In depth: Adventurous activities in the Peruvian Andes

Camping in Cordiliera Huayhuash
Camping in Cordiliera Huayhuash

Few places in the world allow you to drive by car in one day across almost rainless deserts near sea level, climb 5,000 meters (16,500ft) to frigid regions of permanent snow, and then descend again to hot and dense tropical rainforests. But this is Peru.


In an area about the size of Britain, France, and Spain combined, Peru contains 84 of the world’s 101 known ecological life zones. With so much geographical, cultural, and biological diversity, and with wild rivers, huge coastline, and a country where much of the mountain landscape is open, unfenced, and crisscrossed with trails, the range of possible adventure experiences is almost limitless.

Trekking is the nation’s first and foremost adventure activity, the headline hike being the incomparable Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but with dozens of other popular routes scattered across the country and winding their way across the high passes and astounding scenery of the tropical Andes. Major areas for trekking are the Cusco region and the Cordillera Blanca, with Arequipa and the Colca Canyon, Chachapoyas, and mountain areas closer to Lima also growing in popularity.

Rafting and kayaking are well-established and exciting options on some of the dramatic Amazon tributaries, such as the Apurímac and the Tambopata, or on some of the Pacific watershed rivers, such as the deep Cotahuasi Canyon, or the easier waters of the Rio Cañete near Lima.

Mountain biking has mushroomed in popularity in recent years, especially in the Cusco region, while horseback riding, paragliding, and mountaineering all have their devotees and favorite areas. Certain spots on the coast have some of the world’s finest waves, worshiped by congregations of devoted surfers.

Two main climate patterns reign in Peru: the coastal cycle and the mountain/rainforest cycle. The southern-hemisphere winter brings low cloud and drizzle to Lima and the central coast from about April through November, when the ocean is cold with stiff winds most of the way to the border with Ecuador. December brings warmer weather and sunshine, and city dwellers take to the beaches. In the mountains, winter (May to October) is dry and sunny, and this is the season for most adventure activities. November and December bring on the highland rains, which grow intense from January through March. Some trekking on the better-maintained trails is possible during these months, but stay away from the remoter areas, or be prepared for highway washouts, mud-clogged trails, and major delays. The rainforest is always hot, but with much less rain in the winter months.


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Image titleThe Inca Trail to Machu Picchu makes for an incredible hike in Peru. Photo: Shutterstock


Trekking

Adventurers should be very aware of altitude as a potential cause of suffering, disappointment, and occasionally serious problems. Andean trekking routes often cross high passes ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 meters (13,200 to 16,500ft). Before you set out, know what altitudes you will be facing, and above all, take time to acclimatize and exercise gently at high-altitude locations such as Cusco or Huaraz before beginning any strenuous activity.

The condition that trekkers often suffer, Acute Mountain Sickness, known locally as soroche, features headaches, nausea, insomnia, and shortness of breath. At higher altitudes this can sometimes turn into pulmonary edema or cerebral edema, when fluid collects in the lungs or brain respectively. Both of these are dangerous and potentially fatal conditions. Symptoms are a dry, persistent cough, excessive fatigue, cyanosis (purple lips and fingernails), mental confusion, incoherence, and lack of coordination. Group members should look out for these signs in others, since the victim is usually unaware of the problem. Any appearance of these symptoms should be treated as an emergency, and the victim must be taken to a significantly lower altitude immediately.

No skill is required for trekking, but some degree of fitness is recommended. Hat, sunblock, sunglasses, raingear, flashlight, extra batteries, insect repellent, layers of both lightweight and warm clothing, a good pair of walking shoes or boots, and a good sleeping bag are essential items to take with you. Need for a tent, multi-fuel or camping gas stove (wood fires are both impractical and unecological), and a first-aid kit, depends on whether or not you decide to sign up with one of the numerous agencies offering trekking services. These vary a lot in price and quality of service. As a rule of thumb, if time is your constraint, sign up with an outfitter; if money, go independent, although this is not an option on the Inca Trail.

Most essential trekking equipment can be bought or rented in Cusco or Huaraz, but not elsewhere. When hiring equipment be sure to assemble, check, and test every item thoroughly before setting out. In Cusco brand-name lightweight trail boots can be purchased at Molinopampa, a sort of smuggler’s supermarket near the airport.

Trekking food can be bought in the large towns and cities, but is not readily available on trails, so carry all you need for your trek. Packet soups, pasta, and noodles can be purchased in stores and markets, along with dried fruits and grains. Most common spices are also available.

All drinking water should be sterilized with purification tablets, iodine solution, or a filtering pump. Powdered flavorings to disguise the unpleasant taste of treated water are available in stores.


The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was for years the hike to do in Peru. Nothing else can compare with the startling variety of scenery, Inca ruins, and ecological zones, packed into three or four days of exquisite hiking. There is also a popular short one-day version of the trail that feeds in from the railroad near Machu Picchu.

However, the overwhelming numbers of hikers on these ancient paths have forced the authorities to restrict access, raise costs, and impose strict regulations. Today, would-be trekkers must reserve months ahead and sign up with a licensed operator. Though only the fortunate few can do the Inca Trail these days, the new limits have had one fortunate side effect: hikers are spreading out into undeveloped and unrestricted areas, and discovering scores of less well known but wonderful treks.


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Tourist near Machu Picchu. Photo: dmitry_islentev/ShutterstockTourist near Machu Picchu. Photo: dmitry_islentev/Shutterstock


The Cusco region

The Ausangate Loop is a well-known high-altitude classic of dramatic mountain scenery and cultural encounters with traditional Quechua alpaca and llama herders, making a full circle around Ausangate (6,380 meters/20,930ft), the highest mountain in southern Peru. Beginning and ending with glorious open-air hot springs, no campsite is much below 4,000 meters (13,200ft), and two of the passes are at around 5,000 meters (16,500ft). Huge glacial moraines, raw cliffs and slopes in multicolored mineral shades, and lakes in intensely varied blues make this an  unforgettable five-day journey. The road from Cusco to the trailhead at Tinqui is part of the new Trans-Oceanic highway to Brazil, and is much improved, taking only about four hours.

The back-door route to Machu Picchu, from Salcantay to Santa Teresa, was promoted by local guides when Inca Trail permits grew scarce. It has some of the glory of the Inca Trail, and crosses a higher, more spectacular mountain pass between Humantay and Salcantay (6,270 meters/20,570ft), two of the highest peaks in the Cordillera Vilcabamba. Starting at Soraypampa after a three-hour drive from Cusco, you cross the high pass on the first day of this three- or four-day trek, and the rest is downhill, descending from frigid wasteland through grasslands, dwarf forest, and tropical cloud forest and down through the Santa Teresa Valley. From here there are road and rail links to the town of Aguas Calientes, near Machu Picchu. A variant adds an extra day over an Inca highway through the ruins of Patallacta, with spectacular views eastward to Machu Picchu.

Both the Ausangate region and the Salcantay route now offer the option of lodge-to-lodge hiking – the latter a rather high-end private service, the Ausangate a mid-level cooperative effort involving local communities.

A comparatively recent offering, Choquequirao is a spectacular five-day round-trip journey to an Inca site which rivals Machu Picchu for its setting. The journey begins with a scenic five-hour drive west from Cusco across the Apurímac river to the trailhead at the canyon-rim town of Cachora, with optional visits (which add time) to fascinating Inca sites at Limatambo and Sayhuite along the way. A nearly 1,800-meter (6,000ft) descent into the hot semi-desert floor of the Apurímac Canyon is followed by a 1,500-meter (5,000ft) ascent to the cloud-forest site of Choquequirao. Thought to have been a royal estate of the emperor Topa Inca, who ruled from 1471 to 1493, this is a sprawling, well-preserved site, with superb, massive terracing features, including a set of terraces inlayed with 22 large llama figures in white stone. Terrain is very steep, and a measure of fitness is called for. An air lift service to the site from Huanipaca is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.

It is possible to continue this hike northward into the Vilcabamba region, over the Minas Victoria pass, then either east over Puerto Yanama (4,700 meters/15,400ft) to Machu Picchu or north following imposing Inca stone highways over the Choquetacarpo pass (4,600 meters/15,080ft) to Huancacalle and the ruins of Vitcos: about 10–12 days in total, in either case. If trekking only to Choquequirao, using pack-horses, you must retrace your steps to Cachora. Brave souls carrying their own backpack or using porters can take the steep route out via San Ignacio and Huanipaca.


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Flying condor over Colca canyon,Peru. Photo: vitmark/ShutterstockFlying condor over Colca Canyon, Peru. Photo: vitmark/Shutterstock


North of Cusco, beyond the Urubamba Valley, lies a broad region of mountains known as the Lares region, where traditional Quechua people herd their llamas and alpacas. At the eastern end lies Lares, locally famous for its superb hot springs, and to the west lies Ollantaytambo, jumping off spot for Machu Picchu. Several hiking routes cross the mountains northward into this area from the Sacred Valley, or one can drive to Lares and trek westward to Ollantaytambo.

For those who prefer short overnight treks or camp-free day hiking, there are several short hikes around Cusco, including the route from Tauca, near Chinchero, to the stunning and little-visited Inca site of Huchuy Cusco, which overlooks the Sacred Valley at Lamay. It can be done in one rather long day (with a very early start), or with an overnight camp at the ruins. Possible day hikes around Cusco include climbs of nearby mountains Mama Simona, Huanacauri, Senca, and Picol.


The Cordillera Blanca

Eight hours north of Lima by bus, the city of Huaraz is the starting point for an array of spectacular treks among Peru’s highest mountains. The Cordillera Blanca is home to the country’s highest peak, Huascarán (6,760 meters/22,200ft) and 30 other summits above 6,000 meters (19,700ft), and a maze of trails climbing between them from two parallel north–south valleys, the Callejón de Huaylas and the more remote Callejón de Conchucos to the east. Routes range from day hikes out of Huaraz, to lengthy two-week circuits encompassing most of the Cordillera. The most famous route is the five-day Llanganuco–Santa Cruz trek, but many other scenic hikes carry less traffic. At least one short acclimatization hike out of Huaraz – such as the Laguna Churup trail – is advisable, since most of the Cordillera Blanca trails cross passes of at least 4,400 meters (14,430ft).

Huaraz is also the jumping-off point for the less scenic, but popular and relatively easy Olleros–Chavín route, which ends at the ancient ruins of Chavín de Huantar. In Huaraz, the Casa de Guías can provide the latest information on trails and mountain conditions, along with names of porters and mule-wranglers. The main street of Luzuriaga sports dozens of trekking outfitters and equipment rental stores, along with an array of discos, peñas, and bars for winding down after strenuous trekking.


The Cordillera Huayhuash

This stunning, more remote region of high peaks is reached from Huaraz via Chiquián, a small town at the north end of the range. For serious and fit trekkers only, a 12-day circuit of the entire range, with at least one very high pass every day, starts here. Still steep, but much shorter at four days, is the round-trip from Chiquián to Jahuacocha, a lake with stunning views of the highest peak, Yerupajá (6,634 meters/21,760ft). Cajatambo at the south end of the Cordillera is a possible exit point to Lima for a shorter circuit, and also provides access for excellent shorter hikes in the vicinity.


Around Arequipa

Although not a famous trekking area, the capital of the south offers hiking out of Cabanaconde at the western end of the Colca Canyon, down into one of the world’s two deepest canyons, Colca or Cotahuasi. It’s also possible to ascend the summit of Misti, the enormous active volcano that looms over the city of Arequipa. But be warned – although technically easy, this three-day climb peaks at 5,820 meters (19,000ft). Arequipa is too low for acclimatization, so it’s essential to spend time in Cusco, Puno, or the Colca area immediately before this ascent.


Northern Sierra

More isolated and less known than Peru’s major trekking areas, this region of mountainous cloud forest filled with hilltop ruins and cliff tombs also offers many superb routes, accessed from the towns of Chachapoyas and Leimebamba, northwest of Cajamarca.


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Paragliding in Miraflores. Photo: Christian Vinces/ShutterstockParagliding in Miraflores. Photo: Christian Vinces/Shutterstock


Mountain biking

The Megavalanche downhill marathon near Cusco has put Peru on the mountain-biking map. Cusco is the major center, with lots more options out of Huaraz, Arequipa, and even Lima. Stupendous scenery, wide open country, a multitude of trails, and from Cusco, major day-long downhill runs constitute the attractions.

A classic one-day outing near Cusco is the Maras–Moray plateau route, which is both easy and scenically dramatic. Great downhills include the Málaga pass, whose western slope route can be planned to end with a hike into Machu Picchu from Santa Teresa. A staggering descent from frigid grassland at Tres Cruces into the steamy eastern rainforest can run one or two days, and another one-day downhill run from the Lares pass near Calca follows an Inca road.

Huaraz has spectacular tours from one to three or four days, into the heart of the Cordillera Blanca. Arequipa is a good jump-off point for biking in the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, and shorter day runs around the city. Lima also has access to big dowhill runs from the mountains to the beach. Rentals and tours are available in all cities. Check bikes carefully, and make sure the fee includes gloves, a good helmet, and a repair kit. Tours should always provide a support vehicle.


Mountain climbing

The Peruvian Andes have some famous climbing areas, first and foremost the Cordillera Blanca, out of Huaraz, with some 30 summits above 6,000 meters (19,680ft), among them Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán (6,760 meters/22,200ft). A popular acclimatization warm-up climb is the Nevado Pisco (5,800 meters/19,000ft). This has a steep yet rapid ascent, offering spectacular views from the saddle, and there is a mountain refuge at the base of the mountain. The Cordillera Blanca is the only area in Peru with a system of mountain refuges, accredited guides, and mountain rescue services.

The Arequipa region has both walk-ups and harder peaks, and Cusco has some hard technical climbs with longer approaches. These areas have little support for mountaineers, although there are one or two companies in each city which provide guiding and equipment services.


Horseback riding

One of the draws for horse-lovers is the Peruvian paso horse, a local breed which has been developed for its unique gait, and is famously comfortable to ride. Traditionally they are more adapted to coastal conditions, but today some companies offer paso treks in the mountains, while other outfits prefer the sure-footed mountain horses.

Around Cusco a variety of horse treks set off from the Sacred Valley into and across the spectacular Cordillera Urubamba, along with easier one-day journeys on the nearby Maras plateau. For a fun outing near Cusco itself, horses can be rented behind the Inca site of Sacsayhuamán, just outside the city. But be sensitive: some (not all) outfits mistreat their horses, and if the animals are thin, displaying saddle sores and in visibly poor condition, do not encourage these practices by renting them. The Cordillera Blanca also has good horseback riding options, as does the popular Colca Canyon near Arequipa.


Paragliding

In Lima steady coastal winds rising off the cliffs fronting Miraflores offer some paragliding excitement in reliable conditions. Cliffside outfits will take you on a tandem high above the beach, soaring past the balconies of shiny high-rise hotels and apartment blocks.

Paragliding in the mountains is more problematic, due to unpredictable air currents, but intrepid souls who ride paragliders above the Sacred Valley near Cusco are rewarded with stunning views of mountains, remote villages, and Inca ruins.


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