The summer of 2015’s grand hiking adventure took us on a return trip to Peru, one of South America’s, if not the world’s, premiere hiking destinations. Our quest to hike the classic hikes of the world started here back in 2009 when we completed our first supported trek to the ancient Incan marvel of Machu Picchu.
Before hitting the trail, we spent a few weeks touring overland south from Lima to Cuzco and seeing some pretty amazing sights. Highlights included taking a private ride in a small airplane over the Nazca Lines, sliding down the massive sand dunes of Huacachina, spotting condors soaring above the Colca Canyon, enjoying the colonial charm of Arequipa, and getting a sense of village life during a homestay experience we will never forget on Lake Titicaca.
And all that was before being having our minds blown by the impressive architecture of the Incas on display in Cusco, Ollantaytambo and along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
It’s no wonder that ever since then we’ve been eager to go back, and last summer we finally made it happen. For our return trip, we headed to Peru for the entire month of July and decided to focus our attention on Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash ranges, the highest mountain ranges found anywhere outside of the Himalayas. The trekking opportunities in the Cordilleras, where 16 whopping 6000-meter peaks tower over some of the most gorgeous alpine scenery we’ve ever set our boots on, are endless. We couldn’t wait to hit the trails.
After arriving in Lima and spending the night in a pleasant hotel in the trendy, upscale Miraflores neighborhood, we headed straight to Huaraz, the popular base town for most treks in Peru’s Central Andes. On the seven hour bus ride from the congested capital to the extreme altitudes of the Cordilleras, we saw some amazing scenery, starting with the crazy coastline just north of Lima, where the highway clings to the edge of the continent.
The Pacific Ocean lies far below just to the west, while mega sand dunes rise straight up over 500 feet to the east. Driving along this insane highway produced a sense of wonder that kept us on the edge of our seats. It would have been comforting to say that the road was an engineering marvel, but, to be honest, it really didn’t look like there was much in the way of construction holding the whole thing together!
After passing through the town of Barranca at about the halfway point, the highway abruptly turns east and starts climbing into the mountains, winding and twisting its way through an endless series of tight, motion sickness-inducing turns. Here, the highway ascends dramatically from sea level to over 4000 meters—all in less than three hours—before finally depositing passengers in Huaraz at a not too shabby altitude of 3052 meters. Crazy!
Huaraz is an interesting little town and was a fun place to hang out for a few days while we were recovering from our travels and getting accustomed to being back in Peru. With a population of only 50,000 people, it is not too overwhelming and a variety of churches, plazas, cafes and restaurants provide plenty of opportunities to chill out and take in the majestic views of the surrounding Andes.
Before tackling our longer treks in the Cordilleras, we planned to spend a few days in and around Huaraz acclimitazing. Abrupt altitude changes like this can do quite a number on your body. While most people experience some form of altitude sickness or soroche, like fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, diarrhea and/or headaches, some people get more serious symptoms, including pulmonary or cerebral edema, which is no joke.
Getting your body acclimated to life with less oxygen is absolutely essential at high altitudes, and, luckily, Huaraz has a number of hikes that fit the bill. We chose to make the lovely day hike to nearby Laguna Wilcacocha our first destination, and it was a great way to ease into the tougher hikes ahead.
To get to the trailhead, we took a colectivo for all of 2 soles (60 cents) to Puente Santa Cruz about 20 minutes down the main road south of Huaraz. These little mini-buses are the main form of transport for most Peruvians who don’t own their own cars and need to get from place to place cheaply. Anybody walking on the road is a potential customer for the colectivos, and they ply the roads back and forth hoping to pick up as many people as possible along their fixed routes.
When we hopped aboard in Huaraz, there were only two empty spaces in the crowded mini-bus left, so I grabbed the seat in the back, trying hard not to hit everyone in the head with my humongous camera bag. This left Matt with a spot on the puny bench facing backwards behind the driver’s seat, where he played pretzel with an old man sitting in front of him.
In addition to the packages and bags that most passengers held on their laps in the cramped quarters, there was also a wooden crate filled with live ducks and a large gas can in the aisle. This probably sounds nightmarish to some, but we always enjoy trying the local transport when visiting a new place. It is an interesting insight into the way of life and nearly always provides some memorable travel moments. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a crate of ducks on the Chicago CTA!
After our twenty minute ride, we were ready to stretch our legs on the trail. We crossed the bridge over the Rio Santa and followed the road for a short while before picking up the trail to our left. The path to the laguna is used primarily by locals in the area to get between their villages and the road and is designed more for speed than comfort. Rather rocky and vertical, it quickly led us to a viewpoint above the road where we admired the pretty forsythia plants, giant agave and views of the Huaraz valley below us.
The trail continued up passing through several traditional Quechua villages, where we found it fun to observe the daily rural life: drying maize, tending animals, and collecting dried wheat.
The trail up to Wilcacocha meandered 500 meters up the mountain, alternating between following the road or the footpaths used by villagers to go about their daily tasks.
After a few wrong turns, we finally reached Laguna Wilcacocha (3700 meters) after 3 hours and 6 kilometers of walking. (Yes, we were moving at a snail’s pace, but we blame the altitude and the fact that we were taking so many photos!) The small lagoon was shallow and marshy with many different species of waterfowl, though the coots were the least camera shy and kindly agreed to have their photos taken.
And while the shallow, marshy lagoon was a sight for sore eyes and legs, the real reward at the top was the striking views of the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca range, where we would be spending the next several weeks trekking. What an amazing preview to our upcoming adventures!
The Bottom Line
Length: 7.5 miles/12 kilometers
Elevation Gain: 1600+ feet/500+ meters
Time Taken: 5+ hours at a very leisurely rate
Pros: can be done independently, accessible by public transport, inexpensive, meanders through mountain villages giving an insight into traditional Quechua life, beautiful views of the Cordillera Blanca range from the top
Cons: not particularly well-marked, some villagers seemed a bit jaded by the constant traipse of foreigners in their backyard
Overall Impression: a terrific first hike for acclimatizing, recommended