Even more than Machu Picchu - The Cordillera Blanca
Walking & Trekking Programme Manager Dan Cockburn discovers trekking delights in Peru far away from the Inca Trail…
The Inca Empire spread far away from their capital Cuzco, beyond modern Peru’s borders, but it was always anchored to the Andes in this large nation. Inca marks lie on this great range of peaks as a myriad of carefully carved paths and passes that allowed trade to pass from the Amazon Rainforest to the Pacific Coast. Temples and fortresses were built to protect these routes as they passed through the mountains and the summits themselves proved of such spiritual significance that some had altars built upon them, at which children were sacrificed and their frozen mummified remains are still being found.
Historical interests aside, the real draw for the trekker on these ancient mountain paths is the stunning scenery that they reveal. Numerous truly awe-inspiring precipitous towers loom above the lower, more rounded peaks; think dozens of Matterhorns glaring across the valleys at each other but with many soaring over 6000m. Sublime snow flutings cling on to near-sheer rock faces. These phenomena reach their zenith in the beautiful ranges of the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash.
The Cordillera Blanca houses Peru’s highest and most famous peaks. Huascaran, the country’s (and the tropic’s!) highest point is split into two huge summits, the southern of which rises to 6,768m. A huge snowy granite bulk, it rises 4000m above the valley floor casting a threatening shadow over the little town of Yungay, renowned for the 1970 tragedy when an earthquake caused a snow and rock avalanche to break from the north peak and flow 11 miles to the town. The debris buried 25,000 people; only 92 survived.
I joined an Exodus trip for a trek around the Cordillera Blanca just to the north of Huascaran. This part of the range is broken by the most brightlycoloured turquoise lakes I’ve ever seen and claims some of the most beautiful snow-covered mountain spires in the world. The perfect white pyramid of Alpamayo (5,947m), often voted the world’s most beautiful peak, is surrounded by the less well-known horns of Huandoy (6,395m), shear-sided Artesonraju (rumoured to be the model for the Paramount Pictures mountain) and towering, fluted Tauliraju. We climbed ancient Inca steps cut into the cliff face to the high pass of Punta Union (4,705m) for a view of these peaks and were breathless with both the altitude and the surroundings. One of the group caught the majesty of these mountains best: “Even more than the Himalaya, these look like the peaks that we drew as children”. Take out a piece of paper and draw perfect white pyramids separated by sharp, serrated ridges. Draw a smooth snowline with lush green below. Add in blue skies with a few fluffy clouds and you’ve drawn the Cordillera Blanca.
As we descended I got talking to the leader about how amazed I was at this mountain range. He just replied 'You should see the Huayhuash!' Sadly, my trip ended there and as I headed back to Lima on the overnight bus (well, it was a work trip!) I seethed in jealousy of the group heading on to the glistening Huayhuash. I guess that that range will have to wait for my next trip to Peru.
Walking Grades: A – leisurely B – moderate C – challenging D – tough E – tough+