Upon looking at the calendar I saw that we were more than halfway into our 5-month long South American adventure. Time was running out! We quickly blew through the dismal capital of Lima and made it to the pretty, little mountain town of Caraz in the overlooked northern region of Peru.
Most tourists who make it to Peru spend most of their time exploring the southern region: Cusco, Colca Canyons, Arequipa, Puno, The Amazon. However the north is equally beautiful, if not more, in a completely opposite way. With 722 individual glaciers, 33 peaks over 5,500 meters, and the highest mountain in Peru, the Cordillera Blanca (literally “White Range” in Spanish) is one of the largest mountain ranges in the world outside the Himalayas. In addition to the peaks and glaciers, there are hundreds of heavenly milky-blue lagoons and lakes formed from glacier melt. The unlimited picturesque scenery sprawled over the length of 100 miles make some of the best trekking in not just Peru but all of South America.
Hiking the popular 4-day Santa Cruz Trek in the Cordillera Blanca would mean 3 weeks in Ecuador instead of 4, which is already hardly enough time. Because we had already trekked and camped many times in Peru, I sadly opted to limit our stay in the Cordillera Blanca for two day treks: Laguna Paron, the largest lagoon in the range at 4,000 m elevation, and Laguna 69, the most popular lagoon in the range at 4,600 m elevation.
And that is how we ended up in Caraz, the nearest town to Laguna Paron, but the furthest town north from the hub of Huaraz. I easily haggled with a cab driver for a 1-way ride up to Laguna Paron from 100 soles to 80 soles (~$25). The 1.5 hour bumpy, off-roading experience + the fact that there are no colectivos that go all the way up to Laguna Paron made me realize why the fare was so high. We also paid a 50 centavo (15¢) vehicle entrance fee, and a 5 sole (~$1.50) national park entrance fee.
Because my goal was to return to Pueblo Paron by around 2pm for supposedly the final colectivo of the day, we did not have time to hike beyond Laguna Paron. We turned around from the western tip and returned the way we came.
It took about 2.5 hours (all downhill) from Laguna Paron to Pueblo Paron. We arrived exactly at 2:30 to a silent town and had no idea where to look for a colectivo. All we saw were farms, a few villagers here and there, and a bunch of animals.
At first I feared that we missed the last colectivo but after inquiring two villagers, we were told that there would be another one in about 30 minutes and we would just have to wait. After loitering in the shade for a brief period, we decided to walk toward Caraz just in case there was no colectivo. Worse case scenario, we walk 12 km back to town and make it by sunset. And sure enough, we saw a colectivo full of passengers working its way up the hill! Relief filled our souls. The driver told us he’d pick us up on the way back down. By the time we actually sat ourselves down in the colectivo, it was 3:45pm. We each paid 5 soles and we were dropped off not far from our hotel by around 5pm.
When we arrived to Laguna Paron that morning, we were the only hikers. Upon our return we encountered 3 more hikers (they even had skis!). I was actually surprised how few hikers there were, due to its reputation for being the largest lagoon. I’m guessing this is due to the fact that most tour companies from Huaraz do not offer this excursion due to the far distance, and perhaps the best way to get there is to go independently in which case knowledge in Spanish is recommended. The hike itself was not difficult, and the incredible and massive lagoon was worth the effort. I can’t imagine there are too many places left in the world like this…and its remoteness and tranquil surroundings are icing on the cake. I am so grateful for making the journey up to the Cordillera Blanca.
Upon returning from Laguna Paron, we picked up our bags from our hotel and took the 25-minute colectivo south to the next town of Yungay for 2 soles each (~60¢). My plan was to get up early the next morning to hike Laguna 69 and return to Yungay for one more night. I had read that the drivers of colectivos from Yungay had already learned that they could rip off foreigners, and that transport to and from Huaraz (6 hours round-trip) would be of equal price and less of a headache. But because I was already in Yungay, I was just going to figure out how to get to Laguna 69 on my own.
Chris had been super sick up to that point and probably should not have hiked Laguna Paron. This time, he stayed in bed and I ventured out to Laguna 69 alone, which in the end worked out great due to the number of conversations (in English and Spanish!) I was able to have with the many hikers on the trail.
At the bus terminal I climbed onto a colectivo and paid 15 soles (~$4.75) for the 1.5 hour ride up the bumpy, windy dirt road to the trailhead of Laguna 69. Along the way we stopped at the national park entrance where I paid 10 soles (~$3.15) for the entrance fee. Then I was finally dropped off at the trailhead, where there were already a couple large tour buses from Huaraz. I began the 14-km roundtrip hike with the people from the tour buses, but in the end, it ended up being me and four other guys who made it to the lagoon before anyone else. Despite the final, steep trek and high altitude of 4,600 m, it took me 2 hours and 25 minutes to summit, about 1 hour less than the average time. Woot!
I had the option to return right away for 15 soles (~$4.75) with a bus that had 2 passengers that I befriended on the trail. But because I was in no hurry to get back to the shitty town of Yungay to my sick boyfriend and another driver had offered me a return trip of 10 soles (~$3.15), I chose to stay at the parking lot to enjoy the scenery. Although I had to wait until 6pm to depart (they had painfully slow hikers), I befriended a Peruvian who had summited Pisco peak earlier that day and also needed a ride back down. After several hours of conversational Spanish, we finally departed the park and the van dropped me off in Yungay by ~7:30pm before continuing to Huaraz.
Every other hiker on Laguna 69 came via tour bus or van from Huaraz; I was the only independent hiker that day. People from two different companies told me that they paid 45 soles (~$14) for their excursion; that made my 25 sole ($~7.75) roundtrip ride not so bad. Coming from Yungay also made my journey only 3 hours roundtrip as opposed to 6 hours roundtrip from Huaraz. But in the end, it’s not about the money; freedom and time are priceless.
It was a shame that I was only able to see Laguna Paron and Laguna 69. There are even circuits in the Cordillera Blanca that take 10-12 days! Oh well. A sample is better than none. I thought the lagoon and landscape of Laguna Paron was more beautiful than the lagoon and landscape of Laguna 69; however, the hike up to Laguna 69 was far more scenic and breathtaking than the hike up to Laguna Paron. Although lesser known and far less visited, I’d say its epic-ness is on par with treks in Patagonia. Yes, it is that incredible!