One Hell of a Drive

From the coast at Trujillo we wanted to drive up into the Andes along the Cordillera Blanca range. The Cordillera Blanca mountain range is 180kms long by 20kms wide and has numerous snow capped mountain tops in excess of 6000m including Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran at 6768m. It is the highest mountain in the tropics in the world. Gilly and I had hiked in this area 15 years ago and remembered the wonderful snowy mountain peaks set against beautiful blue skies and were keen to go there again.

We also knew that there was a spectacular drive to get there along the Canon del Pato. This is a canyon where two mountain ranges, the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra come literally within touching (15m) distance of each other. The Canyon has sheer walls of over a 1000 feet that have been carved by the river rushing below. Through this canyon a dirt road has been constructed to service the hydro electric dam which had also involved blasting through lots of rock to form 40 odd, rough strewn tunnels. We had heard a lot about the drive from other travellers and were keen to do it ourselves. However we were a little concerned whether we would fit through the tunnels. We had heard of one truck that had hit its box and had to go back. After talking with a few people who said we should be ok we decided to give it a go.

So after stocking up with food we left Trujillo. At first the main road hugged the coast and it was all coastal desert. We then turned inland heading for the mountains. The road at first was good and tarred and the landscape turned quite green. We then passed a police checkpoint and from then on it was dirt road and the stark barren mountains reared up around us.

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The road snaked along the side of the river and the views just got better and better. We successfully got through our first tunnel and then as it was getting late looked for somewhere to camp for the night.

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We found a large former landslide that had been flattened by bulldozers which made a great camping spot as it was far enough from the sheer rock faces to avoid rockfalls. We parked up just before the sun disappeared behind the mountains. It was a gorgeous spot.

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The next day was going to be the real drive. Just over 80km was all we needed to cover but it would take us 4 hours. Suffice to say the drive was epic. The scenery was jaw dropping, the weather absolutely perfect, and although a little scary in parts we made it safely and unscathed.

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If you want to see a quick video clip of the drive follow this link. Let us know what you think.

As you can see the tunnels were single track so you had to use your horn before entering and hope no one was coming the other way. We did pass a number of other vehicles but were able to use the passing points. In only one tunnel did we meet someone coming the other way. As it was a car and we were much bigger than them they had to back up.

I had to focus on the driving but it was hard as the views were so spectacular. Gilly also needed to focus hard as the tunnel walls closed in on both sides of the truck. Along the canyon we started to see the snow topped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca set against the deep blue sky.

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Finally we arrived in the small town on Caraz after a truly memorable morning. Definitely one of the worlds great drives. We were a bit too big to park up at the hostel we were planning at staying at but the owner directed us to a small farm a couple of kilometres outside town that had just opened as a campground. The owners were very friendly and as we had arrived just in time to see the England v Uruguay World Cup match, they kindly brought their TV out onto the veranda so I could watch the match. After such a fantastic morning, the afternoon watching the football was a real downer.

That evening we headed into Caraz to wonder around the small town square overlooked by the mountains and to grab dinner. We also asked whether we could drive up to Laguna Peron the lake outside Caraz which is at 4200m but were advised we would not make it in the truck.

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The campsite owner though agreed to drive us up to the lake in his pick up. On seeing the road, I was glad we left the truck behind. The hairpin turns were very tight and some sections of the road really narrow, I am not sure we could have passed. Then at the park entrance there was a boon gate which I doubt we would have fitted under. Anyway it was nice for someone else to do the driving as I could then enjoy the scenery which was again spectacular.

The lake is set high up in the Andes and is towered over by a number of amazing peaks. We could definitely feel the altitude up here but nevertheless set off for a hike along the lake shore.

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When we returned to the campsite that night we met up with the French family we keep meeting. They had camped at the lake and said it had been freezing during the night.

The next day we wanted to drive further up into the mountains so we headed to the village of Yangay and then turned up the dirt track that twisted its way up to Lake Llanganuco at 3850m. There are actually two lakes set in an alpine meadow surrounded by towering cliff walls. We were able to camp next to one of the lakes and enjoyed the scenery by taking a long walk. Whilst it gets cold at night the sky is really clear and we had a great view of the stars with no artificial light to spoil the view.

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We wanted to do some real hiking while we were in the mountains. Unfortunately Lucy had picked up a cold, which we all had to varying degrees. Undeterred we set off on the hike to Laguna 69 which is meant to be one of the prettiest lakes in the Cordillera Blanca. We were told it was a 3 hour trek up from 3850m to 4400m. However with Lucy’s cold we were never going to make it, so after an hour and a half we stopped. Gilly stayed with Alisha and Lucy and Clare and I pushed on. I got to within 40 minutes of Laguna 69, to a smaller lake nestling in amongst the mountains before deciding I had better turn back.

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The views were spectacular as we had another day of perfect weather. There were waterfalls as well as the magnificent mountains. On the way back down we had amazing views of Huascaran set in perfect light.

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From our campsite we could see the road snaked its way up the mountain to a high mountain pass. We had read from other travellers that it was a tough drive but doing a loop from where we were over 2 passes over 4700m was spectacular. We had been joined that evening by the French family again. Andreas decided to cycle up to the path. He returned with the news that he thought we could do it in our truck so the next morning we decided to give it a go.

The road was rough and there were lots of very tight hairpins but the views were amazing. It’s hard to put into words the views so I will just let the pictures and video, which is at the bottom of this blog, do the talking.

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Eventually after one and a half hours we had driven the 15kms to the top of Portachuelo Pass which according to the guide books is at 4760m. We had reached a new high point on the trip although our GPS only recorded us at 4711m.

From here we had killer views of Huscaran (6748m) and Chopicalqui (6345m) as well as other mountains plus an amazing, vertigo inducing, view back to the lake.

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We crossed over the pass and started descending, the road improved a bit and the hairpins were not so tight. We arrived in the village of Yanama and I thought the hard work was over, boy was I wrong! The drive from here was on a really bad road. It may not have had the hairpins we had going over the pass but there were loads of pot holes and rock slides and it was really slow going. When we reached 20km an hour we were lucky. Eventually we stopped for lunch by a small river and on checking the GPS I found we had descended to 2450m. As I knew we needed to go over another 4700m pass we now had a lot of climbing to do again.

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Along the way we passed little villages where the people were all dressed in indigenous costume, there was maize out to dry and animals in pens. The fields were spread out like patchwork across the mountainside and they were still been ploughed with horses. The scenes could have been from many years ago. However many of the houses were painted with the banners of various candidates in upcoming/already held elections.

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After lunch the bad road continued but then 20kms before Chacas the road turned to tar. What a relief! There were still some landslides that meant it was one lane in places but we were moving again. We stopped in Chacas and had a wander around the pretty square before heading back on the tar road to cross the next pass.

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As it was getting late we decided to stop before the pass, back at 3800m, on a pull out next to the river. As the road was tar we were less worried about crossing this pass the following morning.

All in all we may only have driven 125kms that day but we had gone up nearly 2500m and also down 2500m in that distance. It had been worth it but it was one hell of a drive.

The next morning it looked as though our luck had changed as it was pretty grey outside when we set off. However the road was smooth and traffic free and we still had some pretty good views. The road no longer goes right over Punta Olympica pass as they have dug a tunnel through the mountain that is over one kilometre long. Mind you it is still pretty high as we reached 4,738m, a new high for the trip. As we came out of the tunnel we again had great views of the mountain. It was zero degrees at the top so we did not stay long to take pictures. I also left the truck engine running as it struggles at that altitude. See the video below that shows our crossings of both passes.

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We descended quickly through a beautiful valley, first to give the truck a well deserved wash and then to spend a few days in the town of Huaraz.

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