The Cordillera Blanca – wet season

Published in Wanderlust, July 2006

It rained. It rained cats and dogs. It rained stair-rods. Water drummed on our tent with the urgency of a rock band and the wind plucked the guy ropes. I turned over in my sleeping bag. “Your turn”. My companion pulled the Scrabble set nearer. “OK… that’s 23 points. And I got rid of the J!”

Were we crazy to go trekking in Peru in the rainy season? No, because we’re British and we know about bad weather. 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. And we know how to entertain ourselves during forced periods of idleness.

The air fares were the trigger: £140 cheaper in the off-season. But we could see other advantages. Lima, shrouded in damp fog throughout the southern-hemisphere winter, enjoys proper summer weather between December and April so 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 Cusco region? Because here the focus is trekking, so off-season really is off-season. Cusco and Machu Picchu are popular year-round, so although you can still take advantage of low-season air fares you won’t get the loneliness and absence of tour groups that the northern mountains enjoy at this time of year. You won’t get the silence.

Silence. The drumming rain 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 appeared, 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. 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 stunningly beautiful, so inevitably in the dry months 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. And towards the end of the season the trail gets very messy. Shitty, actually, despite all the notices about “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 over the shoulders of lower peaks which are still higher than anything in the Alps. We skirted the two green Llanganuco lakes, their ruffled surface dotted with waterfowl, while Andean geese grazed the new spring grass. And there were gulls – 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. I knew from previous treks that the last stretch is the toughest, and we were now making our 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 icecream. 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 Club Hotel Andino in Huaraz. We deserved some luxury. From our balcony we could sip Chilean wine and watch the changing light on Mts Huascarán and Huandoy. 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 a gentler holiday. And 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. For the Andino it’s 20% lower. And there will be no tour groups to compete for attention – the owners will have time for a chat and to give advice. And you’ll need this local knowledge in the rainy season: landslides may have blocked roads, heavy snow can make high routes impassable, rivers may be in flood.

In this situation, give the snow-free Cordillera Negro a try – it’s just across the road so the views of its neighbour’s mountains – an astounding 33 summits above 6,000 metres – are superb. The Rio Santa, and its deep canyon, the Callejon de Haylas, separates the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. A good road follows the river, providing access to the highland villages in the north before snaking down to the Pacific Ocean. Before organised trekking became popular in the late 1970s, tourists came to “The Switzerland of Peru” to view the mountains from this road. In 1980, in one of the early editions of my backpacking guide to Peru, 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.

Due to a trick of climate, the Cordillera Negra receives very little precipitation. In the winter it’s a little too dry for enjoyable trekking, but in the rains the streams are flowing and the flowers are making the most of the short growing season. Villagers here see few tourists, so there is none of the aggressive begging which is a feature of the popular areas. Locals go about their daily business, little changed from the time of the Incas. The Cordillera Negra is popular with mountain bikers and you can see why – there is a network of dirt roads which makes cycling easy (especially if you hire a pick-up truck to get you and your bike to the highest point) and the changes of landscape wrought by subsistence farming are always interesting. The dry climate encourages cacti and other succulents, and this is also one of the few places you can find one of the world’s most astonishing plants, the Puya raimondii.

It was during an October trip that I noticed a hand-drawn sign outside the tourist office in Huaraz “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 through the Cordillera Blanca with me. This bromeliad is the “tallest flower spike in the world” and can only be seen in its 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 a hundred 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. I booked the trip which not only visited the Puyas in the valley of Pachacota but continued to the glacier of Pastoruri. This is another off-season experience. After heavy snow the glacier is unsafe for inexperienced climbers but at the end of the dry season anyone can walk on it.

We were the only foreigners on the tour. The bus was full of giggling girls, serious-faced toddlers, and smiling Limeños up from the capital and bent on a good day out. They look 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 to marvel at its height. “Surely that must be 30 feet!” speculated my father, craning his neck to watch the little hummingbirds buzzing from flower to flower.

As the tour 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 bus passengers that 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. Our bus-driver parked the vehicle and walked up the aisle handing out plastic bags. This time they were 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 tied the bag round her ankles. We piled out and the driver collected a rope from the luggage compartment. My father was thrilled. “Oh, jolly good. That’s excellent. Can’t cross a glacier safely without being roped together, you know.” Actually it wasn’t that dramatic, but the rope was needed to haul up the screaming girls. My father took the rope from the guide and anchored himself in the snow. “OK, well done, up you go…no no no, like this, woman.” There was still a bit of a walk to the highest accessible point at 6,000 metres. He made it. Not bad for a septuagenarian with an artificial hip.

So the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra off-season aren’t just for waterproofed backpackers. Huaraz offers the soft option: stay in a comfortable hotel at a reduced rate and take day trips. There’s plenty to do: easy hikes or drives to glacial lakes, touring the Callejon de Huaylas by car, and visiting the enigmatic pre-Inca temple of Chavín de Huantar. Indeed, you can enjoy the area without even putting on your hiking boots. Not a bad idea, come to think of it.

© Hilary Bradt

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