Huaraz, Peru and the Cordillera Blanca Mountain Range

On a trip of this length it’s very easy to make plans only to break them later due to a variety of reasons, including anything from loving a place and wanting to stay longer or even sometimes hating a place and wanting to move on as soon as possible. So we decided early on that our plan was not to have a plan, but instead to choose countries or sections of a continent to visit and figure out the specifics as we traveled. One of the ways we decide where to go is by talking to other travelers. They’ve either done better research than we have or have already been to a place and can give you the thumbs up or down. That’s exactly how we decided to visit Huaraz, Peru. We came across more than a couple travelers that told us Huaraz, and more specifically the mountains surrounding it, were a must see.

Huaraz is considered a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Near the city are the mountain ranges of the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra. These ranges have some of the highest mountains in the Andes, treks that rank in the top 5 or so in the Andes (maybe even the world), great rock climbing and ice climbing, mountain biking, and a myriad of other activities offered by the many guide agencies in town. So it’s easy to see why we were attracted to this area. An interesting little fact about the Cordillera Blanca mountains is that it’s home to the mountain featured in the movie Touching the Void, which is a true story about a climber that had to crawl down much a mountain with a broken leg after his partner cut their climbing rope and left him behind. You’ll have to watch the movie to get the full story.

So, without much planned we made our way to Huaraz. Unfortunately, during our day layover between Chachapoyas and Huaraz, in the beach town of Huanchaco, Sarah picked up a not so friendly bacteria from a plate of ceviche—a dish consisting of fish cooked only by the acidity of a lime. So the first few days in Huaraz were spent resting and recovering. The downside to that time was that cabin fever started to set in for me, but the upside was that our Canadian friends, Jon and Ariane, made their way to Huaraz, allowing us to hang out with them once again.

Our original plan was to do a well known trek called the “Huayhuash” trek. It ranges from 8-14 days in length, depending on the route you take and how much you’re willing to pay a guide agency. After asking around we found out that we missed the best season to do the Huayhuash trek. It was now the rainy season and that section of the Cordillera Blanca range is especially susceptible to the seasonal rain due to it’s location. Other sections, and consequently other treks, are better protected from the rain and were therefore a better option. One of the most popular treks is the Santa Cruz trek, 4 days and 3 nights in length. We opted for this trek due to the amount of time we’d already spent in Huaraz, the lower cost, the need for less technical gear, and the fact that Jon and Ariane were up for doing this trek as well.

We spent a couple more days acclimating to the higher elevation and taking in all that was the city of Huaraz. And due to nationwide teacher protests in Peru our trek was delayed one more day. The jury is out on whether the trek was really delayed as a result of the protests. We found out that our guide agency wasn’t completely honest with us on a few accounts. This seems to be a common practice in Huaraz, likely due to the low profit margins and abundance of guide agencies competing for clients. Sarah and I made the best of the added day and took a guided rock climbing trip.

Below our many photos from out time there.

Photos in and around Huaraz:

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Most of the corn we’ve seen so far has massive corn kernels. It’s corn on steroids. Really it’s just a different type of corn we don’t see in the states.

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We seen many only model U.S. cars through South America. Here’s and old Dodge pickup that was parked near our hostel.

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This was an especially exciting day in Huaraz. While walking through town we stumbled upon a clash between police and the protesters. Minutes before this photo was taken rocks were being thrown and the police and they in return were chasing down the people throwing the rocks. We had to run with the crowd in order to avoid being run over. Kind of scary and thrilling at the same time. For the most part, though, the protests we witnessed all over Peru were peaceful.

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We saw women, and sometimes men, all over Peru dressed in traditional clothing. This photo was taken in the Huaraz market. The hats these women wear are really cool.

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Also at the market we saw Cuyes (Guinea Pigs). They’re eaten all over Peru. We’ve yet to sample any.

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One of the cool things about countries like Peru is that you still see lots of things being fixed, as opposed to in the the U.S. where you simply buy a new version of whatever it is that broke. This is our friend Jon having his battery replaced. The watch failed to work a few days later though.

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While in Huaraz we crossed paths with Erin and Zach, the couple from Seattle that we met at the farm in Ecuador. They are volunteering at an after school program in Huaraz for 3 months. They’re new group of friends introduced us to a local drink called Chuchuguasi, an alcoholic drink with supposed medicinal properties. It was cheap, costing around 40 cents, and strong.

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Me trying on an awesome hat/scarf combo at the artisan’s market.

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You see this hat worn around Peru by some of the men. It’s a wool felt cone.

Climbing near Huaraz:

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On our way to the climbing wall with our guide

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Sarah and I hadn’t climbed for a while and so we opted to have our guide lead the first route. Feel comfortable after the first climb, I led the next two. It felt really good to climb.

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Sarah climbing the first route of the day. Unfortunately, the guide service picked routes that were a little hard. Nonetheless it was still a good time.

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This had good pockets for hand holds but had a slight angle that made it challenging. Plus we were both out of climbing shape.

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The wall was on the outskirts of town in a small neighborhood. This was the view from the neighborhood.

Santa Cruz Trek:

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This is the view looking south (I think) on the second day of the Santa Cruz trek. We had just reached the highest point of the trek.

Day one of the trek started with a 5 hour colectivo ride from Huaraz to the trail head near a small town high in the mountains. We’ve ridden buses through a large portion of the Andes Mountains and I’m still fascinated by the farming that I see in this environment. All of the planting and harvesting is done by hand and cows are used for tilling. Some of the farms are located on very steep hillsides. There are usually grazing sheep scattered about as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t capture any photos along the way so you’ll have to use your imagination. We did manage to capture a couple photos had the highest point of the drive.

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The drive to the starting point of the trek was very dust, hence the face mask.

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This view from the road got us really excited about the trek ahead.

After a long drive we finally arrived at the start of the trek in the Huascaran National Park. The last half of the day we hiked approximately 9 km to the first campsite. Even though we’d been in Huaraz for about a week at that point, we still found it difficult to catch our breath at the slightly higher elevations. I found myself having to catch my breath even when sitting. After the first day that wasn’t a problem.

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Huascaran National Park encompasses the Santa Cruz trek. It’s also the name of the highest peak in the park.

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Our guide and donkey driver preparing the gear on the first day.

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These guys did all of the work.

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The first leg of the trek took us through some small farming communities. Here are some of the folks and their sheep that live near the park.

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Very curios donkeys we encountered on the first day. He seemed so proud perched on his rock.

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It turns out that the donkey’s were very friendly, especially when they knew you had food. This guide stole a banana out of Angelic’s pack.

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As we hiked in the views got better and better. In the foreground is pasture land and you can see the glacier covered peaks in the distance.

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The first night’s campsite at 12,700 feet.

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Soaking up the sun and taking a nap after the first hike.

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Out little tent city.

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The outhouse was in rough shape inside and out.

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First course of the first night’s dinner, soup with a hard boiled egg. The dinners were delicious throughout the trek.

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Second course of rice, potatoes and chicken.

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Me sipping on some coca leaf tea to help with the altitude induced headache I had. This stuff really works. Also sporting my new wool Peruvian cap.

We woke early on the second day to get a jump on the longest day of the trek, at 18 km. The whole crew performed pretty well but I’m proud to say that Sarah and I seemed to be in the best shape of the bunch. It helps that we hand donkeys carrying nearly all of of the gear and the fact that we were sucking on coca leaves the entire time. This day saw the highest point of the trek at 4,750 meters. That’s the highest Sarah and I have ever been. It was very rewarding to reach the top, especially given that the good weather allowed for spectacular views. Over the next two days the weather degraded, so we were lucky to have good weather on the leg of the trek that offered the best views.

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The first day’s breakfast was the best, only because it included avocado. Every day after was only eggs, bread and jam.

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After much thought I decided that this was the best setup for hiking. Being so chilly at those elevations I opted to tuck in the pants to trap the heat. My sandals had more robust soles than my shoes so I went with them. It turned out to be a very good setup.

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The views just got better and better.

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Our guide, Juan, soaking it up. It being all of the goodness of the outdoors.

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We saw a lot of elevation change this day, so coca leaves were a must. Jon and Ariane fueling up.

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Sarah’s first time doing coca leaves.

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Green teeth are a clear sign of coca use.

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And more great views.

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According to our guide, this poor donkey was carrying too much weight, causing him to tip over.

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The stairs right before the summit.

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Punta Union was the highest point of our trek, at 15,580 feet. This is the highest Sarah and I had ever been. It was awesome.

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Posing with the crew at the summit. In order from left to right we have Jon, Ariane (French Canadians), Sarah, Dave, Angelic (England) and Do Ho (South Korea).

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The valley on the other side of Punta Union. Even more great views ahead.

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Happy to be going down hill.

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Sarah near the bottom of the second day’s hike.

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We saw lots of cows and horses grazing throughout the hike. Evidently some our wild and some our owned by people. I don’t know how they track them down. They’re miles and a day or more hike into some parts of the park.

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The second night’s campsite was just around the bend. This was the highest elevation we slept at. It was a little chilly.

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Jon almost to the campsite.

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River near our campsite.

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We arrived to a group of horses running through an open field. It was really cool to see the horses interact. They grazed near our campsite for the evening.

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Our asses taking a well deserved break.

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Awesome sunset of the first night.

The third day was a bit shorter than the previous day, coming in at round 12km. Most of the hike was down hill and flat, which was a welcome change from almost entirely uphill the day before. Our guide informed us that in February of this year a lake broke loose creating a landslide that traveled several miles down the valley we were hiking that day and deposited material in some areas up to 7 meters deep. It turned what used to be a lush, green valley floor, into a brown, dry, rock covered desert. We saw clear evidence of the extreme changes made to the environment by the landslide near our campsite and along much of the hike that day. Luckily no hikers were in the area at the time. Sadly, many horses, cows and donkeys were killed.

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We woke the next morning to snow on the ground.

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The valley we hiked through on the third day. All of the land in the foreground and the light brown section at the bottom of the valley is all of the debris carried by the land slide that occurred in February.

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More land slide damage.

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Our donkey’s hard at work again.

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This is better view of the debris deposited by the land slide on the valley floor.

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The glacier melt in some areas was crystal clear. I was almost tempted to drink it.

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There were rock walls like this throughout the park. Before being designated a park, people farmed and raised livestock. These walls are very similar to those scattered all over New England.

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We came across quite a few bones.

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Getting a little closer to the third campsite.

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The plants changed as we descended. It became more and more desert like, with sand and some cacti appearing. This view reminds me of Yosemite a bit.

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Someone propped this skull up on the trail. Kind of ominous.

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Sarah and Juan.

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The river at this point was really flowing.

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The last campsite.

With the poor weather and swarms of biting insects at our campsite, everyone was in a hurry to get back to civilization. The last leg of the trek went by pretty quickly, only taking about 2 hours to finish. The trail followed the river that we had been following since the end of the second day. It was really cool to see the river grow to become larger and faster as we moved down stream. Much of the river is fed by glacier melt-water, and over the last two days of the trek, rain water. We ended the trek at the point that most tour companies start the trek. I’m not sure why we went the opposite way. Maybe to do more downhill than up.

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At the end of the hike. This is usually where most people start the hike.

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This little guy greeted us at the end.

This section of the Andes is amazing and by far my favorite of what we’ve experienced thus far. We hope to return to the Cordillera Blanca region in the future to do follow through on our original plan to do the longer Huayhuash trek.

Along the way we took several panoramic shots. All but one of them stitched together well in Photoshop.

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Categories: Nature, Outdoors, South America | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Huaraz, Peru and the Cordillera Blanca Mountain Range

  1. Marc Hopkins

    Absolutely incredible! I agree with you Dave, this is by far my favorite of what *you’ve* experienced thus far. My jealousy level just ratcheted up a few notches. Also, “Touching The Void” is one of my favorite books… anyone who’s into 1st person adventure recounts should definitely read it.

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