Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Peak Of Our Trip - Cordillera Blanca, Peru

When we started this trip, I had certain notions of what South America would look like. The Cordillera Blanca in Peru is exactly what I had envisioned for the Andes mountains that stretch all the way from Venezuela to Argentina. The Cordillera Blanca is overwhelmingly dramatic, with snow-covered 21,000 foot peaks, granite cliffs, glaciers, emerald blue lakes, and waterfalls everywhere you look. Our Lonely Planet guidebook nailed it when it described the area: "One of the most breathtaking parts of the continent, the mountainous region of the Cordillera Blanca is where superlatives crash and burn in a brave attempt to capture the beauty of the place". Indeed.

We ended up spending 2 weeks in the Cordillera Blanca mostly hiking and driving El Tigre on the worst roads he's ever seen (at least with us at the wheel). Unfortunately we hit the mountains during the wet season, so many days we had to work hard to finish our adventuring before the afternoon downpours started. The upside, no crowds. Most of the time we were completely alone.

While we were aclimating to the area, we drove through the Canon del Pato which has 35 scary 1-lane tunnels through an impressive and deep canyon.

One of the short tunnels

Our first adventure in the Cordilleras ended in failure. We started 4,500 vertical feet below the famed emerald Laguna Paron, flanked by what is said to be the Paramount Pictures mountain. Instead of driving the truck up the horrible road, we decided to bike to the lake. The climb was intense, and took us way longer than we had antipicated. It rained and even hailed, but we persevered for an hour past our self-imposed turn-around time. We gave up just half a mile short of the lake. Our heads were pounding, the sun was setting, and we were cold, bordering on delirious. After all that, we never got to see the lake and certainly not the mountain. FAIL.

Llanganuco Lake

After this mishap, we were more willing to drive the truck closer to our intended destination. Our favorite was no doubt the hike to Laguna 69. We hiked for a few hours at around 12,000 - 13,000 ft, past dramatic cliffs and waterfalls, catching glimpses of giant snow-covered mountains above us. The hike ended at the much anticipated Laguna 69. As I rounded the corner to see the glowing blue lake ahead of me, I stopped in my tracks. It was quite literally an unbelievable color. To add to the beauty, there was a 20,000 ft mountain peaking out of the clouds right above it, with a little waterfall pouring into the lake. This was the only hike where we saw tourists. Even during the wet season, people brave the cold and rain to see this beauty.

Strolling among the giants

The first glimpse of Laguna 69

Laguna 69

Cattle Battle at our campsite. The cows rubbed and licked our truck all night. They won.

Our only bad experience in the Cordillera Blanca was when we drove up a rugged valley towards the peak known as Huantsan (accent a) with Laguna Rujucolta as our goal. While we drove up the valley, on a rough road barely wide enough for El Tigre, we passed mud houses and quite a few people who wouldn't return our wave, all the while giving us the stink-eye. This was contrary to the smiles we saw in the other valleys. In retrospect, we should've taken this as a warning.

After an intense drive through river beds and narrow 4WD-required switchbacks, we stopped at a river that had washed out the road. We slept on the side of the road, and in the morning, headed to the trailhead by foot. Once in the national park, the ranger walked with us for a while. We struggled to communicate because his first language was also not Spanish (Quechua is the indigenous language of the region). It was definitely like a couple of 2-year olds trying to communicate. He was trying to tell us that it was not safe for us to leave our vehicle alone, but it took us about 10 minutes of back-and-forth "what-did-you-say" before we realized what he was getting at. He told us that the locals would slash our tires and throw rocks at our vehicle. Just to make sure we understood, we asked if we should abandon our hike and immediately return to the truck. His answer was an unequivocal and emphatic yes.

At that point, Scott handed me all of his gear. He ran back to the truck, while I walked, all the while ruminating about how I would deal with slashed tires or broken windows. As I walked, a lady whom we had encountered on our way up was 50 feet above the road crouched behind a rock. She was screaming Quechua curses at me as I passed. She continued until I was out of her sight. I couldn't understand anything she said, but it was intense. It definitely scared me, and seemed to validate the ranger's advice. I returned to the truck only 15 minutes after Scott had arrived, and all was good. We took a deep breath and drove back down the insane road to the highway.

Unique plants of the Cordilleras

The next day, we drove El Tigre up to 16,000 ft and climbed up to the Pastoruri glacier. As we ambled around, we realized we were close enough to 17,000 ft that we should make it a goal for the day. We made it to 16,936 before having to turn around because of steep snow-covered scree that we couldn't climb. Almost!

The shrinking Pastoruri Glacier

16,936 feet above sea-level - couldn't even get ourselves to 17,000 ft!  So close

Other days, we just headed up into random valleys. With just a little bit of research, we found trails, mountains, and lakes that probably rarely see tourists.

An umarked trail to a peak we didn't even know the name of

Ho-hum...just another spot in the Cordillera Blanca unworthy of being named on a map

Superlative alert. The Cordillera Blanca is one of the coolest places we have ever been. The massive scale of the mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, and lakes, paired with the accessibility, make this place one of our all-time favorites. Can Patagonia top this, or should we just turn around now?

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