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The Cordillera Blanca, PE


March 14TH, 2018

It was time to leave Cajamarca but we had one more thing to see in the area: Cumbe Mayo. This manmade canal/aqueduct is considered to be the oldest manmade structure in South America. It was about a 40 minute drive southwest of the city on a windy (surprise, surprise) uphill, dirt road. We had read interesting info on the site and were prepared to be underwhelmed with something that old (many times it’s just piles of rocks) but it surpassed our expectations by kilometres. The weather cooperated and we had a lovely 1.25 hour hike through the site, seeing amazing rock formations, staircases, a tunnel to walk through, a sacrificial rock, petroglyphs and beautiful scenery in general.

Back story: Cumbe Mayo was built by an advanced pre-Inca society around 1500 B.C. Cumbe Mayo, which translates to “thin river”, is thought to be a marvel of the impact of time upon nature and man wonderfully combined.

Archeologists aren’t exactly sure why they were built, but it’s thought that the canals were meant to slow down and regulate the movement of water. They were likely constructed using obsidian hammers. The caves and shelters of the area evidence other stone engravings, where visitors claim to see anthropomorphic images.

The aqueduct winds down the hills toward the city of Cajamarca, stretching out over about 8km/5km in length. The canals brought water from the high grounds to the valleys below and it is believed that a reservoir was situated at Santa Apolonia at one time.

We drove back into Cajamarca to hit the grocery store and made our way south. We’d been in touch with Christine and Mark who had completed their volunteer week and were heading northwest towards us so we arranged to meet in Caráz near a big hiking area at a campground that came highly recommended. Mark had been quite ill with the flu so we are hoping he recovers soon and that it’s nothing worse. The plan is to meet Friday/Saturday at Camping Guadalupe.

Now we’d heard about several scenic road options heading south and finally set our sights on a route. We drove the PE3N to the small city of Huamachuco first. The road was a two lane highway for most of the way and we arrived there before dark. We checked out a few options listed on iOverlander, but nothing had parking that we could fit it (low gates or we were too long). We spoke to a policeman who said no parking was allowed on the main square but there was a truck bypass road that was safe and we could spend the night there. We were not optimistic about a good night’s sleep on a truck route but we did sleep well as there were no dogs or roosters around. Naturally once the road traffic began around six we were awake but that was fine as we had lots of kilometres to drive.   Wednesday we’d done almost half of the 340km/210m to Caraz.

So we “tried” to leave Huamachuco; we say “try” as it took forever to get out of town. First we wanted to fill up the gas tank and the jerry cans as we wanted to be sure we had enough gas to take these scenic back roads and you never know how long they’ll take and how much climbing is involved (which sucks the tank dry must faster). Well, the first station out of town we passed had a line up so we continued to the second one. There was only a couple of moto taxis at the pump so we pulled in as we discovered there were no more stations enroute. Well, the gas pump nozzle did not like our tank; it took forever to fill – over a half hour! (we were only just below half) and then we filled the jerry cans. Then the route to get to main road was a bad dirt sectdion and in total it took us over an hour to get out of “Dodge”!

The PE3N out of Huamachuco was paved for a short bit but turned into a dirt road with short paved sections, then we switched to some backroads which had mountain passes with windy roads although with some good paved sections especially on the many switch backs down one mountain to the Tablachaca River and then back up the other side.

Windy road down and you can see the windy road back up the other side of the river:

We arrived in Pallasca around 4:30 and checked with the police on the main square about parking there for the night as others had done and they told us which side of the square to park on. It’s a small pretty town with a nice square and we had a quiet night again with no dogs or roosters.

Leaving Pallasca, we were now on the AN100 which was patchy pavement with potholes and then gravel/dirt. Along the way we see a least a half dozen archeological sites signs. Peru has to be the most “ruined” country we’ve been to.

Some sections were very narrow and there was a lot of undercut road. The views were quite something and we travelled very slowly but again the scenery made it worth it. It was like our own rainbow mountain range with reds, greens, yellows, purple, greys, blacks and browns in the hills. The road actually follows the Tablachaca River (very muddy but fast flowing) and there are people subsisting along the river banks with fields of veggies, cows and sheep. Such a hard life.

This road eventually gets you back on the PE3N but there is no way this would be considered a national route in other parts of the world. Mostly single lane, lots of places where landslides had taken out the road, many repaired but we did drive through piles of gravel that had washed down to the road. It was sloooooow going for the first couple of hours. Then when we switched highways, we got back on a paved section that ends up being pretty good and we began following the course of the Rio Santa which is flowing quite quickly and the water was cleaner than the Tablachaco. Here we entered a new canyon and the views continued to astound us. The road is double lanes for a while then back to single but mostly paved and fortunately, we’ve hardly met any traffic either yesterday or today which made it even more pleasurable; no big tractor trailers, just the odd bus, or local traffic and a few motor bikes.

We arrived at the Canón del Pato dam after passing through a few tunnels as we continued to follow the Rio Santa and then there were several more tunnels – probably nearly 40 in total. We stopped often for pics and video and were very happy we came this route. “Espectacular” as they say in Spanish.

We arrived at Camping Guadalupe in Caraz next to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca around 3:00 to find KP & Taylor were here, a French couple with a BC plated camper and a Brazilian couple on bicycles. Christine and Mark arrived a couple of hours later. Now there are FOUR Silverado trucks altogether. This camping spot is on iOverlander and Jaime, the owner, is a farmer with what appears to be a large chunk of land that is a working farm. He has set up an awesome “compound” area for campers with lots of power outlets, an amazing bathroom block with constant hot water and there is internet throughout.

While travelling today, we’d heard a rattle noise from under the truck when turning right and it turned out to be the tailpipe. As we drove into the long driveway of this campsite, Fran heard a new noise and we stopped and saw the tailpipe was barely hanging on. As we came the last 20m, we heard it fall off. So Doug walked back to get it and spoke to the owner, Jaime, about where to get it welded back on.

We had a very nice happy hour with KP, Christine and Mark and then a second one with Adeline and Florian (from France). It had started to rain so we packed in the first one which was outdoors and after we got inside, the French couple came over and we had one more in our rig.

We had a really good night’s sleep and next day we hung around the campsite catching up and doing odd chores and Doug got the tailpipe welded back on. That evening a couple arrived in a van with Chilean plates; Lee & Zowie are friends from England heading north as far as Colombia.

It rained a good portion of the night but never hard enough to let us know for sure that our back wall was now leak proof. Dang, rainy season is not over but it never seems to want to rain hard enough to really test that wall.

Sunday, Christine joined us for a walk into the town of Caraz while Mark continued to recuperate his strengthand we checked out the main square, some nearby free ruins (mostly just rocks) and then the market. We bought some of the town speciality, manjar blanco, which is a sweet thick substance made from milk that is a little different from condensed milk in that it’s sweeter and thicker – it reminded Fran of her mother’s sugar pie. It has the consistency of pasteurized honey and tasted good on toast.

Sidebar: We’ve yet to see someone in the mountains of Peru actually cutting their grass; they use sheep (or cows) – they tie the animal up on a short lease and let them eat the grass one section at a time.

Now we began our exploration of the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes. These are the highest mountains in the tropical world – they are 35 peaks above 6000m/19685‘! The highest peak is Huascaran at 6768m/22204 ‘. There are many glaciers but like elsewhere in the world, they are receding quickly. We are currently next to the Huascaran National Park which is divided into various regions so the plan is to check out a few sections and get some hiking in. In this park live vicunas, vizcachas (an Andean rabbit), deer, fox, the odd speckled bear and hummingbirds to name a few. It was named a UNESCO site in 1985 and covers 3400 square kilometres or 1300 square miles.

Monday morning we hopped in Mark and Christine’s truck (their camper slides out) and we drove the 35km to the Laguna Parón section of the park. This area contains a glacier limestone lake in the mountains. The city of Caraz sits at about 2200m/7200’ and the lake sits up at 4200m/23600’. Well 35 km takes two hours on that dirt road. The lake is beautiful but the sun never fully came out so we could see the mountain peaks that surround it.

What it supposed to look like on a clear day (the peak in the centre is rumoured to be the one in he Paramount Pictures logo – mmmhhhhh):

what we saw on arrival:

We hiked up the left hand side the lake and the weather never cleared and it actually began to rain, so out came the rain ponchos. As it really got socked in, the view worsened and Doug was suffering from an altitude headache so we turned around but Mark & Christine continued on trying to reach the end of the lake.

We walked back to the refugio/parking area and then walked down a different path to be on the shore the lake and so Fran could put her feet in the cold water.


Mark and Christine returned about a half hour later not making it all the way either and as they did not want to come to the shore, we packed it in and left. We met KP & Taylor coming up on our way down; they were planning to spend the night up there and do the hike the next morning. We wished them good weather.

It rained most of the way back and as we got back to town, we stopped at a bakery, picked up some savory and sweet individual pies for dinner and called it a day.

Tuesday, Doug went into town with Tigger to get the wheel bearing/bushings in front checked; Fran stayed behind doing laundry and hanging with Christine. It was a gorgeous today so we’re all jealous that KP & Taylor are probably getting amazing views! Turns out the bearing does need replacing but we’re good for a while. The mechanic wanted to remove the bearing to ensure he’d get the right part but we’d been told that once it comes out, often it cannot go back in correctly so Doug will order two when we go home and we’ll get them installed in Cuzco.

Wednesday we awoke early (6:00) to rain, a little heavier than we’d had here but not pouring and began to doubt our day’s plan: driving to the Llanganuco Lakes with Mark & Christine. At 7, Fran and Christine chatted on WhatsApp and as it was clearing, we said let’s go and again we all piled into their truck taking turns in the front seat throughout the day to enjoy the scenery.

The drive up began by going through the nearby town of Yungay and then off on to a (you guessed it!) a dirt road. This was a 45km drive up to a view point past the Llanganuco Lakes (which are supposed to be different colours in different seasons – today is the first day of fall here). The skies cleared some more and not long after we left Yungay, we could see the peaks of Huascaran through the clouds. It never showed itself fully but we saw more glacier than we’d see at Paron and also saw its sister peak poking through and one to the northeast of it. Our trip was starting well.

A little history: The 1970 Ancas earthquake also known as “the Great Peruvian Earthquake” occurred on May 31st off the coast of Peru about 3:30 in the afternoon local time. Combined with the resultant landslide, it is considered the most catastrophic natural disaster in Peru’s history.  Due to the large amounts of snow and ice included in the landslide, and its estimated 66-70,000 causalities, it is also considered to be the world’s deadliest avalanche. The northern wall of Mount Huascaran was destabilized and it buried the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca.  The avalanche measured 910 metres (2,990 ft) wide and 1.6 km (1 mile) long travelling at an average speed of 280 to 335 km per hour. The earthquake affected an area of about 83,000 km², an area larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined 

We made it to the first lake: Chinancocha (named after a princess) and took a stroll along the path there for about half an hour admiring the massive rock cliffs around us with waterfalls and a glacier.

We drove on past the next lake, Orkancocha (named after her prince) but figured we’d stop there on the way down from the 4800m view point called Portachuelo de Llanganuco. The drive up was full of switchbacks and we saw lots more pieces of glaciers but never the full peaks.

You could actually see how big the glaciers used to be and when we reached the top, the view was more of the switch backed road, not the valley. But we did get lots of awesome valley views on both the drive up and then back down. At the top the fog was setting it and it was much colder – down to 7C! XX

We drove back down and decided not to stop at the second lake (it was not as pretty as the first nor as deep) and we made our way about 2/3 of the way back when we came upon an artesian brewery set up in a container just off the side of the road. Since Mark & Christine are huge microbrewery fans, we stopped for a pint. They had eight different beers with varying levels of alcohol, which Kevin, the bartender, explained to us in Spanish, and we all chose a draft of a different kind. Doug was the only one who was not crazy about his choice. The spot had plastic tables and chair set up and we sat and enjoyed the view of the valley under the partly cloudy sky.

We returned to “camp” and shortly afterwards KP & Taylor returned. They’d spent two nights up at Paron and decided to come back to this great camp spot before heading south. We had a nice happy hour before calling it a night.

As mentioned several times, we’ve been struggling with the grounding issue in Peru. Here at Guadalupe, we were reluctant to plug in the rig again but did use an extension cord running into the kitchen window to power our laptops. Doug tried a few ideas while here and he finally determined that the power must be grounded here so we ended up plugging in fully and we had no shocking episodes but at least he knows how to test to see.  There were so many outlets around this compound, that one day Fran plugged in all four dehumidifiers and her toothbrush to charge them up all at once.  As they each take 8-12 hours to charge up, this was super handy.

The weather here is quite comfortable, low to mid 20’sC/67-75F during the day and dipping into the mid teens at night for sleeping. As mentioned we’ve had some rain but no heavy stuff and although we’ve heard thunder, we’ve not had any storms that actually produce anything significant. It does seem to cloud over frequently in the afternoons but here in Caraz, we don’t get much fog; guess we’re not high enough.

Thursday we hung around the campsite for the day other than walks and it was a relaxing day. Christine and Mark went off to do the Canon del Pato and had a nice drive. That night we had happy hour under cover once again

We decided to all go out for dinner Friday night. Friday morning we awoke to sun and the four of us went on another day outing in Mark’s truck. This time it was to about getting their propane bottle filled (failed at first two places), then a scenic drive into the Coridillera Negra to a view point that by the time we got there was totally socked in but we did hit the top of the mountain pass and saw the beginning of the Camino del Inka trail.

As we approached the city of Huaraz on the way back (also destroyed back in 1970 but not by the landslide, just the earthquake portion of the disaster – one original street remains), we stopped for gas and they had propane so Mark was able to fill the tank then as we passed through Huaraz, we stopped for groceries and then went home. The rain got harder and then let up but it was settled in for sure. And hurrah – no leaking back wall when we got “home”. It was a somewhat pretty drive for the first half and we were glad to get out for the day but the rain did put a damper on things.

We spent the rest of the afternoon “indoors” until six when all six of us piled into Mark’s truck and we drove into town for dinner. The place we wanted to go that looked quite nice on the square turned out to be closed down so we wandered a bit and found a pizza place in a cool looking building and had some pisco sour cocktails, beer and pizza. It was a fun dinner and the pizza was decent. (Funny note: Fran ordered a Hawaiian, as she’s been known to do a few times…turns out they must have not had any pineapple as it came with peaches, pears, two grapes and a maraschino cherry – they must have used canned fruit cocktail!)

FUN STUFF:  The Pisco Sour. Pisco Sour is considered the national drink of Peru. It actually even has its own holiday; the first Saturday of February is known as National Pisco Sour Day. This drink is a cocktail that originated in Lima in the early 1920’s by an American bartender named Victor Vaughen Morris working at a bar in the city centre. The drink underwent a few changes in recipe until the late 1920’s and has remained the ever since. The drink is made with an alcohol called “pisco” which is a clear grape brandy to which you add lime juice, syrup, ice, egg whites and Angostura bitters.

Saturday we awoke to almost clear skies and decided to stay one more day…..After breakfast we walked into the town to hit the market early to get fresh veggies and fruit and for about seven dollars we bought: a mango, three avocados, six limes, three potatoes, four carrots, two heads of lettuce, a large broccoli, an onion, four tomatoes, 17 oranges (for juice), four apples and six bananas; can’t do that back home!

KP & Taylor left mid morning and we hope to meet up with them again in Cuzco later next month.   In the late afternoon, a German couple arrived in a Sprinter Van; Kristof and Suzanna are heading north, so we still had six for happy hour tonight.

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(need a second map here due to the number of waypoints!)

So Sunday, after nine nights at Camping Guadalupe, we packed up and left. We drove about 30km south to the town of Carhuaz where we turned eastward back into the Huascaran NP. Our route today was along the AN110 to Chacas through a wide canyon with spectacular mountain/glacier views. We calculated from looking at that we saw parts/peaks of: Huascaran Sur, Chequiaraju, Ulta, Chopicaulqui and Contrahierbas. The weather was nearly perfect, lots of blue sky but moving clouds across the mountains of course, but we were very pleased.

Here’s Huascaran saying hasta luego to us in our back window:

We made it to Chacas before noon and despite being told it was a quaint colonial town, we were not impressed so we pushed on. The road here had been very good and guess we got spoiled cause in about 10km it deteriorated rapidly. Thru to San Luis and a bit beyond it was quite muddy then mostly just rocky with some potholes; we’d been on worse but since we didn’t spend the night in Chacas, we wanted to make Chavin before the archeological site and museum closed for the day. It began to rain and the road was too slow to expect to make it in time.

We drove up to 4900 meets to Laguna Huanachocha which was quite pretty but there was snow up there – not our cup of tea and too high for us to sleep comfortably.

After Huari, we reached pavement but it was full of potholes and unpaved sections so that didn’t help.

In Chavin de Huantar we checked with the police and parked beside their station for two nights since it was Monday tomorrow and the site and museum would be closed. This town is at 3100m so a bit colder overnight but nothing we couldn’t handle. We spent Monday doing chores, route planning and the usual walks.

We’ve found cell service actually pretty good here. You can be in the mountains in the middle of nowhere but often if you pass through a village, you’ll get reception and sometimes 4G!

Sidebar: Elections in Latin America do not require the garbage that they do in Canada/US. Here you don’t see political signs on people’s lawns or down the street. Here there are the odd billboards, but mostly they paint the entire side of a house, store, fence/wall.

Tuesday morning was a bit cold and after brekkie we walked the kilometre east to the Museum – it was open but they wouldn’t let us in (we’d read it was free) without the ticket that must be purchased at the archeological site first!  Ah Latin America…

So we walked the 2km + to the site, paid our 15 Soles and visited the site. This site is pre Incan (pre dates Machu Picchu by 2000  years!) and was inhabited by the Chavin people in the first millennium BC. They worshiped Puma anamorphic figures and these ruins were their temples and places of sacrifice and worship. Their shaman took hallucinogenic drugs and performed ceremonies in designated areas of the site. The people of Chavin diverted streams, created new waterways, experimented with light and sound, and shaped granite hard stone as they liked. The temple here was a pilgrimage site for elites of distant regions. When they reached this temple, a entirely new experience awaited them; they were would be transported into another world complete with  the roaring of the water in the subterranean canals, the enchanting sound of the pututos (concha shell horns), the mysterious carved creatures and the sumptuously clad priests who seemed to appear from nowhere.

Rituals took place in the Circular Plaza every December 21st which is the day the sun rises exactly over the prominent mountain over the River Mosna (next to the site) and that moment was considered magical.

The cool thing about these ruins is that they, like many others, have tunnels in them, and this is one of the few sites we’ve read about/been too that allows people inside to walk them. The site is not largest we’ve been to by any means but that was what drew us to checking them out. It is situated alongside a river and there are canals built to allow excess rain water from the hills to drain out to the river.

We spent about an hour here and actually met an overlanding couple parked outside from Switzerland; Erica and Bert have been traveling one year longer than us and are also headed south.

After the visit we opted not to visit the museum upon returning to Tigger and hopped in the truck to carry on.

The road out was not much better than the road here, paved sections but lots of potholes and topes. We were headed west back to the PE3N but did not want to proceed to our next destination too quickly as it would mean sleeping at much higher altitude so we stopped for lunch beside a river before reaching the highway and spent a little time here reading. Before dinner time we drove out to the highway, found a gas station rest area to spend the night and it was raining pretty hard so we were happy not to have to go too far. (Oh and the back wall is still not leaking so we think that soon we an get the inside back wall replaced!)

Before entering the tunnel enroute to Catac:

Next morning, as we were at a truck stop, the trucks started early and it was cold so we were up early. It was an absolutely clear blue sky which was perfect for today’s activity: driving back in Huascaran NP (for our fourth time) via the Route 790 to see some more of the park – we are amazed by the amount of things this park has to offer even to non overnight hikers like us.

Shortly after heading south on the PE3N, we saw many peaks of the Cordillera Blanca and were in awe of the beauty. Turning east along our route we saw so many more mountains, with and without snow/glaciers – all that rain we’d had the night before made things look even whiter! These glaciers were the Caullaraju peaks.

Our first stop along the road was to view this cool plant that only grows in Peru & Bolivia at elevations of 3000-4800m in the Andes. It is known as the “Queen of the Andes” called the Puya Raimondi and is a species of bromeliad. It is a very slow growing plant and begins more as an aloe looking plant and by 30 years of age, a trunk begins to appear underneath and by 40 years a stalk grows out of the top and flowers once in its lifetime. It can grow to between 7 and 15 metres.

when it blossoms

The road we’re on is not bad actually, decent gravel/dirt and the scenery is breathtaking. Mururaju glacier:


The next little stop was for some petroglyphs:

We’d left the gas station this morning at 7:30 at 3600m and we drove up to almost 4900m by the time we reached out next stop of interest: the mirador of the Pastoruri Glacier. This glacier has sadly receded a great deal in recent years and the hike up to the snow line was quite a good distance of elevation so we enjoyed just viewing it from the parking area.

poster of what glacier looked like several years ago

The view that was actually more spectacular was the view looking the other way of the Nevada Huarapasca which we’d been approaching for the last little while and continued to view for a while after the parking area. This was one of the most spectacular glaciers on this route in our opinion:


We continued eastward along the 790, went through the pass and began descending into another canyon, beautiful but not much in the way of glaciers. Upon reaching the PE3N at the other end, we were looking for a spot we’d read about where there were dinosaur foot prints but the coordinates must have been inaccurate because we were right at them, and no footprints.

Doug looking for the dinosaur foot prints

The highway is now paved and it’s even two lanes! However that didn’t last long; the PE3N met another road which was in excellent shape but we had to veer right to La Union and the surface was not so great but there was little traffic. We picked up a couple of backpackers, Allan and Anna, he is Mexican, she German and the plan was to take them to Huanuco with us but the road condition deteriorated and it was slow going and a bit terrifying at times. It became one lane dirt most of the rest of the way and it was so sloooooow going. As we passed by the Corona del Inca

our passengers decided it was late enough (almost four o’clock) and asked to be left on in the little village there. We carried on to check out a couple of wild camping spots with no luck as neither felt safe or off the road enough. Therefore we carried on to Huanuco to park off the square by the police station for the night and got there around five; distance driven today: 245km! – a lot more than we like to do in a day and it took nearly TEN hours!