We got to the 5000-meter (19,000′ +) plateau at about 3:00 on a sunny afternoon- with lots of time to get the tents up, have some supper, inhale the incredible scene, and crawl into our sleeping bags before 6:30. If the weather held, the following day at 2:45 a.m., we’d head up for the 20,065′ peak of Tocllaraju. I didn’t sleep much that evening!
If standing on the top of a 6000-meter peak is on your to-do list, then set your destination for the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range in central Peru. This section of the Andes range has the most 5500-meter (19,000 feet) peaks outside the Himalayas. There are 62 of them, according to one count. To add to the majestic scale of the mountain scenery, 20 or so of these summits stand higher than 6000 meters.
Using the town of Huaraz as my base, I spent fifteen days in the Cordillera Blanca at the beginning of the climbing season, which goes from mid-May to September. I had actually been in Peru for a week before I arrived in Huaraz. My Peruvian adventure began with a visit to South America’s #1 tourist attraction- the weekend estate of the Inca ruler Pachacuti, the world wonder of Machu Picchu.
The classic Inca Trail trek starts at km 82 on the rail line. Four days later, you are standing at the breathtaking site of Machu Picchu. Interestingly, Machu Picchu’s altitude is only 2,430 meters (7970 feet), much lower than the Andean city you start from, Cuzco, at 3,400 meters (11,200′).
The time I spent there was fantastic and an excellent acclimatization stage for the Cordillera trek and climbs to follow. Standing on the top of Tocllaraju would come at the end of almost three weeks in Peru. This gave me enough time to acclimatize and made success that much more likely. The weather also had to co-operate, and I needed to stay strong and healthy!
One of my friends called my Peruvian visit “the trip of a lifetime.” I knew what she meant, but I remember saying- “I know what you mean, but I sure hope that wasn’t it! I want to have a trip like this every year as long as I’m still breathing!”
Trip Planning and Logistics
The year before I visited Peru, I spent almost two months in the Nepalese Himalayas. It had also been the trip of a lifetime!
- From Thorung La and Muktinath on the Annapurna Circuit
- to Kala Patar and Gokyo Ri in the Khumbu region
I had experienced a steady stream of Wows. My interest in Hindu and Buddhist thought and culture provided another rich dimension to explore and appreciate. However, the political turmoil in Nepal and the logistics of getting there provided me with the motivation to look elsewhere for my next trip.
That’s where Peru came into the picture! Instead of a flight from Toronto to Zurich to Delhi to- after a night in a hotel in Delhi- Kathmandu, it was 6 hours to Lima and then one hour to Cuzco. Admittedly, the wait at the airport in Lima from 1:00 a.m. to the first departure for Cuzco at 6:00 was a bit of a pain- but chatting with a well-travelled young couple from San Francisco made the time go by. I actually managed to stretch out and get a bit of sleep. I had left T.O at 6:00 pm., and by 8:15 a.m. the following day was at the Hostal Marani in Cuzco – better by a day than my journey to the Kathmandu Guest House in the Thamel district of Kathmandu.
I had spent the winter months
- learning some basic Spanish at the Spanish Center.
- reading up on Peruvian history- both recent and Inca-related. Hugh Thomson’s books The White Rock and Cochineal Red definitely revved up my anticipation level a few notches;
- listening to Andean music (called huayno). The Rough Guide to the Music of the Andes cd and the Rough Guide to the Music of Bolivia CD were on frequent play in mp3 format on my iPod
- learning more about the trek and climbs from Brad Johnson’s comprehensive guide to climbing in the Huaraz region, Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca. It comes complete with a dozen great 3D maps. They helped me visualize my upcoming adventures.
Contacting reliable trekking and climbing companies in Peru was a real “plus.” While I usually turn to Canadian, American, or British adventure companies for my trips, I now realize that by going directly to the source, I am cutting out one layer of cost and getting a better deal by about 30-40%.
There is that initial fear as you deal with people you don’t know, like everything else. The “light bulb” moment came when I realized that the non-Peruvian companies I was considering were, in turn, hiring the very local people that I could hire myself.
Research and luck got me there, as did the willingness to take over the planning and organization of the trip’s details myself.
For the Machu Picchu leg of my adventure, I found SAS Travel in Cuzco to be excellent. Since independent hikers cannot walk the Inca Trail, finding a reliable trekking agency to take you on your 45 km walk is mandatory. Their guides, porters, cooks, and camp-set-up crew will take care of everything, and you walk with a day pack containing camera gear, snacks and water, and rain gear.
I booked my spot for May 11 about three months in advance. You cannot just show up in Cuzco and buy a ticket for the next day since the trek is so popular. No more than 2500 trekkers are allowed on the trail at any one time. There will be another 2500 locals to cater to the trekkers (mostly local villagers keen to earn some hard cash).
SAS was A+ / first-class- great food (even for vegetarians), a roomy tent, super organization…the company has been making trips for years and knows the routine.
I had similar good luck with the Cordillera Blanca part of the trip. Since the andeantravelweb doesn’t even mention them, I took a chance to send Peruvian Andes Adventures in Huaraz US $1600. as an 80% deposit for my two weeks with them. Well, long story short, they were fantastic.
Check out the TripAdvisor website for reviews of Peruvian Andes Adventures.
In fact, a couple of years later, I used them to do the fifteen-day Cordillera Huayhuash Trek. Like SAS, they really know what they are doing and never give you the feeling that you are there to be fleeced! There is an excellent organization from
- the owners, Hiseo and Eli Morales, to
- excellent guides
- cooks and
- arrieros (donkey drivers)
On my second visit, I even stayed at the Morales Guest House, a new venture for the Morales family. Also standard with the agency is being
- picked up at the Huaraz bus station on arrival,
- driven back to the station on departure,
- having someone on the office team buy your bus ticket while you are on the trek or climb!
If you’re interested in finding out more, check out my other Peru reports:
This Google map will put it all in perspective, with each letter representing a pivotal point in the trip: