30th July – The Cordillera Blanca, approx. 20km wide and 180km long, with spectacular mountains, glaciers, turquoise lakes and green valleys, is the highest tropical mountain range in the world, dividing the western and eastern slopes of the Andes from north to south. It has many summits of more than 6000m including Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain at 6768m and the highest in the tropics anywhere in the world.
The Parque Nacional Huascaran was established in 1975 and covers practically the entire area of the Cordillera Blanca, helping to protect endangered flora and fauna, including the spectacled bear, Andean Condor and the giant Puya Raimondaii plant. South of the Cordillera Blanca is the smaller and more remote Cordillera Huayhuash, containing Peru’s second highest mountain – Yerupaja at 6634m.
Running parallel to the Cordillera Blanca, is the Cordillera Negra or ‘Black Mountains’ as they do not have snow. However they have an important role to play by blocking the warm winds from the Pacific from reaching the Blanca’s glaciers, which would contribute to their thaw.
Although we have enjoyed Lima, we can’t wait to have a change of scenery and weather and are really looking forward to arriving amongst these mountains and the many Andean villages
And so we leave Lima behind after 2 weeks there. It is always difficult finding our way out of these huge cities and today is no different. We pull up at traffic lights in the sprawling district of Callao and are joined alongside by a policeman on a motorbike. He gives us a big smile and asks where we are heading. When we tell him we need the Panamericana Norte, he says ‘follow me’……wow, what a great guy! A police escort to get us out of this city so quickly……we really appreciated his help!
The outskirts still seem to continue for ever but at last, sand hills take over and although the smog-filled sky is still full of low, grey cloud, we hope it won’t be long before we reach some cleaner air and possibly see the sun again! Shanty towns spread up the hillsides disappearing into the mist, some people living in terrible conditions and in such a harsh and bleak landscape….rubbish everywhere.
We take the road for Huaraz soon after Barranco, where every bit of this green farming valley is used for growing crops, although the Rio Fortaleza at present, has only a trickle of water. The sun suddenly breaks through the cloud and we have blue sky again……wonderful! There are bright yellow carpets of sweet corn drying in the sun and darker carpets of Aji Panka. When I stop for a photo, a guy (Fernando), comes rushing over and fills up a bag for me. He’s a really nice guy with a great sense of humour and we ‘chat’ for a while and he assures me that the Aji Panka are not piquante (hot)!
At Conococha, with a Laguna of the same name at 4020m we turn northwest following the Rio Santa, water still managing to flow.
Rolling hills of yellow grassland and as we near Pachacoto and Catac, huge, snow-capped mountains appear in the distance, their peaks smouldering in the late afternoon sun……..our first glimpse of the Cordillera Blanca!
Unable to find any suitable hostel with secure parking, we decide to continue to Huaraz, capital of the Ancash department, althoughj it will be dark when we arrive. There are many hostels here but once again, parking for Moby will be out on the busy streets. We make the decision to find a gas station and discover one just south of Huaraz where they don’t mind us parking for the night. It’s very cold by now.
31st July – We return to Huaraz and park in the main Plaza de Armas, an attractive square with trees and carefully tended flower beds and dominated by the huge Catedral, being rebuilt after Huaraz was almost levelled by an earthquake in 1970. Glaciated peaks are visible in the distance.
It’s a busy and lively town, the centre for tours, trekking and climbing in the surrounding area. We obtain some useful information and maps from the tourist office and then buy our tickets for entry into the Parque Nacional Huascaran, which will allow us to visit various places inside the park and to camp if we wish.
Leaving Huaraz, we return south to Pachacoto through the rolling, yellow grasslands once again and mountain views with snow-covered peaks spearing the sky.
We plan to take the dirt road through the mountains as far as the little settlement at Huarapasca, dominated by the glacier of Pasto Ruri at 5240m. This route is also one of the remote, isolated Andean areas where the ancient Puya Raimondii plants grow. We pass Laguna Patacocha at 4130m and its surrounding mountains……….
………..and a short distance further on, we spot the tall flowers of the Puya Raimondii plants on the hillsides.
This amazing plant is the world’s largest bromeliad and one of the most ancient species in the world. It blooms from May for approx. 3 months and its elongated cluster of flowers from a single stem, can grow to 12m in height! They are the most unusual and fascinating plants and look spectacular growing against a backdrop of mountains and a blue sky………a real highlight along this route!
Another hour of climbing higher on this winding dirt road finally brings us to the small settlement of Huarapasca at 4780m dwarfed by giants of mountains and their glaciers.
I go over to ‘talk’ to 3 ladies, one with her hands in soapy water doing washing, a girl who keeps leaving to round up a shaggy-coated horse that persists in wandering and grandma, who has many teeth missing. I give her my bag of dried Aji Panka that Fernando gave me and she is delighted. A path goes through their crude shelters and then disappears up and close to the glacier of Pasto Ruri at 5240m. Time is getting on but the glacier is looking tempting. I decide to see how close I can get in approx. half an hour…….however, at this altitude, it is not easy to hurry!
I must be climbing close to 5000m, the highest altitude so far that I have been walking at. Bitterly cold, but spectacular scenery both in front and behind, as the late afternoon sun begins to colour the mountains. Time doesn’t allow me to get to the end of the path but I come fairly close to the edge of the glacier.
When I arrive back I have a lovely surprise, Grandma is waiting for me with a hot mug of mate de coca tea with plenty of sugar, to help with the altitude……how really kind of her. It was delicious and very welcome. Two delightful little girls with red cheeks, creep up to watch me, dissolving into giggles…….they think everything about me is so funny! So we have a good laugh and they giggle even more when I take their photo and then they pull out their older sister to have another one taken.
What an amazing, remote place this is but it is so cold now……how does this family manage to live in such a harsh environment! I have to say goodbye, as we have yet to find somewhere to stay for the night at lower altitude. On our journey back down through the mountains, a boy and girl are climbing up the track with their dogs. We stop and give them the 2 rubber balls that we were given when we bought our tyres in Lima and which we have no home for. I hope they have lots of fun with them and don’t lose them down the mountainside!
The sun is setting before we reach the bottom and the Puya Raimodii plants are silhouetted against the sky.
When we arrive back at Pachacoto, we find another garage to stop at for the night closer to Catac. The guard there is delighted with his 10 soles and we have a wonderfully quiet night after such an interesting day…….. fortunately, there is still so much more to see in this spectacular Cordillera.