Updated: Dec 19, 2018
Peru is a world of its own. From the sunny beaches in the north to the snowy peaks of the Andes mountains in the center to the loud and misty capital city of Lima on the coast, each location is stark and unique and provides no shortage of things to do or see. As I continue to make my way down south through the country, one place in particular has stuck in my mind since the moment I set foot on the dusty ground: Huaraz.
Sitting at roughly 3,050 meters (10,000ft+), Huaraz is the capital of the Ancash region in the Peruvian Andes and is nestled nicely in the Callejón de Huaylas Valley. The region is considered to be one of the most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites as ruins in the area date back to before the Inca Empire (there is even evidence of human presence dating back to 10,000 BCE). On either side of this town rise the cordilleras - the Cordillera Negra to the west and the Cordillera Blanca to the east. The black mountain range and the white mountain range. The Cordilleras are named after their looks. Blanca for the snow-capped and glacier-bearing peaks and Negra for the lack thereof.
Stepping off the bus, weighed down by travel, my eyes widened to the sight of the snow-capped pinnacles that pierced the sky every and anywhere one looked. These peaks rose above the brick houses and were a beautiful and ominous force watching my every move for next week.
Huaraz in itself is a great place to kick back for a few days but the real star of the show for me was Huascarán National Park. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Huascarán contains most of the world’s highest tropical mountain range (Cordillera Blanca) and spans over an area of about 1,300 square miles. Incredibly popular due to the range of activities that one can do here (hiking, trekking, mountaineering, rock-climbing), Huascarán brings in people from all over the world. While staying in Huaraz I met several individuals, with nationalities ranging from France to Japan, and they all had a twinkle in their eye when they talked about the mountains that rose over us.
I went into Huascarán on two separate occasions. One for a grueling day hike to a pristine glacial lake and one for a four-day trek that certainly tested my physical and mental limits.
To test our lungs and our endurance we decided to hike out to Laguna 69 before the four day excursion. We awoke at 4:45am to catch the bus at 5am and soon found ourselves getting bumped around on said bus as it rumbled onto a dirt road. This road eventually took us to the park’s main entrance and we entered the park around 9am. I had to crane my neck to look at the beauty that suddenly surrounded us. We were driving into a valley and the mountains rose up massively around us. Carved out of a glacier thousands of years beforehand, the valley and the peaks were washed in a golden light that slowly creeped down the slopes, sweeping the shadows from the night before.
The bus briefly stopped at two aquamarine lakes: Laguna de Orconcocha and Laguna de Chinancocha. From some research I did later on, I learned that the aqua color of these types of lakes are the product of the sediments left over from the glacier and the sunlight reflecting on them (read about it more here). I had only seen lakes like these on one other occasion: when my family and I visited Glacier National Park in Montana many years ago. Up until Huascarán, I had considered Glacier National Park to be the most beautiful place I had been to. Huascarán has since replaced that spot.
After the lakes, the bus soon dropped us off at the trailhead and for the next 4-5 hours I found myself hiking up switchback after switchback and gazing upon some of the most incredible views. The hike was hard and I found myself pausing to catch my breath often. When I stopped, sweat would roll down my face and I could hear my heart thumping in my ears. Any body heat that I had would quickly be lost and replaced with chills running up my spine. A cool prickling sensation would crawl up my arms and neck. Fleeting thoughts of turning around or sitting would enter my brain but I would then look up and see those glacier-coated mountains and I’d squash those thoughts and pick my feet back up again. After hours, it was such a rewarding feeling to see Laguna 69 glittering in the sunlight as I rounded the last corner. I started to laugh and smile and picked up my pace. I sprawled out on a rock that was warm from the sun and basked in the beauty that is our world.
A few days later I found myself entering the park for the second time. Except this time it wouldn’t be for just a day hike. Instead, my travel companions and I were embarking on a four-day excursion: the Santa Cruz Trek.
We went with a guide company, as we were advised to do so (we also weren’t prepared to do a multi-day trek on our own), and for the next few days we hiked mile after mile with a wonderful group of people. The guiding company, Eco Ice Peru, was an excellent choice, in my opinion, and added positively to the overall experience. Our group members came from all sorts of backgrounds and places - from Liverpool, UK to Calgary, CA - and what else could bring people together than hiking for hours on end every day and bonding over aching feet, not showering for four days, and the immense love for the outdoors?
As much as I enjoyed the trek overall, I unfortunately had stomach problems the whole time that made the trek downright exhausting and honestly miserable at points. Two days before the trek started I got food poisoning and the lingering effects of the ordeal carried over into the trek. I didn’t have much of an appetite for the first two days and at night I would lie awake long after everyone else went to sleep with my arms around my stomach. The second day of the trek was wet, cold, and had the most uphill trekking and proved to be some of the most challenging hiking I’ve ever done. When we finally made it to the Punta Union pass (4750m), all I could think about was getting down to the camp as fast as possible and crawling into my sleeping bag.
But even with all of this, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Each morning when I crawled out the tent at 6:30 in the morning, the sun would be piercing the clouds and make the mountains surrounding me look like gold. At night I saw the most stars I’ve ever seen and stayed outside long after my fingers turned numb. I saw the Paramount Pictures mountain, Artesonraju (6,025m), and basked in the glory of Alpamayo (5,947m) - “the most beautiful mountain in the world”. I jumped into the absolutely freezing glacial lake of Arhuaycocha (4,420m) with my group members and screamed as I felt the water pierce me to the core. I wanted to quit when my stomach hurt so bad that I had to stop multiple times, watching my group members walk far ahead in front of me, but found myself each time getting up and keep on going. And on the fourth day - dirty, exhausted, and smelly - when I walked the final stretch out of the park and to the guardhouse, handing my ticket to be stamped for exit, I found myself looking back at the path I had just came from. I did that, I thought. And I smiled.