The Cordillera Blanca extends its icy chain of summits for 140 to 160km north of Huaraz. The highest range in the tropical world, the Cordillera consists of around 35 peaks poking their snowy heads over the 6000m mark, and until early this century, when the glaciers began to recede, this white crest could be seen from the Pacific. The Callejón de Huaylas is the valley that sits between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra mountain ranges. Under the western shadow of the Cordillera Blanca lie the northern valley Callejón towns, including Carhauz, Yungay and Caraz. Small and rustic, these towns generally boast attractive accommodation and busy little markets, and provide access to ten snow-free passes in the Cordillera Blanca; combining any two of these passes makes for a superb week’s trekking. Yungay and Caraz in particular are both popular bases for trekkers.
Of the many mountain lakes in the Cordillera Blanca, Lake Parón, above Caraz, is renowned as the most beautiful. Above Yungay, and against the sensational backdrop of Peru’s highest peak, Huascarán (6768m), are the equally magnificent Lagunas de Llanganuco, whose waters change colour according to the time of year and the sun’s daily movements, and are among the most accessible of the Cordillera Blanca’s three hundred or so glacial lakes.
The number of possible hikes into the Cordillera depends mostly on your own initiative and resourcefulness. There are several common routes, some of which are outlined below; anything more adventurous requires a local guide or a tour with one of the local operators. Maps of the area, published by the Instituto Geográfico Militar, are good enough to allow you to plot your own routes. The most popular hike is the Llanganuco-to-Santa Cruz Loop, which begins at Yungay and ends at Caraz.
The attractive town of CARAZ, less than 20km down the Santa Valley from Yungay, sits at an altitude of 2285m, well below the enormous Huandoy Glacier. Mainly visited for the access it gives to a fantastic hiking hinterland, it is also well known throughout Peru for its honey and milk products. Palm trees and flowers adorn a colonial-looking Plaza de Armas, which has survived well from the ravages of several major earthquakes. A small daily market (6.30am–noon), three blocks north of the plaza, is usually vibrant with activity, good for fresh food, colourful basketry, traditional gourd bowls, religious candles and hats.
Known traditionally as the Fuente de Juventud (Fountain of Youth), the Chancos thermal baths, 30km north of Huaraz, consist of a series of natural saunas inside caves, with great pools gushing hot water in a beautiful stream. It is claimed that the thermal waters are excellent for respiratory problems, but you don’t have to be ill to enjoy them, and they make an ideal end to a day’s strenuous trekking.
In 1932, when a German expedition became the first group to successfully scale Huascarán, the concept of Andinismo – Andean mountaineering – was born. You don’t have to be a mountaineer to enjoy the high Andes of Ancash, however, and there is plenty of scope for trekking and climbing in the two major mountain chains accessible from Huaraz as well; the closest is the Cordillera Blanca. The Cordillerra Huayhuash, about 50km south of that range, is still relatively off the beaten tourist trail and andinistas claim it to be one of the most spectacular trekking routes in the world. In order to hike in the Parque Nacional Huascarán, you need to get permission first from the park office (Parque Nacional Huascarán, Jr Federico Sal y Rosas 555) and the Casa de Guías in Huaraz; both can also provide maps and information.
If you intend to hike at all, it’s essential to spend at least a couple of days acclimatizing to the altitude beforehand; for high mountain climbing, this should be extended to at least five days. Although Huaraz itself is 3060m above sea level, most of the Cordilleras’ more impressive peaks are over 6000m.
One of the most popular trekking routes, the Llanganuco-to-Santa Cruz loop, is a well-trodden trail offering spectacular scenery, some fine places to camp and a relatively easy walk that can be done in under a week, even by inexperienced hikers. The Hualcayan-to-Pomabamba hike offers a much longer alternative and is equally rewarding. There are shorter walks, such as the trails around the Pitec Quebrada, within easy distance of Huaraz, and a number of other loops like the Llanganuco-to-Chancos trek. Experienced hikers could also tackle the circular Cordillera Huayhuash route. Detailed information on all these walks is available from the South American Explorers’ Club in Lima or, in Huaraz itself, from the Casa de Guías, the tourist office or tour companies.
To give a flavour of what you may expect from mountain climbing in the Cordillera Blanca, the expeditions below are some of the most popular among serious mountaineers. Remember to take a local guide if you do any of these; they’re listed in increasing order of difficulty.
One of the easier climbs, up to 5752m, this is a good way to cut your teeth in the Cordillera Blanca. Little more than a hard trek, really, with access via the Llanganuco Valley (3800m), with a duration of only three days. Rated easy to moderate.
A two-day climb reaching heights of around 5500m; access is via Collon to Quebrada de Ishinca and it takes only two days. Rated easy to moderate for the peaks Ishinca and Urus; or moderate to difficult if you tackle Tocllaraju (6034m).
A serious and quite technical mountain rising to 5947m, and requiring good acclimatization on an easier climb first. Access is from Cashapampa (accessible by bus from Caraz), and it usually takes around eight or nine days. Rated as difficult.
The south summit at 6768m is the classic route and really requires thorough acclimatization. Access is via Mancos (from where it’s an hour by bus to the village of Musho), and it normally demands a good week to tackle effectively. Rated, not surprisingly, as difficult.
Fifty-eight kilometres up the Callejón de Huaylas from Huaraz, and just past Mancos, YUNGAY was an attractive, traditional small town until it was obliterated in seconds on May 31, 1970, during a massive earthquake. This was not the first catastrophe to assault the so-called “Pearl of the Huaylas Corridor”; in 1872 it was almost completely wiped out by an avalanche, and on a fiesta day in 1962 another avalanche buried some five thousand people in the neighbouring village of Ranrahirca. The 1970 quake arrived in the midst of a festival and also caused a landslide, and although casualties proved impossible to calculate with any real accuracy, it’s thought that over 70,000 people died. Almost the entire population of Yungay, around 26,000, disappeared almost instantaneously, though a few of the town’s children survived because they were at a circus located just above the town, which fortunately escaped the landslide. Almost eighty percent of the buildings in neighbouring Huaraz and much of Carhuaz were also razed to the ground by the earthquake.
The new town, an uninviting conglomeration of modern buildings – including some ninety prefabricated cabins sent as relief aid from the former Soviet Union – has been built around a concrete Plaza de Armas a few kilometres from the original site. Yungay still cowers beneath the peak of Huascarán, but it is hoped that its new location is more sheltered from further dangers than its predecessor. The best reason for staying here is to make the trip up to Parque Nacional Huascarán and Las Lagunas de Llanganuco.
At 3850m above sea level, the Lagunas de Llanganuco are only 26km northeast of Yungay (83km from Huaraz), but take a good ninety minutes to reach by bus or truck, on a road that crawls up beside a canyon that is the result of thousands of years of Huascarán’s meltwater.
The first lake you come to after the park entrance is Chinan Cocha, named after a legendary princess. You can rent rowing boats by the car park here to venture onto the blue waters (80¢ for 15min), and, if you’re hungry, take a picnic from the food stalls at the lakeside nearby. The road continues around Chinan Cocha’s left bank and for a couple of kilometres on to the second lake, Orcon Cocha, named after a prince who fell in love with Chinan. The road ends here and a loop trail begins. A third, much smaller, lake was created between the two big ones, as a result of an avalanche caused by the 1970 earthquake, which also killed a group of hikers who were camped between the two lakes.