Just an eight-hour bus ride from Lima, the Cordillera Blanca is among the most accessible high mountain ranges in the world. Not only is transportation to and from the range straightforward and convenient, but bureaucratic procedures are almost nonexistent. Independent travelers from just about any country can fly into Lima’s busy international airport and be in the mountains preparing for their multi-day hiking trip the following day with relatively little pre-trip planning. A month-long sojourn in the mountains can cost as little as $1000 USD, including airfare from the United States.
If bought in advance with some flexibility of dates, plane tickets to Lima from U.S. airports can be relatively inexpensive. For instance, I was able to buy round-trip tickets from Detroit to Lima for December 2008 for $650 through travelocity.com.
At their airport of departure, backpackers will need to check baggage containing trekking poles, gas stoves, knives, and other potentially hazardous items. I personally transport my trekking poles in a telescoping plastic poster tube, which has enough space in it for an assortment of other small items as well. If you spend a night before and after your trek in a backpacker-friendly hostel or hotel next to the Cordillera Blanca, you can usually arrange to store your protective container there for the duration of your hike.
Visas are not required to enter Peru for tourist trips of up to ninety days. Upon leaving the country, however, you will pay a $30 departure tax directly at your airline’s check-in desk (in dollars or Nuevo Sol). Aside from a simple immigration form, no paperwork is required for entry or exit.
At the Lima airport, foreign currency can be exchanged for Peru’s Nuevo Sol at zero commission. Commission is charged when exchanging money back into dollars, Euros, and other currency.
Taxis can be obtained on the spot at the airport, typically for the equivalent of $10-20 for a ride into Lima, which is a sprawling city with many neighborhoods. It is safest, however, to arrange a ride in advance through a reputable taxi service. No public transportation exists to carry travelers from the airport to Lima.
Lima has plenty of inexpensive hostels, as well as the usual selection of high-end hotels. Depending on when your flight comes in, you may want to spend the night in Lima, or you could depart immediately for the mountains. Lima has some sights, but is not a prime tourist destination in and of itself.
Getting to the Cordillera Blanca
The easiest way to reach the Cordillera Blanca from Lima is to ride there with any number of bus companies. The transportation and tourist hub of the range is the town of Huaraz, a seven- to ten-hour ride from Lima, depending on the time of day and the number and duration of stops. A few of the bus companies offering service to Huaraz are Movil Tours, Cruz del Sur, and Expreso Ancash. Buses are large, modern touring buses with comfortable reclining seats. Tickets range in price from roughly $10 to $50 one way, depending on the departure time and type of seat (e.g. partially or fully reclining, or bed).
I tried to reserve bus tickets over the phone, but was told this was impossible. So we showed up at the company’s bus terminal the next morning an hour before departure and bought tickets on the spot. We were told that seats typically fill up half an hour or so before departure. A wise move would be to have the addresses of several bus companies on you and travel from terminal to terminal around downtown Lima if tickets are unavailable. Taxis around Lima cost just a few dollars, even including the somewhat higher prices that foreigners are typically charged. You will need to settle on a price beforehand, since there are no meters.
Almost every visitor to the Cordillera Blanca passes through Huaraz, the largest town in the region with approximately 100,000 residents. Here you will have the greatest assortment of food products to choose from, as well as fuel, maps, and plenty of backpackers from around the world. Although smaller towns in the area may be closer to your chosen trailhead, Huaraz has much more information and infrastructure and is at a better altitude for acclimatizing (3,000 meters, or 10,000 feet). There are a wide variety of accommodations available, but trekkers will generally find it more useful to stay at a backpacker-oriented hostel, which offer beds as cheap as $4 a night. At the hostel we stayed at – Jo’s Place, highly recommended – we were able to find an old backpacker’s guidebook, a detailed topographic map of the mountains hanging on the wall, and partially used gas canisters left by other backpackers. Furthermore, even though it was the middle of the low season, we met several other foreigners who were setting off on backpacking trips like us. There is an abundance of mountain guides in Huaraz, but experienced and travel-savvy backpackers should have little problem organizing and carrying out their trips on their own.
When to Go
Guidebooks and tourism-oriented websites basically assume that backpackers will hike in the Cordillera Blanca and nearby Cordillera Huayhuash during the dry season – May to October, which corresponds to winter in the southern hemisphere. Information about hiking during the rest of the year is difficult to find. We arrived just before the New Year, which corresponds to the beginning of the rainiest period, which peaks in February. Initially apprehensive about weather conditions in this high and distant land, we found the weather to be easily manageable with wise gear choices. During the dry season, one will find far more hikers on trails, which are basically deserted during the rest of the year. Essentially, one can hike in the Cordillera Blanca at any time of year with relatively minor gear adjustments. There is no such thing as a traditional “winter” where the snowline drops dramatically and the higher areas become impassable.
Being so close to the equator, seasonal temperature fluctuations in the Cordillera Blanca are relatively minor. As a result, there appear to be no deciduous plants, and the transition from frost-free zone to permanent snow and ice occurs within a span of just 2,000 vertical meters. During the dry season, backpackers typically wake up to below freezing temperatures (-5 to -10 C is common) above 3,500 meters, but the unobstructed sun quickly warms the air, and one can often hike in shorts. During the wet season, nighttime temperatures are warmer (generally 4 to 8 C in the 3,500-4,500 meter range), rain is frequent but not nonstop, and skies are often overcast, obscuring the dramatic mountain views. Rain, snow, hail, and lightning are possible any time of year, especially around the high passes. Once, we had to descend from a 4,830 meter pass through a thin layer of wet snow. We did not feel that special equipment would be necessary for hiking any of the trails.
During the wet season, one may expect at least several hours of rain nearly every day, as well as wet trails. The rocky ground and minimal vegetation generate quite little mud. Total annual precipitation in most of the Central Andes is fairly low, and the rain we encountered was rarely heavy. We usually had several hours without rain in the morning and at least a couple of rainless hours later in the day. We feel our choice of raingear was ideal: GoLite Chrome Dome umbrellas and homemade silnylon rain skirts. This combination allowed us to hike in the rain with no loss of comfort, though getting our trail runners to dry out was occasionally a challenge. Even on the rainiest of days, however, we would still have at least a couple of hours of almost-sunshine where we could hang our socks on our packs to dry.
The sun is a force to be reckoned with. A half hour of exposure at 4,000 meters or higher can leave a fair-skinned person roasted. We honestly don’t know how we would have gotten by without our reflective GoLite umbrellas, even with just a few hours of sunshine a day.
One may encounter biting flies in the mountain valleys, but these were not a major nuisance, even during the rainy season. We had a net tent to go under our tarp, but found the bugs went away at night anyway and eventually stopped using it.
Any multi-day hike in the Cordillera Blanca will take you to well over 4,000 meters (roughly 13,000 feet) within a day or two of starting. Most backpackers choose to acclimatize in Huaraz, at 3,000 meters above sea level. From Huaraz, one can take a number of one-day excursions around the area to aid in acclimatization. A short walk around the center of Huaraz will quickly familiarize one with the available tour options, which cost around $10.
Huaraz has a large selection of groceries that can be used for backpacking. Smaller towns and villages in the region have a much smaller assortment. Huaraz has at least one smallish supermarket and a large market. We were able to find things like a Ramen noodle equivalent, packaged cheese, peanut butter, Oreos, banana chips, powdered milk, cream of wheat, granola, a small selection of chocolate (Peruvians don’t have the same sweet tooth Americans do), and resealable bags. Huaraz is well-stocked for backpackers.
Groceries may be nonexistent in mountain villages, so don’t count on being able to restock. There was just one very small store in Pishgopampa, halfway into our route, where we were able to get things like apples, cookies, matches, and toilet paper. We would have been fine without this resupply, but decided to buy a few things just in case.
Gas canisters with 230 and 500 grams of gas are available around Huaraz in many travel agencies and mini gear shops, which are concentrated in the central part of town. We saw two different mixtures of propane and butane, one of which is preferable for very cold temperatures. In addition, backpacker-oriented hostels may have stores of partially used canisters left by past hikers and climbers. We picked up a couple of these for free and returned them – somewhat more used – ten days later. Pure alcohol is readily available in pharmacies, and other sources say that blue-colored alcohol de quemar can also be found. The mountains have little wood, and campfires are prohibited, so a BushBuddy is out of the question.
Most of the Cordillera Blanca is located within the Huascarán National Park. A one-day pass costs under $2 per person (payable in Peruvian currency), and a one-month pass (required for any overnight stays) costs $20 per person. The fee is payable upon entering the park, but sometimes there is no one to collect it in the off-season. Camping is allowed anywhere, and human waste does not have to be packed out of the park. However, no fires are allowed. No additional permits are required to hike or climb any of the peaks – even Peru’s highest, Huascarán (6,768 meters, or over 22,000 feet).
While some other mountain areas of Peru, such as the nearby Cordillera Huayhuash, were the site of robberies and even murder during the years of The Shining Path, the Cordillera Blanca have never had such problems. In recent years, all mountain areas in the region are considered safe, but guidebooks still recommend hiring a guide for hiking in the Huayhuash, and local “guards” will ask for money to watch over your camps at night. In the Cordillera Blanca, none of this is necessary, but still take care to avoid attracting undue attention in inhabited areas.
Maps and Information
For 20 Soles ($6.50), a very basic, non-topographic map of the Cordillera Blanca can be obtained at some travel agencies in Huaraz. Unless you are walking along the most popular and well-marked path, the Santa Cruz trek, this map will probably not be sufficient for orienteering. However, the other map for sale – a detailed topographic map of the Cordillera Blanca and nearby Cordillera Huayhuash – costs 80 Soles ($25 USD). Finding this a high price to pay for our slim budget, we opted to take a photo of the map on the wall of our hostel, and this, along with the basic tourist map and practical orienteering skills, kept us on the trail we needed to go. In ambiguous spots, a careful comparison of the tourist map and the topographic map photo was enough to send us up the right valley or mountainside.
Also very useful is a free “Map Guide” for Huaraz that has most of the information that a traveler would need – what to do in and around Huaraz and the surrounding mountains, how to get around, etc.
Trails, Terrain, and Orienteering
The Cordillera Blanca are high, glaciated mountains, with deep valleys that take on a pronounced U-shaped starting at approximately 3,700 meters. Few, if any, trails in the Cordillera Blanca are dedicated hiking trails. Mostly, they are used by locals – some for hundreds of years. Trails link settlements and lead to important grazing areas. Hence, they either follow valley bottoms or lead up over passes into the next deep valley. Sometimes trails cross streams, which usually have primitive bridges over them. Trails are well-worn and generally easy to follow. The less popular the route, however, the fewer signs there are, and the easier it is to lose the trail, which may at times be hard to distinguish from livestock paths.
Luckily, the dramatic topography makes map reading a cinch, and the largely unobstructed landscape allows for easy cross-country travel should you stray off the trail. If you are still unsure of the route, locals will know which path to take, if any happen to be around. Even though not everyone in the mountains speaks Spanish (Quechua is the default language), saying a name place with a questioning intonation and pointing will probably be enough to make yourself understood and get an answer.
Selecting a Route
The most popular and well-marked trekking route is the Santa Cruz Trek (50 km), followed by the Alpamayo Trek (90 km) and a number of other less known circuits. The readily available free tourist guidebook in Huaraz has a simple map with all the trails on it, and these trails can be stitched together to make a route of anywhere from 30 to 200 or more kilometers. Based on our time schedule (ten days), we created a loop combining most of the Santa Cruz Trek and the Alpamayo Trek. We settled on this route the day before we began our hike. We chose to go in a counter-clockwise direction in order to begin with a gradual elevation rise and finish with a long descent. This helped with acclimatization, but we still experienced some headaches the first couple days.
As you can see from the elevation profile below – which shows only the high and low points – our route took us over eight passes in nine days. Walking up and down steep passes over 4,500 meters proved to strenuous, but overall our pace and schedule were quite unhurried.
The route we chose was the following: Cashapampa village – Quebrada Santa Cruz valley – Punta Unión pass – Tuctu village – Alto de Pucaraju pass – Quisuar village – Tupatupa pass – Pishgopampa village – Laguna Sactaycocha lake – Huillca village – Quebrada Alpamayo valley – Laguna Cullicocha lake – Hualcallan village.
Getting To and From the Trailhead
Getting to your trailhead from Huaraz could prove challenging without some knowledge of Spanish. This is one more reason to choose a backpacker-oriented hostel for your first couple nights in Huaraz, because you’ll be able to meet other backpackers and share important information. In our case, we took a local minibus to the town of Caraz, where we were immediately approached by a mototaxi driver who had guessed our itinerary and took us to the location in town where cars filled up to take people up the mountain to Cashapampa, where our trailhead was. On the way back, we were approached by a taxi driver in Hualcallan and taken to Caraz, where we took the same kind of minivan bus back to Huaraz. As a general rule, one can figure out transportation on the go and count on the locals having long ago figured out where backpackers need to go and how to take them there.
Water is always nearby in the mountains even in the dry season, since trails generally follow deep gullies with glacier-fed streams. However, much of the mountains are grazed by cattle, sheep, horses, donkeys, and pigs as high as 4,500 meters or more. Nearly ubiquitous cow patties led us to treat 100% of our water with AquaMira. Even where there seemed to be no cattle, donkeys on the trail would leave patties of their own, and we were never completely sure that the water we were getting was untainted. We did not notice any filters for sale in Huaraz, but it is highly likely that iodine drops could be obtained in mini gear shops or pharmacies.
In general, Andean mountain dwellers appear cheerful and friendly towards strangers. If you speak Spanish (or better, Quechua), it will be easy to talk to people and find about their life. Their Spanish is often easier to understand than that of Peruvians who grew up speaking it at home and have a much larger vocabulary.
However, you will probably encounter people – especially children – who ask you for candy or other things. We actually had a grown man run a quarter mile down a slope just to tell us, “Dame un caramelo” (give me a piece of candy). To be honest, we felt put off by people who would bluntly ask us for candy without having even talked to us. Once, we were feeling ungenerous and refused some children candy, and they only left us alone after we had turned them down multiple times for chocolate and money as well. Generally, it is wise to carry along a bag of lemon candy or similar treats to give to locals whom you feel inclined to treat. Unfortunately, most of them will just toss the plastic wrappers on the ground, since they’re apparently not yet aware of the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable trash. In fact, we are sure that most of the trash left on trails is from local residents and guides, not foreign backpackers.
The only negative aspect of our backpacking trip was encounters with cows, who at times viewed us as intruders. On some steep slopes cows may be reluctant to get off the trail, forcing you to somehow go around them or scare them off. One must be attentive to the cows’ mood and movements to judge whether they are indifferent, on guard, or aggressive. An indifferent cow looks at you curiously and continues to chew its cud. A cow on guard stares at you and stops chewing its cud. An aggressive cow moves towards you while staring at you without chewing. Aggressive behavior is usually the result of having calves around. The smaller the calf, the more protective the cows will be.
Cows with calves are best avoided at a safe distance of a hundred yards or more. If you notice they have started to advance towards you, calmly walk away from them and pick up a few rocks, just in case. Once, a group of cows came running down a hill and moved towards our campsite, which was at the bottom of a large meadow in the valley. We tried to hastily break camp, but the cows got to us before we had finished. They seemed curious about us and wanted to check out our campsite, but we knew that if we abandoned our things, they would trample everything and slobber all over our food. Once the cows were about thirty meters away, I began blowing my emergency whistle as we continued to pack up. The cows didn’t know what it meant and continued moving towards us, albeit more slowly and unsurely. Finally we had moved everything to the nearby collapsing stone outhouse, and from there began tossing pebbles at them. Meanwhile, some other hikers had responded to our whistle and stood a kilometer away on a ridge to see what was up. After five minutes or so of pebble throwing, we were able to get the herd to stop trying to move closer to us, and by advancing towards them, we finally got them to start moving away from us in another direction. Cow herds are very inert indeed.
Do not underestimate cows. Even though guidebooks and websites on the Cordillera Blanca make virtually no mention of them, we told locals about our scary encounter with the cows, and they cautioned us to be careful and told us about a herder who had been gored by a bull. Presumably, cattle are less of an issue during the dry season, when there are far more hikers on the trail, the cows may move elsewhere to graze, or the calves may have grown up.
Shelter Choice and Site Selection
We chose to use a generous 10 x 10 foot silnylon tarp to provide more coverage during the Andean rainy season and believe this was a good choice. We were not at all cramped and could comfortably cook under the tarp during the rain. Surprisingly, we encountered almost no nighttime wind. Site selection is limited due to the dramatic topography and tufty Andean grass, and almost all our campsites ended up being in pastures at the bottom of deep valleys. After our encounter with cows, we searched for spots out of sight of any grazing cattle. Finding a dung-free patch was sometimes a challenge.
Our hiking adventure in the Cordillera Blanca allowed us to see and experience magnificent mountains larger than anything we had ever seen before. We faced consistently wetter conditions than we had hiked in before, and were pleased to find that our rain gear, quick drying clothes, and generous tarp allowed us to avoid any discomfort or loss of hiking time due to rain. Finally, through our many conversations with local mountain dwellers, we came away with an awareness of how people live in the Andes – how they have changed the mountains, how the mountains have shaped their civilization, and how their lifestyle is changing in the modern era.
As we read about other mountainous regions of the Central Andes, it appears that the logistics are much the same everywhere. Inexpensive local buses and taxis take backpackers to all the popular hiking destinations, and services have cropped up to provide them with the supplies they need. Based on our experience in the Cordillera Blanca, we would feel confident making visits to mountain ranges in southern Peru, Bolivia, and much of Chile and Argentina with very little advance planning except for gathering some phone numbers and addresses of bus companies or hostels in important locations. These mountains are magnificent, accessible, enjoy fair weather, and are perfectly suited for lightweight backpacking.
|TREKKING CLOTHES||Bottom Base Layer||Icebreaker||150 Leggings||155.0|
|Bottom Shell Layer||Homemade||Momentum Wind Pants||74.0|
|Top Base Layer||Icebreaker||Mondo Zip 200||249.0|
|Top Shell Layer||CAMP||Magic Jacket||128.0|
|Top Insulating Layer||Montbell||UL Down Inner Vest||174.0|
|Underwear||ExOfficio||Polyester Sports Briefs||63.0|
|Shorts||Generic||Polyester Running Shorts||117.0|
|Eye Protection||Polaroid||Sports Sunglasses||21.0|
|Shell Gloves||Mountain Laurel Designs||eVENT Rain Mitts||34.0|
|Top Insulating Layer||BackpackingLight||Cocoon PRO60 Parka||350.0|
|Insulated Pants||MontBell||UL Down Inner Pants||208.0|
|Mosquito Headnet||Simblissity||UL Mosquito Headnet||10.0|
|TREKKING GEAR||Trekking Poles||Titanium Goat||AGP Poles||202.0|
|PACKING GEAR||Backpack||Zpacks||Blast 32||217.0|
|CAMPING GEAR||Tarp||Generic||10 x 10 Silnylon Tarp||530.0|
|Ground Sheet||Adventure Medical Kits||2-Person Emergency Blanket||85.0|
|Bug Net||Homemade||Hanging Bug Shelter for Two||210.0|
|Stakes||Generic||Cheap Plastic Stakes||140.0|
|Tarp Guyline||AirCore Pro URSA Dyneema Rope||50′ plus Carabiners||75.0|
|Sleeping Pad||Gossamer Gear||104 x 150” Hammock Pad||250.0|
|Emergency Bivy||Adventure Medical Kits||Emergency Bivy||93.0|
|Sleeping Bag Liner||Jag Bags||Silk||149.0|
|MISC GEAR||Personal Hygiene||150.0|
|First Aid Kit||Homemade||150.0|
|Water Container||Platypus||2.5 Liter Reservoir||36.0|
|Odds & Ends||Repair Kit, Flashlight, Batteries, Matches, MP3 Player||200.0|
|Camera||Canon||G7 w/ Extra Battery, Charger, Memory Cards||500.0|
|Fuel||2 Small Fuel Canisters||400.0|
|Total Weight Worn/Carried||4.4||2016.0||2.0|
|Total Pack Weight||12.0||5468.0||5.5|
|Total Consumables Weight||19.6||8900.0||8.9|
|Total Initial Weight (Pack + Consumables)||31.6||14368.0||14.4|
|Full Skin Out Weight||36.0||16384.0||16.4|
|FOOTWEAR||Trail Runners||Salomon||XA Comp||650.0|
|TREKKING CLOTHES||Bottom Base Layer||BackpackingLight||UL Merino Wool Leggings||103.0|
|Bottom Shell Layer||GoLite||Women’s Wind Pant||94.0|
|Top Base Layer||REI||All Weather Polyester Zip Pullover||186.0|
|Shirt||Nike||Fit Dry Ultrawicking Top||156.0|
|Underwear||Victoria’s Secret||Micromesh Panty||13.0||13.0|
|Top Shell Layer||Marmot||Windshirt w/ Hood||133.0|
|Top Insulating Layer||Western Mountaineering||Flight Jacket||349.0|
|Shell Gloves||Homemade||Silnylon Rain and VB Mitts||15.0|
|TREKKING GEAR||Umbrella||GoLite||Chrome Dome||222.0|
|PACKING GEAR||Backpack||Zpacks||Blast 18||120.0|
|CAMPING GEAR||Quilt||Jacks ‘R Better||Rocky Mountain No Sniveller, w/ Hood and Stuff Sack||900.0|
|MISC GEAR||Personal Hygiene||180.0|
|Water Container||Platypus||2.5 Liter Reservoir||36.0|
|Odds & Ends||Flashlight, Batteries, MP3 Player||160.0|
|Total Weight Worn/Carried||3.0||1361.0||1.4|
|Total Pack Weight||5.4||2472.0||2.5|
|Total Consumables Weight||13.2||6000.0||6.0|
|Total Initial Weight (Pack + Consumables)||18.6||8472.0||8.5|
|Full Skin Out Weight||21.6||9833.0||9.8|