Highs & Lows of Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Blanca: Days 4-6

Days 4-6_Title

Days 4-6 on the Cedros-Alpamayo Circuit saw us saying farewell to the Santa Cruz Valley and crossing the Alto Pucaraju Pass into the Alpamayo side of the Cordillera.  The remoteness of the Cordillera Blanca gradually sinks in as we head deep into the heart of this magnificent range. Although this section of the trail takes us through the occasional small mountain hamlet, civilization is far from our minds as dazzling turquoise lakes, soaring jagged peaks and high mountain passes become our constant companions. 

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What follows is a detailed description of days 4-6 on the trail. We hope that this first-hand information will be valuable to those planning to do this hike. If that’s not you, we hope that you’ll enjoy looking through the photographs anyway. Happy trails!


Title

Trail Description: With a difficult pass and 12 tough kilometers of trail to tackle, we woke up half an hour earlier than normal and took our morning tea with a few extra coca leaves to gear up for the day. Just after 7:00 am, we set off, crossing a small stream right out of camp and immediately starting the steep climb to the Alto Pucaraju Pass.

The trail started with a bang with a 600 meter climb up a narrow, steep, icy and rocky track following countless switchbacks to the pass. It was tough but manageable, and we took extra care as we picked our way along the rocky and icy trail. The steep hillside was covered in tall, yellow grasses, but eventually we came to a small stand of Quenual trees, where we spotted two yellow flickers chilling out and waiting for the arrival of the morning sun to warm the poor birds up.

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Eventually, our arriero, Sheffi, caught up to us at a small waterfall. Eliseo instructed us to wait as he held back the burros allowing Sheffi to lead each one up one at a time over a very steep, rocky exposed section of trail.

It was slow-going for us, too, and it took us about two hours to cover the 1.5 kilometers up to the pass. We were thankful when the last section of the trail eased a bit, and the warmth of the sun finally cresting the pass was a welcome sign of progress. The views from the top were stupendous and well worth the effort it took to see them. We climbed around the various rock formations looking for the perfect perch from which to take in the imposing, snowy peak of Pucaraju.

Heading down, we lengthened our poles to help handle the super steep descent. The crazy switchbacks were nearly vertical, and we had to keep an eye out for other hikers and donkeys kicking loose rocks down on top of us.

The hillside was covered in lush lupine bushes with killer postcard views of Pucaraju and the gorgeous blue-green jewel of Pucacocha below. Trust us when we say that alpine scenes don’t get much better than this!

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The trail eventually eased and took us across a vast valley and then past a small stream that meandered through a large meadow. We headed up the left side of the valley to a nice lunch spot and then continued to follow the contour of the valley as the trail climbed up, up, up to almost 200 meters above the valley floor below. From our vantage point high above, we could see the braided pattern of the rivers below. The water was full of iron deposits, and the colors and path of the water made a very cool pattern.

At the end of the valley, we reached the large lake of Huecrucocha, where we took a short break. Despite its location in the middle of Huascarán National Park, this gigantic lake is privately owned by the University of Huaraz to grow and study trout.

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We followed the trail along the left side of the lake for 0.5 kilometers before hitting the final stretch to camp. Descending into a pastoral valley we passed tons of sheep, pigs, horses and donkeys. We stopped to chat with a shepherdess near the top of the valley and exchanged some of our leftovers from lunch for a few photographs.

Once at the valley’s bottom, we reached a small river with no bridge. Taking off our boots and fording the river barefoot was the only option, so we shed our shoes and braced for the bitter cold. Luckily, the water wasn’t as frigid as what we experienced in Iceland on the Laugavegur trek, and we survived no worse for the wear. We finally arrived in camp by 3:00 and enjoyed relaxing for the rest of the day reading, journaling and some birding for the rest of the day. . Another fantastic day on the trail!, reading, journaling and some  birding for the rest of the day. Another fantastic day on the trail!

Trail Highs

Our guide/cook, Eliseo, does it again, this time with some tasty quinoa snack balls that he made himself. Yum!

We made good time on the trail up to the pass, so we rewarded ourselves with a pleasant little snooze at 4630 meters. Lest you think we are lazy, you aren’t really advised to push yourself too hard at altitudes like this!

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Eliseo has been guiding in these mountains for years now and has a nice relationship with all the locals. He grew up speaking Quechua, and, whenever we run into locals on the trail, he is quick to chat with them and share any of our leftovers from lunch that they might enjoy. This opens doors for us, and everyone we have met has been very friendly. This sweet shepherdess was shy but posed for a few photographs with us and her faithful dogs. Very cool!

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Trail Lows

Our hearts sank a little when we realized we were going to have to take off our boots and ford a river to get to our camp on the other side. The water was cold but bearable, and there wasn’t much current to speak of, making the experience more of a nuisance than anything else. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?


Title_Day 5

Trail Description: It was a damp morning in camp, making us eager to hit the trail and build some body warmth. We began our day with a steady, gradual climb along the right side of the valley along a a very muddy single track for our first hour on the trail. The sun finally crested the valley as the trail opened up, and we were dazzled by the views of the peak of Talliraju before us.

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For the next hour, we ascended more gradually up to a lake where the views of the grand peak were reflected in the still waters.

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The ascent from the lake to the pass got our heart rates up as we followed the steep switchbacks on a rutted, rocky trail. We finally hit the pass at Tupa Tupa around lunchtime and found a nice spot in the grassy meadow at the top to enjoy the 360° views.

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The descent down the other side was steep with lots of loose stones and dirt to make it slow-going for us at first. The trail eventually leveled out as we made it further into the valley. As we entered the village of Jancapampa, the typical patches of yellow pampa grasses gave way to cultivated fields of lupine, potatoes and trigo or barley.

We passed through the quiet village of simple stone houses with little fanfare and made our way down into the enormous Quebrada Jancapampa. A braided river of glacially-fed waters meandered its way through the valley all the way to its end where Taullipampa towers overhead. We walked along the road beside this immense plain full of grazing horses, sheep, cows and pigs for what felt like hours, taking in the intoxicating combination of charming rural living and mind-blowing alpine splendor.

We descended down into the valley, crossing countless small streams over primitive bridges made of twigs and mud until finally arriving at our camp situated at the far end of the valley near the base of tomorrow’s climb and just below the soaring peak of Taullipampa. What a day!

Trail Highs:

A few miles out of camp, we came across an enormous, low-lying cactus of the ilk you might find somewhere like the Mojave Desert. Eliseo stopped, pulled out his knife and started digging into the tangle of thorny white arms. Much to our surprise, he pulled out a small, bright green ball, a cactus fruit he said that should only be eaten in the morning when temperatures are cold. He proceeded to cut the fruit open and encouraged us to give it a try. The fruit had a slightly sour taste but was cold and refreshing. We aren’t quite sure what’s behind the “morning only” story, but we will heed his advice if we find any more. Finding these fruits is like an alpine Easter egg hunt for hikers! Who knew?

Just yesterday, we told you that alpine scenes don’t get much better than the view of the blue-green lake below Pucaraju, and, within a mere 24 hours, we find ourselves eating our words. After climbing to the top of the pass, we sat down to a picnic with this scene staring us in the face. Seeing the jagged peaks of Taulliraju soaring above combined with colorful wall of scoured rock, immense glaciers and delicate cascades below nearly blew our minds. Simply spectacular!

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While we were taking in the grand view from our picnic spot, a small herd of horses appeared out of nowhere to make the scene even more unbelievable. Whoa, Nellie!

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On our way down from the pass, we came across a fair-skinned shepherd named Gianni, playing flute. It turns out that all the people from Gianni’s village are descendants of Italian immigrants from long ago, and, to this day, they still retain strong Italian looks. Who knew? Gianni happily serenaded us and then went along his merry way. Is this place for real?!?!

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Walking through the village of Huantapampa was a cool experience. We were there in the early afternoon, and it seemed practically abandoned as all the villagers were working out in the fields at that time of day. We were surprised by how large and charming the homesteads were and wondered how many people must live in each one. The thatched roofs, exterior ladders and assorted farm animals and equipment made us realize how cushy our modern lives are. How cool would it have been to get a look inside?

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Trail Lows:

The trail felt long today, and we were ready to be done when we arrived here near the end of the day. Eliseo told us our camp was at the opposite end, and we knew we still had a long way to go before calling it quits. Well, how far could it be? we foolishly thought. This valley was so immense, it was impossible for us to judge its scale, and plenty of cruel mind tricks ensued. We felt like we were walking forever!

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Once we finally arrived at our camp at the end of the valley, local villagers had set up a small market where we could buy the things we might desperately need out on the trail, which, of course, was soda and beer! Guess they know the needs of foreign hikers pretty well. We’re pretty sure this falls in the category of white people’s problems, but it was a lot of pressure to choose which impossibly cute villager to give our business to. Matt, of course, was a sucker for the youngest girl with the cutest smile. 

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You gotta love buying your beer off a 10-year old, but it was tough feeling we had disappointed the other villagers who schlepped all the way to our camp for nothing. If they would only diversify, we could buy something from everyone…


Day 6_Title

Trail Description: Today’s trek began with a steep ascent through the forest for the first hour of the day. The trail then leveled off a bit as the canyon widened and took us beside a stream running through a meadow all the way to the base of the day’s big climb.

Walking through the meadow proved deceptively tough as the trail played mind tricks with us yet again and kept alternating between brief fairly steep climbs and flat, open stretches of grassy meadows with rocky slopes surrounding us on all three sides. It took a while to find our hiking legs this morning, but thank goodness they finally showed up for we had a long haul ahead of us. At the end of the meadow, we could see the notch of the pass high above us to our right as the trail carried us in the opposite direction—more mind games!

We followed tight, steep switchbacks up the forested slope and got passed by three young locals on horseback who were on a mission to locate some of the village’s farther-ranging cows. After a brief descent into the massive Quebrada Sactaycucha, we walked for an additional two kilometers on a gradual grass slope before hooking around toward the arduous switchbacks that would take us to the pass. The lupine-covered slope was beautiful but consisted of several ridges that acted as false summits and made the day even more mentally challenging.

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Just below the pass we met up with the villagers who had passed us earlier in the day and stopped for a brief chat. They had located their cows and had just finished collecting a beautiful bouquet of rima-rima off-trail on a steep hillside below the pass to take back to their village for a religious festival. 

After a 45-minute break for lunch, we felt rested enough to hit the pass—an intense 15 minutes of “Ladakhi-style” uphill, heading straight up a barely discernable, single-track, steep and slippery slope.

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Finally reaching the top of Yanacun Pass (4610 meters/15,125 feet) felt incredible despite the windy conditions and the tiny, narrow ridge that represented the high point of the day’s hike. We snapped a few quick photos from a few of the various attractive outcroppings and headed down quickly because of the cold.

The descent down into Quebrada Yani Quena dropped over 600 meters in under 2 hours. Very steep at first, the trail eventually turned grassy and took us through a tranquil valley into camp at Huillca. We enjoyed beautiful light as we arrived on a massive pampa with grazing alpaca and a small, remote homestead nearby.

Trail Highs:

Chatting with the flower-collecting villagers was a fun treat. They were really sweet and gave us each a red poppy. Though the bright red flowers were gorgeous, we couldn’t take our eyes off of their shoes. These rocky trails were crazy tough in hiking boots. How on earth do they handle this challenging terrain in street shoes with no tread?!?! We are beginning to wonder if they are part mountain goat!

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Taking in the spectacular views from the top of the pass is always a highlight of the day.

After all of our hard work hiking up (and down!) today’s pass, we treated ourselves to a nice little power nap in the meadow on the way to camp. We had to choose our resting spots carefully between the piles of cow dung, but it is kind of fun when you get far enough along in an outdoor experience like this and don’t even care.

Trail Lows:

Turns out that sleeping at the base of a glacier can be pretty cold, and waking up to a solid layer of frost on our tents proved it! But with a morning view like this, it was definitely worth it.

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_MG_7609I had a rough night last night and couldn’t get any food (or the beer we bought!) down. I woke up feeling a little better but was still rather nauseous and weak. Today’s hike would have been hard under any circumstances, but not feeling well added a whole ‘nother dimension to the day. Pobrecita! Things picked up at the pass, knowing that my hard work was done and that it would be all downhill from that point for the day. Here’s hoping tomorrow is better!

7 thoughts on “Highs & Lows of Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Blanca: Days 4-6

  1. Looking at your pictures of the gorgeous scenery reminds me of a description of New Zealand’s fjords by the author of “Last Chance to See”—He said’ “All I can think of to do is applaud God.” That surely would apply to this hike.

  2. Wow! These photographs are ridiculously gorgeous!
    (Are they enhanced ? The colors are so saturated and intense…Beautiful!)

    You guys are quite the troopers! Not sure if I could handle those sheer drops…we hiked along a path in Peru years back that got so narrow and had such a sheer drop I froze and it took a while to
    gather the courage to do it. And then along came a local woman… Elderly, tiny, prancing like a mountain goat! Ha …

    Wonderful post. Inspiring in so many ways.

    Peta

    1. Ha ha! THis makes me laugh because I get quite nervous in precarious hiking situations like that myself, and I can just imagine the feeling of that woman passing you by like it was no big deal at all. We do optimize all of our photos in Adobe Lightroom to make them look their best before posting them here, but the photos that look particularly enhanced are most likely HDR photos. They are shot on a tripod and are actually a combination of 3 photos (underexposed/overexposed/properly exposed) to be able to see the entire range of light in the scene. We were shooting a lot during the middle of the day when the sun and shadows are super intense, and this was the best way for us to capture what we were seeing. We are glad you like them!

    1. Thanks so much! Hiking at the high altitudes of the Cordillera Blanca is definitely a challenge, but, as you say, the gorgeous scenery was so rewarding–certainly the motivation we needed to keep going!

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