Condor Moment : by John Kellie

This has previously been published in The Herald Saturday Magazine, 21st April 2001         

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Conjure up a dusty mountain trail - canyon walls peppered with boulders and cacti. Visualise a lone horseman wearing a checked poncho. His sombrero is tilted low so his eyes are in deep shadow. His chin is stubbly and his voice, when it comes, is gravelly: "Buenos dias, gringo." So - a spaghetti western set perhaps? A backdrop for Clint Eastwood, cheroot and all, to appear over the next rise? A reasonable supposition - but in truth the canyon leads into a hidden range of the Peruvian Andes: the Cordillera Huayhuash.

Situated south-east of the Cordillera Blanca, Huayhuash was off limits for a number of years due to the activities of Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path terrorist organisation. But since the Peruvian government gained the upper hand, the way has been clear for travellers once again. Access is via the village of Chiquian at the end of a spiralling and spectacular gravel road. Here I meet Pablo, our guide, and his crew - local arrieros and donkeys to carry the bags of the six trekkers in my party. From Chiquian a trail, busy with walkers, horsemen and strings of pack burros, winds its way along dry gorges and through farming settlements. The local people grow barley and potatoes in terraced patches, sometimes hedged by agaves, large fleshy succulents, but more often enclosed within stone walls. The fields are noisy with the cries of harvesting peasant farmers.

The dry hillsides of this area support a variety of cacti and succulents, some of which are in flower. In a clump of large cacti an Andean Flicker flits to and fro, the secretive woodpecker which seldom sees a tree. It vanishes among the prickly forest. Beside Rio Achin we camp at the lowest point on the trek at 9,000 feet, where a rowdy mob of green parrots are plundering berries from a patch of woodland. The following day we ascend - with greater effort - to the village of Llamac where a shiny metal sign announces: "Llamac - Centre Of International Tourism." A few threadbare dogs doze in street corners, occasionally mustering energy for a half-hearted scratch. The town's only visible horse nods sleepily, tethered to a door handle. Maybe we've reached Llamac on early closing day. Maybe not.

Above the village the cactus zone ends. Now I find myself strolling among plants which appear gift-wrapped in British supermarkets. Epiphytes and silvery air plants decorate branches and boulders, while pampas grasses grace the banks of streams. I rest in the shady plaza of Pocpa, sleepy among its barley fields, a settlement with winding alleys and orange terra-cotta roof tiles - the last village, in fact, encountered on our route. A mile or two on, a dirt track, the only motorable road I see in the Huayhuash, appears unexpectedly. I am told that it leads to a newly constructed mine.

"Caramelo, gringo!" Everyone in the Peruvian highlands seems to crave confectionery. This time it's a wild bunch driving heavily-laden burros. The women, in colourful homespuns and wide-brimmed hats, queue up to receive tribute of toffee. There are cries of "Mucho gusto!" and "Gracias, senor" but I detect a hint of mischief - each woman has taken her caramel and rejoined the back of the queue. They peal with laughter at being rumbled and chatter in Quechua, the local language which I don't understand. It sounds a lot like "Worth a try!" and "No hard feelings, gringo!"

In western movies the word gringo is invariably growled through clenched teeth in the saloon of El Paso. In Peru today, it's just another everyday word in tourist season. One theory holds that gringo dates back to the nineteenth century wars between the United States and Mexico when US forces marched into battle - allegedly - singing "Green Grow The Rushes - O!"

There are eight high passes on the Huayhuash circuit: it is time to face the first. We leave our camp among shepherds' huts at Cuartelwain to plod up steep slopes below Punta Cacanan, a narrow pass at 15,500 feet. A pair of condors drift down for a look before deciding - reassuringly - that it isn't worth hanging about. Soon they become specks in the distance. Punta Cacanan sits astride the continental divide and on the Andean watershed. To the west, water flushes quickly into the Pacific - a hundred miles or so. In contrast, water which drains east finds its way into the Amazon plumbing system and travels a thousand miles and more to reach Atlantic salt water.

Crossing a breathless succession of high passes, we spend the next week flanking the eastern slopes of the Huayhuash. Most nights we camp next to turquoise or icy blue glacial lakes under magnificent crags and glaciers. Razor-edged peaks loom overhead - Rondoy, Jirishanca, and Yerupacha at over 21,000 feet - creating landscapes too vast to be captured on film. Muffled booms followed by spectacular ice-falls become daily occurrences. Nights are cold. Every evening I fill my drinking bottle with boiling water and turn in at eight, only to waken in the early hours when the water has chilled. At Laguna Mitacocha, I awake to my "hot water" bottle tinkling with ice.

The inhabitants of this sparsely populated side of the range are the scattered herdsmen who graze sheep and cattle at remarkable altitudes. A shepherd's homestead consists typically of a circular stone hut with a low doorway and thatched roof. A dim, smoky building, it is constructed entirely of local materials. Even ropes to secure the thatch are plaited from native grasses. A circular walled enclosure stands closeby, in which the family's livestock is corralled at night.

These settlements are invariably guarded by vicious, half-starved dogs which vary from spiteful ankle-snappers to the two hairy heavyweights who assault me at the head of Laguna Carhuacocha. I learn that the best defence is to hurl a rock or two, as the locals do. If no stones are to hand, the act of bending is just about enough to turn an irate guard dog in its tracks.

Punta Cuyoc at 16,500 feet is the highest point on our circuit and, despite thin air, it proves a scenic climax. A wind-eroded pinnacle towers over a distant grassy valley, backed by snowy ridges which sweep up to the tallest of the Huayhuash peaks. Lazy clouds float amongst the summits against a startlingly blue sky. Just below the pass grows a remarkable cactus which chooses to ignore the rules. In conditions of extreme cold, the "Old Man Of The Andes" flourishes at altitudes in excess of 14,000 feet. A low-growing plant, its clumps are bearded in white hair which masks the cactus's armoury of cruel spines. Small green fruits are produced in season. "No good for nothing!" dismisses Pablo, flicking one out with his stick. Wisely, sheep have learned to sidestep the Old Man.

In the meadows below Punta Cuyoc, I meet a train of pack llamas being herded by their owner. The llama is not a common sight in this area of Peru. Pablo explains that sheep and cattle are thought to be more productive. Burros carry heavier packs. So the llama - a creature which to many epitomises the Andes - is relegated to marginal areas where it alone can subsist on poor high altitude grazing. The pack llamas shy and stare, snorting nervously, as they draw near. Some have eyes of a pale milky blue.

Pablo's inside information allows us to skip the eighth and final pass. Instead he leads us along a dry irrigation channel that scrambles for miles around hillsides and burrows under the mountain in a crumbling hundred-yard tunnel. Disintegrating timbers prop up the low ceiling and, more ominously, lie shattered on the ground. Bent double, I follow pallid torchlight through stifling darkness. My shoulder brushes the wall to release miniature cascades of dust and grit. Rounding the final bend, a disc of daylight becomes visible and grows steadily until I step out into the sweet air and sunshine of the Andes. It is downhill all the way now.

Abandoned overgrown field systems start to appear, their agave hedges sprouting fifteen foot flower stems. The trail drops steeply to terraces where farmers are threshing and winnowing on the hillsides above Llamac. At the village shop, I gratefully guzzle an Inka Cola and some outdated chocolate biscuits. Unquestionably Llamac feels a lot more like an "International Tourist Centre" than it did a fortnight ago.

Walking out to Chiquian the following morning, I find myself pondering the paradoxes of the Huayhuash: huge condors, tiny hummingbirds; cacti which thrive at the margin of the snow-line; a woodpecker without trees; a trek completed in the bowels of a mountain. I do reach one conclusion - that the unpronounceable "Huayhuash" sounds very much like "Why wash?" And given the freezing nights and glacial water, I for one would be hard pushed to come up with a reason.

John Kellie is a freelance travel writer based in Western Scotland who likes nothing better than to rub shoulders with the peoples of the world.  Wild places are his passion, but teaching pays the bills.  He can be contacted at

© John Kellie – 2001/2
Reproduced with permission.