Mountaineers and climbers know all about sacrifice—early nights at the hostel, skipping the bustling nightlife for crack of dawn ascents! Here’s our guide to great mountaineering options in Peru
Interestingly, the earliest Peruvians knew all about that sacrifice too, but in a sort of different way. They climbed the Andean peaks in order to get as close to the mountain gods as possible, for a zen-like activity of spiritual practice. But also for the less-zen activity of, well, human sacrifice—the mummy Juanita, found on the summit of Mount Ampato and now housed in an Arequipa museum, is the most famous casualty of these rituals, which was common in pre-Columbian eras.
When passing through high mountain passes, ancient travellers would also leave rocks as offerings to the mountain gods, and each traveller would add one at a collective spot, resulting in rock piles called apachetas. This is still a tradition used today on the sides of highways, or at very elevated mountain passes like Patapamba, which sits at a (nauseating!) 4,910 metres on the way from Arequipa to Colca Canyon. It is filled with the gravity-defying rock formations.
So while mountaineering has been practiced for centuries in Peru, it didn’t really take off recreationally until a German-Austrian expedition set out in the 1930s. Since then, Peru has been a go-to for any vertically-inclined thrillseeker, with alpine activities mostly in the north and south Andes, centering around Peru’s alpine capitals of Huaraz, Cusco and Arequipa.
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The north Andes around Huaraz (the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Huayhuash) apparently have some of the best mountain-trekking routes in the world! The Cordillera Blanca boasts Mount Huascaran—at more than 6,700 metres, it is indisputably the highest point in Peru—and the area contains nearly 70 peaks at more than 5,700 metres. (Other popular summits include Alpamayo and Pisco). The region is nature’s playground for mountaineers!
In the south Andes, around the city of Cusco, you’ll find the Cordillera Vilcanote (where the Andes lead into to the Amazon Rainforest, it hosts several high peaks, with its most famous Ausengate), the Cordillera Vicabamba (a 100-kilometre mountain range that’s home to the mighty glaciers of Salkantay and Huamantay), and the Nevado Ampay near Abancay.
Near Arequipa, you’ll want to explore the area’s multiple active volcanoes: El Misti, Hualca Hualca, Chacani, Sabancaya (which is still very active, with regular eruptions and emissions), and Ampato, which make for some death-defying ascents and death-defying finds (these peaks are where frozen sacrificial mummy remains were found). So, as always, climb for the thrill—but in Peru you never know what you might find up there! Having said that, taking a local guide is, as always, recommended.
As for rock climbing, believe it or not, one of the best places in is the mostly-flat coastal region. Inland from Lima, there are technical climbs in Canchacalla, Infiernillo, Yuracmayo, Escomarca. Within Lima itself, there are climbs in Las Viñas in the neighbourhood of La Molina.
South of Lima, you can climb at Bikini, La Tiza and Pachacamac, and even further south in Paracas. The region specializes in scenic ascents at various difficulties, with overall stunning coastal views.
As I’ve mentioned above, in Peru’s Andes climbing is centered around Huaraz, Cusco and Arequipa. In Huaraz, popular climbing spots include Antacocha, Los Olivos, Inkawaqanqa and Hatun Machay. You’ll find steep cliffs at the Rocodromo Monterrey and Shallapa. The crags await!
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In the central Andes, climbers head to the Huayllay National Sanctuary in Peru’s District of Pasco, which is also famous for hiking. Massive rock formations dot the land in a natural occurrence (formed by wind, water and glacier erosion)—resembling trees, they’re known as a “rock forests.” Lots of rock climbing here!
In the north Andes, about 20 kilometres from Cajamarca is a rock climber’s dream come true: cliffs and formations perfect for climbing at Llacanora, Cumbemayo and Sangal Canyon. In Cusco, climb at Chaco Huayllasca-Pitumarca, near the sacred Inca site of Sacsayhuaman and the Sacred Valley. In Puno, the area outside of Lake Titicaca is home to the Tinajani Canyon, which also has “forests” of volcanic rock, sandstone deposits and rock formations, and is ideal for scaling.
Arequipa boasts three climbing regions: Charcani-Cayma, Calambucos Gorge (on El Misti Volcano), and Callalli—flying high at over 3,800 metres. There’s not a lot of documented climbing in the Amazon Rainforest, as climbers head mostly to the Andes. But apparently, it’s possible to climb near Chachapoyas.
As for ice climbing, grab your axes and crampons, you’ll definitely want to head back to Huaraz. A combination of mountaineering and ice climbing can get you to the summits of Mounts Alpamayo, Pisco and, most challengingly, Huascaran. More what’s often referred to as “beginner-friendly ice” is found on the Llaca Glacier.
Unfortunately, since 2009, there are no more ice-climbing excursions to Pastoruri in Huascaran National Park, as the glacier is melting at an alarming rate. The lake it feeds, Lake Palcacocha, is in danger of overflowing and washing out nearby towns. If one day the ice is gone, it could severely affect the large populations that rely on its runoff water supply.
Sadly, it’s not the only one—the glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca (which hosts almost three-fourths of the glaciers in the tropics) have shrunk almost 25 percent in the last four decades. Wow. Just, wow.