Peru, part two: the lure of the Andes
Peru does most things on a grander scale than Ecuador — the country is bigger, its Amazon region is vaster, and the mountains are more imposing. Whereas Ecuador has several gorgeous peaks, they all stand alone, towering in their snow-capped solitude above the rest of the terrain. Peru, on the other hand, boasts multiple massifs and entire mountain chains. We both developed a love for the Andes in Ecuador; in Peru, that love blossomed.
Arriving in Huaraz in the heart of the Cordillera Blanca, D was tempted to never leave. One can spend several lifetimes hiking, trekking, and climbing in this stunning mountain range without running out of peaks to ascend or new trails to explore. D spent a couple of weeks in the mountains, opting to skip the ice climbs in favor of multiple hikes and several long treks, including Santa Cruz and Huayhuash, in order to see more. Though Huaraz is the town from which most visitors base their exploration of the Cordillera, further north Caraz makes a nice, quiet alternative.
S had more limited time to explore Peru’s mountains. Instead of lingering in the Cordillera Blanca, she and her sister joined a group of other hikers in Huaraz for the eight-day trek around the more remote Cordillera Huayhuash. To this day, Huayhuash still easily tops both our lists of our favorite treks. A casual Google search reveals that we are not alone. Huayhuash consistently ranks near the top of numerous lists of the most beautiful mountain walks in the world.
The trail circumnavigates the Huayhuash Cordillera, which includes several massive peaks, the most notable of which is Siula Grande — the protagonist, one might say, of Joe Simpson’s incredible true story, Touching the Void. The terrain is as rugged as it is beautiful, with jagged snow-covered peaks, shimmering alpine lakes, and tiny villages scattered about the desolate altiplano. At least one of the mountain passes is above the 5,000-meter mark — about half a mile higher than any point in the contiguous 48 states.
Although we did not climb in the Cordillera Blanca, we did ascend El Misti, the imposing volcano that towers over Arequipa. Its slopes are covered in black sand, which makes for a strenuous climb, followed by an unbelievably rapid descent. It took us 12 hours, spread over two days, to reach the smoking crater at the top. The descent lasted just around an hour, each downward step on the sandy slopes taking us down a dozen feet or more.
Not only are Peru’s mountains indescribably beautiful, but so are the valleys between them. A couple of hours from Arequipa lies the Colca canyon, which for a long time was thought to be the deepest canyon in the world. It is not, but its proximity to Arequipa makes it much more visited than the Cotahuasi canyon, which actually holds that distinction. Colca is home to the Andean condor, which adds to the canyon’s draw, though judging from S’s pictures one is far more likely to see colorfully dressed women selling tchotchkes than catch a glimpse of these majestic birds.
D skipped Colca, the third-most visited tourist site in Peru, and braved the cramped overnight bus to Cotahuasi instead. It was not a pleasant journey, lasting close to twelve hours, with much of it on unpaved mountain roads, but it was well worth it. Both for its remoteness and its surreal beauty, Cotahuasi remains D’s favorite place in Peru. At 3,354 meters, it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon — a depth so immense that it is difficult to wrap one’s mind around it even after visiting.
D spent a week in Cotahuasi. Smaller and more cramped microbuses connect the main eponymous village with tiny settlements deep inside the canyon. D stayed several nights in Pampamarca, where the only way he had of feeding himself was by paying an enterprising local woman a small amount of money to share breakfast and dinner with her family. There was no lunch option other than the crackers she sold in her tiny shack on the dusty main square.
Pampamarca has it all — sandstone “castles” that had been sculpted by centuries of wind erosion, natural hot springs, a waterfall, and gorgeous mountain views everywhere the eye can see. Leaving Pampamarca, D asked his host, who had converted a spare room in his modest, two-room dwelling into an “hospedaje,” how business was going. The man grinned widely and said that business was booming — D was the fourth foreigner he had hosted that month. D had to convince him to take more than the dollar per person per night he was charging, and even so the man would only take half the money D tried to pay him.