Peru’s Mountainous Middle

Following on from my tour of Peru’s historically-fascinating and architecturally-interesting (but not-very-tropical) coast, it’s back into the mountains.  And not just any old mountains either, but the highest peaks in the country, the highest mountain range in the tropics, and some of the highest in the entire Andes.

My journey back inland starts at the noisy and dirty coastal town of Chimbote, Peru’s largest fishing port.  Accounting for more than 75% of the country’s fish-related activity, it’s a place you smell long before you see.  Leaving behind the industrial sprawl (and the distinctive odour of fermenting fish), the bus climbs up through the mountains of the Cordillera Negra, brown hills slowly morphing into green mountains.  At the top of the journey, the bus travels through the anorexically-thin passage of el Cañón del Pato, the narrow road snaking along the sheer rock face, with a 1000m-plus vertical drop to the side.

Emerging from the shadowy gorge at the village of Huallanca, we turn south and travel along el Callejón de Huaylas, the valley that winds between the Cordilleras Negra and Blanca.  The black mountain range is snowless, and although it’s a large and attractive backdrop to the right of the valley, it’s eclipsed by the Cordillera Blanca to our left, its snowy peaks running parallel to the highway and stretching for 180km.

The first town we come to is Caraz, my base for exploring the northern section of the Cordillera Blanca.  And my first ports-of-call are a hotel with a hot shower and a laundry, as there’s been a horrible ‘accident’ on the bus – as often happens in this part of the world, one of the passengers was travelling with his cage of chickens (which the bus attendant placed in the boot).  And over the course of the journey, the evil birds have shit continuously, and it’s spread all over the floor of the boot, covering everyone else’s luggage, and soaking through my rucksack (and into my clothes).  The chicken-carrying passenger (and his vile clutch of crapping poultry) has already got off, so I can’t curse at him or threaten him and his evil birds; and even though the bus attendant is in charge of the luggage in the boot (and really should’ve organised things better, so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen), I feel too bad for him to moan at him, what with him having to wipe up all that shit, and with nothing but a small square of newspaper…

I spend the rest of the day waiting for the lavanderia to wash my filthy clothes, while cleaning my stinking backpack in the hotel bathroom shower tray.  Do you know what chicken excrement smells like when it’s soaked into your clothes for several hours?  It smells foul.  Or should that be fowl?  Gross.

The next day (finally clean and chicken-poop-free), I travel into the heart of the Cordillera Blanca, to one of its many high-altitude lakes.  30km or so from Caraz, along a dirt road that winds between the 6000m peaks of Aguja and Huandoy, and goes from an altitude of 2300m to 4200m, is Laguna Parón.  The bright blue lake is surrounded on three sides by six snowy mountains, all over 5700m.  And at the far end of the lagoon, after a two-hour-hike along the shore, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the rugged-looking Artesonraju, the inspiration for Paramount Pictures’ mountainous logo.  As well as a glimpse of a herd of hardy cows who’ve somehow made it this far (they certainly didn’t swim here, that’s for sure – the water is ice-cold).

Caraz is famous throughout Peru for its honey and milk products, and at the end of the tour my fellow (Peruvian) travellers insist on finding some shops to buy honey and manjar blanco – a caramel confection (also called dulce de leche) made from milk and sugar, that’s delicious but tooth-meltingly sweet.  I buy some of the sweet honey, and leave the would-be diabetics to their dentist’s nightmare…

Another famous lagoon in this part of the Cordillera Blanca is Llanganuco.  There are actually two of them, Chinancocha and Orconcocha, nestled in a glacial valley between more ice-caps (including Peru’s highest mountain, the 6768m Huascarán).  Like Laguna Parón, their emerald waters reflect the cloudless skies and surrounding mountains in a dazzling collage of blues and whites.  And like the journey to and from Parón, the ‘road’ from the lakes to the nearby town of Yungay is along a valley formed by thousands of years of the mountains’ meltwater making its slow way to the Pacific.

Huascarán dominates the horizon above Yungay, and (ironically) there’s no better view of the snowy giant than from the very place it destroyed.  The original town of Yungay is several kilometres south of the new town (and several metres under the ground), and it marks the site of the worst natural disaster in the Andes.  Earthquakes are common in this seismically-active zone, and on May 31 1970, an 8.0 magnitude one shook the mountains, killing over 70,000 people throughout the Cordillera Blanca.  Many towns along the Callejón de Huaylas were devastated, but none more than Yungay – millions of cubic metres of rock, ice, and snow broke away from the side of Huascarán, barrelled down the valley at hundreds of kilometres per hour, and obliterated the town, killing almost the entire population of 26,000 in minutes.

The site of the old town is now an enormous cemetery, and walking over the now-solid ground, snapping away at the beautiful peak in the distance, I have to remind myself that there are thousands of dead people buried several metres below me.  Rose-filled gardens follow the path of the avalanche to the end of the site, where there’s the remains of a bus, now nothing more than a chunk of twisted metal sticking out of the earth.  And next to it is the original cathedral, almost completely covered, except for the very top of its tower.  A small hill next to the site is the home of the town’s original cemetery, and it’s the best place to view both the mountain and the devastation it unleashed.  A statue of Jesus stands on the top, facing the mountain and holding out its arms towards Huascarán, as if pleading with it for no further disasters.

Further down the highway is Huaraz, the capital of the department and the biggest city in the region.  Despite being almost completely flattened by the 1970 quake, it’s now a big, bustling city that’s not particularly attractive, but is surrounded by more icy peaks.  And five or so hours to the south is the 5600m Nevado Caullaraju, and the southern end of the Cordillera Blanca.  But there are still more mountains – south of the Cordillera Blanca is the smaller, more remote, but no less spectacular Cordillera Huayhuash.  And to get a look at those mountains, I need to travel to the small and un-touristy town of Chiquián.

The journey gets off to a less-than-auspicious start.  After finally locating the office of the one bus company that runs from Huaraz to Chiquián, when I get there it turns out that the next bus is eight hours from now.  But the last one has only just left, so the bus company owner hurredly ushers me into his car, and we tear down the road to catch up with it.  I don’t know whether he’s giving me this lift out of niceness, or a desire to have as many fare-paying passengers as possible; but either way I’m happy.  After catching up with the bus (which is being driven by someone with the same disregard for speed limits as his employer), we continue on our way.  At Lake Conococha, we pass herds of vicuñas (the wild ancestor of llamas and alpacas), wandering across the barren altiplano.  And on the last stretch, it’s downhill to Chiquián, with a continual view of the Cordillera Huayhuash in the distance, as the road zig-zags down.

The next day (my one and only in Chiquián), I hike up to the town’s mirador, which gives me a panoramic view of the range.  Much smaller than the Cordillera Blanca, at 30km long, the Huayhuash still manages to pack in some serious (and seriously beautiful) summits, including Yerupajá (the country’s second-highest mountain) and Siula Grande (where Joe Simpson had a brush with death followed by a miraculous escape, as immortalised in the excellent book and brilliant film Touching the Void).

The mountains here (and in the Cordillera Blanca) are almost as high (and just as dramatic-looking) as those in the Himalayas (I haven’t seen anything quite like them outside of Nepal or northern India).  And after one last look, it’s back on the bus, to head south to Peru’s Inca (and now tourist) heartland of Cusco and the Sacred Valley…

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