“The mountainous region of the Cordillera Blanca is where superlatives crash and burn in a brave attempt to capture the beauty of the place,” so goes the introduction to this region in my Lonely Planet guidebook.
Huaraz was never on my radar before I came to Peru, but boy am I glad I went there. What Lima lacks in weather and beauty, Huaraz and the surrounding Cordilleras Blancas make up for a hundred times over. The highest tropical mountain range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca resembles the Himalayas and somewhat dwarfs even the highest mountains in the Rockies. In places like Colorado, the highest mountains aren’t much above 14,000 feet, which is quite high. However, in the area around Huaraz, there are towns higher than that. From my room in the Morales Guesthouse (highly recommended by the way), I had an unobstructed view of the highest mountain in Peru at well over 22,000 feet!
The magnitude of, well, everything in the region is simply indescribable and immensely beautiful. Oh, and did I mention they have not just one, but two microbreweries? The Huaracina Pale Ale was quite refreshing after mountain hikes and a nice change over the Pilsen Callao and Cusqueña in Lima and the rest of Peru.
The mountain range provides for quite simply the best hiking I’ve had the chance to experience. While I didn’t have the time (or gear) for the 4-day Santa Cruz trek or the world class 11-day Huayhuash Circuit, even the day hikes and short excursions were beyond spectacular. One day I visited the ruins at Chavin de Huantar, something like 3000 years old. Though the guided tour was only en Español, I enjoyed getting to see the gorgeous landscape and marvel at the remains of this ancient civilization that is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Another harrowing bus ride, going twice the speed limit, on a dirt “road,” on the side of a 1000 foot cliff, at night, well you get the idea, brought me to the base of a short hike up to the Pastoruri Glacier. I’d seen glaciers before, but never had I been so high up in the mountains, around 16,500 feet. Really, everything is just huge here. There are relatives of the pineapple plant that grow well above 30 feet tall when they bloom and have tens of thousands of flowers.
While those trips were astounding, the hikes weren’t much more than short walks from the bus and therefore a bit crowded. Though I was absolutely not prepared for any serious mountain hiking (seriously, I wore tennis shoes and had a laptop bag to carry gear in…), I couldn’t leave Huaraz without attempting one of the famous day hikes in the area. Local recommendations steered me to Lake 69, by far one of the crowning moments of my entire time in South America. Only a 7.5 mile hike round trip, it’s the altitude that makes this one tough, especially if you’re not completely acclimated. The lake is at just about 15,000 feet above sea level and the air quite thin at the top. Towards the top of the hike, the weather started to turn a bit cloudy and windy, but we got there just in time to see some spectacular mountain vistas. Absolutely worth all the huffing and puffing on the way up.
So you probably get the idea from the pictures (which of course don’t do it justice, but when do they ever?). If you’re up for some high elevation hiking and don’t want to fly all the way to Nepal, Huaraz and the Cordilleras Blancas won’t disappoint. Though I still had 2 weeks of travel left in Peru at this point, Huaraz would end up being in my top 2 or 3 places I visited. Of course, Machu Picchu ended up taking the crown, but more on that later.