Huaraz, Peru is the hiking and trekking capital of Peru, sitting at 10,500 feet above sea level. Backpackers from all over come to Huaraz for extreme hiking in Peru. We traveled to Huaraz directly after a week on the beach. And despite guzzling altitude sickness pills, my poor wife was hit with a nasty case of altitude sickness. (Thanks a lot, modern medicine.) As she lay miserably in bed, a mug of coca leaf tea grasped between her weak hands, she whispered her last, dying wishes: to go on without her. Hiking, that is – the whole reason we came to Huaraz! We had yet to do any hiking in Peru and were eager to add hiking in a brand new country to our list of
failures achievements (like our disasters hikes in Colombia and Ecuador). So, after couple of days of acclimatizing, I decided to do a day hike to one of the Peru’s most beautiful lakes, Laguna 69 (I know, the name makes me giggle too).
Laguna 69 in Huaraz, Peru
The lake sits at the base of a giant glacier in the Cordillera Blancas. Its elevation is at approximately 15,000 feet, which beats anywhere in the continental United States by a good 500 feet. Somehow, no one in Huaraz seemed to be impressed by this. I guess travelers from other countries are used to insane elevations. To give you an idea of how incredibly high Laguna 69 is, once Lia and I jumped out of a plane to skydive from the highest altitude they were legally able to fly us, and it was STILL lower than Laguna 69. I knew this would would be no walk in the park, but I had no experience hiking at such a high altitude before. I was about to get a crash course.
Booking the Laguna 69 Trek
As per the advice of everyone and the internet, I booked an actual tour. It’s possible to get to Laguna 69 and do the hike solo, but it actually costs more to take the combination of buses, taxis, and collectivos. This is probably the only time during our entire trip that booking a tour is both easier AND cheaper than doing it on our own. The problem with booking tours in Huaraz is there are about a hundred tour agencies. In the other adventure towns we’ve been to, there was a small handful to pull from, which made it easy to find reviews.
After some intense Googling, I settled on Huascaran Adventure Travel, the only agency that had multiple positive reviews and no (as far as I could see) negatives. I booked my tour for the next day. The minute I finished booking the tour, my nerves kicked in. In the states, there are only a few mountains over 14,000 feet, and it’s a big deal to hike them. Those hikes are called “fourteeners,” and I was about to do my first one, only it wasn’t in the US. I had a carbs heavy dinner, packed my backpack full of snacks, rain gear, first aid supplies, and water, and went to bed telling myself I wasn’t going to die the next day.
Departure from Huaraz to Laguna 69
I woke up bright and early at 4 AM. But it’s me, so I went right back to sleep. At 5, I was actually out of bed. The bus picked me up at our hostel at 5:30, and after kissing Lia goodbye and saying our final, loving words of parting (something like “don’t die”, “you too”) I was off. I was surprised by the bus situation. It was a coach bus, similar to ones we’ve taken in Ecuador. I had been picturing a collectivo van. We drove around Huaraz picking more and more people up and eventually I was squished in my seat with my backpack, because the overhead bin was too full. With the bus filled up, we headed north, deeper into the Callejon de Huaylas valley.
Our guide, Edward, told us all about the landscape surrounding Laguna 69 and gave us a rundown of what to expect from the hike. He said the hike has three parts, each with increasing difficulty. Then he said most people take about 3 to 3.5 hours to hike out, and 2 hours to return. He stressed how important the timing was, because he wasn’t putting up with having to wait. Good thing Lia wasn’t with me – she would have hated that. Honestly, I felt a bit nervous about it too: I may be faster than Lia, but so is 99% of the population with working legs, so that isn’t saying much about my abilities. We stopped for a really crappy breakfast and headed up into the Cordillera Blancas.
I kept telling myself that my anxiety was unnecessary. I couldn’t feel the altitude at breakfast, so how bad could it be?
The tour bus took a quick stop at Chinancocha, another glacier lake next to the road on the way to Laguna 69. It has the same turquoise color and is actually bigger than Laguna 69, but the landscape around it pales in comparison. After a few minutes of enjoying the view and building anticipation for the hike, Edward got the show on the road. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the trailhead.
Section 1: The Valley
The Laguna 69 hike started like most hikes that are going to kick your ass: a gentle stroll. It was actually quite pretty. We were all hiking alongside a river between two giant, snow-covered glaciers looming in the distance. The valley was very grassy and was filled with these unique, fascinating looking Queñua trees. These hardy trees are the only ones that can grow above 5000 meters. They look like big manzanita trees and their bark is made up of paper thin pieces. After a few minutes of breathlessly admiring the scenery, I realized there was a problem: I was already tired. My breaths were labored. The slightest hill made me lean forward and struggle along.
I had heard from other hikers that you want to rush if you can; this way there are fewer people at Laguna 69. My tour guide Edward actually advised against rushing, saying hikers need to snack and briefly stop from time to time. I knew there was no chance of being one of the first to finish, but I thought I could at least rush through the valley and then take my time on the upcoming switchbacks.
Handling the Altitude Change while Hiking Laguna 69
As soon as I felt exhaustion set in, I came up with a time regimen. I would drink water as needed, but I had to keep walking. Only in bad situations (or to take photos) would I stop and catch my breath for one minute. Every hour, I would stop for snacks. My hope was to hit the end of each section when I snacked, thus staying on time. I continued hiking through the valley, feeling slightly more confident that my plan would work and help me keep pace. .
As people started passing me, I couldn’t help but judge their choice in hiking outfit. One guy was in a deep v-necked t-shirt, with extremely tight jeans belted way too low to be comfortable, and bright white converse. All he had on him was a pack of cigarettes and a small bottle of water. He looked like an H&M model who’d gotten lost in the mountains. There was actually a surprising amount of jeans. How people hike in jeans, I don’t know. I have tried and I always hate my life after. Jeans seemed an especially odd choice for a hike that includes several river crossings.
The valley ended. I felt the trail ascend and I looked at my watch. 10:15 AM. It was time for lunch.
Section 2: Switchbacks
After some dried mango and almonds, I felt rejuvenated. I looked further down the trail and saw my next objective: hella switchbacks. Usually I hate switchbacks, but I could see all of the trail from the valley, so I felt slightly less intimidated. I trudged up the hill, doing the usual dance of being passed by someone then passing them again when they rested. The best part of the switchback portion was the view. As I got higher up the mountain, the valley stretched out below me. Directly across from the trail was a giant waterfall I couldn’t help but stare at.
The view alone kept me going. Sure, I had to stop every time the trail switch-backed, but I was enjoying it. I tried to get an idea of how I was doing on time by looking for the last person in our group. Edward had said he would be at the end of the crowd to ensure arrival at the right time. I saw a lot of people still in the valley, so I figured I was doing OK.
Halfway to Laguna 69
About forty-five minutes after my first snack break, I finished the first set of switchbacks. There was a clearing with people taking pictures. This was the trail’s middle. I couldn’t help but notice a couple wearing another ridiculous hiking outfit. She was a ~travel girl~, complete with floppy H&M hat, tight jeans, dressy top, and hiking boots. He had a cut off sleeve denim jacket and steam punk sunglasses. I judged them hard, but I asked them to take my picture anyway. They actually turned out to be really nice, so I felt bad for judging.
Up ahead of me loomed a giant hill. My mind jumped back to my brief research of the trail. I couldn’t remember if there were two sets of switchbacks, or three. Above the hill, I saw the top of the glacier. The problem was the glacier was stark white against clouds, so determining perspective was a fool’s game. I could have sworn there were two sets of switchbacks and the last one was harder than the first. Now I wasn’t sure what to believe. I have a habit of being too optimistic on hikes (my trail name, coined by Lia, is Optimist Sass. Cuz I’m optimistic, but also sassy.). So, I figured I might as well take my second snack break early and deal with this hill fully fueled.
The second set of switchbacks were about as tough as the first, but in a different way. There were a steeper grade, but shorter distance. When I reached the top, I was greeted with a small lake. “Damn,” I thought. “This would have been a way better snack spot.”
Section 3: The Hard Part
As I passed the lake, I was dreading what was next. I knew I was approaching the “hard” section. I realized after the hike that I had just become a fourteener, but there was no time for thinking about it. To my surprise, the next part of the hike was…easy. I had entered a grassland. I could hike through a grassland all damn day at that point. There were cows and gentle streams. It was tranquil AF.
I couldn’t help but think, “How is this the hard section?” Then the trail started to disappear. Everyone began taking different routes to cross the many streams criss-crossing the grassy knoll. We were all heading the same direction, but we were fanning out. I decided to follow a guide. Edward said he has been doing this tour for 20 years and he does it 4 times a week. I figured the guide I was following would know the best way. After about twenty minutes of gently strolling through grass, I looked ahead and said to myself, “Oh…this is why it’s the hard part.”
The Wild Zone
Ahead of me was what is called “Zona Sylvestre,” or Wild Zone. Maybe it wasn’t officially called that, but a sign said it and I thought it was fitting. This was the last set of switchbacks, and boy were they serious. The altitude here increased about 700 feet! The trail was made up of small granite stones – the kind some people put in their yards to fight off weeds. I looked behind me and saw Edward crossing the grass, which meant I was officially one of the last people. So much for my snack strategy.
From the start of the incline, my feet were slipping. Every step turned stones over and pulled me backwards slightly. My (actually Lia’s) trekking poles were incredibly helpful. I almost rolled my ankle multiple times. “This isn’t so bad really,” my inner Optimist Sass piped up, “It’s just steep. You’ve done steep.” Steep proved to not be my enemy. Before hikes like Laguna 69, people always say things like “it’s not the distance, it’s the altitude.” They were right. All the more frustrating was one of the guides. He kept coming up behind me and yelling “¡Vamos!” I quickly realized this was not a hike I could go at my own pace. They had a schedule to keep.
I thrust the poles into the ground and hoisted myself up. A guide passed and told me Laguna 69 was directly over the hill. Knowing I was almost done was a bad thing. I exerted more energy per step because I didn’t have many steps left. With every inch up the hill, I felt pressure building in my chest. My lungs were expanding from the lower pressure. They were fighting for breath in the lighter oxygen. My fingers and toes started to tingle. I was going to pass out soon.
That’s when I realized something: I was standing higher than I’ve ever been. That meant every step was a new personal best. My thoughts drifted back to a conversation the day before with a friend of mine who is a skilled hiker (she’s hiking goals AF, if I’m being honest). She said to not think about the distance left, but instead just think about putting one foot in front of the other. So that’s what I did.
I had this vision of myself in my head before the hike. In the last stretch, I would put my headphones on and throw on some rap. I’d trudge up, huffing and puffing with the intensity of Daredevil in that episode where he beats like 30 guys down a stairwell. Just as Kanye would be telling me “No one man should have all that power,” I would rise above the crest of the hill and be greeted with the clearest blue lake, feeling like a superhero. Instead, I was dizzy, disoriented, and on the verge of tears trying to just get halfway up the damn switchbacks. I also forgot to put on music. Dying is really distracting.
In the final stretch, I took a seat next to a guy from Israel. He told me he too had lived on the coast his entire life and therefore had never been at this high of an altitude either. Finally, I had a brother in arms, which felt good after seeing everyone else and their tight jeans skipping joyfully up this thing. We got up and continued. As I followed him I kept having defeatist thoughts: “What if I gave up now? I saw a lot of cool stuff along the way…that wouldn’t be the worst thing right? Maybe I should lie down and just embrace death. God, Lia would be so pissed at me if I died like that. ‘Well kids, you would have had a different dad but he laid down on a hike like an idiot and died.’”
As though it heard my thoughts, suddenly there it was…
Finally Reaching Laguna 69
I made it! I was the last of my group, and in the bottom ten overall, but whatever, I made it! The Israeli guy said it best as we increased our speed: “I can’t stop smiling.” It’s true. It was the most incredible feeling to finally be at Laguna 69. And damn, what a beautiful lake it was.
Everyone was all smiles. Some brave souls decided to jump in the freezing water. One guy did it in white briefs (…really bro? People are eating). I ate some leftover spaghetti, chips, and a celebration Snickers bar. Edward passed around some Coca Tea and everyone else passed around congratulations.
After about 30 minutes, Edward told us to get our stuff together. He pointed me to the “restroom” before we left. It’s basically a two foot wall of rocks with three sides and you can see way more than you want to. I recommend not using it. With a farewell to Laguna 69, I turned to start the journey back.
I left the lake before most people in anticipation of being slow on my return. The guides were back to herding everyone, and I didn’t want to deal with that. As I descended down the wild zone, it began sprinkling. I came prepared for rain, so I threw on my rain jacket and backpack cover. The climb down became more treacherous with the rain, so at a certain point, my trekking poles became ski poles. I came out of it with zero injuries for once!
There must have been heavier rain up the mountain, because the small streams I had to jump over before had gotten more intense. The ill prepared H&M model I mentioned before tried to bound between the rocks like a modern-day Legolas and wound up with a foot in the river. RIP to his white converses.
The view on our return took on fairy tale levels of beauty from the rain. I had to try hard not to trip over my feet because I was busy looking out off the mountain. As I hit the easier switchbacks, the rain started to get heavier. I decided to not put on my rain pants and waterproof socks for the same reason I usually use to opt out of something: “That sounds like a whole thing.”
Vengeance of the Gods
Just when I decided to let my laziness take over, I heard a bellowing from the skies: thunder. The thunder grew more frequent. I realized Catequil (the Incan god of thunder, GEEZ read a book) would not let up, so I stopped to put on my other rain gear. It’s a good thing too, because five minutes after, the skies were wide open in a downpour.
I made it back in two hours, the exact time Edward estimated it would take. The rain hadn’t let up, so I was forced to take off all of my rain gear outside. I tied the sleeves of my spare poncho and threw in all of my wet stuff as quickly as I could. On the warm and cramped bus, the driver handed me a cup of coca tea. I heard my wife’s voice in my head: “don’t forget to stretch! If you don’t, you’ll cramp up on the ride home and be sore tomorrow.” She is a wise woman full of brilliant advice that I never listen to, so I stood up to stretch. Unfortunately for me, right as I stood, Edward came on and told us all to sit down so we could leave.
We got back into Huaraz about two and a half hours later. Lia was right: I was cramped up and sore. Balls. We celebrated our re-union with pizza and Netflix.
So was it worth it? Absolutely. Every labored step. Each bead of sweat. I hated the hike every inch of the way, but seeing the blue water of Laguna 69 made it worth the three and a half hours of struggle. Oh, and I found out the reason behind the funny name is actually pretty boring. There are 474 lakes in Huascaran National Park. Laguna 69 was the 69th on the list and they just never came up with an alternate name for it. I feel like this is a half truth, because if any of the lakes didn’t have a name, shouldn’t it be Laguna 474? I guess we’ll never know.
So, dear reader, are you interested in Laguna 69 or hiking in Peru? Have you had a similar experience with high altitude hiking? Share in the comments!