Trekking In The Cordillera Blanca

Trip Start Mar 18, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Olazas Guesthouse

Flag of Peru  ,
Sunday, June 1, 2008

After making a sad farewell to the dust of the Northern Peruvian coast, we caught our first overnight bus and arrived 12 hours later in Huaraz, in the heart of the Andes. This beautiful town is surrounded by huge, snow capped, jagged mountain peaks, 20 of them over 6,000 metres above sea level. Huaraz is the nerve centre for the continent's best trekking and mountaineering and is an all round great place to just hang out and admire the incredible Andean scenery.

After spending a couple of days getting familiar with the town, we set out on the 4 day Santa Cruz Trek - a popular but gruelling 51km trek through the Cordillera Blanca. On the 3 hr drive from Huaraz to the starting point for the trek, we passed alongside the turquoise Llanganuco Lakes and directly under the face of the impressive Huascaran, second highest mountain in South America at 6,768 metres above sea level. With donkeys lugging all our gear, it seemed like a simple matter of strolling through the hills for a few days and taking in the view. But we were about to find out just how tough trekking in the Andes can be for two coast-dwellers.

The first day we passed through small mountain villages and valleys on our way to the first campsite at 3,800m, sharing our lunch with some local kids along the way. The beautiful peaks surrounding us gave way to a freezing cold night in the tent and the first signs of an altitude headache that we would both carry with us for the next 48 hours. We set off early the next morning with the goal of reaching Punta Union Pass at 4,750m and apparently the most breath-taking views in the whole of the Andes. Over the next five hours, we climbed almost 1,000 vertical metres and experienced various forms of torture as the altitude took its toll.

'What the f#%@ are we doing on the side of this mountain?!' was a frequently asked question. But every now and again when we lifted our heads to see how much further to the pass, we were dumbfounded by the enormous mountain peaks growing ever closer. By the time we reached the pass, the mountains around us seemed close enough to touch and while we weren't in a state to fully appreciate it at the time, the view was all it is cracked up to be.

After a below zero celcius night camping at 4,200m, wearing every piece of clothing, beanies and gloves available, we were ready to pack up our donkey and head home. Oh that's right - we can't. We are in the middle of the Andes and the nearest town is 2 days hike from here. It was about then that we decided that we may not be mountaineers but we may as well enjoy the amazing surroundings. The third day turned out as our favourite of the trek. We took a side track up to a huge glacial lake at 4,500m - it was so peaceful looking into the bright turquoise waters and being surrounded by giant snow capped peaks on three sides gave us a real sense of just how small we really are in this place. The only sounds we could hear were the layers of glacial ice cracking and breaking apart high on the mountain slopes.

For the rest of the day we descended further and further down the wide valley, away from the pass and the lake, until we had rock walls stretching for the sky on either side of us and cascading waterfalls running into lakes and streams. It really was a very diverse range of scenery over the 17km we walked that day. Leesh took some time out to feed the donkeys her lunch - altitude takes away your appetite quite effectively - and she seemed to make new friends for life.

The final campsite by a creek at 3,800m was only marginally warmer than the previous night and we were stoked at the thought of a warm shower and comfy bed after the final hike out of the valley. After avoiding high altitude poos behind a rock for several days, Paul finally succumbed at the unfortunate and very cold hour of 2am on the final evening and trudged out of the tent with torch and paper in hand, to be surrounded by a curious crowd of donkeys and cows which came far too close for comfort.

The final 10km of the trek seemed a breeze compared to the previous days and before we knew it, we were back at our hostel relaxing on the rooftop terrace with a coffee, admiring the views of the mountains that we had been surrounded by during the trek. 'Achievement more than enjoyment' could be an apt description of the experience but in hindsight, the opportunity to hike in such a spectacular setting was special, albeit physically and mentally testing.  

After the trek was over, we found it difficult to leave Huaraz. Possibly this had something to do with Cafe Andino, which served great food, Lavazza coffee, had a library, board games and a great balcony overlooking the Andes. We took a day trip to the Chavin ruins deep in the mountains, where a temple dating back to 800BC was constructed with almost perfect alignment from east to west and underneath the temple was a maze of tunnels connecting different rooms. It was quite eerie walking through the tunnel system and trying to imagine the society that lived within the temple so long ago.

We returned back into the Cordillera for a one day trek to Laguna 69. In 1970, an earthquake destroyed an entire village and all its people just below the National Park and subsequently a study of the stability of the area was undertaken - each lake was given a number and for some reason, lake 69 was never renamed. The 18km hike was much easier than our earlier jaunt in the hills. The lake was absolutely stunning had the deepest shade of blue we have ever seen. The following day we decided to give ice climbing a try for the first time. It was a magic day hanging out around a glacier at 4,500m, taking turns throwing on the crampons and ice axes and working our way up a 22m high ice wall. Something we would definately like to do more of in our travels.

We are due in Cusco in a few weeks time and while we feel like we could easily spend the rest of winter in and around Huaraz, after two weeks here it is sadly time to keep on trucking.
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