The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s second highest mountain range – bested only by the Himalayas – and home to over 700 individual glaciers and almost 300 lakes. From icy peaks that turn fiery in the setting sun to bustling hillside villages, multicolored flower farms and plentiful ancient ruins, this mountain range offers visitors a glimpse of a dynamic natural world and the pulsing heart of Peruvian culture.
Though it is well known to the mountaineering set, the Cordillera Blanca tends to fly under the radar of most travelers who favor iconic cities and sites such as Cuzco and Machu Picchu. While these places are remarkable in their own right, the Cordillera is a rugged, mountainous dreamscape that keeps you gazing around in wonder.
While dedicated hikers might prefer to complete longer routes such as the Santa Cruz trek, several convenient but spectacular day trips are also possible – we’ve highlighted some of our favorites here.
Icefalls at Huandoy
Walk through the golden fields near the Keushu ruins, past the neighboring turquoise lake, up a narrow trail through some scrubby trees and you’ll find the Rajururi valley, a yawning hole cleaved into the side of the Cordillera. This narrow stretch of land is sandwiched between towering granite faces and leads directly to the sleeping glacier at the base of Huandoy, the same piece of ice that split the valley sprawling before it.
Thanks to its shorter length and lower altitude, this route serves as a good introduction to hiking in the Cordilleras – it always helps to spend a little time getting your mountain legs. The trail ascends through patches of arid vegetation and decently large boulders until it gives way to a barren basin of ice and small glacial pool at the top. Look at the surrounding 'rocks' closely to discover hints of blue glacier peeking through the dust.
The valley and its glacier also serve a practical purpose for the communities below: not only does melting ice provide an important water source, but the glacier sustains entrepreneurship: locals from the surrounding villages have long been making the trip up to Huandoy to harvest the ice, most commonly for their snow cone stands (really!).
If you feel like treating yourself, stay the night at the lovely Llanganuco Mountain Lodge (llanganucolodge.com) – the entrance to the Rajururi valley is literally located in its backyard, and the lodge itself is a comfortable place to unplug and enjoy the mountain air.
Chavín de Huántar
Peru’s cultural history stretches back thousands of years, and remnants of these ancient empires still dot the mountain ranges today, shielded from the elements by the Cordillera. The most intriguing of these is Chavín de Huántar, an archaeological site dating back nearly 4,000 years to when the Chavín people controlled the northern Andean highlands of Peru. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the oldest known pre-Columbian (and pre-Incan, for that matter) sites in existence.
The complex consists of temples, plazas and underground corridors where priests carried out their many religious ceremonies, serving as a holy site and central meeting place for the local community. Interesting fact: Chavín priests underwent a rather intense initiation process at this very location. Candidates ingested mescaline derived from the native San Pedro cactus and headed down into the network of tunnels beneath the temple, where they came face to face with the carving representing their supreme deity, today known as the Lanzón de Chavín. Visitors can descend into the tunnels to get a sense of the initiation process and meet the Lanzón themselves.
The site is roughly a two hour drive from Huaraz, a route that offers jaw-dropping views of the lunar-like landscape stretching between the Cordillera Blanca and its more subdued sibling, the Cordillera Negra. But be sure to take your Dramamine – about halfway through, the paved road gives way to a very bumpy gravel road full of switchbacks. Pro tip: on the way to the site, you’ll pass the glimmering Lago Querococha; hop out of your car to snag a coca tea at the roadside stand and take in the view.
Think of the bluest blue you’ve ever seen, and then multiply it ten times over. That’s the color of Laguna 69, a cerulean pool nestled beneath the glacial peaks of Chacraraju at an impressive altitude of 4600 meters. Perhaps one of the Cordillera’s most breathtaking landmarks, Laguna 69 practically glows in the sunlight, its waters dancing beneath the delicate waterfall fed by the melting snow above. While it’s likely that you won’t be the only person on the shores, hikers are reverent, speaking in low tones as they take in the otherworldly vista (though you might hear the occasional squeals of those brave enough to take a dip).
It should be noted that the hike to the lake is not exactly easy; part of Parque Nacional Huascarán, the trail is well worn, but a good part of it requires steep ascent and the altitude takes its toll. Hikers should be well acclimatized before making the trek. That said, the trail leading to Laguna 69 shows off some seriously postcard-worthy scenery, passing through the Cebollapampa, a pastoral valley lined with dramatic granite peaks and book-ended by the frosty mountain giants Huascarán and Yanaphaqcha. The air fills with the soft rush of the waterfall at the end of the valley, while a babbling creek winds its way among the tall grasses and grazing mountain cows – the climb is punctuated with various plateaus and look-out spots, so take advantage of those water breaks to survey your surroundings. You’ll feel like you should pinch yourself to make sure it’s real.
Make it happen
The buzzing mountain town of Huaraz serves as a convenient base for those looking to access the Cordillera Blanca; while it is a solid seven hours away from Lima, visitors have multiple travel options. Those wanting to save time can book a flight to the small airport right outside of Huaraz, but be warned that the flights are not very frequent, usually only once per day. Traveling by bus takes longer but offers more flexibility – those looking to maximize daylight hours should consider taking an overnight bus. Companies like Oltursa (oltursa.pe) make this easy, offering reclining seats, wi-fi, and even on-board meals for round-trip prices as low as S29 (US$9) for a basic seat and S75 (US$22) for a VIP spot.
Once in Huaraz, you can either take a taxi to where you want to go (a surprisingly affordable option), or hire a tour guide and driver. Car rentals can be risky, especially when driving on the unpaved, winding roads throughout the range.
The dry season in the Cordillera, roughly May through September, is the best time for trekking.
What to bring
- A good pair of hiking shoes or boots
- Lots of layers – The temperature varies wildly from morning to night thanks to the thin mountain air
- Sunscreen – Apply everywhere, even your hands. The sun is intense and clouds are few during the dry season
- Hiking sticks – Some outfitters will provide these on site; they are helpful when it comes to navigating rocks and boulders
- A day pack big enough for some snacks, water, and your excess layers
- Water bottle – Altitude sickness is a real possibility, so be sure to bring plenty of water to help prevent its symptoms
- S10 (US$3) for day entry to the Parque Nacional Huascarán; multi-day trekkers can buy a 10-day pass for S65 (US$19)
Bailey Johnson traveled to Peru with support from PromPerú (promperu.gob.pe). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.