The Andes of Peru – Cordillera Negra and Blanca: My Escape to the Wild

People arrive to the Cordillera Negra or Cordillera Blanca (parts of the Cordillera Occidental, the three mountain ranges in the Andes of west central Peru almost entirely located within the Ancash Region), to experience some stunning natural sceneries and the cool vibes of the famed and famous triplet of mountain towns: Huaraz, Carhuaz and Caraz. The whole area is laced with turquoise blue pristine lagoons whose water is potable and the genius loci is emphasized by the breathtaking mountain views surrounding you everywhere, combining green forests with pure white mountain peaks.

The Cordillera Negra has rocky peaks with very little winter snowfall. The gullies of the Cordillera Negra are gloomy and dark. Most of them are dry or their flow is scarce. The Santa River separates the Cordillera Negra from the Cordillera Blanca, a snow-covered range rising up to 6 768 m in the east almost parallel to it.

I arrived to this amazing place on earth (after six hours spent on a Peruvian company bus, which means violent Hollywood movies screened only throughout the way, though there are kids on the bus, never anything like comedies or romance or educative movies – so, by now I have filed an official claim for one of the companies at least to change that terrible habit because it is honestly not cool for kids to be watching such brutal violence and thus possibly thinking one day that it is normal) which shall forever stay engraved in my mind, a few days after the Peruvian schools were closed due to the corona virus pandemic, and several days before the complete quarantine was promulgated. I knew exactly what my main mission was there – I was going to see Lake Paron, a lagoon I have heard legends of, a spot which certainly lived up to all my expectations.

Yet, there is so much else to see in the area (a major part of which falls into Huascarán National Park) where there are mountains over 4 500 meters high and several hundreds of glaciers and where there is the highest mountain in Peru, Huascarán (6 768 m). Adventurers come here to do the Santa Cruz trek, usually four days of trekking from Cashapampa to Vaqueria, including the hike to Lake 69 towards the end, which can otherwise be done as a full day trek (starting as early as 4:30 in the morning with the van pick-up in Huaraz) and if you don’t mind cold water you can dive into the crystal blue lake that lies in front of the snow-capped Pisco Peak.

The trek is demanding but popular, with two high mountain passes where the trekkers experience fabulous views of twelve peaks such as the Alpamayo, Huascaran, Chopicalqui and Taulliraju among others.  The incredible trails reach 4 700 m from where it is possible to appreciate the impressive snow covered peaks, a great variety of flora and fauna, in addition to many lakes, waterfalls, rivers, trails and camping areas. There are many agencies in Huaraz which offer full service when providing for this trek. If you need a recommendation, I would certainly go with the well-established Peru Expedition Tours (operating since 1978), a sophisticated and reliable company which also operates in other parts of Peru as well as in other countries of South America.

A less common trip, for which I recommend you to use an agency (as the glacier is 70 km away from Huaraz so best if you ensure your transport), is Pastoruri Glacier, located in the southern part of the Cordillera Blanca. It is a day trip and some agencies offer visiting Laguna Patococha on the way. The Queen of the Andes, Puya Raimondii plant, which is the largest species of bromeliad, recognizable due to its height and spike, and which is now rather rare to occur, can be seen in several spots on the way. I recommend you to drink some coca tea (unless you prefer to chew the leaves which to me are not half as pleasant as the mate de coca) before and during the hike as the glacier reaches 5 240 m, so altitude sickness might appear.

Laguna Paron – A Place that Gains your Heart 

Seeing this place was a dream come true to me. Honestly, it is one of the most beautiful lakes in Peru (some of you will argue maybe that Laguna 69 is more beautiful) and the largest lake in the Cordillera Blanca.

Once you arrive to the lake (about four hours from Huaraz after a stop for an ice cream in Carhuaz; about 1.5 hours from Caraz) – the entrance fee to the Huascarán National Park you need to pay on the way is as little as 5 soles – your eyes are immediately exposed to an amazing scenery. Seriously, you don´t need to retouch your photos from this place. It is splendid – just as it is.

From the shore of the lake, you can see many snow-capped peaks of the surrounding mountains, but one mountain stands out in particular. It is Artesonraju, the mountain supposedly depicted in the Paramount Pictures logo!

From the altitude of 4 200 m at the lake level you can then hike up (to circa 4 600 m) a short but at times steep (and towards the end slightly rocky) path to the viewpoint of the lake. As this place, luckily, is not half as frequently visited as Lake 69, you can easily find your spot – especially off season – for picture taking or meditation.

Normally, all the lakes in the Cordilleras allow swimming, but as the corona virus threat is spreading around the world, the locals in the mountains are worried and do not allow the visitors to swim as the water in the lake is actually potable – though it is slightly treated before drinking.

You can, however, pay a little fee for a boat ride over the lake.

Huaraz – Much Better than Cuzco

Most travelers coming to Peru and longing for the connection with the mountain spirit would make their way to Cuzco, the capital of the Sacred Valley. I wrote a little bit about that place HERE.

Cuzco has its colonial architecture and you can explore some really stunning places in the region, yet, to me, it has lost the magic of “local and special” as it is flooded by tourists, offering mostly Western style bars and restaurants and the local people who live there are in minority to all the xpats. Most of the locals live in Cuzco just because they work there as guides or in other fields of tourism. Other locals tend to move to the villages of the Sacred Valley, such as Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Calca or Urubamba, where the properties (as well as restaurants) are much cheaper.

Just like in Cuzco, you can find a huge Central Market in Huaraz where you can get anything from meat, veggies, fruits and herbs to clothes and shoes. However, if you want to buy some traditional clothing – alpaca or lama sweaters etc. – the Central Market won´t be your place. The clothes and shoes there is what the locals wear and you barely see these people, unless they are working in the tourist shops, in such clothing. They wear common jeans and winter jackets which you can find at the Central Market. So if you want to buy an alpaca or lama scarf etc., make your way to the main Plaza de Armas at the top of which you find a small Mercado with products for tourists.

Huaraz (with an elevation of 3 052 m) offers a range of local bistros and bars as well as Western-like taverns and restaurants. I always tend to choose the places for locals rather than the touristy ones, so pizzeria Charlie sought by many internationals was nothing that could impress me, neither the Trivio Resto bar with allegedly amazing Sierra Andina beer (I come from the Czech Republic, hard to please my beer taste).

I can thoroughly recommend you to rather try out the many local bistros with Peruvian cuisine menus (soups or salads and a main dish) ranging from 10 to 15 soles or the various street food such as papa rellenas, my favourite Peruvian dish. Give a try to the local stalls or small bistros with the traditional chuchuhuasi drink. The alcoholic aphrodisiacs of the Peruvian jungle (of which you are only allowed to drink three at once) can work out its magic fast, especially after all day hiking and eating just nuts and energetic bars while trekking!

Where to Stay in Huaraz

1. Higher Mid-Range: Hotel Churup (Albergue Churup). A lovely rustic hotel near the city center (a 7 minute walk to the main square – so close enough yet far from the noise of it and thus a “sleep-spa”) and just a couple of minutes away from the road to Laguna Churup and Unchus village – and thus ideal for those who wish to explore the nearby hills, forests and rivers on their own, without an agency. The interior decor is quaint and includes some lovely details as well as a huge fireplace (which works at nights) in the dining hall where there is an amazing buffet breakfast served (for free) which includes among else pancakes, scrambled eggs, veggies, homemade brick-oven-baked bread, various juices and fruits as well as desserts. The guests can freely use the terrace above the dining hall where there are amazing views to the surrounding mountains as well as the courtyard which is ideal for some light exercises or yoga practice. Great for couples and friends travelling together who enjoy quiet, peace and relaxing as well as romantic atmosphere.

2. Mid-Range: Hotel Alpamayo Guest House. Located well near the city centre with some splendid terrace views – the terraces are open to the clients – to the mountains, with hot water, comfy rooms and breakfast included (not only tea or coffee, but also mate de coca and porridge drink, freshly made pancakes with bananas and chocolate, buns, butter and jam). Your pets, namely dogs, are welcome upon prior agreement and the duvets are nice and warm.

3. Low Budget: Campo Base. A good option for budget backpackers; a night for 25 soles for a private room with a bathroom and a breakfast containing a glass of fresh juice, tea or coffee, pancake or eggs and two buns with butter and jam. You also find a common kitchen in the hostel and they clean your bathroom (with hot water) every day! A travel agency with a small clothes bazaar corner is located right next to the hostel. The hostel sells water and beers for the same prices like in a supermarket and the breakfast place is really nice, chamber-like, with several tables placed outside in the street which is calm and clean, located by the beautiful Parque Ginebra. Plaza de Armas is less than a minute walk from here.

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