Peru: Cordillera Blancas

The mountains are calling and we must go.

We took a sharp swerve to the east to hit up some of Peru’s most stunningly gorgeous peaks. In Spanish Cordillera Blanca means ‘white range’, although they are still technically part of the Andes chain of mountains that snakes south; the continent’s crooked spine.

They also serve as the continental divide. Weirdly, I expect divides to be in the middle of the continent: neatly packaging and sending their watery volumes into equal parts to the Pacific or the Atlantic. NOT THE CASE (of course). Geography is wonderfully messy. But the fact that the continental divide for South America essentially resides 150 kms from the Western Coast (leaving 5,000 kms on the eastern side) seems grossly unbalanced.

 

Anyway, back to the road that took us there. You might remember that we didn’t have a glorious time in Northern Peru. And I’ll be honest, the first hour of our eastward journey was not exactly filled with gorgeous scenery either: a few nice brown hills, lots of farming activities, and the usual assortment of tuk tuks, street dogs, and hanging laundry. Certainly interesting, but not jaw-droppingly awesome.

Prepping tomatoes for harvest.

Slowly but surely, things began to get a bit more scenic, in a barren sort of way. The road narrowed, the drop-offs became substantial, and the rock walls closed in around us. 

 

 

For those in search of their own adventure, we left the PanAm just north of Chimbote and headed east on the 12 which eventually turns into the 3N. From there you continue on down the valley, visiting the towns of Caraz, Yungay, and Huaraz. We took the 16 back to Barranca District and from there braved the insane traffic of Lima.

Outside the town of Huallanca, the road narrows to a single lane and climbs steeply above the electrical station. Three sharp switchbacks later and you have officially entered Canyon del Pato. We’re not sure why, exactly, it is dubbed Duck Canyon; regardless, the road is an impressive feat of engineering, made notable for the 25 single lane tunnels blasted through the canyon walls. 

 

Several of the tunnels are short and easy to navigate. Others are long, winding passages with no immediately visible arch of sunlight. You hang on and hope that oncoming headlights don’t suddenly pierce the darkness. A face-to-face meeting in the tunnel means one option: someone has  to throw it into reverse and hope there’s enough room at the entrance for the other vehicle to squeeze past. 

The semi trucks tend to travel in pairs; there is no question as to which vehicle is preforming the tricky back-up maneuver. Meeting two trucks head-on in the longest tunnel tested Chris’ reverse skills to the max. We hugged the inside wall upon exiting and they inched past, gravel kicking down the slope into the gorge below. 

At last the valley widened, we passed the damn and breathed a sigh of relief: done with tunnels! It was not our trickiest route (that honor belongs to the terrifying dirt track in Mexico) but it made for some interesting driving nonetheless.

That night we tucked ourselves into a lovely overlanding camp, where the kids ran around like crazed lunatics and fed the resident horses. A day in the life of our children.

 

The next morning is when any adventurer worth their salt laces up their hiking boots for a few jaunts in the mountains. These peaks are at significant altitude and it’s wise to spend a few days acclimatizing before attempting the really big treks.

Or, if you’re us, you pack some exceptionally cranky kids into the car and hit the road, bagging all plans for a magnificent hike. Such is life: sometimes the offspring cooperate, sometimes it’s best to cut bait.

The streets of Huaraz are a fascinating mix of cultures and traditions. 

 

And then there are the peaks, looming above town like towering sentinels.

But living at the base of such beauty came with a terrible cost on May 31, 1970: an 8.0 earthquake off the coast of Peru destabilized a glacier on the north side of Mt. Huascaran. Ten million cubic meters of ice and rock hurtled down the mountain at 120 miles per hour, a deadly slide 3,000 feet wide and more than 40 feet tall. Less than three minutes later it completely buried the town of Yungay, killing virtually all of the community’s 25,000 residents. A group of children, visiting a local circus on the edge of town were practically the only survivors, led to higher ground by the troupe’s clown.

A sobering story, and one that dogs us constantly, as we too live in the earthquake-prone Ring of Fire and are at the mercy of subducting oceanic plates.

Earthquakes and avalanches aside, this area is truly magnificent. 

In a story line that I found myself repeating constantly to Chris, I told him that we’d be back someday for some proper trekking, either with hiking kids or on a child-free adventure. Those bambinos, they’re a real drag. 🙂 Good think we love ’em so much.  

How’s this for some nice altitude?

 

4100 meters = 13, 452 feet above sea level. 

And then it was down the winding roads to once again rejoin the coast and the PanAm highway in its mad dash to Lima. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Recommendations 

Campgrounds

Camping Guadalupe Jaime Veliz Caraz. A very nice overlanding spot that is an ideal spot to rest up after braving the Canyon de Pato. It also makes a good base for area hikes.

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