Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Braving the rainy season in Peru sometimes pays off - the trails are deserted, the flights are cheaper and best of all you get the attention of the locals all to yourself...

3 mins

As the wind plucked menacingly at the guy ropes, I rolled over in my sleeping bag.

“Your turn.”

My friend pulled the Scrabble set nearer. “OK... that’s 23 points. And I got rid of the J!”

One thing you can say about the British is that we know how to entertain ourselves during forced periods of idleness. We also know about bad weather, and we know about proper equipment: our shops are full of foul-weather gear, boots that stay dry in Scottish bogs and tents that don’t leak. So surely Peru in the rainy season wouldn’t be too tough a challenge?

Marching on

The airfares were the trigger: £140 cheaper off-season than in the June to August peak. But we could see other advantages. Lima, shrouded in damp fog throughout the southern-hemisphere winter, enjoys proper summer weather between December and April – why not take advantage of that?

“Don’t go in January or February,” our Peruvian friend advised. “You could have days of continuous rain. But I think you can risk the other months.” So we chose March. Still cold at home, so Lima’s warmth and sun would be welcome, but the rain in the highlands would be starting to ease off, and summer is summer, even this close to the equator. Nights are not so cold (in the winter dry season trekkers regularly wake up to hoar frost) and days are a little longer.

Why the Cordillera Blanca not the Cuzco region? Because here the focus is trekking, so off-season really is off-season. Cuzco and Machu Picchu are popular year round – while you can take advantage of low-season airfares, you won’t get the loneliness and absence of tour groups that the northern mountains enjoy at this time. You won’t get the silence.

Silence. The drumming rain on the tent had ceased and the wind was stilled. We lifted the flap of the tent and peered out. Blue sky! We had camped in the afternoon in an anonymous mist-filled world. No view, no way of knowing where we were. Now the blanket of cloud was being tugged back into distant valleys, exposing more and more of the mountains around us. Puffs and wisps of clouds appeared, flirted with the glaciers, then withdrew or stayed a while, wrapped like scarves around the shoulders of the peaks.

Finally, almost overhead, a huge mountain materialised, its fresh snow flushed pink in the setting sun. The moon rose, and stars and planets filled the clear sky, sharing it with our great white mountain. This is what rainy-season hiking is all about. It’s the mystery, the surprise views, the feeling of watching a slide show affording only a tantalising glimpse of each view.

Alone with the birds

It’s also about packing up a wet tent, putting on sodden boots, or waiting and waiting for the weather to improve.

Our route was the classic trek of the Cordillera Blanca: Llanganuco to Santa Cruz. It is unbelievably beautiful, so in the dry months inevitably it’s crowded with trekking groups and their pack animals; the designated campsites are filled with blue or yellow tents and the noisy chatter of foreigners.

Towards the end of the season the trail gets very messy. Shitty, actually, despite all the notices suggesting trekkers “Leave only footsteps”. The rains wash away the human detritus, fill the valleys with flowers, and clothe the alpine meadows in new grass.

In March it was ours alone. The pick-up truck dropped us at the foot of a broad valley, hemmed in each side by snow-capped mountains. Peru’s highest, Huascarán, peered overthe shoulders of lower peaks, which are still higher than anything in the Alps. We skirted the two green Llanganuco lakes, their ruffled surfaces dotted with waterfowl, while Andean geese grazed the fresh grass. And there were Andean gulls which looked very like our familiar black-headed gull, a strange sight so far from the sea. Clumps of clouds like cauliflowers spilled over the mountain passes. We could smell the rain coming. Then the mist closed in and we pitched our tent, got out our books – and the Scrabble set – and prepared to wait out the storm.

And that was the pattern of each day. We rose as soon as it was light and walked until the rain came. If it came. Out of the five days, one was completely rain-free, and two had only brief afternoon showers.

The penultimate day of the trek was spent in a state of exhausted euphoria. The views – and exertion – were breathtaking. We’d chosen to hike without pack animals, wanting to savour the solitude and keep to our own lazy timetable. The trail followed a tumbling river, wending its way ever upward through a variety of scenery: stunted polylepis trees with peeling, red papery bark, giant lupins and towering cliff-faces dripping water.

Reaching summit special

I knew from previous treks that the last stretch is the toughest, and we were now makingour way over snow, following the prints of a lone hiker. I looked up at the rock cliff ahead and recognised the pass, Punta Union, a U-shaped notch on the black horizon. It looks impossibly steep, but the path squiggles up the side in a series of hairpins. It’s a steady plod, one foot in front of the other, gasping in the oxygen-depleted air. But the mist closed in and we had no choice but to set up camp, uncomfortably between the boulders, tantalisingly within sight of the pass, but not daring to tackle it in bad weather.

We reached Punta Union early the next day. And wow! If this is one of the finest views in Peru, seeing it at sunrise is almost unbearably beautiful. Tears sprang to my eyes. The white craggy pyramid of Taulliraju guarded the pass, fresh snow sliding off its flanks into the turquoise lake at its feet. The snowy summits that flank the valley ahead were touched with orange, like dollops of apricot ice cream. The sky was that pale, washed blue that comes after rain. The only sound was the murmur of avalanches.

That evening we were soaking in a hot bath at the Hotel Andino in Huaraz – we deserved some luxury. We sipped Chilean wine on our balcony, watching the changing light on Mounts Huascarán and Huandoy. Well, if you’re saving all that money on the airfare, why not treat yourself to a good hotel?

Although rates may not officially be lower in the rainy season, most hotels will offer walk-in guests a lower rate. Also, there will be no tour groups to compete for your attention – the owners will have time for a chat and to give advice, invaluable in the rainy season: landslides may have blocked roads, heavy snow can make high routes impassable, rivers may be in flood.

I couldn’t drop my gaze from those mighty mountains – the area boasts 33 summits over 6,000m, with the Cordilleras Negra and Blanca sitting side by side, separated by the rain-bulging flow of the Rio Santa. A good road follows the river, providing access to the highland villages in the north and snaking down to the Pacific Ocean.

This is Peru’s great secret. Unlike the Himalayas, where you have to trek in order to see the best mountain views, the Cordillera Blanca offers more accessible panoramas. Before organised trekking became popular in the late 1970s, tourists came to the ‘Switzerland of Peru’ to view the mountains from this very road. In 1980, in one of the early editions of my guide to the country, I wrote: ‘I hate to tell you this, but the views of the twin peaks of Huandoy and Huascarán are finer from this road than from almost any hiking trail!’ This is still true.

Puya raimondi: A budding star

I had trekked in the snow-free Cordillera Negra before, again out of season. Due to a trick of climate, the Negra receives little precipitation. In the winter it’s a bit too dry for enjoyable trekking – though the views of its neighbour’s snowy peaks are splendid – but during the rains the streams are flowing and the flowers are making the most of the short growing season. The dry climate encourages cacti and it’s one of the few places where you can find one of the world’s most astonishing plants, the Puya raimondii.

It was this that enticed me on my previous October visit – a hand-drawn sign outside the tourist office in Huaraz commanded: “Visit the Puya raimondii!” accompanied by a faded photo of a decidedly phallic plant. This was an unexpected treat for my parents who were ‘geriatrekking’ gently with me.

This bromeliad is the tallest flower spike in the world and can only be seen in its full glory during the Andean spring, between October and December. It’s also very rare. Found only in Peru and Bolivia, it is said to live for 100 years and flower only once before it dies. And how it flowers! A giant finger as high as a house and covered in thousands of greenish-white blossoms, points at the sky from a cuff of spiky leaves.

We were the only foreigners on the tour: the bus was full of smiling Limeños up from the capital and bent on a good day out. They took it in turns to pose for photos in front of the nearest Puya raimondii, while my parents and I sought out a more distant plant. “Surely that must be 30 feet!” speculated my father, craning his neck to watch the little hummingbirds buzzing from flower to flower.

The tour continued to the Pastoruri glacier and, as the bus laboured up the hairpin bends, the temperature outside became bitterly cold. Windows were quickly closed – which was unfortunate since the Limeños started to be sick. “Soroche!” gasped one woman, white-faced and clutching a plastic bag. My mother also had altitude sickness, but my father was in fine fettle, telling the passengers this would be the first time he had walked on a glacier for 51 years. The finer points may have passed them by since he told his story in English, but his enthusiasm was unmistakable.

Daddy cool

On arrival, our bus driver parked and handed out plastic bags – this time to protect our feet from the ice and snow. One of the young girls was wearing pretty pink court shoes; she rolled her eyes as she fixed the bags round her ankles.

Tied together by a line of rope, my parents and I and the reluctant Limeños hiked onto the creaking tongue of snow. This would have been impossible in peak season – after heavy snow the glacier is unsafe for inexperienced climbers, but at the end of the dry season anyone can walk on it.

As my father proved. A septuagenarian with an artificial hip, he was standing proudly on the glacier’s highest accessible point – 6,000m above sea level – surrounded by green-gilled Peruvians looking on in awe. Try telling him this wasn’t peak season.

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