You might think that after our high-altitude, 50-mile (80 km) trek to Machu Picchu, we would be ready to retire our hiking boots and throw them into the campfire. Not so fast! As further punishment, we endured an eleven-hour bus ride to the city of Huaraz to hike to even loftier heights.
Huaraz is considered the Andean adventure capital of Perú and ideal base for exploring the Cordillera Blanca (White Range), the highest altitude and most expansive tropical mountain range in the world. Clearly visible to the north of Huaraz soars Mount Huascarán, the highest peak in Perú and the earth’s tropics.
On May 31, 1970, the Great Peruvian Earthquake, the most lethal earthquake in the recorded history of the western hemisphere, struck the Cordillera Blanca and destroyed 90% of the city of Huaraz. The earthquake also destabilized a large mountain glacier on the north peak of Huascarán, triggering the deadliest avalanche in world history.
In reverence to the tectonically ferocious Cordillera Blanca, our initial hike was up to modest Lake Wilcacocha, located just outside the Huaraz city limits. The rural path led us up through small pastoral villages, followed rushing surface water irrigation channels, and skirted numerous small agricultural plots of corn and golden fields of high-altitude winter wheat.
From the edge of diminutive Lake Wilcacocha, the entire snowy range jutted out of the earth like a jawbone of whitened incisors. From this panoramic vantage point, we admired more 20,000-foot (6,100 m) glaciated mountaintops than anywhere outside of the Himalayas.
The next day, we infiltrated the alpine terrain on a day-hike to Laguna 69, the most popular trail into the Cordillera Blanca. Following a tumbling crystalline stream, the strenuous six-hour roundtrip climb skyrocketed past gargantuan granite outcrops and a string of cascading waterfalls plummeting overhead.
Proceeding up the trail, the pointed peaks of the Cordillera Blanca and their hanging mountain glaciers emerged in sharp focus. To our surprise, we passed herdsmen and their docile livestock feeding on the high mountain grasses. One especially gentle donkey agreed to wear my hat and pose for a photo, in exchange for a scratch behind his ear.
After spiraling up the trail, we eventually reached Laguna 69 at a final altitude of 15,092 feet (4,600 m). In the thin high-mountain air, we savored the sparkling view of this glacier lake, its turquoise blue reflection, and glacier-carved mountain backdrop.
The following day, we broke our personal high-altitude hiking record with a short 40-minute stroll up to the Pastoruri Glacier. To reach the trailhead, we traveled from Huaraz by tour van on one of Perú’s highest roads. Flourishing in this strange high-altitude terrain, we passed effervescent springs and a grove of giant bromeliads.
Standing beside this dissolving and rapidly retreating mountain glacier, we had achieved an ultimate elevation 16,400 feet (5,000 m). We had never before experienced this high an altitude. Short of breath and ignoring our throbbing heads, we inhaled the rarefied air amidst the stark mountain landscapes, while hiking even higher in Huaraz.
Blogger’s Note: This week, we returned home to Arizona USA after wrapping up our two-month trip in Perú. During our visit, we were captivated by Perú’s fascinating cultural identity and stunning natural scenery. Now, we plan to rest at home for a couple of months before embarking on our next month-at-a-time travel adventure. In the fall, we are planning to take another two-month trip. This time to an even higher altitude hiking and trekking destination