La Cordillera Blanca: Peru’s Forgotten High-Altitude Playground

This post comes from Leah, a fellow blogger and travel aficionado who is currently living as an expat in Medellín, Colombia.  Leah is the blogger behind The Sweetest Way, which first caught my attention while I was planning my trip to South America last year.  Leah spent eight months backpacking throughout the region, visiting amazing countries like Peru that are still very high on my travel wish list.  I thought it would be fun to add some Latin flavor to this week’s posts and asked Leah to share a little bit about her time in Peru.  (FYI, after reading her story I want to go to Peru more than ever!)

Machu Picchu.  Lake Titicaca.  The Colca Canyon. The Nazca Lines.

For most people, these incredible natural wonders are what first come to mind at the mention of Peru, a country with a range of landscapes so diverse, a traveler could easily spend months exploring it—from the Pacific coast beaches to the Amazon basin to the high-altitude Andean peaks—and still not experience everything.

During my eight-month backpacking trip through South America last year, I did just that.

What was originally planned as a one month stay in Peru quickly turned into three months, and when it was time to leave, the country had rooted itself firmly in my heart, its captivating beauty having left me awe-struck on more occasions than I even thought possible.

I was lucky enough to see all of the aforementioned sights, each one well-worthy of the accolades they receive from travelers.

But there is yet another destination worthy of such accolades.  Perhaps one of Peru’s lesser-known destinations and oft-overlooked by travelers is the most captivating mountain range I’ve had the good fortune of laying eyes on, La Cordillera Blanca.

Huarez, Peru
This city of Huaraz is the jumping off point for excursions to La Cordillera Blanca.

La Cordillera Blanca (Spanish for “White Range”) is the highest mountain range in Peru and the highest tropical mountain range in the world with sixteen peaks standing at over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet).  It contains 722 individual glaciers and an impressive series of stunning turquoise glacial lakes.

The majority of the range is contained within Peru’s Huascarán National Park and is also part of the greater Andes Range which extends from Colombia to Chilean Patagonia.

Make no mistake—this place will leave you breathless in more ways than one.

Situated roughly five hours northeast of Peru’s capital city of Lima is a small town called Huaraz.  At first glance sleepy and unimpressive, Huaraz charms with its deeply-rooted Andean culture.  For most people, the town simply serves as the jumping-off point for adventures into La Cordillera Blanca, but it’d be a mistake not to savor the local traditions when passing through.  Explore the local market and sample the goods; marvel at the bowler hats worn a few sizes too small, so perfectly and precariously perched on the Andean women’s heads; dine at a local restaurant and taste the cuy (deep fried guinea pig) alongside a potent Pisco Sour.

When first arriving, it’s not uncommon to feel short of breath or dizzy simply from a short walk up a flight of stairs, especially if you’re coming directly from sea level (i.e. Lima).  Though not as intimidatingly high as the mountain peaks (the highest mountain, Huascaran, reaches an altitude of 6,768 meters or 22,205 feet), Huaraz is still high enough at 3,052 meters (10,013 feet) to cause altitude sickness if you’re not careful.  Adequate time to acclimate to the scarce oxygen is necessary before embarking on a strenuous trek.

Once you’re ready, however, there are many options to choose from.  For those looking for hardcore trekking and mountaineering, three- to ten-day treks will show you the absolute best La Cordillera Blanca has to offer.  For those short on time or interested in less strenuous trekking, hostels are happy to organize day tours as well.

During my visit, I happened to be short on time; it also happened to be a rather rainy time of year (mid-October) making overnight camping between snowy peaks sound rather unappealing.  My friends and I opted for two day trips, first to a massive glacier known as Pastoruri (a Quechua name) followed by a hike to a glacial lagoon known as Laguna 69.

A view on the way to Pastoruri Glacier.

Being the eager beavers we were (and short on time, as it were), we arrived in Huaraz in the evening and left first thing the following morning for the Pastoruri Glacier.  The tour van sped south along a highway at the base of the mountains as our guide gave detailed accounts of the history of the region and educated us about local flora and fauna.

We made a handful of stops to take in stunning vistas and to learn about the towering Puya Raimondii, the world’s largest bromeliad (a relative of the pineapple).  These rare high-altitude plants are endemic to the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia at altitudes between 3,200 and 4,800 meters; they can reach 12 meters in height and are one of the most ancient plant species on earth.

Puya Raimondii, also known as Queen of the Andes.

We finally ascended into the mountains until we were surrounded by barren, lifeless land and snowy mountain peaks.  The climb to the glacier wasn’t long or even steep; the real challenge was that we were starting this little “walk” at 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) and would top out at nearly 5,400 meters (17,716 feet) upon reaching the glacier.

Huaraz 6

Needless to say, I became lightheaded on several occasions on the 1-hour and 45-minute climb, feeling suddenly foolish for sneering at the tourists (mostly Peruvian) who’d paid money to have a horse whisk them to the top.  Maybe they were on to something.

Despite the tough ascent, the reward was worth the effort.  The Pastoruri Glacier, at 8 square kilometers, was the largest I’d ever seen in person.  Sadly, due to glacial retreat, it will only get smaller in years to come; but on that day, it humbled me with its imposing presence and entranced me as the sunlight glimmered and danced across its frosty shades of blue.

The tour allowed ample time to relax and marvel at the magnitude of this ice giant as we nibbled our bagged lunches in the afternoon sun.

Huaraz 7

Huaraz 8

In hindsight, we were foolish not to take an extra day to acclimate to the altitude before attempting this tour.  We had just spent a week lounging on the beach and my body suffered from the sudden change.  Everyone reacts differently to altitude sickness and for some people repeating our mistake could be far more costly than a day or two of migraines.

Huaraz 9

The following morning we were early to rise again, this time headed north from Huaraz to the start of the hike to Laguna 69.

The sun was already beating down on us when we stopped for a quick breakfast and to drink a few cups of freshly brewed coca tea.  In Andean culture, the leaves of the coca plant are often brewed in tea or chewed to release their energizing properties.  They are also thought to prevent or reduce the effects of altitude sickness, so we all drank up hoping not to relive the ailments of the previous day.

The van then continued up the mountains and a dramatic valley began to envelop us; the cliffs were so tall and steep that no amount of neck craning would allow us to see all the way to the top.  As we bounced along the narrow dirt road behind a caravan of other vehicles carrying hikers, the first attraction of the day came into view.

A quick glance to my right turned into a neck-breaking double take in true Hollywood fashion followed by a rather eloquent “Whoaaa!”  We hadn’t even begun the hike yet and the scenery of La Cordillera Blanca had far surpassed my expectations.

Huaraz 10
The first lagoon on the way to Laguna 69.

A sprawling lagoon sat to our right, a shade of blue I could have only imagined in my wildest dreams— an opaque, brilliant shade of blue even the Caribbean would envy.  As soon as the van came to a halt, we scrambled out of the van, cameras blazing.

We reached the starting point of the hike not long after.  Our guide (who didn’t actually complete the hike with us as the trail was very well marked) estimated we’d need four hours round-trip to get to Laguna 69 and back again, allowing about thirty minutes at the lagoon to rest and eat our lunches.

The first portion was fairly flat as we meandered past mud huts, small streams and the occasional cow.  As we began our ascent, pastures and streams were replaced with snow-capped peaks and towering waterfalls.  Every which way we turned, there was something new for the eyes to feast on.

Huaraz 11

Huaraz 12

Huaraz 13

When we reached our final destination, we were awestruck for the umpteenth time that day.  Laguna 69 (the lagoons are numbered in the order in which they were discovered, so they say), even through the mist and the hail and the bitter cold, was breathtaking.  Flashy blue and framed by snowy peaks, it was quite a surreal sight.

Huaraz 14

Huaraz 15

Rain finally did set in during our descent; we arrived back at the van soaked a smelling of wet dog but absolutely beaming from the experience.

The view during the descent from Laguna 69.

La Cordillera Blanca, for reasons unbeknownst to me, remains overlooked and forgotten among Peru’s attractions.  If you take away nothing else from my story, it’s that this mountain range deserves to be revered and most certainly merits a place on your next Peru itinerary.

Tips for Hiking in La Cordillera Blanca

  • Lodging in Huaraz is scarce, so it’s a good idea to book in advance.  We enjoyed our stay at Hostal Alpes (breakfast included).
  • Arrive in Huaraz with enough time to acclimate to the altitude, at the very least one or two days before you intend to hike.
  • Drink plenty of water—you become dehydrated very quickly at altitude even without physical exertion.
  • Prepare for all types of weather!  Wear many layers, waterproof everything, and don’t skimp on sunscreen.
  • Pack plenty of food and snacks, and a little spending money.  Lunches were not provided on the tours I participated in, though we did have the option of buying meals when the van stopped before and after the hikes.
  • Know your limits and don’t push yourself too far.  Take breaks often, hire a horse if you need, even turn back if absolutely necessary.
  • A day trip to Laguna 69 will last for 9-10 hours and costs around $20 USD.  A full-day tour to Pastoruri Glacier will take 7-8 hours and costs around $15 USD.*

*Prices above are approximate and may vary depending on the season and group size.

About Leah Davis:

Leah is a long-term traveler and serial expat currently living in Medellín, Colombia.  Her first international trip to Australia in 2009 sparked her desire to see the world and she has since been to twenty countries on four continents.  She has lived and worked in Southeast Asia, backpacked through Central and South America, and is taking on Europe this spring.  She loves languages, strong coffee, red wine, and living outside of her comfort zone.  She blogs about her travels and expat life at The Sweetest Way.  You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for live travel updates.

If you are interested in having your travel story featured just send me an email at thetravellush@gmail.com or contact me!

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

8 thoughts on “La Cordillera Blanca: Peru’s Forgotten High-Altitude Playground

  1. Wow! I don’t have words to express my astonishment at the landscapes! La Cordillera looks amazing. It sounds like a perfect haven for a hiker like me. I mean I am not really a “hiker” but I love to walk and explore such nature driven places. I am sure photography must be a joy there!
    Renuka recently posted…Travel Blogs Have Redefined ‘Travel’

    1. I agree! I cannot imagine how amazing it would be to see this place in person. I’ve always wanted to go to Peru but I’d never heard of La Cordillera Blanca before. Now I’m dying to go!! I always love hearing about new travel destinations. Ha, imagine if you went here you would go crazy with all the photographs you would take 😉

      1. Great post about another amazingly beautiful place in Peru. It brought back memories…

        Many moons ago, we had the privilege of seeing Callejon de Huaylas (the valley that is delineated by the Cordillera Blanca on one side, and the Cordillera Negra on the other). I also remember a beautifully sad visit to what is left of Santo Domingo de Yungay, a town that was completely buried in 1970 in an avalanche from the Huascaran mountain.

        If you go to Huaraz and Cordillera Blanca, try to make a stop at Yungay.

        Thanks for a great post 🙂
        1/2d recently posted…On Composition: Symmetry

  2. Yay!! Thanks so much for featuring this post, Justine! There are so many more places in Peru I still want to write about and I’m trying to figure out how to squeeze it in with the content I’ve got coming out currently. Do you think it’s weird to do some posts on past trips like this? I guess other people do it…we’ll see! Anyway I hope you get to Peru soon. I get serious pangs of nostalgia when I think about that country…I really miss it! The history of the Inca and the Quechua people is sooo fascinating.
    Leah recently posted…Surviving Long-Haul Overnight Bus Rides in South America

    1. I loved this post! I honestly don’t think it’s weird at all to write about past trips. I think it would be great to sprinkle old content in with the new. One example that I think of is 20 Years Hence (do you read their blog?). They are still writing about their RTW trip which ended a little less than a year ago. They balance those stories nicely with their current life/travels. One thing I like about the way they incorporate their older content into their posts is that there’s still some order to it. I like that the go country by country. So, in my opinion, if you want to write about Peru just start from the beginning of your travels there and tell your story. You obviously have great photos and stories…I for one would LOVE to read about your travels all through South America! And I know other readers would too.

      I hope I get to Peru soon too! The next time I take a long-term trip it’s definitely going to be in South America. Colombia was a total tease 😉

  3. A fantastic post from a great writer! As for La Cordillera Blanca. If you like mountains and you are in Peru, GO!!!! And if you LOVE trekking and 8-12 very cold nights spent trying to sleep in a tent sounds like a price you’re willing to pay for waking up to stunning views of high-altitude lakes every morning, trek the nearby Cordillera Huayhuash.

    1. I agree! One of the reasons I was so instantly obsessed with Leah’s blog is because she is a great writer. I love blogs that have quality writing.

      You have no idea how badly I want to go to Peru. I was planning on going last summer after spending time in Colombia, but my trip to South America was cut short. I know I’ll get there someday and I cannot wait. I’m not sure how hardcore of a trekker I am but I will definitely look into Cordillera Huayhuash. Thanks for the suggestion Jason. It sounds unreal!

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