivating a sense of adventure. Not knowing every detail makes you figure things out as you go. Ultimately, I think it helps sharpen your problem solving ability, and build trust in yourself. If part of traveling for you is learning and experiencing new things, then I would encourage you purposely leave some gaps in the itinerary.

Gathering Essentials for the Hike

Another travel style decision we made was going with only a carry-on backpack. (We were traveling on after this, and wanted to be nimble.) That means that we couldn’t actually take all our normal backpacking gear with us, because its not carry-on approved. Tent poles, for example, can only go in checked luggage. Because they’re so deadly, apparently? Now, a knife and compressed stove fuel, that I can agree on with the TSA, should probably not allow to come on board.

This meant that some essential gear we were going to have to rent in Huaraz. There were some basic web sites with snippets in English that seemed to indicate it was possible. There were anecdotes from people on-line about their experience with acquiring the necessary gear in Huaraz. But we didn’t have exact information, much less anything ‘reserved’ before we got there.

Again, Huaraz is at 10,000 ft. And we were planning on going up to 17,000. While we live at 7,000 ft, and go up to 10k regularly, it still seemed like a good idea to spend some time acclimating to the altitude. So, we knew we were going to bump around the town for a few days, and could probably scrounge up the gear we needed.

Spending Time in Huaraz

While gathering gear and supplies around Huaraz, we of course, tried to take in the local cuisine. Peru is known for cuy, or guinea pig. Being a vegetarian, I did not partake, but my more food adventurous partner did. While eating this dinner, a couple of guys at the table next to us, Australians, leaned over to ask how it was. We got to talking…

Cuy and potatoes – Classic Peruvian Dish

They were in their twenties, and told us they were there to hike the popular Santa Cruz loop. They were going on a guided trip, which would include porter service for their bags, and a chef to cook evening meals. Their jaws gaped when they heard we were going on a lesser known trail and going by ourselves. You could tell they thought ‘these old people are crazy!’

The Essential Gear was Procured!

Like the friends we met at dinner, most places want to sell you guided tours, where they will haul your stuff, cook your food, set up a ‘potty’ tent for you. But we did find a lovely outdoor shop that was willing to rent us what we needed. We got a tent, sleeping pads and a jet boil stove, just like the one we had at home, in fact. It cost about $18 for 5 days, and all worked just fine. Our leap of faith had worked out.

Rented tent and Jet Boil

As for food, we did bring a couple home-made dehydrated meals with us. But, we did want to try and work local cuisine into our hike, as well. (More adventure!) We hit the mercado and found nuts, seeds, olives, ‘intersting’ candies, etc, and were easily able to fill out what we needed for the hike. Huaraz has many street vendors that sell hard-boiled quail eggs, a very peculiar fact that I didn’t read on any of the travel sites! They were delicious, and added a nice protein snack.


Also not going with a guided tour meant that we needed to arrange transportation to and from the trail head. Again, our hostel told us they could help with arranging transportation. So, we entrusted the front desk person with this detail, and sure enough, they came through!

More sheep than cars on this road to the trail head.

Pedro picked us up early on our departure morning, and drove us through the idyllic countryside. Using all our limited Spanish, and him, all his limited English, we chatted as we wound our way up the mountain road. We were not going to a very popular trailhead, and even more confusing, we weren’t returning to it. We were going to cross over a mountain pass and come out on the other side. And we didn’t know exactly how long it was going to take us…..no problem to express in a foreign language, right?

Local rocking the traditional Peruvian hat

Pedro drove us up the lonely road in his rattly station wagon and dropped us off at a deserted rock building, which was apparently the trailhead. We paid him handsomely, with extra, extra tip. My nervous eyes seeking deep into his as we said ‘Hasta proxima domingo!’….see you this Sunday!

Always a bit nerve wracking when the trail sign is propped up with rocks.

The Hike

Quilcayhuanca read the sign propped up on a rock, we were in the right place. It was a blue-bird January day as we walked through a lush green valley with towering snow and ice covered peaks all around us. There were skinny, wild horses off in the distance, and large bones picked clean by vultures. We were the only two-legged animals out there.

Magical valley

We happily walked for hours, taking in all the natural beauty the Peruvians Andes offered. “This is what I came for!”, I thought to myself. The gradual incline was hardly noticeable as we made our way up to 15,000 feet where we planned to camp. Everything was going smoothly, I was happier than a kid on Christmas.

Then, we lost the trail! When a trail isn’t heavily used, it can actually be quite easy to do. We zigged when we should have zagged, and ended up following an animal trail through terrible brambles for way too long before we realized we were off track.

Now, we did have a map, a compass, a GPS, experience…all the things necessary for navigating, and we still got off track. Its easy to do, and not the end the world. What I’ve learned, is to just stay calm, and remember, you have everything you need to stay a night where ever you are, right on your back.

All Uphill

Starting to really hit the uphill part of the hike for the day.

Eventually, we made our way back to where we had intended to be. However, we had wasted a good amount of time, and exerted a bunch of energy. We were approaching 15,000 ft, and the elevation started to affect me. Every step felt like it was through wet cement. Gasping, for air, I started up a steep set of switch backs.

Steep switchbacks with two packs!

I really hit a wall, and I’m not going to lie…I started to cry. It was starting to get cold and dark. My pace had slowed to a crawl. After assessing my pathetic state, my partner took my pack, strapped it around his front, and stoically began to walk. Slowly, we made it the last little bit, he still able to walk faster than me, though, even double-packed!

The glacier creeping down into the lake is enormous.

Just over the crest of the hill, at the end of the switch-back staircase, was a magical plateau. Waterfalls on one side, a giant glacial mountain with an chartreuse lake at the bottom of it. Renewed with energy from the incredible scenery, we set up camp and happily gobbled up a quinoa and black bean meal.

Had I only known what awaited me, would I have been able to scramble up with my pack and no tears? Hopefully, I learned to have faith, that the struggle will be worth it, from the experience. As we drifted off to sleep with the sound of cleaving ice from the glacier, we could hardly wait to see what tomorrow would bring.

Camp spot 1

View from the Top

The next morning we explored all around our new surreal environment. Hiking all around the lake, exploring all the waterfalls, we spent the day in awe of the scenery. After searching for a while, and several fake-outs, we finally found the trail that would take us up to nearly 17,000 ft the next day. We were ready in the morning to go the highest we’d ever been!

Adding to a Cairn without toppling it is a challenge.

The trail up the mountain was rocky and infrequently traveled. You have to rely on cairns to lead you. It was markedly colder and darker the further we went. We tried to make sure we were drinking plenty of water, monitoring for any early signs of altitude sickness as we hit the 16,000 ft mark. Luckily, all seemed well.

Slowly, we crept up on our destination, as the snow began to fall harder. Seriously?!? Just when we got to the top, it was white out conditions and we couldn’t see more than 3 feet in front of our faces. We sat down in the shelter of a rocky out-cropping, snapped a quick selfie and cheered to our accomplishment. The outside view wasn’t so great, but inside, things were looking pretty good. It had definitely not been easy to get there. I felt accomplishment, joy and self-sufficiency.

Peak selfie

All Downhill

You can’t loiter too long in a snow storm at 17,000 ft, so we headed down the other side of the pass. Off again into the unknown, feeling emboldened by our accomplishment, we headed down the mountain. Experienced hikers know that its often the way down that will get you!

What trail?

Quickly after leaving the summit, we realized that the trail was even less easy to follow on this side of the mountain. There were fewer cairns, and the mountain was steeper. It was really a very difficult scramble, we often had to backtrack to work around impasses. It was taking way longer than we anticipated. At times, it felt dangerous, and there really seemed to be no way down.

Trying to figure out how to get to where he’s pointing.

We could see a beautiful stream at the bottom of the valley, and desperately wanted to get there. Out of nowhere, a herd of deer appeared and went bounding down the mountain to the side of us. We watched in amazement as they laid out exactly how to go to get down. We scrambled over to where we had seen them appear, and did our best to retrace the path they took. Imperfectly, we were able to get to the bottom in a couple hours….a journey that had taken them a matter of minutes.

Walking Out

We spent our last night in the Peruvian Andes camped at the head of a spring that popped miraculously out of the ground. We celebrated with our finest eats, and gleefully recounted the adventures of the preceding days. The next day, we would wake, and make the relatively easy hike down the valley, back to civilization.

Picture doesn’t quite capture the full raging nature of this stream.

Feeling like we conquered the mountains, we set off for the final day of our hike. First order of the day was crossing a giant raging river of silver-blue water fed from the giant glacier above. There was a lovely service road just on the other side. The log bridge hovered just over several feet of raging water that dropped, and then dropped again.

So glad this was captured for posterity.

About half way across the bridge as the logs jostled and bent, with the weight and awkwardness of my pack making me feel unstable, I panicked a bit. But its okay, I just switched to four-wheel drive mode.

“Wild” Animals

Then we came across the cows. No big deal. Cows are cool, right?

Very protective bull

Well, these Peruvian mountain cows were NOT cool with people coming around, and it was actually the most terrifying part of the entire trip. The windy mountain bus ride, the altitude, scrambling down steep rocky slopes, were nothing compared to the protective bull that literally stalked for a couple of miles. We threw rocks, shouted, tried to make our way as far away as possible. Only to have the same snorting bull pop-up again and again.

Finally, we seemed to get out of his range. With the river separating us, I was able to snap a photo, as he continued to glare. He was so intense and determined, it was another couple of hours before I was convinced that he still wasn’t in hot pursuit of us.

We come across another person!

Finally relaxed after the cow ordeal, we made good time walking down a well established road. Although it had begun to rain, we allowed ourselves some sighs of relief, as we must be almost there. In the distance, we saw a person walking toward us! Our first person in 4 days, since Pedro had dropped us off. As we got closer, we were like, “is that the guy that rented us our gear?” Yep, it was the guy from the outdoor shop where we had rented our tent and stove. He greeted us cheerily, and we exchanged a pleasantries. And you thought ‘Its a Small World’ was just a ride at Disney Land, right?

Our Hero Arrives

We made it to our designated pick-up spot with an hour or so to spare. It was still sprinkling, and our food rations were down pretty low. But we had enough for a snack and some hot tea. I longed for a hot shower and big potato-based Peruvian meal. Apparently, another three to four miles down the road, there was the possibility of picking up a collectivo to get back into Huaraz, if Pedro didn’t show up. We could make the walk….it would suck, but theoretically, we had a back-up plan.

Cold, wet and tired, we sat perched on a rock waiting for Pedro. The trail head was deserted. There was a rock hut with some smoke coming out of it, as if someone had been there, but there was no active signs of life. Almost to the agreed upon minute, we heard the rattling of a car coming around the down road. Oh…it was a white sedan, like Pedro’s….its speeding right towards us….is it? Yes! It’s Pedro!!!

Returning from the Wilderness

Within a few short hours, I was clean and fed, happily enjoying an adult beverage in the comfort of my hostel. I was tired, and had a few scrapes to show for my adventure. However, I was mostly sad it was over. It was amazing experience, and I knew I wanted more!

Every time I come back from the wilderness, I bring a little more ‘wild’ back with me. Life in a cubicle becomes a little more unbearable. It pushes me to work towards financial independence, and designing my life to have more freedom.

You might think that a trip hiking in the Peruvian Andes would have set me back on the financial front. While it was by no means free, it was really not that expensive, all things considered. Credit card hacking paid for a lot of the plane tickets. We did not stay in extravagant lodging…three nights were free in the mountains! This trip was in 2017, and I didn’t know I’d be writing a blog post about it, so I didn’t meticulously track expenses. But, I’d say it was cheaper than a week at an all-inclusive resort on a beach in Mexico.

Overall, the return on my investment in this trip was huge! I got to experience one of the most beautiful places on earth. Amazing memories that will last a lifetime were made. The confidence of knowing I could accomplish a back country hike in a foreign country made me feel like I could do anything!

Comment below with your thoughts, questions, stories about crazy international back country camping experiences. I want to hear about it!

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