Hiking the mountains of Peru
By Peter Sacco
Sun turned to clouds, clouds gave way to rainy dusk, and snow was quick to follow. In the span of fewer than two hours, I went from comfortably warm to freezing. What changed? The sun went down.
For all of its majestic summits, stunning glaciers, and alluring mountain lagoons, the Cordillera Blanca, located in the central Ancash region of Peru, poses one of South America’s most hostile environments.
Adventurers should take time to adjust to the altitude and become familiar with trekking options in Huaraz before hitting the trail.
At extreme elevations between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, weather in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca can change on a dime. The best time to climb here is between April and September, during the Andean Summer months and dry season.
Climbing during the wet season can be treacherous with frequent and unpredictable storms. Many of the more popular trekking routes, including the Santa Cruz trail and the Huayhuash trail, become unsurpassable out of season.
By the time my guide Ajacopa and I ate dinner, the temperature had dropped more than 30 degrees from its mid-day high. Just two hours before, I was hiking in shorts and a t-shirt. Now I layered the remainder of the meager clothing I had packed. I suddenly understood why the glacier at the end of the valley, only a few hundred yards down the trail, did not melt away.
The air was thin, the valley desolate, and the surrounding mountains glistened in the mid-day sun. Great craggy peaks blanketed in snow and ice, commanded an aura of reverence that seemed to hang heavy in the valley. The canyon walls were sheer rock, peppered with cascading waterfalls, rising hundreds of feet before they gave way to a clear blue sky. Mist lingered where plummeting water met the rough canyon floor.
I arrived amidst the summits of the Cordillera Blanca after spending a tranquil two weeks in the languid Amazon basin. Having braved a midnight collectivo that careened through the mountain roads with seemingly no regard for safety, I found myself deposited in the high-strung rooftop city of Huaraz.
Collectivos are one of several popular transportation options in a country that almost solely relies on public transportation. They are privately owned cars or vans that depart from their destination once all of their seats have been filled.
Most transportation in the rural areas of Peru is sporadic at best, my collectivo left for Huaraz at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m.
Additionally, all facets of public transportation in Peru are notoriously dangerous, and you should try to avoid traveling at night under any circumstance. Other options to consider are taxis, buses and motocarros. Unfortunately, in the mountainous regions of Peru, Busses are scarce and tend to run solely to major cities such as Lima.
Acclimatize in Huaraz
Having weathered a string of natural disasters, Huaraz itself isn’t much to look at. The vast majority of buildings here are concrete and brick and have a lopsided appearance, likely a result of the frequent Andean earthquakes.
However, the vibrant people that live in and come to visit this lofty city more than compensate for its dismal construction. The capital of the Andean adventure kingdom, Huaraz boasts dozens of friendly hostels, lively bars, and adventure outfitters galore. Fittingly, it is from this city that most trekkers ascend into the CB.
A small city nestled in a valley between the brownish Cordillera Negra and the far more jaw-dropping Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz is teeming with adventurers of all types. Ice climbers, rock climbers, extreme skiers, mountain bikers and trekkers all flock here in droves during the high season.
Luckily, Huaraz is up to the challenge of feeding, watering, and accommodating the scores of international adrenaline junkies.
Here, you can arrange a trek into the surrounding mountains at your choice of a multitude of adventure outfitters. Most will provide food, equipment, and a guide. The scores of lively bars around the Plaza De Armas have a distinctly international taste, as many are owned and operated by foreigners.
Hostels in Huaraz are a dime a dozen, though prices do rise slightly during the high season. Most Hostels are fitted for backpackers and offer a kitchen, bunk beds, and the Internet. Choose wisely and you may get to enjoy the added luxury of hot showers.
The cardinal rule of altitude climbing is acclimation; hiking at altitudes over 8,000 feet before giving the body time to adjust to lower oxygen levels can be dizzying, nauseating, and downright dangerous. At 10,000 feet, Huaraz is a good place to fortify yourself for a trek that will likely extend into the 15,000-foot range.
Go With A Guide!
“Para fish,” Ajacopa said, tossing a banana peel into a nearby stream. I looked towards the creek and smiled. This sort of conversation was the backbone of our communication, a combination of mispronounced Spanish on my part, and broken English on his.
I shouldered my pack, which weighed a third of Ajacopa’s, and waited while he packed the remainder of our peanut butter and jelly lunch. Although apparently size deficient, Ajacopa was possessed of uncanny strength and endurance. He carried nearly all of our supplies, leaving me with only clothes and my sleeping bag.
Trying to follow the various trails that weave through the hills and valleys of the Cordillera Blanca is the equivalent to trying to find an honest taxi driver in Lima. The Peruvian countryside is seemingly crisscrossed with an endless number of cow paths, and how Ajacopa knew which ones to follow is something I will never understand.
Local guides are in high demand, so their fees are increasing. But they are a necessity for first-time trekkers. My 3-day trek with Ajacopa cost me 350 soles, roughly $150, and included transportation to and from Huaraz and three meals a day of my choice.
Trip duration and the number of people trekking generally determine the cost of a guide. Bring friends, and the cost-per-person will go down. Although Ajacopa and I were alone on the trail, and the cost was a little higher, it was well worth it.
Ajacopa carried nearly all of our supplies, cooked our meals, set up camp, and most importantly led the way. He took me on detours, some extremely difficult, past sparkling turquoise lagoons and rushing waterfalls.
When we made camp, Ajacopa brewed cocoa-leaf tea, alleviating some of my altitude sickness. By the time the sun began to set behind the canyon walls, I was more than ready for bed.
Trek, Trek, Trek!
Trekking in the Andes may go down as one of the riskiest things I have ever done, especially without the proper equipment and time to acclimate. However, it also classifies as one of my most rewarding accomplishments. Completing a trek in the second-highest mountain range in the world is a worthy something of which you can be proud.
If you get a guide, give yourself time to adjust to the altitude in Huaraz, and prepare properly for the climb, you will emerge with both a priceless experience and a new appreciation for the natural world. The time I spent with Ajacopa and the mutual respect we found for each other, despite the language barrier, will surely stick with me forever.
The people who live in and around Huaraz are one of a kind, and you should take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Catholic roots coupled with the majestic countryside and a tragic past has led to a hearty but deeply spiritual culture. The people who call this harsh region home have not always coexisted peacefully with the mountains.
Between 1941 and 2011, Huaraz endured three major natural disasters, resulting in the deaths of over 20,000 people. Don’t be surprised when your taxi driver crosses himself as you rumble past the numerous churches. Here, people live on the ragged edge of civilization and have for thousands of years.
Many still wear their indigenous attire; brightly colored skirts, and top hats decorated with feathers. Unfortunately, many are also deeply impoverished.
Hiring a local guide is a good way to inject money into the local economy. Don’t be dissuaded by elevated guide costs, your local guide almost certainly needs your money more than you do.
Trek in the Cordillera Blanca and immerse yourself in the high-strung world of Andean sports, you are certain to emerge with an experience you will treasure forever.
Peter Sacco is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD. Now he lives in South America.