Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. I pause mid-switchback to fill my lungs with the increasingly thin air and look out across the vast cirque surrounded by glacier topped peaks. Glancing down at my watch, I suddenly realize I am standing higher than any point in the lower 48 — and it only took me a couple of hours after breakfast to hike here.
Even the most die-hard Himalayan fans will not be able to deny the lofty heights and rugged beauty of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, the highest tropical mountain range in the world. Best of all, it takes only a handful of hours to fly here and as Peru sits in the Central Time Zone, comes with no jet lag.
Extending almost 180 kilometers (122 miles) long and largely included in Huascarán National Park, the Cordillera Blanca houses 663 glaciers (29 at over 6,000 meters or 19,685 feet) and 269 lakes. You won’t find massive tour buses or cumbersome trail quotas here, making it a hiker’s and backpacker’s paradise.
You can be forgiven to think that the only hiking in Peru is to be found on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. But any climber or mountaineer with a dog-eared version of Classic Climbs in the Cordillera Blanca sitting on their bedside table knows better. Alpamayo, dubbed the most beautiful mountain in the world, with its perfectly shaped, snow-fluted pyramid, has drawn climbers to the region for decades. As Mariana Gonzalez, owner of the Cuesta Serena Boutique Hotel outside of Huaraz told me, “Anyone can go to Machu Picchu, but the real trekkers and climbers come here.”
After a harrowing overnight bus ride from Lima, we based ourselves in and around the town of Huaraz, the colorful, always bustling capital city of the Cordillera Blanca region. Here is where pretty much everyone starts their adventure, whether it be a day hike, multi-day trek, bike ride, mountain climb, or archaeological exploration of the prehistoric civilizations. With only a few days on the menu, anything but day hikes were off the table for us.
Regarded as the best day hike in all the Cordillera Blanca, Lake 69 is hard to beat. Cradled beneath 20,000-foot Chacraraju at 15,100 feet, the deep glacial lake and its inviting turquoise waters remain hidden until the very end. But don’t despair — along the 4+ miles and 2800-foot elevation gain to the lake, you are treated to 360-degree views of some of the most striking peaks in the range–Pisco, Huandoy, Huascarán, and Yanapaccha to name a few. Waterfalls tumble down sheer cliffsides to the queñuales-lined river snaking through the golden valley below.
I was not quite prepared to share the trail with so many furry friends. No, not alpaca. Cows. We watched in amusement as the cows bathed and fed around glacial lakes hovering precariously at 15,000 feet and wondered how on earth these domesticated animals got there. One curious bovine approached me on the trail and tried to eat my trekking pole and snack on my shirt.
The route consists of a few “Inca flat” or rolling inclines punctuated by two steep switchback sections. After struggling up the final set of seemingly endless switchbacks, you come around the corner to the most awe-inspiring scene. Upon arrival, the hoops and hollers from our fellow sweaty hikers were infectious. Solidarity in suffering — we all earned this and were happy to share in the reward together.
Our guide Christian began pulling the most extraordinary things out of his Osprey Aura 65L backpack — a picnic blanket, porcelain plates for us to eat off of, a 100-count package of napkins, a thermos of coffee, 50-count package of cups, bag of mandarins, cheese, sausage, sandwiches, a thermos of mate de coca , chocolate, and a full-size Peruvian flag.
“If you regularly have to take a drug test for work,” noted Christian, “you might want to skip the mate de coca.” This herbal tea made from the leaves of the coca plant is locally regarded as a cure for many ailments, including altitude sickness, so I did not hesitate to grab a big cup.
Snacking on a sandwich and sipping my mate above the shores of Lake 69, it took only one look at the stark contrast between the white-capped peaks reaching up into the sky, the rolling amber valleys below, and the deep turquoise lake, to understand the Inca’s trilogy-based view of the world — Hanan Pacha, the world above us where the sun and moon live (represented by the condor), Kay Pacha, the earth where we live (represented by the puma), and Uku Pacha, the world beneath the earth’s surface (represented by the snake).
As one of the most popular trails in the region, Lake 69 was definitely busy, but not annoyingly so like you might find at the height of the summer in the Alps or Yosemite. Contrast that with our hike to the base of the Huandoy glacier where we didn’t see another soul apart from men with their horses heading up to collect glacial ice to sell as snow cones on the streets of Huaraz.
If you are willing to get off the beaten path, you can expect to have much of the Cordillera Blanca to yourself. Not something you can say about Machu Picchu.
Good To Know
When to Go: The dry season starts roughly in May and lasts through October.
Getting there: We took the overnight bus with Oltursa from Lima to Huaraz. They run super comfortable double-decker coaches with reclining seats, Spanish dubbed American movies, snacks, and Inca Kola. Bring the Dramamine.
Where to Stay: If you want a place to stay in downtown Huaraz, the Andino Club Hotel was very nice with great food and service. Alternatively, if you are looking for a bit more relaxing introduction to the mountains, head to the Cuesta Serena Boutique Hotel about 30 min outside of Huaraz. Here, you can ease into the altitude via a bit of yoga outside on the lawn with amazing views across to Huascarán. At night, learn how to make a killer pisco sour and cook your own pizza in the wood-fired oven.
Once acclimated, head up further into the mountains and base yourself right outside of Huascarán National Park at Llanganuco Mountain Lodge. Enjoy a sunrise breakfast on the lawn with Nacho and Bianca, the two resident alpaca, then explore the nearby ancient burial sites and hike up to the Huandoy glacier.
I won’t go into a detailed description of all the gear I brought as the usual day hike list applies here. But the following are a few of my favorite pieces or must haves from the trip.
Columbia Titan Ice Hoody ($85) and OutDry Ex Gold Down Hooded Jacket ($250): It can get really hot during the day hiking beneath the intense high-altitude sun, but as soon as that sun drops behind the mountains, it quickly turns cold.
CamelBak Sundowner LR: Drinking plenty of water is one key to staving off altitude sickness and the easiest way to do this when hiking is by using a hydration pack. My go-to this trip was the new CamelBak Sundowner LR. The 3 liter lumbar reservoir keeps the weight low on your hips and 22 liters of stuffing capacity offers plenty of room for your day hike essentials. The suspended mesh backpanel and ventilated hipbelt/shoulder straps work to reduce the sweat factor.
Some Must Haves: Sunscreen (including lip protection), hat, Buff (great for both dust and sun protection), and trekking poles.