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Trekking the Cordillera Blanca in Peru

Trekking the Cordillera Blanca in Peru

Trekking the Cordillera Blanca in Peru

Last spring Jen and I were looking for a location to spend her birthday. We had some airline miles to use and were looking at different locations we could visit with the amount of miles we had saved. We had a couple requirements- fun, exciting and preferably somewhere neither of us had visited before.

Lima popped up on American Airlines award map- only 30,000 miles round trip from Denver.

It didn’t make sense that it would only cost 30,000 miles to get to South America- that’s the amount for a normal round trip ticket within the continental US. Sure enough, we were able to book a ten-day trip for 30,000 miles each- leave Denver on May 24th, head back from Lima on June 4th.

Our route from Denver to Lima through Dallas

Our route from Denver to Lima through Dallas

Our next task was finding out what to do in Peru. Machu Picchu came to mind, but we wondered if there was anything else we would rather see or do.

There are plenty Machu Picchu alternatives- the Amazon rain forest, less traveled costal towns and big mountain ranges that get substantially less visitors than the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.

We initially wanted to trek Cordillera Huayhuash, of Touching the Void fame. As we did more research, it became apparent that the Huayhuash circuit wouldn’t work out because of our limited time frame.

We ended up settling on checking out the Cordillera Blanca, which is the highest mountain range in Peru. We found the Llanganuco Mountain Lodge, which is above the town of Yungay and right near the entrance to Huascarán National Park, and booked several nights.

Jen had never been to altitudes above 14,000 feet, so the plan was to acclimate by doing day hikes from the lodge and then head out and backpack one of the higher altitude treks. We had reached out to several trek organizers about doing the Santa Cruz trek, but it ended up being difficult to organize in advance from outside the country. Not wanting to put our experience in the hands of someone else, we resolved to do an unguided, unsupported trek.

After a somewhat harrowing overnight bus ride over some steep mountain passes from Lima to Yungay and than a 45 minute taxi ride we arrived at Llanganuco Mountain Lodge in time for breakfast. The lodge owner Charlie, who’d be our host for the next several days, greeted us. We had breakfast stashed our stuff before doing our first day hike in the national park.

Jen hiking above the Llananuco Lakes at nearly 13,000 feet/4,000 meters on our first acclimation day.

El Vaca de Jesus- a local cow with a supernatural ability to walk on water

Jen and Corrie (who stayed at our Lodge for a couple nights) walking through the Cloud Forest on a pre-Inca trail.

A view of the highlands above Yungay, Peru and near the Llanganuco Mountain Lodge

We continued to do day hikes near the lodge. Our second day we checked out Laguna Keshua and the ruins of Keshua, right near the lodge.

Jen and tour guide dog Zulu the Rhodesian Ridgeback who showed us around the glacial lake near the lodge.

Keshua Ruins Peru

The 5,500 year old ruins of Keshua. This was a city that stood for over 1,000 years and at times had 1,500 people living in it. It’s quite expansive and fun to explore. Today it seems mostly forgotten and almost never visited. To put it in perspective, this site is nearly six times older than Machu Picchu.

Keshua Temple

Zulu showing us a Keshua temple.

Huandoy Peru

Jen walking under Huandoy, which towers above at 20,866 feet. It is called “The Butcher” by locals the high rate of death among would be climbers.

Zulu, Jen and Huandoy. There is something confidence inspiring about hiking around with a well trained Rhodesian Ridgeback guard dog.

Llanganuco Ravine

Jen and I above Laguna Keshua and the Llanganuco Ravine

Patchwork Highlands above Yungay

Jen discovering what we would later find out is a 5,500 year old burial building of some kind.

The Llanganuco Mountain Lodge is a pretty incredible place- 100% off the grid. Powered by the sun. Heated with wood stoves. Clean well water and delicious meals. Charlie is a great host. He’s originally trained as an accountant, but now is a bit of a British Expat business man meets Indian Jones. He’s committed to taking care of the environment and living by solid environmental ethics. He’s also got a hilarious sense of humor and is great company to be around.

He organized a chocolate cake for Jen’s birthday, which was a really nice surprise for her. The cake had to be brought in several hours from Huaraz, so it was quite the undertaking.

If you go to Llanganuco Lodge, you may find yourself reading with a view-

Jen reading Walden on our balcony at the Llanganuco Lodge.

We had initially intended to hike the Santa Cruz Trek, but starting in 2014 Huascarán National Park started requiring would be trekkers to have a local guide. Giving the generally poor quality to price ratio ($100 per person per day for an untrained burro driver, are they joking?), we sought alternatives.

With the help of Charlie from the lodge, we ended up deciding to hike to Lake 69 (famous for it’s impossibly blue water) and then over a 16,000 foot ridge and down to the Refugio de Peru, a staffed backcountry hut high in the Cordillera Blanca.

Jen geared up for our trek!

Raging water at the beginning of our trek.

Hiking towards Lake 69

Huascarán Norte 21,834 feet (the second highest peak in Peru) towering above Jen.

Huascarán Norte (right) and Huascarán (left), the highest peak in Peru at 22,205 feet.

A Viscacha- one of the local rodents.

Mule near Lake 69

We made pretty good time on the way up to Lake 69. Despite the 15,000 foot elevation, we both felt pretty good carrying full packs and made it to the lake in about 3 hours.

Jen nearing Laguna 69 (Lake 69)

Kevin near Lake 69

Lake 69, which is higher than 15,000 feet, is known for its incredible teal blue color.

Jen gearing up for a handstand

Hand stand with awkwardly placed waterfall.

Self timer jump shot!

Jen found some new flowers

The sun goes down quick at tropical latitudes, and even more quickly in the mountains. Shortly after setting up camp and making dinner the last light of the day faded.

Sunset over Pisco

Sunset at Lake 69

We woke up the next morning to cold temperatures. Overnight temperatures were likely just above freezing. It was one of the colder nights that Jen has spent camping, but still a lot warmer than the -40 temps I’ve experienced. Camping at Lake 69 was a lot of fun. There was one other group there, but when they packed up in the morning we had the entire area to ourselves.


Chopicalqui from Lake 69

Lake 69 Camping

Our campsite at Lake 69

We packed up our camp and got set to hike over to the Refugio de Peru. Our trail would take us over 16,000 feet, which would be Jen’s new altitude record.


Jen, Lake 69 and Chacraraju towering above at 20,105 feet.

Demanda Valley

The Demanda Valley


Jen and Chacraraju

Kevin and Chacraraju

Chacraraju, 20,105 feet

Chopicalqui and the Huascaran Twins


Huandoy seen from it’s alternative side, this time above the Refugio de Peru.

Our biggest challenge of the day was finding a way to cross the glacier and climb over the high moraine on the far side to reach the Refugio. We had been warned that there wasn’t necessarily a consistent trail across and that navigation could be difficult.

Luckily, we made it across without incident thanks to some good directions from Charlie at Llanganuco Mountain Lodge. The trick is to trend right as you lose elevation and look for a trail. There were a few sections without trails, but it wasn’t too hard to navigate.

Refugio de Peru

Jen excited to be at the Refugio de Peru at 15,000 feet! Not a bad place for her to break her record for sleeping at altitude.

The Refugio de Peru was built by the Italian Alpine Club after a member died in the Cordillera Blanca. It is run by volunteer Italian caretakers and has about 60 dorm beds, which you can rent for about $6 a night. It also has a full service kitchen. It’s pretty amazing to be able to order Fettuccine Alfredo and wine at 15,000 feet. The food was delicious, and there were only about 8 other people staying there the night we were there.

Some friendly Swiss guys kept us company and were able to translate menus and questions we had for the Italian caretaker.

Chopicalqui Peru

Chopicalqui at Sunset

The next morning, we had breakfast and prepared to hike out.

Some kind of shrine

Hiking Out

15 miles below the Refugio de Peru is this awesome balcony at the Llanganuco Lodge (taken the same day)

Before arriving in Peru, we had planned for a longer trek, which would have meant heading back to Lima right after finishing our hike, before finding out about the obligatory local guides needed for the Santa Cruz Trek. Luckily it was early season and Charlie had a room available for us at Llanganuco Mountain Lodge where we could stay for the remainder of our time in the Cordillera Blanca.

Jen enjoying the sunset at the Llanganuco Lodge

Balcony view at sunset.

We continued to enjoy the location and do day hikes from the lodge.

Charlie’s dining room at Llanganuco Lodge

Dino and Zulu

Jen and Zulu hanging out at Laguna Keshua, where we swam during our last day in the Cordillera Blanca. It was pretty amazing to have a place like this all to ourselves.

Our time at Llanganuco Mountain Lodge ended on a high note with one last dinner before taxiing down to Yungay to catch the overnight bus back to Lima. Charlie gave us a list of restaurants to check out during the 36 hours we’d have in Lima.

Unfortunately, Jen got really sick as soon as we were back in Lima and ended up in the hospital on IV antibiotics. We think that she got sick from drinking unfiltered water at the Refugio. We spent a full day at the hospital before heading back to the hotel. I ended up getting food poisoning that night and that coupled with a moderate earthquake the next day (lots of fun when you are staying in a high rise hotel) led to an overwhelming feeling of “let’s get out of here”.

All in all we had a great trip. The last 36 hours were rough, but getting sick is a risk to any vacation.


Finally, some panoramas-

Chacraraju Peru

Chacraraju and the Demanda Valley

Backpacking Peru

The lower Demanda Valley on the way to Lake 69

Lake 69

Lake 69

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