Trekking Alpamayo: Searching for the World’s Most Beautiful Mountain
Turns out, it’s not easy to get to the world’s most beautiful mountain.
Alpamayo, located in the heart of the Cordillera Blancas in Peru, has long attracted climbers and trekkers for its stunning beauty. In the 60’s, a German magazine conducted a survey of climbers and photographers, polling them on what mountain was the most beautiful in all the world. 19,500 foot Alpamayo came out on top, and Peru has been touting that claim to fame ever since. Having been to the Cordillera Blancas twice before without witnessing the mountain’s beauty with my own eyes, trekking back to it during my travels this time around was a priority.
For those interested in trekking here themselves, perhaps this could be useful. Here’s my “travel notes” style description of the 8 day trek (I recommend doing it in 9 days).
Victor wrangles the donkeys
It took about 5 hours to get to the trailhead via collectivo, a rickety van that seats 12 people, but fits upward of 26 people if the driver so desires. Four hours of this drive and you are on the craziest, most zig-zag-winding, steep, beautiful road I’ve ever been on. In the town of Vaqueria we met Victor, our “arriero,” or Donkey Master. Victor’s experience (and donkeys to carry our food) would help us greatly along the way. The first day of the trek shares the trail with the highly trafficked Santa Cruz trek. During rainy season this portion of trail is dismayingly muddy. The hike is relatively flat, the only easy day of the trek. Camp with all the Santa Cruzers (about 50 other people in low season camped with us). Camp along a beautiful river with nice views of the snow capped peaks. Bathrooms here in ROUGH shape.
Caught! Selfie takers at the first camp.
Continue up the valley. Ditch the crowds (we saw a grand total of two more people the whole trek!) and go up and over your first major pass, Alto Pucaraju (Pass of the Red Rocks). This pass offers the first truly spectacular view, as its the first time you can really see how many snow capped peaks are around (as long as it’s not cloudy!!!) Continue down the pass and into the valley until you reach a lake chock full of trout. Camp by the lake. Here is an awesome opportunity to support the locals. I bought 6 large, beautiful, fresh caught trout for $5 from a local man who tended a trout farm. Made for the most satisfying appetizer you could ask for when backpacking.
The freshest trout you can get! Bonus, these people are lovely.
Day Three: Ford an icy stream first thing in the morning and continue up to the second pass, Tupa Tupa (say it out loud, its fun!), and then drop in to the most beautiful valley you can imagine. Seriously, it looked so beautiful I thought it had to be fake. A vibrant green valley floor, chock full of grazing animals, surrounded by near vertical rock cliffs with waterfalls running everywhere, all set under massive, glaciated peaks. I couldn’t help but think this was the most beautiful campsite I have ever camped at (and I’ve had a few good’uns). The downside: LOTS of mud along the trail through the valley.
This valley is better than your valley.
Seriously, there are waterfalls everywhere.
It’s hard not to admire the beauty of this campsite.
Day Four: The “hardest” day of the trek, according to Victor. Leave the beautiful “pampa” (valley) behind and ascend about 3,000 feet. Eventually make the pass that, according to Victor, has brought arrieros to tears. High five each other at the top. Descend into a valley where a lone farmer tends a massive herd of alpaca. Be sure to say hello to the friendly fellow and maybe give him some candy (he’s gotta be lonely). Camp with your first view of Alpamayo. Although from here you won’t see Alpamayo’s “good side.”
The lone farmer, weaving a new poncho.
Just some peak, one of the dozens of absurdly beautiful glaciated peaks.Victor made a friend. One the the random men of the campo we’d occasionally run into.
Day Five: Start the day by immediately ascending a pass. Drop into the next valley (mud! mud! so much mud!), Ascend again until you reach the notoriously windy pass of Gara Gara. It’s so windy here that nothing grows, and apparently almost blew Victor’s horse right off the pass one time. Breath deep, you’re at 15,847 feet! Drop into the stunning connection of three different “quebradas,” or breaks in the mountain range. If the weather is in your favor (it certainly wasn’t for us!) you can see Alpamayo and Quitaraju, with a beautiful turquoise lake below. Camp at the bottom under the watchful eye of the “most beautiful mountain in the world.”
At the top of Gara Gara
Kind of makes you wonder.
Day Six: Reward yourself. Take a break. You deserve it. You’ve just found yourself at the base of famed Alpamayo, the least you can do is take a rest day here. Highly recommended, climb the moraine to the rim of the turquoise lake for a memorable view!
There she is, Alpamayo, finally showing herself.
We were pretty much shut out on sunsets. But this night we got a rare glimpse of golden sunlight.
Day Seven: Head down the valley, Ruina Pampa, which means Valley of the Ruins. Here you’ll find old Inca Ruins. Notice the extensive terracing that reaches high up the mountainside of this old Inca outpost. Then climb out of the valley. Here, steep switchbacks will take you up more than 2,000 feet to the pass at 15,650 feet. I STRUGGLED up this one. Descend a couple hundred feet to (by far) the worst campsite of the trek. Great views down the valley from here, but you’ll be camping amongst more cow pies than you can count, and lots of mud.
Felt like we had arrived at the end of the world. Everything just drops off at the end of the trek.
Day Eight: Our final day, although I would definitely recommend taking a ninth day to break up what was an incredibly long and painful day for me. Start the day by immediately ascending to the highest pass of the whole trek at 15,950 feet. On the other side of the pass you’ll see the staggeringly beautiful Santa Cruz mountains and the lovely Cullicocha Lake nestled at the base. Snap some pictures, these are the last snow capped peaks you’ll really see this trek. It’s all down here from here, quite literally. Drop from nearly 16,000 feet all the way to 8,900 feet to the village of Huallcayan. If you’re very lucky, you can get transport from here back to Huaraz. If you’re like us, you have to keep hiking another difficult three hours to Cashapampa for more reliable transport. All in all we hiked about 16 miles this day, 16 brutal foot/knee destroying miles. (There’s a camp midway down the mountain. Do yourself a favor and do the trek in nine days and camp here.) Give your hiking partner a hug and prepare for a very bumpy road down the mountain to Huaraz.
And then go find a beer, and tell all your friends how cool you are.