In the summer of 2014, I put together a traverse of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. One of the world’s highest and most beautiful mountain ranges, to the best of my knowledge, it was the first time that such a trek had been completed.
Beginning at the village of Hualcallan and finishing at Pastoruri Glacier, the route consisted of a combination of established trails, cross-country scrambles, and the occasional stretch along backcountry dirt roads. Measuring approximately 400 km (249 mi) in length, it took 16 days to complete and included more than 20 mountain passes ranging between 4,347 m and 5,201 m (14,262 ft-17,064 ft). After eight years and quite a few requests, I’ve finally put together a “quick & dirty” guide for the route (no point rushing these things 😉 ). The article includes GPS data, logistical tips, alternates, and trekking notes for the route’s four stages.
CBT Shout-outs: Before getting started, I’d like to mention two people in regard to the CBT – Austin Lillywhite and Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva. The former completed three of the trek’s four stages in 2017 and was kind enough to provide information on a couple of alternate routes. The latter is an old friend who, along with a pair of mates (Bobcat and Stef), completed the CBT in 2018 and has contributed updated logistical information, photos, and route options from their journey (Note: For more on Austin and DM see online resources below).
At a Glance
Distance: 249 miles (400 km) approx.
Average Duration: 16-22 days
Start / Finish:
- Northern Terminus: Hualcallan (3,133 m/10,279 ft)
- Southern Terminus: Pastoruri Glacier (5,033 m/16,512 ft)
Highest Elevation: Ishinca Pass (5,201 m/17,064 ft)
Lowest Elevation: Hualcallan (3,133 m/10,279 ft)
Total Elevation Gain: 25,417 m (83,389 ft)
- Nevado Alpamayo at sunset
- Ishinca and Cashan Passes
- The archeological site of Chavin de Huantar
- Puya Ramondii around Lake Qishqiqucha
- Regenerating swims in bone-chilling alpine lakes
- The friendliness and hospitality of the Cordillera Blanca’s residents
- Situated in the Ancash region of Peru, the Cordillera Blanca is a sub-range of the Andes mountains. It’s approximately 13 miles wide (21 km) and 124 miles (200 km) long as the condor flies.
- The Cordillera Blanca contains a dozen peaks that are higher than 20,000 ft (6,096 m), with a further twenty-four topping 18,000 ft (5,486 m).
- There are estimated to be 722 individual glaciers within the Cordillera Blanca range, which is the largest concentration of tropical-zone glaciers on the planet. Since the 1970’s they have retreated more than 15%. A staggering reduction, especially considering their hydrological importance to a growing Peruvian population.
- In 1970, the Cordillera Blanca was rocked by an earthquake (7.9 on the Richter scale) that wiped out 95% of Huaraz (the regional capital), completely destroyed the town of Yungay, and was responsible for the deaths of up to 70,000 people. It was the worst natural disaster in Peru’s history, and the resulting avalanche is considered the deadliest in world history.
- For history buffs such as myself, a not-to-be-missed side trip during the CBT is the historic village of Chavin de Huantar. Located on the eastern flanks of the Cordillera Blanca, in addition to its picturesque plaza and dramatic setting, Chavin is home to a World Heritage-listed archeological site that dates back more than 3000 years. Chavin de Huantar was the religious center of the Chavin people, one of the major pre-Inca cultures of Peru.
- Legend has it that Artesonraju Peak (6025 m/19,767 ft) is the inspiration behind the famous Paramount Pictures icon. A few miles north of there lies Nevado Alpamayo, a pyramid-shaped mountain that was voted the world’s most beautiful mountain by an international survey commissioned by the German Alpine Club in the 1960s.
For the purposes of resupply, I split the CBT into four stages (click on the links below for journal entries from 2014). Each of the stage trailheads is accessible by public transport, meaning that folks that aren’t interested in thru-hiking the CBT could potentially do one or more of the stages as stand-alone hikes (Note: Distances have been updated as of 2022, and will vary depending on route choices):
The CBT takes place in Parque Nacional Huascarán. For any multi-day hike in the park, you’ll need to obtain a trekking permit from their office in Huaraz (-9.53203, -77.52984) before setting out.
- May to September is the dry season in the Peruvian Andes. Technically speaking, this is late autumn/winter in the southern hemisphere, however, due to the fact that the Cordillera Blanca is situated so close to the equator, temperature fluctuations are relatively minor throughout the year. I hiked from late August to early September and had fine weather throughout most of the 16 days. Temperatures ranged between highs around 20°C and lows of -10°C (Note: The latter was experienced when camping just below 5,000m).
- What’s too early? What’s too late?: Obviously, conditions will vary from year to year, but given average annual snow levels, I wouldn’t recommend starting the route before early June or later than the end of September. A case in point is Austin Lillywhite’s May 2017 hike, where he was unable to go over Stage 3’s Cashan Pass because of snow conditions.
- My CBT Experience: I took 16 days to complete the CBT. Some of those days were spent route finding, visiting archeological sites, and generally checking out other points of interest along the way. I took one complete “zero-day” (rest day) in Huaraz and another “nero” (almost a zero) in Chavin. Pushing a little bit harder and without the diversions, route-finding, and rest day, I suspect I would have taken around 13 days to complete the hike.
- Average Duration: This is a route that should only be undertaken by experienced long-distance hikers who begin the trail well and truly acclimatized. If you tick those boxes, along with turning up in good shape and carrying a lightish pack, I’d estimate the average time needed for the CBT would be between 16 and 22 days (including a rest day or two).
After the initial climb out of Hualcallan, almost all of the CBT takes place above 4000 m (13,123 ft). I can’t emphasize strongly enough that this is a hike for which you need to be well-acclimatized before setting out.
In order to avoid possible issues with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), plan to spend at the very least two or three days in Huaraz (3640m / 11,942 ft) before beginning the CBT. During your stay in the regional hub, do some short excursions such as the Laguna 69 (-9.01074, -77.61178) and Laguna Churup (-9.48503, -77.42871) trails, both of which are easily accessed via public transport from Huaraz. If you have the time, I’d also suggest hiking the nearby Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit before the CBT. For more information on acclimatization, see Tips for High Altitude Hiking.
- Northern Terminus: Hualcallan Village. I took a collectivo (minibus) from the town of Caraz to the village of Cashapampa, from which I walked nine kilometers to Hualcallan. If you want to go directly to Hualcallan, private transport/taxi can be arranged from Caraz.
- Southern Terminus: Pastoruri Glacier is a popular destination for day-trippers from Huaraz. If you arrive before late afternoon, there should be no issues getting a place on one of the buses that regularly ply the route to and from the regional capital.
- From the end of Stage 1, you can either hitch or take one of the regular buses that pass by to the nearby village of Chacas. Returning to the trail, catch a bus bound for Huaraz, and ask to be dropped off at Pompey/Huallin.
- From the hamlet of Pitec at the end of Stage 2, you can catch a ride down the mountain to Huaraz. Alternatively, walk west for a further 4.5 km to Llupa and take one of the regular collectivos that leave from there.
- From the end of Stage 3 on Road #110 overlooking Lago Querococha, hitch or flag down one of the regular buses that head eastwards to the village of Chavin de Huantar.
- Water: Abundant throughout most of the hike. Generally speaking, I treated with Aquamira in the low-lying areas and/or wherever there was livestock or human settlement. In the higher reaches, where water was coming directly off the glaciers, I drank straight from the source. I had no intestinal issues on this or any other hike I’ve done during my trips to Peru.
- Resupply: From north to south, the main resupply points are Huallin, Chacas, Pitec (Huaraz), and Chavin de Huantar (see Transport above). The regional hub of Huaraz has a wide range of “traditional backpacking” food available, such as dried fruit and nuts, cereals, pasta, tuna, powdered milk, chocolate, etc. Choices are much more limited in the villages along the way. On the cooking front, you’ll be able to pick up a gas canister or denatured alcohol for your stove in Huaraz.
On the route itself, you can wild camp pretty much wherever you like. That said, I’d avoid setting up too close to villages or shepherd encampments (which may be patrolled by territorial guard dogs).
There’s one full-service mountain hut along the route – Refugio Ishinca. Situated in the shadows of Toclarraju (6,032m) and Polcaraju (6,110m) peaks, Refugio Ishinca was an unexpected bonus. Half expecting a semi-dilapidated backcountry outpost, what I got instead was comfy beds, good food, helpful staff, and even a solar-powered shower!
In Town: The regional capital of Huaraz has a multitude of options to suit all budgets. During my time in town, I stayed at the Hotel Churup, which I can highly recommend. Juan Quiros Romero and his family were excellent hosts, the breakfasts were first-rate, the rooms comfortable, and they stored my extra luggage when I was out in the boonies. Double thumbs up.
Regarding the other towns along the route, in Chacas, I arrived late and ended up staying at a dodgy place whose only redeeming feature was that it was centrally located. As for Chavin de Huantar, I stayed at the characterful Hostal La Casona on the Plaza de Armas. I’m 99% certain that this was the same place I stayed at in 1996, and for the sake of nostalgia, I couldn’t resist returning 18 years later. On the remote chance that they are reading this post, shout-out to my 1996 traveling/hiking companions, Sylvia, Fleischy, and Dave.
I put together the CBT route in 2014 with the help of the below-listed topo maps, Google Earth, and Jim Bartles’s classic Cordillera Blanca text (see below). When hiking the route, I used said maps and a Suunto M-2 compass for navigation. I also took along a Garmin Foretrex, with which I took waypoints of notable spots along the route.
FWIW, since 2015, Gaia GPS (together with Google Earth) has been my go-to mapping tool when planning these sorts of trips, though I’ve periodically used Caltopo when putting routes together in the States.
- Cordillera Blanca Traverse – Google Map: Includes more than 270 waypoints, indicating junctions, important landmarks (both natural and manmade), resupply points, and alternate routes. Note: The main route is denoted by red markers, resupply towns are denoted by yellow markers, and alternate routes by blue markers.
- Maps: I used two mapsets during the CBT: 1. Alpenvereinskarte (German Alpine Club): Consists of two 1:100,000 sheets which cover the entire range – 0/3a Cordillera Blanca Nord & the 0/3b Cordillera Blanca Sud, and; 2. Skyline Adventures: Also, two maps split into north and south. Both are 1:75,000. The Skyline maps do not cover the most southerly part of the Cordillera Blanca range (i.e. Stage 4).
- What do you recommend for folks planning a CBT hike in 2022?: 1. Import the waypoints from the CBT Google Map into a mapping app such as GaiaGPS; 2. Download the maps for offline use on your smartphone, and; 3. While hiking the CBT, complement your electronic device with a compass and one of the above-mentioned overview mapsets (Tip: With this sort of route, always carry a navigational backup of some sort, whether it be a paper map/compass or even an extra phone that also has the maps downloaded).
- Austin Lillywhite’s CBT Video: Cordillera Blanca Traverse YouTube video (10 min). Austin was the first person to enquire about the CBT in 2016. The following year, he and a friend flew to Peru and completed most of the CBT, the lone exception being Stage 3, which they were unable to finish because of early season snow/ice on Cashan Pass. Here’s a link to his website, which includes information and videos for other amazing hikes such as the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit, Wind River High Route, and the Sierra High Route.
The collective crux of the CBT are the passes. Depending on route choices, there are between twenty-one and twenty-three in total, ranging between 4,347 m and 5,201 m. By any criteria, it’s a rollercoaster of a trip, with a lung-busting, knee-wobbling total elevation gain and loss of around 50,000 m (164,000 ft).
When putting the route together, the majority of the passes were marked on the above-mentioned topo maps. However, during the southern half of the trip, there were a handful that weren’t, and some of these represented the most challenging aspect of the planning phase. The passes for which I had no information at the time included Urus/Akilpo (5,040m), Ishinca/Palcaraju (5,201m), Shallap (5,001m), Cashan (5,157m), Rurec (4,350 m), Pucaraju (4,583 m), Maraytaca (4,611 m), Landslide (4,951 m), and Huarapasca (4,930 m). Please note that most of these names simply reflect adjoining peaks, valleys, or in the case of “Landslide”, a relatively recent geological event, and may not be the names used by locals for the same high points.
Here’s the list of passes (from North to South), with their respective elevations in parentheses. Stage 1 passes are in black font, Stage 2 in blue, Stage 3 in red, and Stage 4 in green:
- Osoruri Pass (4,848 m/15,906 ft)
- Vientunan Pass (4,760 m/15,617 ft)
- Gara Gara Pass (4,840 m/15,879 ft)
- Mesapata pass (4,450 m/14,600 ft)
- Yanacon Pass (4,601 m/15,095 ft)
- Tupatupa Pass (4,347 m/14,262 ft)
- Alto de Pucaraju (4,615 m/15,141 ft)
- Punta Yanayuca (4,790 m/15,715 ft)
- Punta Olimpica (4,909 m/16,106 ft)
- Portachuelo de Honda (4,763 m/15,551 ft) (Alternative option available)
- Urus Pass (5,040 m/16,535 ft)
- Ishinca/Palcaraju Pass (5,201 m/17,064 ft) (Alternative option available)
- Choco/Huapi Pass (5,073 m/16,644 ft)
- Shallap Pass (5,001 m/16,407 ft) (Alternative option available, though not recommended)
- Cashan Pass (5,157 m/16,919 ft)
- Rurec Pass (4,350 m/14,272 ft)
- Pucaraju Pass (4,583 m/15,037 ft)
- Maraytaca Pass (4,611 m/15,128 ft)
- Punta Raria (4,801 m/15,751 ft)
- Landslide Pass (4,951 m/16,243 ft) (Alternative option available)
- Huarapasca Pass (4,930 m/16,175 ft)
In putting together this Q&D Guide, I plugged all the data I had into Gaia GPS, created a route, and came out with the following updated figures for distance and total elevation. For those doing the hike in the future, depending on route choices, final totals will vary up to 10 percent.
Distance: 152 km (94.4 mi)
Total Ascent: 10,517 m (34,504 ft)
Max. Elevation: 4,911 m (16,112 ft)
Min. Elevation: 3132 m (10,276 ft)
- The first stage of the CBT was mostly on established trails. The initial couple of days coincided with the Alpamayo Base Camp Trek, and later the route intersected briefly with the region’s most popular multi-day hike, the Santa Cruz Trek.
- During stage 1, the route goes up and over 9 passes, all of which are marked on the topo mapsets listed above.
- Apart from the starting and finishing villages, you may be able to supplement your provisions in the blink-and-you-miss-them hamlets of Huaripampa, Colcabamba, and Yanama.
- Apart from a one-mile (1.6 km) stretch between stages 3 and 4, the only time you’ll walk on a paved road during the CBT is at the end of Stage 1, from the Punta Olimpica tunnel to the villages of Huallin and Pompey. Both before and after the tunnel, much of the road section can be avoided by following (sometimes) faint and often steepish trails that bypass the many switchbacks on either side of the pass. These paths were used by locals in the days before the road was built.
Distance: 108 km (67.1 mi)
Total Ascent: 5,978 m (19,613 ft)
Max. Elevation: 5,201 m (17,064 ft)
Min. Elevation: 3,416 m (11,207 ft)
- The first pass of Stage 2 – Portachuela de Honda (4,763 m) – is bookended by dirt road walks in Juitush and Honda Valleys. At Portachuela de Honda, there are a couple of different high points from which to choose; both DM in 2018 and myself in 2014 took the blue route, which is shorter, steeper, and (perhaps) less well-defined than the red route (at least from what I can gather on the topo maps).
- It’s worth noting that the eastern end of Quebrada Honda has a mining presence, and you will possibly see vehicles traveling to and from the mines once you reach the dirt road that runs along the valley floor. Neither I nor DM encountered any issues with these folks; on the contrary, they were uniformly friendly and no one seemed bothered by our presence. This was the situation in 2014 and 2018, I can’t say if the mood has changed in the ensuing years.
- If I had to pick my favorite section of the entire CBT, it would be the roughly 50-55 km (31-34 mi) stretch between the western end of Quebrado Akilpo and the northeastern reaches of Quebrada Quilcayhuanca. Beginning with the “enchanted forest”, the route goes up and over three 5,000 m plus passes – Urus/Akilpo, Ishinca/Palcaraju, and Choco/Huapi. The first two of these high points were among the group for which I didn’t have any pre-trip info, and though I was fairly sure both would go, I was over the moon when they actually did. All that zooming in and out from different angles on Google Earth wasn’t for nothing………. I may have even done a celebratory jig! (Note: Both passes had small cairns at or near the top, so locals familiar with this part of the Cordillera Blanca definitely knew of their existence, even if I didn’t). For anyone reading this post who is interested in doing a section of the CBT rather than the whole trek, this is the stage I’d recommend. It’s challenging, but the rewards more than compensate. For my money, one of the finest stretches of high-altitude hiking in the entire Andes range.
- It’s usually possible to catch a ride down to Huaraz from the tiny village of Pitec at the end of the stage. Pitec is the starting/finishing point for one of the area’s most popular day hikes – the trail to Laguna Churup (4,480 m). If nothing’s available when you arrive in Pitec, walk for 4.5 km down to the neighboring village of Llupa, where regular collectivos run up and down the mountain to Huaraz.
Distance: 65 km (40.4 mi)
Total Ascent: 4,520 m (14,829 ft)
Max. Elevation: 5,157 m (16,919 ft)
Min. Elevation: 3,747 m (12,293 ft)
- The third stage traverses four passes, namely Shallap (5,001m), Cashan (5,157m), Rurec (4,350m), and Pucaraju (4,583m).
- Cashan is the last and possibly the most challenging of all the passes. As mentioned above, anyone attempting the CBT before mid to late June in an average snow year is likely to encounter quite a bit of snow/ice on the northern side and appreciably more on the even-steeper southern side. If you’re adamant about doing the hike early season, be sure to take microspikes and an ice axe. Maybe a rabbit’s foot as well.
- Descending into Quebrada Rurec after Cashan pass, the landscape transitions from rock and ice to pastoral. The following pass, which I unimaginatively called “Rurec”, is basically just a long grassy slope (see photo below). The same goes for “Pucaraju” near the end of the stage (-9.68107, -77.34529).
- During the final few kilometers of the third stage, you’ll reach Laguna Querococha, the largest lake on the route. Both DM and I skirted the lake’s northern shore before making a beeline to the road to Chavin. A better option would be to follow the lake’s western side and then swing around its southern end to join the road at a lookout (-9.72753, -77.33123). This would cut a few kilometers of road walking off the beginning of the fourth and final stage.
Distance: 72 km (44.7 mi)
Total Ascent: 4,402 m (14,442 ft)
Max. Elevation: 5,040 m (16,535 ft)
Min. Elevation: 3,865 m (12,680 ft)
- Starting from the Lago Querococha viewpoint, hike for a mile (1.6 km) down the road to where it passes over the lake’s outlet stream. Leave the road here, and begin descending WSW along the watercourse’s true left side.
- After a couple more kilometers, ascend the ridge you’ve been paralleling and drop into Quebrada Pamparaju. Head south until you reach Quebrada Maraytaca, which you’ll ascend to the SW. After just over 4 km, leave the valley and climb steeply SSE to an obvious pass (-9.80422, -77.30218). You’ve now entered the Puya Raimondii zone, the botanical highlight of the route.
- There are some incredible lakes during this stretch, and in fine conditions, I’d highly recommend taking a dip in the crystal clear Lago Acococha. Around its perimeter, there are lots of flattish rocks upon which to soak in the sun’s warming rays after your swim.
- From a route choice perspective, the final decision you’ll have to make comes upon arrival in Quebrada Puchua. In 2014, the plan was to head over a col I’d identified at the valley’s southern end between Nevado Gajap (5,208 m) and Nevado Huayacu (5,418 m). Taking off in that direction, I soon encountered a group of local shepherds who informed me that it was unpassable due to a recent landslide. I continued to press them about its viability, but they remained adamant. I ultimately accepted their advice and ended up taking an alternate route (see blue markers on Google Map). Things obviously stabilized in the ensuing years, as in 2018, Dirtmonger and friends were given the green light by locals to go over what I dubbed “Landslide Pass.” (Note: The alternative route is also very scenic and offers some incredible views to the east of the Cordillera Blanca. Nonetheless, assuming it’s safe to do so, I’d recommend taking the route over Landslide Pass. There always seems to be locals floating about in Quebrada Puchua, so be sure to ask about current conditions before making your decision).