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An often overlooked area of Peru, the Cordillera Blanca offers a wilderness of high mountain hiking and true adventure for those who want to take it.

 

To get the most out of the four or five-day Santa Cruz hike, which encompasses high altitudes, extreme terrain, and rapidly changing weather, it is best to hire a tour guide with local knowledge.

 

Heading out of Huaraz, the picturesque road splits the white-topped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca and the blackened hills of the Cordillera Negra. Stop along this ribbon of mountain road and fuel up with the local chicha brew before climbing right to the trailhead at Cashapampa. After strapping packs to the donkeys, the trek begins with a long, shallow climb on a path that runs beside a tumbling river. Leaving the misty mountains in the distance, the route continues on into the tall-walled Santa Cruz gorge before camp is set beside the river as the sun begins to sink into the night sky.

 

The following morning, the trail reaches the end of the gorge at the Ichicocha lake, a reed-filled lagoon home to Andean geese, and the surrounding mountains are revealed. From there it is on to Jatuncocha, a deep blue glacier-fed lake at 4,100 metres (13,400 feet), and then a climb up to the second camp as the valley opens out into a rolling plateau.

 

The view from camp two, Taullipampa, at 4,250 metres (13,900 feet) is spectacular, with the mountains of Quitaraju, Taullapampa and Alpamayo, once voted the most beautiful peak in the world, forming a row of pyramidal summits on one side; Paria, Piramide and Artesonraju create an icy panorama on the other and the lakes, now long left behind, hiding in the valley below.

 

The next day begins with a tough climb up to the 4,700 metres (15,400 feet) Punta Union pass, chewing coca leaves to alleviate any altitude sickness as you go. Past a vibrant blue glacier lake, the route reaches the top, and there offers sweeping views of valleys tucked between the rugged mountains on which you stand. From here the trail drops into the Huaripampa valley, eventually winding through meadows which, at certain times of the year, overflow with flowers.

 

A long walk will eventually find the campsite and an overnight break before continuing on through small settlements like the farming town of Wallipampa, where villagers and cattle live harmoniously, surrounded by the captivating scenery that unfolds beneath Chacraraju mountain. At Vaqueria, the sight of towns in the distance incorrectly suggests the final destination is near.

 

Before winding to an end, the trail witnesses a change of scenery and follows a white- water river through a forest of moist and mossy trees. One more overnight stop here, then another rocky climb takes you back into the clouds at 4,800 metres (15,700 feet) and through the Portachuelo de Llanganuco, which offers the finale: high views over snowy peaks with Huscarán, Peru’s highest peak at 6,768 metres (22,200 feet), towering above the valley below. From here the trail drops down past two lakes, eventually leaving you to meet the lift back to Huaraz.



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