An Expert’s Guide to the Cordilleras of Peru

Peru’s Central Cordilleras serve up adrenaline-packed adventures both large and small. Our insider, Greg shares his top picks.

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Home to many of the tallest mountains in the Andes, this region offers towering peaks to climb, lush valleys to explore, ancient temples and lost passageways to discover, and about a million other adventures in between.

You could easily spend a month here and not get bored, but with five to ten days, you can take on a trek, have a great night out with a hodge-podge of international travelers in Huaraz, and visit most of the top sites.

Huaraz

The nexus and plexus of the region, Huaraz is the staging ground for most of your adventures here. A dozen-plus outfitters will get you ready for treks, mountain bike trips, climbing adventures, and horseback riding.

Many people choose to stay in Huaraz and take day tours out to places like Chavín de Huántar, the Lagunas Llanganuco, the Laguna Parón, or the glacier at Nevado Pastorurí. Right in town, head up on a quick 45-minute hike to Mirador de Reaqueña to acclimatize yourself and savor the views of the surrounding wilderness. Huaraz is at 10,141ft (3,091m), so you’ll want to take your time for the first day or so.

The stalls at the Feria Artesanal (Artisans Market) are great for picking up souvenirs and thick wool sweaters for the cold nights. If you’re interested in giving back, there are a number of local non-profits that take on both short- and long-term volunteers.

Come night-time, a fun-loving crowd of international travelers, locals, scruffy mountaineers, and other interesting characters come together in the raucous beer halls that light up the Andean night.

Central Huaraz. Photo credit: iStock

The Cordillera Blanca

There are plenty of adventures to be had in the world’s second-highest mountain range, from bagging a 19,685ft (6,000m) peak – no small endeavor – to heading off the beaten track to seldom-visited alpine lakes.

The top trek for most is the three-or-four-day Santa Cruz Trek. You can do the trip with a guide or on your own – outfitters in Huaraz can get you started. It’s fairly well traveled and sign-posted, so navigation is a breeze.

Prepare for huge Andean vistas, casual encounters with Quechua-speaking pastoralists, mountain-top climbs, shimmering lagoons, and a peaceful escape under the big Peruvian sky.

The Casa de Guías in Hauraz is a good place to pick up a guide and hire pack animals if you’re interested. Guided treks will cost S/.486-972 (US $150-300).

Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca. Photo credit: iStock

Chavín de Huántar and the Callejón de Conchucos

The Callejón de Conchucos, a glorious collection of valleys on the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Blanca, is another trekking, mountain biking, and exploring highlight. If you only have a day, be sure to make it out to Chavín de Huántar to explore the underground passageways, ceremonial temples, and onsite museum. One of the earliest known pre-Columbian sites, this World Heritage-listed complex saw its rise between 1200 and 500BC.

Most people come here on a day trip from Huaraz. You can stop along the way in small Quechua-speaking villages, taking quick hikes out to lost lagoons.

Chiquián and the Cordillera Huayhuash

It’s less famous than the Cordillera Blanca, but nevertheless, the virgin, remote and stunning Cordillera Huayhuash offers a bunch of challenging high-altitude treks.

If you have the time – and the stamina – the spectacular, nine-day Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit starts in Pocpa and ends in Llamac, and includes visits to tiny Andean hamlets and turquoise lakes.

Many people kick off the trip in the laid-back village of Chiquián. Expect to pay about S/. 162 (US $50) per day for a guide and S/. 65 (US $20) for a donkey – believe us, it’s worth it to not have the extra weight on your back, especially on the ascents to mountain passes over 16,400ft (5,000m).

Tres Lagunas, Cordillera Huayhuash. Photo credit: iStock

Want to know more about Peru? Check out our podcast. We chat about alternative treks to Machu Picchu, how Peru is the original home of surfing, and look at what vaccinations do you need when traveling to South America.

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