The Cordillera Blanca in Peru is South America’s Himalaya. Here, the world’s longest mountain range, the Andes, rises up from the Earth’s crust – with a vengeance. Nearly thirty peaks break 6,000 metres elevation, including the country’s highest, Huascarán, at 6,768 metres, the highest peak anywhere within the tropics. This section of the Andes’ spine is only 180 kilometres long and hardly more than 20 kilometres wide.
Across the valley from the range, another ridge of mountains called the Cordillera Negra separates it from the Pacific. The valley between them is known as the Callejón Huaylas, or Huaylas Alleyway. Despite these prodigious gifts, hardly anyone has heard of the area.
The Cordillera Blanca is protected by the Parque Nacional Huascarán, and, although there are problems with mines, deforestation and population pressure, much of the park is wild, home to a number of increasingly-rare creatures such as the Andean spectacled bear. The park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, while the Huayhuash range to the south only achieved protected status as late as 2002.
There are dozens of great treks to choose from. While mountaineers will be chomping on the bit to get to the high peaks, everyone needs to spend time acclimatising to the altitude, so some trekking is a good idea. An easy and spectacular day trip is a visit to Lagunas Llanganuco, below the Huascarán, Huandoy and other awe-inspiring peaks. You can join an inexpensive tour from Huaraz, or take a bus to the village of Yungay from where pick-up trucks or minibuses will take you up to the lakes. A road skirts the left bank of the first lake joining up with the second, making a great walk. Renting a mountain bike in Huaraz, you can get a near-bird’s eye view of the lake by taking a minibus up to the Portachuelo Pass at 4,767 metres, and then biking all the way back downhill to Yungay – 11 hours of cycling!
Probably the most popular and well-known trek in the region is the Santa Cruz loop. It takes four days, climbing up the Quebrada Santa Cruz to cross over the 4,750-metre Punta Unión pass, almost completely surrounded by glistening glaciers. From the pass, be sure to scramble up the hill to the south for a few minutes to gaze upon one of the most spectacular views in the entire Cordillera Blanca. For something harder, trekkers head round to the north side of the Alpamayo peak, dubbed ‘the most beautiful mountain in the world’, a trip worth taking a week over. And if you can’t resist getting your crampons on and braving the ice, then there are a handful of non-technical peaks to take on: Ishinca (5,530m), Pisco (5,752m) or Vallunaraju (5,780 m). After that you can tackle the scary peaks such as Huandoy’s four-headed peak, Huascarán’s double, Chopicalqui and Chacraraju.
But the Cordillera Blanca isn’t all about adrenaline – although, as it happens, it does also harbour some great rivers for white-water rafting. Over on the eastern side of the range lie the ruins of Chavín, accessible by three-day hike from the village of Olleros, or on an easy-day tour by bus or organised mini-van. The Chavín culture flourished from 1,000 to 300 BC, its empire extending north to Ecuador and south to Ayacucho in south-central Peru. Its cat-worshipping people had a great influence on many pre-Incan civilisations in Peru and today one can admire the fine stonemasonry which exemplified their art. The ruins are set in dramatic rolling countryside and are worth visiting for the journey through the mountains alone. The eastern side of the Cordillera Blanca is much less visited, and although travel is slow, if you want to escape the Goretex crowd then head to the villages on this side.