Peru is a unique gem of a country for vagabonding outdoor enthusiasts. There are waves to surf, canyons to explore and deserts to wander in. Ancient ruins offer hints of a rich history and neon-lit disco dance parties reveal the spice of the modern youth. But, perhaps more intriguing and awe inspiring than anything, is Peru’s Cordillera Blanca: a mountain range dominated by thirty-five 6,000-meter peaks, miles and miles of demanding Andean trekking and stunning views of glaciers lit with alpenglow. To court the Cordillera Blanca’s mountains is to expand the soul, and the journey begins in the town of Huaraz.
Huaraz is the capital city of this premiere Latin American adventure kingdom. While the city itself is not exactly pretty, it does have a great feel. It has character and grit and a certain texture that borders on charming, but with enough humility to not venture too deep into that overly chipper realm. It’s also the gateway to the mountains. Here you’ll meet travelers from all parts of the globe looking to ascend the surrounding peaks high up into the bright blue sky. When I was there years ago, it was not particularly beautiful to look at (though the panoramic views stand in for this fact just fine), and it also generally lacked comfort. Hostels that advertised “hot showers” actually offered liquid ice that daintily ran from faucets. Walls were cement blocks that didn’t provide much insulation. It’s a cold region, and as such you never really get warm, but the friendliness of the locals and inspiring surroundings make you want to stay there far longer than you ever intended to.
Several distinct, multi-day and lung-gasping hikes bring you into the heart of the Cordillera Blanca. Many hikers chose to hire porters to carry their gear, but you don’t have to if you prefer to lug your own pack and save a bit of cash. The more infamous treks include the Santa Cruz Trek, Olleros Chavin and Quilcayhuanca Cojup. You pass grand glaciers, shockingly clear alpine lakes, the base camp of Alpamayo and great expanses of rugged, high land. Anywhere you go in the Cordillera Blanca you’ll want to be wary of altitude sickness, as passes reach 15,000 high and they can be a real bitch to overcome even if you’re not prone to the soroche.
If you’ve ever seen the film “Touching the Void” then you are acquainted with the types of peaks the Cordillera Blanca houses. (Touching the Void took place just south, in the Cordillera Huayhuash.) If mountaineering is your thing, then this is where to come. Chopicalqui, Copa, Huascaran and Quitaraju all stretch up towards heaven at over 20,000 feet. The climbing is technical, demanding and some of the best there is on the planet.
After a while of being in this region, your body starts to wear down. Your muscles become extremely sore, the cold leaves you exhausted and perpetually chilled, the sheer hardness of the place leaves you wanting either a warm bath or a soft pillow to cradle your body for eternity. Luckily, the region is also home to 22 hot springs, many of which are accessible and are either free or exceedingly cheap to visit.
As Jonathan Brunger, the Operations Director of Adventure Life, says, “The Cordillera Blanca is truly a treasure of South America, and is a must see for mountain climbers, scientists, and wilderness lovers worldwide.” No truer words…
By Bryan Schatz