The Cordillera Blanca is shy, she doesn’t let us see her easily. The white clouds envelop the snow-capped mountain range, and the top can only be seen in the rare clear, sunny days of the wet season.
Vibrant capital of the department of Ancash, Huaraz is the must-do stop if you love outdoors. Situated at 3091 masl, the city was nearly wiped out by an earthquake in 1970. Today, its streets are swarmed with hikers wearing either brand new outfits or worn out clothes, and planning their next adventures in the mountains.
I spent a whole month here, volunteering at a backpacker hostel.
During four weeks, I woke up at dawn to the stunning view of the mountain range of the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra from Aldo’s Guest House.
I worked every day, six hours a day, in exchange for accommodation and hiking tours.
The month of February is definitely not the best time of the year to explore the area, but I still got quite lucky with the weather, as the heavy rains used to begin only in the afternoon. Whenever I had time off, I went climbing at Los Olivos or exploring the surroundings, with a tour or on my own.
The trek to Lake 69 is the favorite day hike you cannot miss if you’re going to Huaraz even for a couple of days. Its vivid blue waters are a well-deserved reward after the though three hour hike up. Make sure you have acclimatized before you set for this hike, as many people experience serious soroche – including me.
Situated at 5240 m.a.s.l., the glacial is undergoing the effects of global warming and is expected to disappear in the next 15-20 years.
Global warming or not, it was cold, damn cold. If I was missing the European winter, I totally changed my mind under the frozen snowflakes that were restlessly falling from the white sky.
Our guide said it was a 40 minutes walk up from where the bus left us. He said he could do it in 20, and so could I, I told myself, looking doubtfully at his shiny black shoes and his spotless white shirt. Well, it took me half an hour, and not without struggle: the altitude and the cold temperature were working together to make my walk pretty hard. Hopefully, I had my good doses of coca leaves with me, and I chewed and chewed until the soroche was over and I could breathe again.
Chavín de Huantar
Large ceremonial center built by the culture carrying the same name, Chavín is an archaeological site built around 1200 BC serving as a gathering place for people to worship.
Chavín de Huantar is a series of temple arrangements built around a massive central square. The site has an intricate system of channels for drainage that was also used by the priests as an instrument to instill fear in nonbelievers, amplifying the sound of water running through the channels.
The cult novitiates were probably given hallucinogenic plants such as the San Pedro before entering the darkness of the labyrinth. At the heart of the complex lies the main object of worship, the Lanzón, a monolith of white granite representing a person with snakes coming out from its head and with ferocious fangs in low-relief carvings.
Not far from Huaraz, Laguna Churup is a great and quite tough first acclimatization hike. Combis will take you to Pitec (3850 m.a.s.l.) and from here you can expect to hike up 2 hours (3 if you get lost, as I usually do, including this time), while it takes a little bit over 30 minutes to hike down.
The hike is steep, so bring a bag of coca leaves and lots of water. You will cross a couple of walls you have to climb helped by the ropes attached to the rocks.
A fairly easy first hike only a few km from the city, Laguna Wilkacocha is reachable by combi (1 S) after a short ride.
Santa Cruz Trek
But the highlight of my whole stay in Huaraz was, without any doubt, the Santa Cruz Trek. 50 km with ascents up to 900 m, this four day trek starts in Vaquería and finishes in Cashapampa passing through emerald lakes, lush green valleys and astonishingly beautiful snow-capped mountains.
I worked non-stop for a month to accumulate my days off and be able to take part into this tour for free. For four weeks, I had seen travelers leaving the hostel at dawn to come back after four days telling stories about their awesome trek and the awful weather they found. Excited and nervous, I patiently waited for my turn to go.
During the five-hour drive to the village of Vaquería I got to know my travel companions for the next few days: Adam from the USA, Manuella and Luise from Brazil, Margo from Belgium, and Tiggy and Will from the UK.
We left Huaraz on an incredibly beautiful and sunny day. After the short three-hour hike of the first day, we set camp at Paria, 3850 masl. Here we met Hunter, an American guy who was staying at Aldo’s and set for the trek on his own. During the next couple of days, he would become part of the group and we would share victories and food.
The second day was long and tough, and we had to hike five hours up until reaching the Punta Unión pass at 4750 m.a.s.l. We were surrounded by fog and it was hard to see more than a few meters from where we stood walking. Hiking on my own and far from the group, I lost sight of the path and had a few minutes of panicking while climbing on slippery rocks under the rain.
Hearing the voices of my friends ahead of me caused instant reassurance and I kept walking, happy to see those now familiar faces smiling back at me.
The two Brazilian girls in their trainers where still kilometers back with our guide, and I was feeling terribly bad for them, but relieved to have made it until the pass.
We eagerly devoured our sandwiches and got back on the move before we started to freeze. As we descended, the clouds started to fade away to reveal a stunning view of an emerald lagoon.
I walked fast with a new found great mood and reached the valley in no time. We found the camp that had already been set by our mule driver, changed into warm clothes and set to wait for the girls.
The next morning, we woke up to a stunning view. Covered by clouds of fog the night before, the sun now revealed high snow-capped mountains all around us. We cheerfully welcomed the new day filling our stomachs with delicious but unexpected pancakes.
Today was supposed to be a long but easy day, going down the valley and reaching Cashapampa after 8 hours. After quickly climbing up to a view point to fully appreciate the surrounding peaks (among all, the award-winning Alpamayo and the world-famous Paramount), we crossed a valley and then started descending paths full of rocks.
It was tougher than we expected, and Adam and I happily caught up with Will, Tiggy, Margo and Hunter at camp. This time we camped at some locals’ place, just outside the village, and nobody opposed when someone proposed to get some well-deserved alcohol to celebrate the end of our hike.
An old lady happily filled us two small bottles of some unidentified (but damn strong) alcohol she poured from a green tank, and we waited for the girls drinking. Manuella and Luise arrived 4 hours later, surrounded by darkness and in tears.
The prize for surviving also this last drunk night was a short hike to some natural hot springs hidden a few twists and turns from the village. We soothed our aching bodies in the hot waters of the river celebrating the end of another wonderful adventure and the beginning of new friendships.