Hiking in the Cordillera Blanca

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Sunday, August 22, 2004

Stunningly spectacular! Incredibly beautiful! This has been a week of superlatives, but it is almost impossible to capture in words the awesome magnificence of the snow-capped peaks along the Callejón de Huaylas in the Huaraz area of central Perú. As we made our way through the valleys and passes, every turn in the road, or twist on the hiking trail, would inevitably result in another chorus of oohhs and aahhhs!

The Cordillera Blanca is only a small part of the Andean mountain range that runs the full length of Perú, but in less than 200 km there are over 50 peaks of more than 17,500 ft altitude. In comparison, North America has only three mountains in this league (including Mt. Logan in Canada and Mt. Denali in the U.S) and Europe has none. The jewel in the crown is the twin peaked Mt. Huascarán - at 20,845 ft the highest mountain in Perú, and the highest anywhere in the tropics. There is also Alpamayo - considered by many experienced climbers to be the most beautiful mountain in the world - as well as the almost perfect pyramid of Artesonraju, and the jagged peaks of Huandoy. Besides the snowy peaks, other natural attractions of the area include the startlingly clear aquamarine glacial lakes, the rocky high-walled narrow mountain passes known as quebradas, the bubbling hot springs, and fascinating flora and fauna.

However, all this natural beauty has come with a price. The area is still geologically active as the Nazca tectonic plate continues to push eastward against the South American continent, and there have been many devastating tragedies in the last century. In 1941 an avalanche and resulting flood above Huaraz destroyed half the city and killed about 5,000 inhabitants. Another huge avalanche in 1962 completely destroyed the small town of Ranrahirca, killing about 4,000 people. The worst disaster occurred in May, 1970, when a massive earthquake (measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale) affected a large area of central Perú, killing over 70,000 people. Almost ninety per cent of Huaraz was destroyed again and half the population lost their lives. The earthquake also dislodged an enormous block of ice from the north peak of Huascarán, producing a flood of mud and rocks which completely buried the town of Yungay in a matter of minutes, with very few survivors. Since then a lot of work has been done to control water levels in the lakes and stabilize avalanche-prone areas, in an effort to minimize the chance of similar catastrophes in future. The towns and cities have been rebuilt, and the area is now a thriving tourist centre for mountaineering, rock climbing and trekking.

Our first stop was in the small town of Caraz at the northern end of the valley, and from there we drove up a torturous road through the narrow pass with 3,000 ft sheer rock walls on either side, to the Laguna Parón area for a few days of hiking. To camp beside the crystal clear aquamarine lake at an altitude close to 13,000 ft and trek in the shadows of the surrounding towering snowy peaks - Huandoy, Pisco, Chacraraju, Pirámide, Artesonraju and Caraz - was to be totally humbled by the powerful forces and natural beauty. We hardly met half a dozen other people each day, and at night we could enjoy the total quiet and the amazingly clear, star-studded, skies. We then moved on to the next valley, with Laguna Llanganuco nestled below the towering bulk of Mt. Huascarán. This time, however, the clouds stubbornly refused to clear and drizzly rain persisted through the night and most of the following day. Finally, somewhat damp and discouraged, we decided that it was time to make our way down to the valley again.

As we wound our down through the quebrada into the agricultural foothills, the sun finally broke through and the clouds started to disperse - as usual, every cloud has a silver lining! We stopped at the small farming village of Huashao and were graciously allowed to camp on the community soccer pitch for the night. The views of Huascarán and Huandoy catching the warm rays of the setting sun made up for the previous day's disappointment. We found that we were the centre of attraction in a village that has few foreign visitors, and the local kids were totally fascinated with our 'home on wheels'. One thing they couldn't quite understand, though - where was our television?! That evening we were treated to the local delicacy "picante del cuy" - grilled guinea pig with a spicy sauce and loads of locally grown potatoes. The next day we visited some of the impressive high-value crop production fields - carnations, freesias, yellow yarrow and gypsophila for the cut flower export market - before heading on down to explore a few more valley towns, and then spend a few days in Huaraz.
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