Lack of information agencies Huaraz could be putting lives at risk

Huaraz is surrounded by world-renowned opportunities for trekking, mountain climbing and other outdoor activities. Deciding what you would like to do and comparing offers can be a challenge, with the abundance of zealous salesmen, guidebook advice and websites and so on. For tourists, it’s important to thoroughly evaluate an agency before making a commitment. Going out into the mountains is a considerably risky endeavor that should not be taken lightly. We wanted to see exactly how forthright agencies are with potential clients. For example, what information is initially given? Would all agencies in Huaraz be honest about trekking conditions and necessary skill level?

According to Marco Carrera Torres, head of the Rescue Unit High Mountain National Police, between 2010 and July 2011, 27 foreigners were killed, and 21 were injured after practicing adventure sports in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca. These worrying figures were published by Peru21 on the 12th of July 2011. Carrera Torres also stated in the same document that annually between June and September, the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca are visited by approximately eight thousand tourists, mostly Europeans and Americans, some of whom risk their lives to climb mountains without taking appropriate safety measures. Carrera said to RPP-noticias: “Many show no evidence of being professional mountaineers. They risk the snowy areas without a guide and, even when they have an instructor, they sometimes recklessly flee.” Carrera also mentioned that foreign participants do not take into account the climate, geography and the heights of the Cordillera Blanca. The statistics also report missing adventurers. In 1999 three climbers were lost: two foreigners and one Peruvian, their bodies have not yet been found.

According to a survey done by IKAR-CISA (1998–2002), 1.5% of all mountain accidents happen because of equipment failure and 20% of accidents are caused by the sudden climate changes in the mountains. A shocking 79% of calamities are down to human error such as miscommunication between adventurer and guide, recklessness, and acts of stupidity. Last year in August, Ted Alexander of guiding company Skyline Adventures, coordinated the retrieval of the remains of fellow countrymen Ben Horne and Gil Weiss. The bodies of the two Americans, still roped together, were discovered below Palcaraju West, a remote 6,096 metre summit in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca range. They were thought to have been descending after pioneering a new ascent. In an edition of The Global Post Alexander said: “I have seen plenty of what I would call grossly inept guides, people I wouldn’t let walk my dog, never mind take me up a mountain. I am always surprised by how few accidents there are.” The mountains in the Cordillera area are only a two-hour drive from Huaraz; compared to other mountains in the world they are relatively easily accessible.

As you might understand, climbing a mountain is not without its risks and proper preparation is essential. The Huaraz Telegraph set up a small survey to find out the level of professionalism in Huaraz. Rather than focusing on price, we were interested in the information in general like weather conditions, and necessary skill level. The Huaraz Telegraph randomly selected 14 tour companies active in Huaraz. To qualify for our survey, each needed to have an office in town and active internet website. Our research was initially done by email, but unfortunately even though all the selected agencies have a website, not all were able to answer our emails. And why should they? Nowadays nobody uses the internet! We presented ourselves as a Polish-American couple with plans to visit Huaraz just before the end of April with a four-day itinerary, including a hike towards Laguna 69, and the climb of Pisco Mountain. We asked the same seven questions to each agency.

  1. How much would the agency charge for this adventure? 
  2. Exactly what does the tour agency include in their price – for example, insurance or emergency transport in the case of accidents? 
  3. What equipment or other requirements are not included in the price, and what do we need to provide?
  4. How difficult will it be; what is the required skill level as described by the agency? 
  5. Although very hard to predict in the Andes, what are the expected weather conditions? 
  6. Are guides officially certified or otherwise professionally trained?
  7. Do guides speak English?

Our investigation revealed considerable price differences between companies. But perhaps more importantly, answers varied significantly in response to crucial questions such as equipment, skill requirements and weather conditions. Aside from these inconsistencies, there were agencies who neglected to answer some questions. Whether by intention or just being careless or unprofessional, this raises the question: is there something these agencies are not willing to share, or even worse, they themselves are ignorant of?

The agencies we contacted gave prices ranging from USD350 per person, to USD705 per person. Peruvian Andes Adventures, while the most expensive agency at USD705 per person, was also the only one to specify that neither climbing equipment nor emergency transport back to Huaraz was included in their price. Such considerations may be particularly important for those interested in higher-risk activities such as climbing. The second most expensive offer was provided by Huascaran Travel, who charges USD620 per person. This price includes climbing equipment, and is also said to include (alcoholic) Pisco Sour drinks when returning home safely, plus souvenirs of unknown quality. In general it became clear that very few agencies were able to or interested in providing the requested information. Something The Huaraz Telegraph finds very concerning.

While price is naturally an important consideration for most tourists, it is perhaps even more important that the agency accurately and honestly describes the skill level required for their tours, hikes or adventures. We uncovered some potentially very serious discrepancies. For instance, Peruvian Andes Adventures grades Pisco Mountain as difficult/demanding, whilst in stark contrast Huascaran Travel writes that it is an easy climb and does not require previous experience. While we have no personal experience with this particular climb, various guides and other sources asserted that it is by no means an easy climb.

With tourists from all over the world visiting the Huaraz region, another important factor is of course which languages the guide speaks. All but one of the agencies claimed to have English speaking guides, but in a town where fluent English speakers are few and far between it is uncertain to what extent these claims are credible. Enrique Tours credibly described their guides as speaking basic English; an answer The Huaraz Telegraph considers as honest and trustworthy. Maybe this is the answer that could apply to all, but as mentioned all the other agencies state that their guides speak (fluent) English. Who are we to not believe them? Lalo Travel, Peaks Peru, and Explorandes Peru are three other agencies that we attempted to contact various times by phone and email but were never able to reach. Lalo Travel is an agency that mainly relies on the sales of conventional tours such as Chavín de Huántar and the Llanganuco Lakes. On their website we noticed that they do offer hiking, climbing and mountain biking and even canyoning which makes us question if they are even aware of this being on their website. Peaks Peru, if we believe their website, is an outdoor and travel agency based in Huaraz which offers adventure travels, trekking, mountaineering, cultural tours, climbing courses, logistical supply for expeditions in the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash, as well as in Machu Picchu – Cusco. They have certified trekking and mountain guides who are members of UIAGM – IFMGA, are a well-trained multidisciplinary team, with good mountaineering equipment and their director Jose Chacon has 26 years of experience as a mountain guide leading and managing trekking, climbing and mountaineering tours in the Cordilleras. Maybe their director was outdoors when we tried to contact them!

Most concerning is the logo on the Prom Peru website. Prom Peru (Commission for the Promotion of Peru for Export and Tourism) is a governmental arm of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism. Do they support this agency? Explorandes, nominated as winner of the World Tourism Awards as World´s Leading Green Tour Operator, operates their own programs in Cuzco, Huaraz, Lima and Puno, but were apparently not interested in organising a small trip for a couple from Poland. Casa de Guias, often mistakenly represented as a non-profit organisation, offered thorough answers to most of our questions, and gave the impression of having knowledgeable and friendly staff. They also stood out as the only agency to include medical insurance in their trekking package. On the other hand, opening hours at the Casa De Guias are erratic, and it took numerous unanswered emails and visits to their office before we eventually got in touch with a representative. Casa de Guias is, however, the only institute allowed to train aspiring guides at their own training establishment.

When planning your treks, it’s important to understand guide certification. The two most commonly heard acronyms are UIAGM, and AGMP. What do these abbreviations stand for? UIAGM stands for Unión Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagnes; it’s French for the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations. This means that guides at agencies that claim this title have allegedly been through an intensive three year course, certifying them as competent on an international level. AGMP is the Association of Mountain Guides of Peru. Guides with this certification are licensed to work as guides in the country of Peru. You may also come across AGMP-RA, which means guides are specialised in the region of Ancash in the Cordilleras. Often not taken into consideration is the fact that most peaks of the Cordillera Blanca lie within the National Park Huascarán, and thus require a park entrance fee of 65 soles. JM Expeditions was the only agency that actually includes the 65 soles entrance fee of the National Park Huascarán within their price of USD 425.

Now let us have a more detailed look at the feedback we got from those 14 randomly selected agencies that operate in Huaraz.

(A) Casa de Guias
Cost per person (USD): 350
Included: transportation to and from trekking circuits, food, medical insurance, camping and climbing equipment
Not included: 65 soles park entrance fee
Difficulty: Hard to determine. First day is relatively easy, the 2nd and 3rd day are longer
Weather: can be cloudy and rainy in the afternoon, the rainy season is almost over
English spoken
Certification: UIAGM

(B) Galaxia Expeditions
Cost per person (USD): 400
Included: Meals, camping equipment, campsite guard, private Huaraz-to-hotel transportation
Not included: 65 soles park entrance fee
Difficulty: Relatively easy, no experience needed
Weather: Unstable
English spoken
Certification: UIAGM

(C) JM Expeditions
Cost per person (USD): 425
Included: Climbing equipment, all meals during treks and climbs, private transportation to and from trekking circuits, two-person tents, porter for food and gear, 65 soles park entrance fee
Not included: Outerwear, personal medication, alcoholic/soft drinks
Difficulty: not specified
Weather: Plenty of rain
English spoken
Certification: UIAGM

(D) Monttrek
Cost per person (USD): 410
Included: Transportation, food, climbing equipment, camping equipment
Not included: 65 soles park entrance fee, breakfast on the first day, dinner on the last night
Difficulty: a bit difficult
Weather: Perfect for climbing Pisco
English spoken
Certification: not specified

(E) Enrique Expeditions
Cost per person (USD): 450
Included: Pickup at Huaraz bus terminal transportation to hotel, technical climbing gear, kitchen supplies, pack animals and porters, cook, all meals during the expedition
Not included: Transportation to/from Lima, 65 soles park entrance fee, meals while in Huaraz
Difficulty: Moderate – difficult
Weather: 12–23◦C day, -4 – 6◦C night
Basic, functional English spoken
Certification: AGMP, UIAGM

(F) Huascaran Travel
Cost per person (USD): 620
Included: Transportation to/from Huaraz bus station, day hike for acclimatisation around Huaraz, cook, all meals and snacks during expedition, hot wine on the last night, hot water for washing, first aid kit, donkeys, muleteers, camping equipment, all kitchen supplies, Pisco Sour and souvenirs, climbing equipment
Not included: 65 soles park entrance fee, sleeping bag, breakfast the first day, dinner the last night
Difficulty: easy. No previous experience necessary
Weather: Normally good. Good for climbing Pisco
English spoken
Certification: not specified

Below are the results of Andes Camp. This is an example of the lack of information provided. How can this agency give us a price for the hike while not explaining what we can expect? They unmistakably do not take their job or potential clients seriously.
(G) Andes Camp
Cost per person (USD): 364
Included: not specified
Not included: not specified
Difficulty level: intermediate
Weather: good for climbing Pisco
English spoken
Certification: Casa de Guias

(H) Peruvian Andes Adventures
Cost per person (USD): 705
Included: Cook, experienced climbing porters, donkeys, meals during trek, base camp set up, personal tents, sleeping mats, first aid kit, information pack, all cooking equipment, private trek transport in a well maintenance vehicle
Not included: Hotels, meals and drinks in the city, sleeping bags, extra acclimatisation walks, return to Huaraz if departing the climb early, extra hotel nights, climbing equipment (apart from group rope, snow stakes, ice screws), 65 soles park entrance fee
Difficulty level: difficult/demanding
Weather: Generally good; unstable
English spoken
Certification: UIAGM

(I) Andean Sky Expeditions
Cost per person (USD): 350
Included: Transportation to and from treks, food, climbing gear, camping gear
Not included: Breakfast the first day, dinner the last night, 65 soles park entrance fee
Difficulty: Not specified
Weather: Good, still a bit rainy
English spoken
Certification: Casa de Guias

(J) Edward’s Adventures
Cost per person (USD): Not specified
Included and not included: Not specified
Difficulty level: Not specified
Weather: Good, better towards the end of April
English spoken
Certification: Casa de Guias

(K) Pablo Tours
Despite numerous attempts to contact this agency we were unable to acquire any information. After two email attempts, we called and spoke to an employee who assured us he would correspond via email the following day. We have yet to hear back.

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