Last weekend, my friend and current Peru Peace Corps Volunteer, Tasha, convinced me to take a few days of vacation with her in the Andean trekking mecca of Huaraz. Her idea of vacation was to go on a two day hike, at altitude, that ended at a glacial lake. This is a fairly masochistic vacation idea, but luckily I’ve never been one to use vacation time to actually relax, so I willingly agreed.

Ancash, Peru

The view from Ben and Katie’s town

Huaraz is an extremely popular tourist destination in the northern Peruvian department (region) of Ancash. I’ve heard it described as the ‘Trekking Capital of the World,’ which is doubtless a debatable distinction, but after over a week here, also one that I’m willing to concede.

After a week of hiking almost every day, I can also say that the hike to Lake Akilpo was definitely my favorite.

Tasha and I met up with a married couple, Ben and Katie – Peace Corps Volunteers who had already served in Zambia and now live on top of one of the many mountains of the Andean Cordillera Blanca outside of Huaraz. After a night in their simple but comfortable house, we woke early and began the seven hour hike up over the hills and far away.

Reaching Lake Akilpo with any ounce of sanity is a two day trip, which means carrying camping gear and food up in our backpacks. I’m normally comfortable carrying a heavy pack over a long distance, but not at altitude. Just two or three minutes of uphill hiking winded me in a completely different way from any low-altitude hike. On long hikes, I’m used to more of a full body fatigue that includes sore legs, shoulders, and hips. At altitude, my chest burned almost constantly under the strain of breathing, even though the rest of my body was perfectly fresh. A strange feeling to be sure.

Ancash, Peru

In the forest

Thanks to a year and a half in country, this altitude-induced fatigue didn’t affect Ben or Katie nearly as much, and Tasha and I had to quickly adjust to the shame of constantly asking them to stop so we could breath for a few minutes. Tasha struggled a little more than I and Katie was kind enough to stay back at her pace. I forced myself to keep up with Ben, who pushed a quick pace and showed no signs of fatigue, all while keeping up a steady stream of stories. I can’t think of a time when I couldn’t keep up with the leader of a hike and I am never, due more to pride rather than fitness, the hiker that asks the group to take a break. So it was mentally difficult for me to realize, after relentless uphill climbs, that I would either have to ask Ben to stop for a couple minutes, or collapse facefirst on to the trail.

Outside of the struggle with altitude, the hike was amazing. I like hikes that have varied terrain and visuals and indeed, this one brought us through a mountain pass, into a valley forest with red, peeling high-altitude trees that I’ve never seen, and into one of the most epic valleys I’ve ever experienced. After emerging from the red forest, we were immediately confronted by the imposing, snow-covered Mount Akilpo in the distance. Behind us, we could just see over the trees and into the valley from where the hike began. I admit that I often used the stunning views to make Ben stop so I could “enjoy it” or “take a picture.”

The hike ended with a brutal one hour uphill climb to another level of the valley, just before Mount Akilpo. We arrived around 3pm, exhausted and ready to make camp before the 6pm sunset. At that point, we were over 14,000 feet and feeling the cold, thin air. We all layered up and crowded into Ben and Katie’s ten, our bottom halves in our sleeping bags, and spent the rest of the day eating, talking, and playing cards. I had rented the baddest-ass sleeping bag the gear rental place in Huaraz had and so I passed the night perfectly warm, though worried that the high winds would rip the fly off of our tent. (Question: how can there simultaneously be such thin air and such powerful winds? Pick one, nature!)

The campsite

The campsite

The next morning, we left our tents and most of our gear at the camp and hiked an hour and a half up to the base of Lake Akilpo. Strangely, I hadn’t felt any altitude-related problems (except the uphill difficulty) until we got up near the lake, which sits just over 15,000 feet. Maybe my body has an internal sensor that is triggered at exactly 15k and tells my ears to start hurting.

Despite the discomfort however, the hike was worth it as the lake is a brilliant blue-green and flanked by the snowy peak of Mount Akilpo. We enjoyed about half an hour at the lake and then it started hailing on us and we figured it was time to descend.

Six hours later, we were back in Ben and Katie’s house, tired and hungry, but pleased with our accomplishment. (To clarify, Ben and Katie were casually brushing dirt off their shoulders, while Tasha and I were high-fiving in actual celebration).

I’m not sure what we humans enjoy about leaving comfortable, temperature-controlled buildings at manageable altitudes for cold, windy, remote mountain campsites above 14,000 feet, but I confess that I am one of the many masochists that considers this “vacation.”

(If you are also a masochistic vacationer and want to do this hike, check out the details on our Lake Akilpo Hike page)