As the bus from Lima crested the Cordillera Negra, I got my first glimpse of the snow-capped peaks that brought me to Huaraz. Several tourists quickly grabbed cameras to snap photos in the fading evening light but I just sat and marveled as I knew this would just be the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime. The bus rolled into Huaraz as night fell. The colorful streets bustled with rush hour commuters and though I had never been to South America, it was somehow just what I expected. Finally, after months of planning and 48 hours of traveling, I had made it. While I had come for the world-class mountains, I would discover over the next six weeks that Huaraz has much more to offer.
After making my way to Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast, I jumped on the internet to get in touch with my friend Dan who was delayed for a day in Philadelphia thanks to some passport issues (not everything can go perfectly). I joined some fellow guests for dinner at Le Brasa Roja and got my first taste of Peruvian cuisine; it was fabulous, which is a hefty comment coming from a very picky eater. Under the dark sky I couldn’t see the magnificence that surrounds Huaraz, the tantalizing peaks so picturesque to bring me to Peru. As I walked back from dinner, however, I could feel the cool alpine air race to fill my lungs not yet accustomed to the altitude. After meeting Dan early the next morning at the bus station, we were able to watch as the sun transformed the blackness of night into the canvass of alpine glory that surrounds Huaraz. As the roosters signaled the impending day, it finally sunk in exactly where I was and I realized I had definitely made a good choice.
After breakfast, Dan and I made our way to Huaraz’s outdoor market. Marveling at the incredible variety of goods for sale, from food to clothing to household goods, we made our way under the web of tarps and lines, requiring “dos metres” Dan to duck. In my first immersion into true Andean culture, I must say I was truly impressed with the friendly demeanor shown to us gringos. Even though I could hardly speak a word of Spanish, a smile can communicate many words.
Heeding recommendations, the following day we arranged a taxi ride to Pitec and hiked to Laguna Churup. It’s a sobering feeling to stare into the azure waters of an alpine lake resting under an impressive face knowing that you are standing at a higher altitude than you ever have before (4,600 m). After a beautiful day, we decided to continue acclimatizing with the Alpamayo Trek. Perhaps a bit overconfident, the altitude made its presence felt on the stiff 1400 m climb heading out of Hualcayan. After a night at altitude and moving slowly the next day, we decided to turn around at Laguna Cullichocha and head back down towards the natural hot springs outside Cashapampa. After hiking 20 miles the seemingly unreachable hot springs, always just around the corner according to whomever we asked, we were treated to an incredibly relaxing evening and a night sky filled with more stars than I ever knew existed. Perhaps the most transformational aspect of the entire trip, however, was seeing the glowing faces of the young children so elated just to be handed a piece of candy. While they have so little by western standards, their smiles put into perspective the meaning of true happiness.
After another acclimatization hike up the Quilcayhuanca valley and a couple of rest days in Huaraz, we set out for some of the best alpine climbs anywhere. Months before, we had set up a customized itinerary with Ted Alexander at Skyline Adventure School. Our itinerary took us to Yanapaccha, Chopicalqui, Tocllaraju, and Shaqsha. When expectations are high it is often difficult to be satisfied, but I can confidently say that the Cordillera Blanca did not disappoint. From classic alpine lakes to colorful sunrises at 6,000 m to crystal clear blue skies, day by day all the photos and stories slowly became my own memories. Despite both battling some stomach viruses, we each made two of four summits and were just shy of the peak of Tocllaraju. Beyond the climbing, I think I had the best nights in camp I’ve ever had thanks to the fabulous cooking of Humberto and the great company of our guide.
We came to Huaraz to experience the amazing Andean climbing, but we also left some time to soak in the unique Andean culture. With a week before our flight home, we were able to spend time in Huaraz, eating at the restaurants, buying food at the market, riding local transportation, and checking out the nightlife. One thing is for sure, even for those not interested in visiting the mountains Huaraz has a lot to offer. For those that do come to climb, taking some time to experience the local culture is an experience you will not soon forget.
Not wanting to miss any opportunities, we arranged a day of mountain biking with the renowned Julio Olaza. Getting a car ride to the top of the Cordillera Negra, we were able to cruise down the mountainside back to Huaraz, getting great views of the Cordillera Blanca across the valley during a fantastic ride that didn’t require grueling exertion by our already exhausted bodies. Finally, we finished our trip with an overnight visit to Hatun Machay, an area with dozens of sport rock climbs just a short drive from Huaraz. Sadly, with school and work calling it was time to return home. From the hospitality, to the mountains, to the new friends, Huaraz certainly made a lasting impression. On the plane ride home, we began planning a return trip.