Exploring La Cordillera Blanca
Huaraz, Peru may be small, but the city provides a home base for a not so small number of treks through Huascarán National Park in La Cordillera Blanca. Also quite considerable is the city’s altitude of about 3,050 meters, eliciting triple the satisfaction upon completing said treks. Keeping this in mind, a visit to Huaraz is not to be taken lightly, nor is it to be missed. Perhaps you’re making your way south from Ecuador or heading down the “Gringo Trail” from Peru’s northern coast to Lima, looking to break up what would otherwise be a grueling series of buses and restless nights. Cue a three-day stay in Huaraz. This rapid coast to mountain transition takes a toll on the body (unless you’re superhuman), but that shouldn’t deter you from making a pit stop. Huascarán National Park was not initially on my list of places to check out, but it quickly proved to be one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Regardless of your trajectory, you can take advantage of a short (or long) visit to Huaraz. A night bus may leave you lethargic, but a lazy day will give your body a chance to acclimate to the high altitude. The day you arrive is best for rest, drinking lots of water (and then more), maybe going for a stroll around town, or tasting cuy (guinea pig) if that’s your thing. This would also be a suitable opportunity to talk with reception about your options for the following days. Allot some time to mentally prepare for the 5:00 AM departures, as well as to pack lunch and stock up on any additional necessities.
Trek to Laguna Parón
Day two is when the real fun begins. Remember to be patient with yourself; your body will be working extra hard to keep you moving, and you don’t want to end up falling ill. I would recommend a more gentle trek to help prepare you for Laguna 69. A great option is the Paramount Day Trek to Laguna Parón. Keep in my that if you are interested in going with a guide, you’ll have to plan at least a day in advance with reception or a local travel agency. I will assume that many of you have watched a Paramount Pictures film; here you’ll have the chance to see Artesonraju, the mountain that is said to be the inspiration for the company’s logo.
How to Get There
While Laguna Parón is about 4,200 meters above sea level, the suggested access route is via van, although walking up is a possibility (after catching various forms of public transportation). The drive is approximately three hours from Huaraz, including a thirty-minute stop at a market for breakfast and snacks. Once you arrive at the lagoon, you can hike (eh, rock climb) up another 100 meters, passing several rewarding viewpoints along the way. If you are welcomed by clear weather, the last point is where you can see the logo-inspiring Artesonraju. The altitude may get to your head, so take deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, drink water, and rest. Eventually, you can make your way back down and enjoy a leisurely walk along the perimeter of the lake, dive into your avocado sandwiches (if you’re me), and take in the impossibly turquoise color of the water before piling back into the van for the return journey. What I particularly loved about this trek was the lack of a crowd. Aside from our tiny group, there were only a handful of visitors. The whole experience could best be described as peaceful.
Before settling in for the evening after your adventure to Laguna Parón, or wherever you selected for your acclimatization hike, do yourself the favor of picking up more groceries for the next day’s lunch. You’ll thank yourself when 8:00 PM rolls around and all you want to do is crawl into bed. The trek to Laguna 69 will be longer and more physically demanding, so you’ll need even more fuel.
Trek to Laguna 69
Alas, you’ll see what most people show up for. Similar to Laguna Parón, you can plan the trip on your own or go with a tour. I opted for the tour because going solo seemed like a hassle and ultimately had the same price tag.
How to Get There
Another 5:00 AM departure sets you on your way to Laguna 69. About an hour and a half into the trip you will stop for breakfast where you can also purchase snacks, water, and coca leaves for the altitude. You can also find coca tea, which is smoother in taste than the pure leaves. The hike up to the lagoon will take an estimate of three (beautiful) hours. It starts off fairly flat, the majority of the time you’re walking up at a moderate incline, and once you reach the valley all that remains is a steep forty five minute ascent to about 4,600 meters. I won’t lie and say it’s not a challenge, but the entire path guarantees extraordinary scenery (think: Polylepis trees, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, cows).
My best piece of advice is to take it slow. I can understand wanting to be the first to the top to avoid the crowds, but it’s not worth feeling sick and you will still be able to find quiet areas to yourself. Regardless of when you reach the lagoon, you will be rewarded with unbelievable views. I’m not sure a picture will ever do justice, but I encourage you to take lots. Find a spot to lounge while gawking at your surroundings, and enjoy your well-earned lunch before beginning the two-hour trek back to the bus. If you don’t take my advice on the way up, that’s okay, but now is when I really suggest you listen. I find that the change in altitude hits more upon returning to lower ground, and the quicker you move, the more intense it will be. Believe me, an altitude headache is something you would prefer to avoid. There is no sense in rushing because the sooner you get back to the bus, the longer you’ll likely have to wait for the rest of your group to return.
You Did It!
Treat yourself to a hearty dinner after two days of adventure, admire your pictures, send a message to all of your family and friends encouraging them to visit Peru to see what you just saw, and prepare for your night bus onward. There are thousands of spectacular places around the world, but I can guarantee that your three days in Huaraz will leave a lasting impression.
If you have a particular health condition, I would consult a medical professional before beginning any trek. I provide suggestions that helped me personally, but I am not licensed to determine what works for anyone else.