Fastpacking in the Cordillera Blanca, Cusco
Updated: Feb 26, 2022
People have, and will continue, to make remarks that running for days through the mountains can only be classed as lunacy. That ultra-runners are simply evading their demons, distracting themselves by endless kilometres. The real drive comes from a different place entirely. What if I told you that once you get a feel for the mountains, the freeing, soul strengthening wilderness of it, you’ll be hooked too. I hope, for your sake, that you already are. Either way, read on for a ten minute break from quarantine...come with me into the Cordillera Blanca and lets live nomadically in the most breath-taking scenery Peru has to offer (quite literally).
One of Peru's hidden gems taken by a fellow traveller's drone.
Firstly, you may recognise Cusco for being the pit stop before Rainbow Mountain or the infamous Machu Pichu. Sorry to disappoint, but this blog will contain none of the sort. With limited time and budget, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than trudging up through troves of tourists, following a one way system around what should be one of the most liberating landscapes on earth. Of course, the otherworldly stories of Sun Temples and the history of the Incan Empire fascinates me. But I was happy to read a book about it from somewhere more pacific, not wrestling with other tourists to get a vantage point over a mountain which strains under the feet of thousands of people a day.
Arriving in Cusco, it was late, cold and raining. Coming from the amphibian swelter in the north eastern jungle of Tarapoto where I was working, I wasn’t best prepared. So, I purchased a wonderfully cheap 'genuine North Face' fleece, then set out to gather intel about the nearby mountain range. Be prepared that in this climate of capitalising tourism to an unsociable extreme, you walk round those tour shops attracting scams and overpriced products like a lodestone. Not to mention the fact that locals don’t want to lose out on guide commissions or day trip payments. So a map of the Cordillera Blanca…please, they don’t even exist.
Cusco is a free pass for mountain training at 3,000m altitude.
By late evening, I’d managed to arrange transport to the beginning of the Salkantay - Machu Pichu trail via a tour bus leaving the next morning at 0300. After much debate and explaining that I knew what I was doing, las montañas están muy peligrosas para una mujer solita…the sceptical Peruvian agreed that I could travel out with them, as long as I came back with their company a few days later. He reluctantly handed me his brochure like my death wish was brandished across the front.
Luckily, scavenging round for equipment was an easy task as I was keenly handing across money. I was kitted out by nightfall with a cheap tent, down jacket, head torch, battery pack, and first aid kit, all stuffed into an uncomfy 40L rucksack that had definitely seen better days. I packed out any spare space with a camping stove (I never actually used), dried fruit and nuts, loo roll, plastic bags for said loo roll (leave no trace), two 2L water bottles and the smallest sleeping bag on the market. I didn’t mind compromising on kip for a few days if it would make running lighter during the day. All of this came to a whopping price of no more than 400 Sol (approx. £100) for 4 days.
You'll learn to travel light when it's you who's going to be running with it all.
I can sometimes overthink these trips as they obviously have their dangers attached. What happens if you slip and fall? Twist an ankle? Run out of water too far from a source? Or just realise that running is your new least favourite thing, but are a day away from a vehicle? All you can do is have confidence in your experience and a bit of luck. Through training on these terrains since childhood, I should know when I’ve pushed it too far and should turn back. It'll all be worth it, as living passionately whilst discovering the extreme robustness of our bodies, is a beautiful way to experience life. Most 21st century bodies have no idea what they are actually capable of. And despite how dangerous it can be, I always feel deepest and most alive when amongst the mountains. It’s my church.
First photo of the trip. Taken by a beautiful Argentinian couple who I am still in contact with today, before they wished me on my way.
I managed to grab the odd minute of shut eye curled up in the bus whilst my head ricocheted against the icy window and I questioned whether I'd packed enough warm layers. Sleep was intermittent as when driving Andean tracks, 'potholed' is an understatement. Residual backpain comes free with the 'Peru - Completed It Mate' Certificate. I gave up on pretending to sleep just in time to see the snow-capped peaks looming above. Anyone who has had the privilege to travel to the Andes will know what I’m talking about when I say that the first glimpse of those majestic summits, does things. Either you see them and instantly feel humbled by the realisation of your existential insignificance. Or you find yourself taking a deep breath as you contemplate what the hell you got yourself into.
Sometimes you could be fooled where the mountain ends and the clouds begin.
The buses always stop at an alpine restaurant just before Soraypampa, for the classic breakfast of white bread rolls and coffee. Orange juice if you’re lucky. Not included in my scrooge package deal - transport only - I unceremoniously got my things together and let the driver know to look out for me in four days time. I asked him to point me in the general direction of Laguna Humantay, tightened the boot laces and set off. Mapless, the next few days would be following the trusty navigation method of seeing, contemplating accessibility/safety, and just going.
The altitude didn’t hold back in making itself noticed as I followed the well-marked tourist trail, climbing upwards past loaded donkeys and intermittent groups of trekkers. Running here was clearly quite a rare sight and people would move aside and clap like I was winning an organised event, support calling out in various European languages. Eres una loca still the most regular, unsurprisingly.
Vast swathes of cloud soothe the fierce rocky precipices.
This first day was much like exploring a National Trust park, impossible to get lost with signs pointing for the lagoon. Passing Soraypampa campsite you begin your first ‘hand’s pushing on knees’ kind of incline, which drains you and robs you of oxygen. But Laguna Humantay is a sight to behold. Nestled high up in the Vilcabamba range at 4,200m is a pristine lake lying turquoise underneath shifting glaciers, wispy clouds swirling the summits. You can picnic on the south side listening to the tour guides, or if you want to escape the crowds, follow the ridge right round the back of the lake – not a soul.
Feeling like I'd walked in on heaven by mistake.
I had a marvellous plan to continue up to Abra Salkantay at 4,930m for the rest of the day, aiming to camp by a different lagoon. With only local guides giving approximations of direction and distance, I spent that day clocking some serious kilometers, crossing rock falls and nursing many a bruised shin. I tried to chew small mouthfuls of dried pineapple through deep breaths of thin air, not wanting to slow the pace.
It’s incredible how much a landscape can change in one day. Passing the odd bovine corpse, I crossed alpine forests and open plains, dusty tracks and pathless mountain flanks, all underneath perfect glacier summits. Unfortunately, once I finally hit the proposed camp spot, I was brought back to earth by a quickly shifting weather pattern. Apocalyptic mist blocked the lagoon from sight and howling cold wind reached right through my last layers. I don’t even think I could have got the tent up by myself. Despondent at my first road block, I decided to hike back down to Soraypampa where I knew I’d be safer, bringing the day to over 40km.
It’s quite funny to look back at videos of my camp that night. I was exhausted and rushing to beat nightfall, trying to set up incognito so as not to get called down to the campsite. Discovering two poles were snapped and elastics missing, it turned into an arts and crafts session trying to make it stay up, cursing myself for not checking logistics in Cusco. My tent literally resembled one of our childhood dens, clinging desperately to the side of the mountain by flimsy pegs. I decided that at least with my dead weight inside, we’d still be there in the morning. So I tucked up and listened to ‘Your Coffee Break’, my favourite Spotify playlist (now my nostalgic soundtrack to Andean memories). I tried to sleep beyond the flapping of my tent and the fears that one of the horses sleeping outside might sit on me in the night.
The next few days were as dreamy, unforgettable and exhausting as the first. Waking with sunrise, I’d scan the surrounding peaks from my floppy tent, and decide where I wanted to run that day. I climbed to any peak I thought would give me an unrivalled vantage point over the range. When my legs slowed to a walk, I’d tell myself I was hungry, not to listen to the altitude lies. I'd force down a cup of oats with water, spruced up with a few peanuts.
Nothing feels more comforting than being right back out where we belong, exposed and adventuring.
I’d refill my water bottles about once a day. There are rivers everywhere and with a chlorine tablet, you’re good to go. Early in the morning, I’d go up to Humantay and skinny dip underneath the glacier. This slice of heaven was all to myself - I savoured the tranquillity and the sounds of the mountain. For anyone who hasn’t been among them, mountains have a supreme silence about them, broken only by a breeze or the crash of an ice cap above.
These lagoons are icy cold but such a refreshing way to start the day.
After a few days of this, I’d clocked almost 100km, swam daily in an icy lagoon, and wrestled every night with my pathetic tent. My battery pack had ran dry, I'd not changed my clothes once and I'd eaten more peanuts than is healthy for anyone. It was time to descend and find transport home or I was concerned I'd start developing a nut intolerance.
I met some wonderful people out on those trails. One middle aged American couple with a local guide crossed me nearing Salkantay Pass. They were training on the Machu Pichu trail, to tackle the 14-day Huayhuash trek later in their trip, renowned as the most beautiful in Peru. They said I reminded them of their daughter, fiercely going out to solo world-travel and now living in New Zealand (post on Females Travelling Solo coming up). Another friendly pair was an Argentinian couple I'd met on the bus on the first day. Strangely, I crossed them again when hobbling back to my hostel in Cusco; they were excited to share stories from their Humantay experience, not to mention happy to see me still alive. Understandably, they had their doubts.
Contemplating the next peak.
I spent the next day in Cusco, finally feeling hungry again back at 3,000m. I quite literally went from restaurant to restaurant, refuelling on endless portions of Lomo Saltado (salted beef) and vegan brownies with extra ice cream. Quite the contradictory menu choice, I know, but maintaining vegetarianism is a fantasy in Peru! I ate until my belly hurt but my muscle pain eased, then hailed down an airport taxi to head back to Tarapoto.
Much to people’s outrage, I never saw Machu Pichu. But above is the same picture everyone takes, to save you the time and an unwelcome bout of altitude sickness. You're welcome. What I did instead is find new strengths atop 5,000m summits all to myself, feeling like a Queen of the Mountain, overlooking emerald lagoons I’d later skinny dip in. I'd woken up to the walls of my tent golden with morning sun, hopeful for the day ahead. I'd also taken the most pittoresque loo stops with views to die for. Most memorably, I’d listened to the perfect silence of the mountains that few Peru-trotters will have enjoyed, far from the voice of any other soul.
I want to close by saying...
Don’t just follow the crowds. Build your experiences from your imagination, not from your indoctrination.