We thoroughly enjoyed our previous two day-hikes to Laguna Wilcacocha and Laguna Churup, but Jesse had a wild notion that we may actually enjoy camping so much that we would change our plans in the next few months. He was floating the idea to buy camping equipment and set out to Patagonia for a month and a half with a new itinerary of camping and hitchhiking through the mecca of mountaineering. After our two day-hikes, this seemed like a pretty good idea to me, but the only time I had ever been camping was two months ago at a music festival. Although I slept in a tent, had an air mattress, my car was parked directly next to the tent, and I enjoyed all of the amenities that a music festival has to offer, so I guess this only half counts as camping. Camping in Patagonia would be much MUCH different, so we decided we should probably see if (1) I could handle hiking all day with a pack on my back and sleeping in a tent without a flick of a switch to pump a luxurious air mattress and (2) if this was something we both really loved and wanted to invest in.
I bet you'll know if Jesse's hunch about us loving camping was right or not after just 5 seconds at looking at this panoramic of Laguna 69 below:
So... enter renting camping equipment and hiking overnight to camp at Laguna 69.Laguna 69 was the hike I looked forward to the most in Huaraz so the idea of having the lake all to ourselves (and to share with other hikers who camped that night, if any) was intriguing. We rented a tent, sleeping bags, foam mats, and a camping stove with cooking gear from the Akilpo hostel for 164 soles, or $50 for two days. This isn’t cheap but if we were thinking about hiking through Patagonia, we needed to “try before we buy” and this was our best option. The gear was heavier and larger than anything we would buy if we did this for real, and we almost weren’t able to fit everything we needed in our packs for the overnight hike despite leaving loads behind in a locker at Akilpo. We shoved things in, strapped bags on, and were right out the door just in time for the 5 AM bus ride to Laguna 69.
We stopped at 3 other hostels to pick people up along the way and stopped at an extremely efficient restaurant that fed 50 hungry and tired tourists a hot breakfast in less than 30 minutes. Then made a quick pit stop for 10 minutes of pictures at another gorgeous lake. If this was just the pit stop, I couldn't imagine how beautiful the destination would be.
We made it to the mountain for a 9:30 AM start time. We normally don’t mess around at the start of a hike and get right to it, but given the load we were carrying, the fact that we would have the lake to ourselves later, and the altitude of 4,550 meters, or about 15,000 feet we had no problem letting buses of people sprint ahead to their destination for the day. Just to give you an idea of how high this is, Baton Rouge, Louisiana (where Jesse and I lived for the past 5 years) is only 17 meters, of 56 feet about sea level. We are now in the major league friends. It was nice to take it slow and not feel bad for stopping whenever we wanted for fear that we would have less time at the lake and be rushed to make it down in time without missing the colectivo or bus back to town.
The first 30 minutes of the hike was like a walk through Lord of the Rings in some enchanted river valley that came out of nowhere. It was completely different to the barren desert which was where the last 2 hikes started. The trees were probably hiding faeries and locals casting spells or hiding their precious belongings in the branches for all we knew.
The hike is set up in three sections. The first section is a very mild ascent. The second section is steeper and brings views of cascading waterfalls from glaciers that eventually flow into rivers to feed the rest of Peru during the rainy season, and the third section is the yet steeper ascent to the grand finale of Laguna 69. We took a picture of a map with all of this information from the place where we rented our equipment, we but completely forgot about it and just kept following the path.
We met two groups of people who spent the night before hiking at the refugio (which is supposedly where you are supposed to camp for the night since camping at the lake is not allowed) along our trek up. Both of them immediately stopped us after seeing our camping gear and told us how we made a great decision to spend the night. They weren’t entirely convinced we would be able to actually camp by the lake like we wanted, but I wasn’t swayed in my decision to skip the refugio. I’d seen three pictures on Pinterest with tents pitched next to the lake and was determined to make it happen.
After the steady incline, we climbed an incredibly steep section, stopping every 10-20 minutes to catch our breath. We thought that once we reached the top we would arrive at Laguna 69. We were at around 3 hours into the hike and this was the logical thought since the hike was a 2-3 hour hike according to all the tours we researched.
BOY WERE WE WRONG.
When we reached the top of this ascent we were greeted by a somewhat clear, yet lackluster lake and the daunting view of a much steeper ascent. In hindsight, we had just finished section 2 of the hike. We were well into front of about 20ish people who started the hike around the same time as us though so we didn’t think we were that far away. When we turned the bend from the lake we had an even better welcome party of a cow pasture with the biggest monster shits I’ve ever seen in my life. If I had to guess, the biggest were 10x what any human could possibly produce from their body. And better yet, they were spread all along the path to our final ascent. At least the start of this section was flat with a fun mini fortress to explore. The encouragement from our fellow overnight campers earlier in the day gave us the motivation to carry on (as if this scenery wasn't enough already).
The final ascent was 45 minutes – 1 hour and we rode the struggle bus that was on its final leg the entire way up. Once we neared the top, we had three different people stop us an applaud us for making the trek with our packs and encourage us that we were 15, 10 and then 5 minutes away (this was within a 2 minute span so I wasn’t getting my hopes up yet.) It was probably closer to 15 minutes with our packs. People clearly wanted to take pictures with the view of the mountains behind us on their descent and kept thanking us for stopping so they could take photos. We laughed because we were not stopping for their pictures, but rather so we wouldn’t keel over from beating hearts and lack of oxygen in our final minutes. Within seconds of seeing the lake at the top we knew we made the right decision to camp here for the night and struggle for four hours it took to get to the top. There were probably 100 tourists at the lake and we couldn’t wait to have it to ourselves since there wasn’t anyone else with overnight gear in sight. About two hours later at 3:30 PM it was just us and one group of about 10 Peruvians who continued to take so many photos you would have thought GQ or Vogue’s crew was the top with us for some outdoor glam shoot. The anticipation of solitude at the lake was killing us, but we didn’t want to be rude since the lake was theirs to enjoy too. After about 45 minutes with just them and the click click click of their camera in the same poses we decided to move our bags to where we wanted to set up shop for the night (the ground wasn’t the smoothest, but this view would beat the non-lake view of the refugio any day) and decided to dance around and play some music. We went with Clozee’s Electric Forest set which gave off the perfect vibe for the occasion.
15 minutes later and victory was ours. Or maybe their memory card was full. Or maybe they didn’t want to descend in the dark. Regardless, we finally had the lake to ourselves. My favorite pictures at the lake are these four the cows. Feast your eyes friends. These blue colors are more than real.
And a bunch more photos.
The sign might have said no camping and no fire, but we made it and were about to break both rules. We quickly set up camp because we forgot to check what time sun would set. Neither of us got our Boy or Girl Scout badges or had any idea how to guess when it would get dark. We quickly set this up and then ventured to check out the glaciers, snow and ice on the mountain side.
After our little venture to the glacier it was time to test out the stove. When we rented equipment the guy strongly discouraged us from renting the Whisper Lite stove because of how dangerous it can be if you aren’t experienced with it. Jesse wasn’t worried in the slightest because Youtube knows best right? This stove is indeed more dangerous, but it runs on any type of fuel instead of just camp fuel canisters. This would be ideal for Patagonia because we would be in some pretty remote areas and if we couldn’t buy camping fuel canisters, we could just go to a gas station and buy some fuel. Despite the pushback we received when rented gear and the freezing cold, Jesse was able to light fire with the Whisper Lite on the first try in under a minute. And it was cold. Probably got down to 32-35°F that night. Hot coca tea was a life saver for the altitude and our freezing little hands. Then we “made” a pre-cooked spicy beef stew out of a can with cookies and chocolate for desert.
After dinner we huddled in our sleeping bags half in, half out of the tent and wanted the stars. I had never seen so many stars in such a clear, wide open space. Granted, I had never been this high up before either. Or really camped for that matter.
Besides having the lake completely to ourselves, the next best part was being able to see the lake at literally every hour of the day. Night was beautiful, but waking up with this view at your front door was breathtaking. We woke up at 5:30 AM to watch the sunrise, which rose in the most bizarre place given where it set the night before. Even the engineer couldn’t figure that one out. The sky had an electric pink stripe across it for about 10 minutes, which quickly faded to gray. We continued to watch the sun rise, cooked breakfast with coffee and coca tea, packed our bags, explored around a bunch more, and still had the lake to ourselves until about 10 AM.
We could not have been happier with our decision to camp overnight. Jesse’s wild notion wasn’t so wild after all. We knew after this hike that hiking through Patagonia was something we wanted to do. Insert a slight change in schedule, a slightly longer stay in South America, a few more purchases that we will need to make to camp for a month and half, and a new love of camping and hiking that we can’t wait to explore for the rest of our lives.
The Nitty Gritty: Altitude: 4,550 meters, or 14,927 feet
Total Time: 10 - 13 Hours (day hike)
2:30 – 3 hours bus ride each way
2 – 3 hours on the way up (It took us 4 but we carried camping gear for the night)
30 minutes – 1:30 hour at the lake (this is what most people in tours get depending on how fast you climb)
1:30 – 2 hours on the way down
Total Cost: 65 soles, or $20.15 per person (day hike)
35 soles, or $10.70 – avg. round trip tour bus cost (we took a bus back for 15 soles per person after negotiating with a driver that had 2 empty seats)
30 soles, or $9.45 – National Park entrance fee (this is a new increase)
Packing List:Gloves, pants with shorts under or zip offs, t-shirt with sweatshirt or rain jacket in case it rains, water, coca leaves, lunch and snacks, sunblock, chapstick
Other:Our “tour” we took on the way up to use the bus service stopped at a breakfast place, but the cost was not included. Check with your tour group or bring enough food for breakfast and lunch, plus plenty of water!