The Cordillera Blanca
Leaving the narrow Cañon del Pato and the jagged mouthed tunnels behind, we climbed up into a big wide open valley between the two cordilleras. Whereas the Cañon del Pato is dry with very little vegetation, this valley is covered in a palette of greens stretching up both sides to the mountains. A few minutes into our drive through the valley we got our first glimpse of the reason we were here: white, rugged snow capped peaks towering over the valley. It was so surprising a site for us after so many months on the coast we had to stop for some photos and to enjoy the view. Little did we know, this was only the beginning of snow capped peaks, and we were about to be amazed over and over again with view after view of the jagged, white peaks that make up the Cordillera Blanca.
The Cordillera Blanca mountain range runs parallel to the Cordillera Negra range, its drier cousin that separates it from the ocean. The range is a mere 70 km (about 44 miles) from the Pacific Ocean, but thanks to it’s cousin the Cordillera Negra which protects the blancas from the warm tropical currents of the Pacific, it is the highest tropical ice covered mountain range in the world. Within a relatively small amount of space, there are 33 peaks over 5,500 meters (18,044 feet), with 16 of them over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). Thanks to these dazzling heights nestled amongst the peaks you find beautiful glaciers and bright turquoise glacier lakes. This combination makes for some pretty impressive scenery.
The main highway leads through the middle of the valley between the two mountain ranges, with dirt roads leading up into the mountains. We headed up to Laguna Paron, located 30 km up a bumpy dirt road from the town of Caraz. The road goes up through another beautiful valley and the village of Paron with picturesque tile roofed adobe houses with corn hanging to dry from the rafters in the front yard. The locals, dressed in colorful traditional clothes wonder the road and work the fields of corn, potatoes and quinoa, along with little hairy pigs, cows, sheep, and donkeys.
Laguna Paron sits at the top of a steep narrow valley with one of the rocks reminiscent of El Capitan in Yosemite. The lake is the beautiful turquoise blue color of glacier lakes and sits at the bottom of Nevada Piramide, a snow covered triangular peak of 19,300 feet. On a clear day, a walk around the lake will give you views of snow covered mountains in every direction. We found a little dirt track that took us down to the edge of the lake and a perfect flat spot in the sand for camping. The sun was shining and the views were great so we decided to camp for the night.
Since we had just come from 3+ months on the coast and the lake sits at almost 14,000 feet, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea we’ve ever had, but hey it’s hard to find a more stunning campsite. We knew we were in for a cold night, but I don’t think we imagined how cold. In the afternoon the clouds came in taking away the warm sun and bringing the cold and rain. By late afternoon it was rainy and we were bundled up in all our winter clothes, freezing and wet. By 6:00, we had eaten a cold and soggy dinner and were in our tent trying to warm up. It was a long night of little sleep and terrible headaches for both of us. (Word to the wise: going up to almost 14,000 feet to sleep after spending months at or near sea level in one day is NOT smart. You should take at least a few days to go up in altitude in order to avoid the mind numbing headaches and shortness of breath that we experienced).
The next day the clouds, wind and rain were still hanging around, so we decided to head back down to the valley. The night before we had met a French traveler named Ronan. He had hiked up to the lake from the village below and slept in a little hut by the lake. He wasn’t really feeling up to hiking back down, so asked if he could catch a ride with us. Since we don’t have a back seat there really wasn’t much room for him, so he decided he’d take a ride on the roof. The whole way down we kept asking if he was alright up there, and he kept telling us to speed up (with a big grin on his face of course ).
A little ways down the valley road, we caught another dirt road to take us back up into the mountains, this time heading to the Llanganuco Lodge. The lodge sits at the base of snow covered peaks and near another beautiful glacier fed lake. The ruins of Keashu sit along side the lake and are actually partially submerged this time of the year. The first morning we were there, the sun rose in a clear blue sky, so we decided to take advantage and went for a hike around the lake and up the gorge toward the ice covered peak of Huandoy. It felt good to get out and be hiking again. As we hiked up and around the lake the views of both the lake below and the beautiful glacier above were spectacular. The warm fresh air with hints of pine and wild flowers was a welcome change from the smoggy cities and warm beach we’ve been used to.
After a few days enjoying the scenery and hiking, we decided we were ready to move on. The problem we were facing is that we were in the middle of Semana Santa, the holy week leading up to Easter that is a BIG deal here in Latin America. Almost everybody has at least the later part of the week off and heads for the beach and the mountains. Charlie, the owner of the lodge, told us Huaraz, the biggest town in the Cordilleras would probably be pretty crazy but luckily his brother owns another lodge in the mountains outside of Huaraz where we surely could find a place to camp. So we said goodbye to our nice mountain retreat and headed back to down the valley.
The Way Inn, didn’t disappoint. The main building is stone and grass roofed and looks like it belongs in the mountains of Europe somewhere. The mountains that march along behind the lodge help reinforce this as well. They also have a great home built sauna, with a barrel out the side where you can stoke the fire and enjoy the heat for as long as you want. It was worth the visit just for the wonderful sauna every night .
We spent almost 2 weeks here in the Cordillera, camping in the high mountains, enjoying the clean fresh air and the beautiful views of steep rugged snow capped mountains. The whole time we were off the grid with no internet and only enough electricity to recharge our cameras and of course our trusty Kindles when needed. It had been awhile since we went off grid and actually, it felt really nice. With out the distraction of internet we were able to really enjoy the area and get lots of hikes in. All our food came from the municipal markets in the little towns we would stop in. Most people might think that we are living far from the conveniences of the modern world, but the truth is a lot of the time we aren’t too far from a fairly big grocery store with mostly similar goods as you would find back home, and we are never too far from an internet connection (albeit maybe not as fast as we would like). Sometimes though, as in our few weeks here in the mountains, it’s nice to just get away from it all and truly live in the moment.