Acclimatizing in Huaraz & The Cordillera Blanca

Peru's highest mountain, the mighty Huascaran (6768m), from the Laguna 69 hike.
Peru's highest mountain, the mighty Huascaran (6768m), from the Laguna 69 hike.

We collect our bags from the turnstile, double check our address for the night and google translate “how much to this hotel?”. A few minutes later we’re speeding through a dark and empty city with no idea where we are going or how much it will cost. Its nearly 3am when we get dropped off with a warning from our driver that this is a bad part of town. We find our unlikely hotel in a dark alley and a few hours later we awake in a windowless room. We take showers that sporadically go from scalding hot to icy cold. We look at each other and smile; shit, we must be in South America...

Later that morning we're on a bus hurtling North along the Peruvian coast. Sitting up the front we quickly realise that a major draw to the night buses is the inability to see the oncoming traffic, it seems to mostly be in the same lane we are. I can do nothing but close my eyes and chalk it up as an experience. We're headed to Huaraz, the city that serves as a basecamp for the climbing and trekking mecca of the Cordillera Blanca in the Central Andes. We travel there with the intention of hiking the renowned Huayhuash circuit.  The weather forecast suggest the rains have beat us out this year, but on arriving 8 hours later we’re greeted by sunshine and blue bird skies.

We spend our first couple of days huffing and puffing our way around the city (its at some 3600masl), visiting the markets, eating mystery meats, and planning future meals for the trail. Damn it feels good to be travelling in a developing country again. Huaraz was virtually levelled by an earthquake 40 years ago and leaves a lot to be desired aesthetically, but there is an awesome street food and market culture backed up by tourist oriented restaurants. Its the perfect launch pad for our adventure.

With the previously somewhat written off trek now a goer, we start planning our acclimatization. The challenge of the Huayhuash circuit is twofold. Firstly, it is almost entirely above 4000m and goes as high as 5000m on some passes. Second, the trek is 10 days long with no possibility of resupply until day 8. So you’re carrying a very heavy pack.

Our first attempt at acclimatisation is a bit of a disaster. We set our sights on Laguna Churup and took a collective taxi out to a nearby village. We battled our way along a 5km trail that wound around dusty fields to the trailhead. Little did we know the altitude was already taking its toll. A few hundred meters up the trail at an elevation of a little over 4000m Lauren was struck with chronic stomach pains and our heads spun like crazy. We beat a hasty retreat and wondered despondently how we would ever climb the 5000m passes of the Huayhuash with a full backpacking load.

The next day we try again, slogging up to 4400masl at the lookout over Laguna de Aguak. We are truly paying the price for 2 weeks of lakeside beer drinking in Ontario’s cottage country. We stop every 50m to suck in what little oxygen there seems to be in the air. Finally after an embarrassing amount of hours we make it. The views down the valley to the Cordillera Blanca leave us wanting more. On the way down our feet hurt and our legs ache with exhaustion but its all okay because there is hope once more.

After a rest day, our trip to Laguna 69 is a final test before beginning our trek. Though it is possible to do this trip on your own, its a lot cheaper and easier to book a bus with one of the numerous companies offering a tour in town. Rudely awoken by our alarm at the ungodly hour of 4am (bloody tours aye?) we jump on a bus that stops at seemingly every hostel in Huaraz (yes, no matter where you book you’ll be on one of the 3 buses that head out there daily).  Two hours later we finally leave the city and start winding up the valley towards Huascaran National Park. Laguna 69 is an extremely busy hike and the walk up is really nice and beautiful but.. well... extremely busy. Just prepare yourself for it and try to enjoy yourself. Or bring your tent and camp the night and I’m sure you’d have the place to yourself! Arriving at the lake it becomes obvious why this hike is so popular. The teal blue water is hugged by jagged, glacier capped peaks that humans rarely set foot on. We found ourselves a place away from the crowds overlooking the lake and soaked it all in for a couple of hours.

As we descended the clouds cleared up a little revealing the biggest mountain in Peru and namesake of the National Park, the super imposing Huascaran. This mountain recently took the lives of 4 climbers, a fact that only served to reinforce the apparent unattainability of the Cordillera Blanca’s peaks. I for one was happy to be a trekker here.

Back in Huaraz we spend a day getting our things together for the trek. Food shopping was, of course, the best part (check out our recipes page for what we eat when we’re backpacking). Walking back to our hostel our arms sagged under the weight of all the food. There were more than a couple of nervous glances at one another. Late in the afternoon we bought our bus tickets, filled our stove bottle and packed our bags. For the both of us, the Huayhuash was the most highly anticipated part of the entire trip and the excitement was mounting. Sleep came slowly for us that night and didn’t last long. At 3:30am the alarm sounded. Time to get started.

A conveniently located rest stop with views of the Southern Cordillera Blanca.
A conveniently located rest stop with views of the Southern Cordillera Blanca.
Laguna 69
Laguna 69
Descending from Laguna 69 was a whole lot more enjoyable than the lung busting ascent.
Descending from Laguna 69 was a whole lot more enjoyable than the lung busting ascent.
Laguna 69
Laguna 69

SUGGESTED ACCLIMATIZING HIKES IN THE CORDILLERA BLANCA

  1. Laguna Churup: 4600masl, accessible by local or private transport, while we didn’t make it the pictures look amazing,
  2. Laguna 69: 4600masl, accessible by local or private transport, possible to link up with other trails to make a 2-3 day trek.
  3. Laguna Paron: Located out of the city of Caraz to the North of Huaraz, Accessible by taxi or collectivo.

 

SUGGESTED LONGER TREKS

  1. Huayhuash Circuit (8-12 days): Often called the finest trek on the continent. Almost entirely over 4000masl.
  2. Santa Cruz Trek (3-5 days): The most popular multi-day trek in the Cordillera Blanca.
  3. Alpamayo Trek (8-10 days): One of the lesser known but no less spectacular in the region.  Can be linked with the Santa Cruz trek.

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