Today we undertook the most difficult, but rewarding hike of my life so far: a seven-hour gruelling trip to Laguna 69, an incredible azure lake nestled high in the Huascaran National Park deep in the Andes.
We took a three-hour bus ride over bumpy dirt roads from our hostel in Huaraz at 5am, arriving shivering and tired but excited about the challenges ahead. Huaraz is a great base for hikers as it’s surrounded by mountains, on one side the dry Cordillera Negra and the other side the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. As we’d found out the day before, there are some fantastic and demanding walks you can do in the area to help you to get acclimatised (Huaraz is 3,100m above sea level).
The hike to Laguna 69 would be challenging even in normal conditions, with its steep twisting paths more comparable to climbing than walking, and unpredictable terrain and weather – but beginning at 3,800 metres, the overbearing problem is the high altitude (context: Mount Everest is an astonishing 8,848m). The pristine lake lies beneath an elegant waterfall and Peru’s tallest peak – the Huascaran, which stands at 6,768m.
If you’ve never experienced high altitude, let me try to describe it. First, as our bus ascended to base camp, I was bombarded with chest pains – as though my lungs were close to exploding with every deep breath. Once I started to walk, my mind became foggy with aches and intense dizzy spells, periodically leading to spotted vision. I consider myself pretty fit, yet every step was a concerted effort as I climbed higher and higher. The thin air means you can physically feel the shortage of oxygen in your tired muscles, so every ragged breath must be sucked in for as long as possible to squeeze out the o2. In addition, it can adversely affect your appetite, meaning you don’t feel hungry at all. But you must eat – and more importantly, drink. Dehydration led to a terrible headache for hours after we had finished.
Although I’ve hiked at altitude before on this trip, this was an entirely different experience – I truly felt like my body was under immense strain to a point where it was difficult to keep going. I cut myself some slack and took it fairly slow.
I did manage, though, and on the way saw some wild chinchillas, several majestic waterfalls and lush greenery flooding the area with life. And that climb, whilst it nearly killed me, was well worth it for the stunning blue view. If you’re considering doing this hike, don’t hesitate – you will not be disappointed!
We enjoyed some hot coca leaf tea courtesy of our trek guide, which helped hugely with relieving the effects of the altitude.
On the way back down – which itself took over two hours – we were treated to beautiful views of the National Park as the sun crept out.