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The Cordillera Blanca is blessed with some of the greatest trails and most spectacular scenery in South America, and it draws trekkers from across the world. Across gorgeous valleys and mountain passes nearly 5,000m (16,400 ft.) high, past stunning lakes, waterfalls, and rivers, the region truly earns the cliché so often accorded it: It's a mountaineer and trekker's paradise. The scenery is enlivened by fantastic indigenous flora and fauna, including 800 varieties of blossoming flowers (the Puya Raimondi and ancient queñual and cacti forests among them), as well as Andean condors, vicuñas, pumas, Andean deer, and 100 species of birds. There are terrific campsites throughout the valley and excellent guides, porters, and mules to round out your expedition.

There are some three dozen well-established treks in the Cordillera Blanca (and many dozens more that draw few tourists). Of the many treks possible from Huaraz, the classic Llanganuco-Santa Cruz route, one of the most beautiful on the continent, is understandably the most popular. The route across the Santa Cruz gorge begins in the village of Cashapampa and makes its way to the emerald-green lakes at the Llanganuco ravine. The 45km (28-mile) trek usually takes 4 or 5 days. Other popular circuits include Alpamayo, a beautiful trek among snowcapped summits that takes about 12 days; Cedros Gorge, which takes in mountains in the northern sector of the Huascarán Park (4 days); and Llanganuco and Portachuelo, a less demanding trek through the Quillcayhuanca ravine (1-2 days).

Other well-known routes are:

  • Cojup Valley (Huaraz to Laguna Palcacucha), 20km (12 miles), 2 days (moderate)
  • Laguna Churup, 25km (16 miles), 1 to 2 days (difficult)
  • Olleros to Chavín, a pre-Columbian trail that ends at Chavín de Huántar, 40km (25 miles), 3 days (moderate)
  • Quebrada Quillcayhuanca to Cayesh, 25km (16 miles), 2 to 3 days (easy to moderate)

The Casa de Guías in Huaraz has detailed information about these and other treks, and South American Explorers produces a good map of various treks in the region. Another good resource is Peru & Bolivia: Backpacking and Trekking (Bradt Publications, 2002), by Hilary Bradt, with descriptions of a number of treks in the Cordillera Blanca.

Even more accessible hikes in this daunting region should be undertaken only by individuals in good physical shape; tackling a mountain pass at nearly 5,000m (16,400 ft.) with gear and food is not easy for those unaccustomed to high altitudes.

Packin' Up the Llama -- Pack-laden mules on the trail are common, but what could be cooler and more authentic in Peru than trekking with a llama? An organization called Llama 2000, an initiative undertaken by campesino farmers from the Callejón de Huaylas and the Mountain Association of the Olleros-Chavín area, has proposed exactly that. The Llama-Trek Expedition in Olleros-Chavín is a roots-based ecotourism initiative, supported by PromPerú and the European Union, that begins in the small alpine town of Olleros (30km/19 miles south of Huaraz). The 4-day trek provides great views of the snowcapped peaks Shaqsha (5,703m/18,711 ft.), Cashan (5,686m/18,655 ft.), and Tuctupunta (5,343m/17,530 ft.), and offers the opportunity to share the customs and traditions of local peasant communities. The route ends at the archaeological site Chavín de Huántar. For more information on llama trekking in the Cordillera, contact Llama 2000 in Lima at tel. 01/224-3408. Peru Llama Trek (tel. 043/421-266; www.perullamatrek.com) also organizes Olleros-Chavín llama treks.

Cordillera Huayhuash: The New "It" Range

As the treks in the Cordillera Blanca have become more popular in recent years, intrepid trekkers who are determined to find yet more solitude and untrammeled scenery are now setting out on extended trekking circuits of the Cordillera Huayhuash, which is even more pristine and remote. Although it extends only 30km (19 miles) from north to south, it, too, has phenomenal mountain vistas and sparkling lagunas -- perhaps more spectacular still than the Cordillera Blanca -- but only a few very isolated and primitive mountain communities.

The range, which was made a natural preserve in 2002, comprises seven peaks more than 6,000m (19,680 ft.) high and seven additional peaks higher than 5,500m (18,040 ft.). The landscape is more wide-open than that of the Cordillera Blanca, which is characterized by deep canyons. The major trekking and climbing agencies in Huaraz and Caraz offer Huayhuash treks, which usually begin in the town of Chiquián at 3,400m (11,150 ft.), 110km (68 miles) south of Huaraz. Trekking in the range is difficult, with as many as eight passes higher than 4,500m (14,760 ft.), and two main circuits are popular: One is 80km (50 miles) round-trip; the other, which covers the entire range, is as much as 165km (102 miles) and takes from 12 to 14 days.

Llanganuco-Santa Cruz Trek 

Touted as one of the top five treks in the world by several international outdoor-oriented magazines, the 4- to 5-day Llanganuco-Santa Cruz trail is one of the most scenic in Peru. It takes in extraordinary mountain scenery of snowcapped peaks, brilliant turquoise lakes, glacier-fed rivers, sparkling waterfalls, and serene meadows. The 62km (38-mile) trail ranges from 2,900 to 4,750m (9,512-15,580 ft.) in altitude but is rated moderate to difficult, meaning that the hike can be undertaken by anyone in good physical shape who has allowed for time to acclimatize in Huaraz. In peak season, though, the trail's popularity is its enemy. It gets quite crowded, and trash is a problem. There are established campsites and pit toilets along the route.

Trekkers can walk the trail in either direction, starting at Cashapampa (2 hr. by bus from Caraz) or Vaquería (2 1/2 hr. by bus from Carhuaz). Many independent travelers prefer to start the trail at Vaquería because the daily bus from Huaraz allows time to make it to the campsite on the first day and get a good jump on the high pass the following day.

All-inclusive treks from Santa Cruz to Llanganuco in a "pooled" service start at about $200 per person.

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.