The Cordillera Blanca, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world, is one of South America's most impressive ranges. Its glorious and imposing mountain peaks proclaim their beauty and power over a 180km (112-mile) stretch through the heart of Peru. Most visitors to the Cordillera Blanca mountain range want to view the stunning scenery of snowcapped peaks, glaciers, lakes, and rivers from up close and on high. They have one thing in mind: strapping on high-tech gear and embarking on trekking or climbing expeditions.
This section of Peru has become one of the world's mountaineering meccas. Fifty summits soar between 4,800 and 6,662m (15,748-21,857 ft.) high, and nearly the entire range forms part of the protected Parque Nacional Huascarán. Although the most challenging peaks are beacons to some of the most tested mountaineers in the world, there are plenty of trekking and climbing activities for those who haven't quite perfected their ascent techniques. And although some of the peaks are plenty daunting, access to the trail heads is fairly simple, reached by public transportation in just a few hours from Huaraz.
The 340,000-hectare (839,800-acre) Parque Nacional Huascarán was created in 1975 to protect the region's great natural resources. Within the park are the towns Recuay, Huaraz, Carhuaz, Yungay, Huaylas, Bolognesi, Huari, Asunción, Piscobamba, and Pomabamba, several of which serve as bases for explorers. The park counts 32 peaks higher than 6,000m (19,680 ft.) and includes Huascarán, Peru's highest summit, and Alpamayo, whose legendary fourth face is considered by many mountaineers as the most beautiful in the world, as well as 269 lakes and 41 rivers among its spectacular roster of natural blessings.
Most of the top climbs in the Cordillera Blanca are best done with the assistance of local guides and experts. Several climbs are not only arduous, but also extremely dangerous. Unless you're a certified member of the hard-core ilk, it's best to contract a guide or organized tour in Huaraz. There, you'll find a whole complement of services, including licensed guides, porters, climbing-gear rentals, and rescue teams. However, plenty of independent and self-reliant trekkers simply hire an arriero (muleteer) and set off without a proper guide.
In recent years, there has been a fair amount of grousing about the deteriorating state of the Parque Nacional Huascarán, from both trekkers and agencies; many complain that it is not being kept up as it should, with the most popular trails littered with refuse and bribes supplanting group payment of entry fees. If one of Peru's national treasures is being neglected, it will surely have a great impact not only on the local environment, but also on the local economy. So many individuals and communities depend upon the income produced by largely foreign adventure travelers who come to enjoy the remote beauty of the Peruvian Andes.
The fee to enter Huascarán National Park is S/5 for a single-day visit and S/65 for multi-day pass (valid up to 1 month). The entrance ticket to Huascarán National Park can be purchased at the Llanganuco and other entrances. You should keep a copy of your passport ready when entering and leaving the park.
Top of the Peaks -- Among the highest and best known of Peru's daunting pinnacles -- trophies prized by climbers the world over -- are Mount Huascarán, 6,768m (22,205 ft.); the Huandoy massif's three summits, all more than 6,000m (19,680 ft.) high; Chopicalqui, 6,354m (20,846 ft.); Chacraraju, 6,112m (20,052 ft.); Alpamayo, 5,957m (19,544 ft.); and Copa, 6,118m (20,072 ft.).
A Gear Checklist
Appropriate technical gear is required for nearly all treks and climbs in the Cordillera Blanca. If you're going with an organized group, you can rent anything you need that's not provided. Independent trekkers and climbers can also rent almost anything they need in Huaraz. Some equipment is invariably dated and in less than optimal condition, so experienced mountain climbers pursuing technical climbs will surely want to bring all their own equipment. At a minimum, you'll need cold-weather and water-repellent clothing; good backpacking or climbing boots; a tent, a sleeping bag, a camping stove, and cookware; a filter and/or water-purification tablets; a compass; and topographical maps of trails.
Yungay's hill Pan de Azúcar is the most common spot for hang gliding. For more information, contact Monttrek (tel. 043/421-124).
The Cordillera Blanca is a great spot to give this serious sport a try. The best mountains for ice climbing are Pisco, Ishinca, Huascarán, Alpamayo, Chopicalqui, and Artesonraju. Contact Pony Expeditions (tel. 043/391-642; www.ponyexpeditions.com) or Monttrek (tel. 043/421-124) for more information.
The Callejón de Huaylas is one of Peru's top destinations for mountain bikers, with hundreds of mountain and valley horse trails cutting across fields, bridges, and creeks, and past traditional Andean villages. Dedicated cyclists can also look forward to the thrill of climbing to 5,000m (16,400 ft.) through mountain passes.
In Huaraz, you can rent mountain bikes for an hour, a day, or a week. During the annual Semana del Andinismo in June, there's a mountain-bike competition. Two of Peru's best mountain-bike agencies operate in the area: Mountain Bike Adventures in Huaraz (tel. 043/424-259; www.chakinaniperu.com) and Pony Expeditions in Caraz (tel. 043/391-642; www.ponyexpeditions.com). Both have equipment rental and excellent biking itineraries.
Near Carhuaz, the Río Santa, which runs the length of the Callejón de Huaylas from Laguna Conococha, is where rafting in the area is practiced. Sections differ in degree of difficulty from easy (Classes II-III) to technical (Class V). The section that's most often rafted is between Jangas and Caraz. The season is May through September, when water levels are low. Monttrek (tel. 043/421-124) and a handful of other tour operators in Huaraz offer rafting.
Several agencies in Huaraz offer full-day rock-climbing tours in Caraz and Yungay, ranging from easy to moderate. Monterrey's Rocódromo and Uquia are the most popular spots. For more information, contact Monttrek (tel. 043/421-124); the agency even has an interior climbing wall at its headquarters in Huaraz.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.