The Cordillera Blanca in Peru is home to some of the highest tropical glaciers in the world. As part of the Andean chain it spans over 200 km (124 mi), running south to northwest. The range boasts over 700 glaciers and 300 accompanying crystalline lakes. It is also home to Huascaran National Park that comprises most of the range.
The most publicized hikes are located on the North side of the Cordillera Blanca approximately 60 to 100 km (37 to 62 mi) from Huaraz, a town that serves as the region’s home base for climbers, hikers, and other outdoor adventurers. Typically, any given hike takes around 2.5 to 3.5 hours one way of travel time to reach the trailhead, equating up to a 10 to 12 hour day. Time and distance combined with large numbers of people to popular areas during high seasons, take away from the beauty and silence of the mountains.
A great benefit of the southern side of the Cordillera Blanca is the access from Huaraz. Travel time to the trailheads take between 45 minutes to 2 hours of driving one way, and there is minimal to no tourists. There you will find day hikes that are equal in beauty to the northern hikes in terms of the glaciers and lakes that make the Cordillera Blanca unique. Below we share 3 of our favorite hikes on the southern side of the Cordillera Blanca (that you probably haven’t heard of): Laguna Rajucolta, Quebrada Shallap, and Quebrada Llaca.
This is a good day hike for acclimatizing as the lake sits about 250 m (820 ft) lower than most lakes in the Cordillera Blanca, the hike is shorter than most and it’s a gentle incline from the trailhead gates to the lake, making it a great acclimatization hike.
The added bonus is there’s never many hikers and you are rewarded with a crystal blue lake cradled under the towering Nevado Huantsan which boasts an impressive height of 6,395 m (20,984 ft) and is the 2nd highest mountain in the Cordillera Blanca. While it requires more driving than the other two hikes, the payoff is driving by the massive Puya Raimondis, the largest bromeliads in the world, right off of the road, past the indigenous village of Macashca.
Trail Stats: Rajucolta
- The hike is out and back and takes about 5 to 6 hours, (2 hours longer if going up to the glacier)
- Total round-trip is 13 km (8 mi).
- Elevation gain is 450 m (1,476 ft).
- Laguna Rajucolta is at 4,250 m (13,944 ft).
- The entrance is via the small town of Macashca located 20 minutes outside of Huaraz. Follow the road over an 18 km (11 mi) bumpy dirt road, when it splits stay to the right, to the Huascaran National Park gates. It typically takes about 1.5 hours to travel to the park gates from the city center of Huaraz. If you are feeling good you can hike up to the glacier and get up-close and personal with Mountain Huantsan.
Quebrada Shallap is a great day hike for people that are still acclimatizing but would like to experience Huascaran National Park and its iconic lakes. This can also be a great option for older or younger trekkers that need a gentler ascent with a lake at a lower elevation, as Lake Shallap is almost 250 m (850 ft) lower than other lakes in the area.
While hiking through the mounds of the valley you will find chozas, traditional resting huts, and frequently see the local indigenous people in large skirts and tall hats tending their fields. Typically you won’t find any tourists in the area and only the Quechua speaking locals.
The valley is filled with large boulders the size of whales, in fact the word “Shallap” is the Quechua word for place of boulders. As the trail flattens out into a meadow you have panoramic views of the area peaks, the largest is San Juan looming an impressive 5,780 meters (18,963 feet) overhead. This hike is also known for a large cave you can explore when ascending the scree field to the lake.
Trail Stats: Quebrada Shallap
- Generally the hike takes between 5 to 6 hours.
- The hike is 16 km (10 mi) out and back, but feels shorter due to the gentle ascent.
- From Huaraz, the best way to get to the trailhead is from the small village of Jancu, located about 1 hour outside of Huaraz.
- From Jancu the elevation gain is 350 m in 8 km (1,150 ft in 5 mi).
- Drive to the small town of Jancu to the mouth of the Shallap Valley. From here you head to the left and follow the path to the National Park boundary and up the valley. When the river meets the scree, field stay to the right to access the cave and lake.
Llaca Valley is one of the most under-used hikes and lakes on the southern side of the Cordillera Blanca and is characterized by a celestial blue glacial lake surrounded by the three glaciers: Oshcapalca, Ranrapalca and Vallanaraju.
Llaca is one of the few hikes that allows you to get close enough to the glaciers to notice their sounds and movement, which can be very ethereal. In the Llaca Valley you also find a dense forest of endangered Polylepis trees which serves as a habitat to birds that are rare in the area, such as the Giant Conebill and the Pied Crested Tit-Tyrant to name a few.
Years ago a road was built to facilitate building a dam to help control the lake level as the melting of the glaciers created a surplus of water. After the road was built the park service built a refugio in hopes it would bring more climbers, but it hasn’t happened. Currently the refugio is rarely open to the public and is used by the Casa de Guias (a local guide association) for large group climbing courses, wilderness first aid courses and training exercises for the Peruvian military for outdoor rescue. The road is hardly used due to its rough condition and currently the only traffic you’ll find are hikers or climbers that are headed to the base camps to climb one of the surrounding peaks.
While the day hike is a mix of rough road and single track it’s worth visiting for its dramatic natural beauty, peaceful solitude, and proximity to Huaraz.
Trail Stats: Llaca
- The Llaca Lake hike takes about 7 to 8 hours starting on the single track above Caserio Cachipampa.
- The total hike is 15 km (9.3 mi) and is an out and back trail.
- Elevation gain is 850 m (2,788 ft) in 7 km (4.7 mi).
- The lake is located at 4,550 m (14,600 ft) and it’s best hiked after at least 48 hours of acclimatization.
- The Llaca hike starts a few steps up from a white post marked KM 12, across from “The Lazy Dog Inn” sign on the Wilcahuain/Llaca Country Road above Caserio Cachipampa, and is marked with a painted boulder placed on the right side of the trail.
Llaca Trail Bonus, For Serious Trekkers
If you want more of a challenge, you can add a hiking loop to the Vallunaraju Base Camp where you can gain an additional 400 m (1,300 ft) in elevation then descend through the adjacent valley coming out next to an indigenous community called Uquia. This add-on offers two more high glacier lakes and sweeping views of Ocshapalca, Ranrapalca, and Vallunaraju glaciers.
- This add-on to Llaca will take a total of 10 to 12 hours by foot or with car support to the Llaca Lake Refugio 5 to 6 hours.
- Elevation gain is 1,250 m (4,101 ft).
- As the base camp is located at at 4,950 m (16,240 ft) you will want at least 3 days of acclimatization before attempting this hike.
- The extension start is located approximately 200 meters before the Refugio Llaca, marked by a small concrete staircase. Follow the staircase and the trail markers up a steep incline for 1.5 hours to a hut at Campo Morrena, located at 4,950 m (16,240 ft). From Campo Morrena follow the trail markers across the sloping rock faces, passing two glacier lakes on the right. To descend follow the sign post marked “A Uquia”, which descends half way down the adjacent valley through a quenal forest, passing the National Park border until you reach the main country road next to the Caserio of Uquia. Turn left and a 45-minute walk will bring you to The Lazy Dog Inn, turn right and a 45-minute walk will bring you to the Wilcahuain ruins.
Happy hiking in Huaraz!!
This guest blog is written by our friends and Huaraz travel experts at Lazy Dog Inn, an eco-lodge, located on the border of Huascaran National Park, in-between 3 indigenous communities. Experience the Andes from the inside today at www.thelazydoginn.com.