The Cordillera Blanca
|Written by Jared on September 20, 2012|
Start: August 26, Mancora
Our first two weeks in Peru take us from dusty coastal towns into the Cordillera Blanca mountains around the town of Huaraz. Along the way we visit a few pre-Colombian ruins for the first time since Central America, hang out with some old friends, and drive down a few spectacular mountain roads.
We spent a bit over a week up in the mountains; exploring, hiking and soaking up the amazing Andean scenery. We also dust off our birding vests, on the hunt for the world's largest hummingbird and a species of goofy ground-dwelling owls.
Our adventure starts at Rancho Santana, a relaxing (and working) farm with ducks, chickens, cows and Peruvian Paso horses. Jess and Kobus decide to head out for an afternoon ride in the Pomac forest to visit the 1000-year-old Túcume ruins.
Nope, that's not a hill, it's a pyramid. Adobe brick doesn't quite weather as well as stone, and recent heavy El Niño rains have done a number on unprotected sites along Peru's coast.
Surrounding our campsite on the farm, and along the horse trail to the ruins, we spotted a bunch of these tiny ground-dwelling owls which seemed more than happy to pose for photos during the daylight.
After two nights at Rancho Santana we headed farther south along the coast towards Huanchaco. On the way we stopped at the Sipan museum in Lambayeque to take a look at the artifacts recovered from nearby ruins. The museum was incredible, full of gold and silver artifacts and step-by-step exhibits of the objects uncovered at the tomb of the Lord of Sipan. Unfortunately cameras are not allowed into the museum so there are no photos, but it was hands down one of the best museums we've ever visited.
From the museum in Lambayeque we drove south to the beach town of Huanchaco, famous for its reed fishing boats. Our overlanding pals James and Lauren of Home on the Highway had been in town for a few weeks, so we invited ourselves (and a few bottles of rum) over and spent four or five days catching up, eating good food and drinking more than we should have.
One of our more exciting adventure was the attempted "rescue" of their neighbor's new kitten, aptly named Squeakers. Locked out all day, it would do nothing but meow until he no longer had the vocal capacity and resorted to squeaking, repeatedly, all day long, anytime anyone got near a window.
Unfortunately Squeakers was a floor below us, so a plan had to be hatched involving a rope, a basket and a can of tuna. While Squeakers appreciated the tuna, he wanted nothing to do with climbing in the basket. In the end we resorted to occasionally throwing bits of food out the window to buy ourselves thirty minutes of silence.
The sight to see nearby Huanchaco is the pre-Colombian city of Chan Chan. It's the largest adobe city in the world, and the largest pre-Colombian city in South America. The citadel is surrounded by 60-70 foot walls, largely reconstructions topped with concrete due to adobe's inclination to turn back into mud when it rains.
The ruins are definitely less spectacular than the Mayan cities we visited in Mexico and Guatemala, and since only one complex is open for visitors it was hard to get a sense of how far the city stretched. Nevertheless, Chan Chan was completely different from other ancient cities we've visited, and it is one of the few places where you can see reconstructed adobe buildings as opposed to melted piles of dirt.
After we said goodbye to our overlanding-turned-homebody friends in Huanchanco we headed east into the mountains of northern Peru, specifically the Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Blanca. We chose to take the road less traveled through Cañon del Pato (Duck Canyon) which winds up into the mountains following Rio Santo with 1000-foot cliffs on all sides.
Along the way we pass through roughly 40 hand-carved tunnels, most only wide enough for a single vehicle. Luckily we were only forced to back up once, as traffic on the road is fairly light considering more modern paved routes exist between the Cordilleras and the coast.
This certainly was one of the most unique and scenic roads of our trip so far. Barren mountains, never ending cliff faces above and below, a huge river, abandoned coal mines and jagged tunnels made for quite an interesting afternoon drive.
Our destination was Caraz, a small city on the north end of the Cordillera Blanca. Caraz is unique in the area because it has maintained its colonial charm, largely because it was not destroyed during the combination of earthquakes and avalanches that have struck the area repeatedly in the past century.
From Caraz we take a day trip up to Lake Parón, a short 20 miles from our campsite in Caraz. Unfortunately, as we've come to expect, the road turned rather nasty once we entered the park. There's something about having to pay to drive on a road that generally guarantees that conditions will deteriorate soon after passing the gate. This was no exception, it took us an hour and a half to cover those 20 miles.
But as we typically end up saying after a painful stretch of dirt, it was totally worth it. Turquoise water, glacier-covered peaks and an elevation of 13,700 feet combine to make this a spectacular, albeit frigid, view.
Click the above for a full-sized panorama of the shores of the lake and several 19,000+ foot Cordillera Blanca peaks.
From Caraz we drive farther into the Cordillera Blanca to Llanganuco where we camp below Peru's tallest mountain, pictured above on the right, partially covered in clouds. Huascaran, at over 22,000 feet, partially collapsed during an earthquake in 1970 which sent a half-mile by mile-long avalanche down the mountain, killing 20,000 people and completely destroying the town of Yungay.
We spent four days camped at the Llanganuco Lodge, totally unplugged, which if you know us is a fairly rare occurrence. We did a lot of reading, some hiking, and generally soaked in the atmosphere at 12,000 feet while trying not to turn into popsicles after the sun went down.
The stars at night were absolutely amazing. This is the first time in quite a while that we've been far enough away from civilization to have very little light pollution. Jessica and Kobus took the opportunity to take a few long exposure photos of their tent below the stars.
This small lake was a short five minute walk from our campsite at Llanganuco Lodge. As you can see, the lake used to be a bit bigger. Ever since an earthquake in the '70s caused half of the city of Huaraz to be flooded, killing thousands of people, the government has begun controlling the depth and volume of the mountain lakes. This area may be incredibly beautiful, but it certainly has not been nice to the people who live in its shadow.
One of the more popular inhabitants of the Cordillera Blanca is the world's largest hummingbird. Time to put another patch on our birding vests! When Jess and Kobus weren't lounging around the lodge swinging from hammocks, they were climbing a mountain with expensive camera gear in search of a few more National Geographic-worthy bird photos.
The day before we left the lodge, Kobus and I hatched a plan to build them a proper fire pit. The previous effort involved a ring of pebbles around a mound of ash, and threatened to set the hillside on fire when the wind picked up at night.
All of the necessary tools were close by; shovels, wheelbarrows and a mountain (literally) of granite rocks of all shapes and sizes. After chugging a pint of coca tea, Kobus and I found ourselves with enough energy to dig the three-food diameter and one-foot deep ring, and line it with 20lb rocks in under an hour and a half. We christened it that night with a eucalyptus bonfire and a few cold Peruvian beers. All that was missing were the marshmallows and graham crackers.
Up next: We head to Lima, Peru's capital and the foodie center of South America.