Covering a spectacular 3,400 sq km (1,313 sq miles) of high Andean territory, Huascaran National Park is unparalleled anywhere in the Americas. Within its 180 km (112-mile) length, the park includes all but the two northernmost glaciated mountains of the Cordillera Blanca.
Massive Huascaran is the biggest, of course, but at least 20 more exceed the sought-after elevation of 6,000m (19,685ft), making this area extremely popular with mountaineers.
The snow-clad peaks overlook gorgeous lakes and steep-sided quebradas (ravines), along which footpaths enable trekkers to get into the heart of the park. Between the mountain massifs, the trails snake their way over 4,750 m (15,585 ft ) passes which give in-your-face views of impossibly steep ice walls.
The most famous of these, and deservedly so, is Punta Union on the four or five-day Santa Cruz trek, from where almost the entire 360-degree horizon is ruled by tongue-twisting behemoths such as Taulliraju (5,830 m / 19,128 ft), Quitaraju (6,036 m / 19,804 feet), Artesonraju (6,025 m / 19,768 feet), and Chacraraju (6,112 m / 20,053 feet). Raju is the Quechua word for “snow peak”, by the way.
Other popular treks in Huascaran National Park include the Alpamayo Base Camp route (7-12 days) which goes over several high passes and through the remote Quebrada de los Cedros on the north side of Alpamayo. You can finish in various villages, depending on the length of the trek.
The three-day Olleros to Chavín trek goes over one high pass (4, 700 m / 15,420 ft) and emerges at the archeological site of Chavin de Huantar. Many other options exist.
Both climbers and trekkers find the best time to be in the Cordillera Blanca is the dry season, which begins in mid-May and usually lasts into mid-September. That does not mean you won’t get rained or snowed on, though!
Trekking out of season is certainly possible, if you have good rain gear and well waterproofed tents. The wettest months are January through March.
While hauling a heavy pack over high passes is doable by fit, acclimatized visitors, others may want to hire an arriero (wrangler) and mules. You are expected to provide food and to pay for an extra day (or two) to allow the arrieros to get home with their unloaded mules.
If the thought of sleeping in a tent does not appeal to you, there are plenty of day-trip options. The best known trip is to the Llanganuco Lake, east of Yungay and 80 km (50 miles) from Huaraz. Tours often stop at the Campo Santo by Yungay, before following the unpaved road up the narrow Quebrada Llanganuco to two lovely mountain lakes at 3,850 m (12,632 ft).
The first lake, Chinancocha (Quechua for “Female Lake”) has a nature trail at its west end (90 minutes hike), and also has rowboats for hire. At its east end is a forest of Polylepis trees (locally called quenuales), recognized by their rust-colored bark which peels off the trunk like sheets of paper. Once a common tree in the Andes, only pockets of this representative highland native species remain. Locals have burned it to clear land for pasture and use it as firewood.
The second lake, Orconcocha (“Male Lake”), is a few meters higher than the first. The lakes lie between Huascaran and triple-peaked Huandoy (6,395 m / 20,982 ft) which spectacularly dominate the view as you drive up.
The road beyond the lakes continues over a high pass, the Portachuelo de Llanganuco (4,767 m / 15,640 ft) and drops through Vaquería, past the hamlet of Colcabamba and on to the village of Yanama 20 km (12 miles) past the lakes. These are end points for the Santa Cruz trek, incidentally.
Taking this road almost 2 miles (3 km) past the lakes to a hairpin bend brings you to Yurac Corral (also known as Cebollapampa 3,900 m / 12,796 ft) which is the entry point for two trails. One goes 5.5 km (3.5 miles) to the Pisco base camp, with a climbers’ refuge; the other goes up the Quebrada Demanda valley for 6 km (4 miles) to Laguna 69 (4,700 m / 15,420 ft), fabulously located at the base of Chacraraju.
The latter trail is normally used as a day hike, although it could be a two-day trek. Few tours to Llanganuco go to Yurac Corral; it is usually reached by taxi from Yungay.
Another day trip from Huaraz is to Pastoruri Glacier, 70 km (44 miles) southeast via Catac, then a dirt road through a Puya raimondii stand, and arriving near the glacier at 5,000 m (16,800 ft) above sea level. Visitors hike 2 km (1.25 miles) to the glacier to walk on the ice. The glacier is receding and is closed to visitation in the low season.
About 18 km (11 miles) directly east of Huaraz at Pitec (3,800 m / 12,468 ft) is a fine hike to Laguna Churup (4,485 m / 14,715 ft). From Pitec, an obvious signed trail follows a ridge towards the lake, almost 4.5 km (3 miles ) away.
At some steep points, there are wooden steps or ladders, which are slippery when wet. The trail reaches a smooth, rocky shore overlooking the gorgeous lake under glaciated Nevado Churup (5,495 m / 18,029 ft) which makes a great lunch spot.
From Caraz, 66 km (41 miles) north of Huaraz, an unpaved road goes 30 km (19 miles) up a narrow gorge to Laguna Paron (4,140 m / 13,583 ft).
The lake is spectacularly surrounded by several peaks, including Caraz (6,025 m / 19,768 ft), Artesonraju, Pirámide (5,885 m / 19,309 ft), Chacraraju, Pisco, and Huandoy. A trail follows the north shore of the lake, but many people just come for the views.