Andean mountain valleys near Huaraz.

Andean mountain valleys near Huaraz.

The Callejon de Huallas is a deep valley that lies between the snow peaks of the Cordillera Blanca and the somewhat lower Cordillera Negra. It is the location of Huaraz, a major town that serves as the jumping off point for those wishing to explore the region. It is located on the Río Santa, which flows North down this valley to exit to the Pacific near Chimbote. The rough road which follows this river up to Huaraz is one of the three entrances to the valley. The principle Southern entrance, by contrast, is a tarred road from Paramonga, and is the usual way to and from Lima. The third approach, however, sets out from the coast at Casma, crosses the Cordillera Negra at around 4500m and drops down into the valley from a spectacular vantage point. This view is shown below.

The view from the Cordillera Negra to the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The road starts in a near-perfect example of a coastal irrigated valley, passes from desert into cactus scrub and from there hooks its way up into the Andes. The route requires a capable 4x4, but is well worth the additional effort that it takes. Pretty villages are surrounded by fields full of barley and potatoes, as the season dictates.

An adobe and tile village clings to the Peruvian Andes

The local people are not at all used to 'foreigners', meaning anyone from outside their valley, and the road has only recently become accessible to anything but a truck. The traditional communities preserve their systems of governance, their dress and their language, a Quechua dialect.

A Peruvian lady takes five minutes from harvesting to pose for the camera

Barley is harvested and threshed in July-August. It is first cut by hand, using sickles that are generally made by the local blacksmith. The ears are carefully laid in a circle and horses or mules are driven round and round this, crushing the ears with their feet and releasing the grain.

A Peruvian family harvest their barley in the Andes

The grain below the straw is, of course, mixed with chaff,and this has to be separated by hand. The usual technique is to clear a space and pound the earth flat. The mix is then tossed into the air, and the chaff is carried away in the wind, whilst the grain falls directly to the ground. (This technique is also used in Asia with rice and other cereals, seemingly developed independently on both continents.)

Tossing barley traw to separate out the grain: Peru

The final purification - which also removes sand and grit, which could otherwise break teeth - is to repeat the process by hand, tossing the partially purified grain into the breeze once again. Everyone gets thoroughly gritty in the process, explaining the young man's plastic cape.

Separating barley from chaff in Peru

A family group. The man is chewing coca leaves, which stain his lips green and which can, as a result of the anaesthetic properties of the cocaine which it contains, produce the characteristic slouched jaw which he displays. Coca has been used in the Andes for millennia, and seems to cause no harm to those who use it, whilst being said to offering the benefits of endurance and tolerance to cold.

A family group chewing coca leaves in Peru

The Río Santa valley supports much more complex communities, which have been trading freely with the outside world for fifty years or more. (Huaraz itself was founded shortly after the Spanish conquest, but access remained difficult until the Southern road was completed.) Village architecture reflects this wealth, but still adheres to traditional styles. The houses are generally constructed from adobe, sun-dried mud bricks which the more wealthy will plaster and lime-wash. The traditional tiles are employed throughout the sierra.

The village church is renovated: Peru

The Cordillera Blanca presents a wall of peaks that reach over 6000m. The snow line is generally somewhere around 5000m, as the Equator is close and the sun is very intense. A large number of rivers run down from the Cordillera Blanca. Those which run West feed the Río Santa - and thus the Pacific Ocean - whilst those which run East are tributaries of the Río Marañon. This is a tributary of the Amazon, and eventually discharges into the Atlantic.

Eucalyptus groves beneath snow peaks in the Peruvian Andes

The Winter landscape is largely a brown one except where Eucalyptus trees add a splash of green. Perhaps to compensate for this, the local women adopt extremely colourful costume.

A typical village scene in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The lady on the right is winding thread for weaving as she walks. You can see the spindle in her left hand, both above and in the picture which is shown below. The basket is used to carry the raw wool.

Traditional clothing glows in the high altitude sun: Peru

Huascaran (6768m) is one of 27 peaks that reach over 6000m in the range. It is seen here from an unconventional angle, with and Easter cross in the foreground.

An Easter cross faces Huascaran in the Peruvian Andes

High puna - down land - gives way to snow at around 5000m. The snow cover has been retreating for millennia following the end of the last ice age. Many of the valleys, such as the one shown in the lower right of the image, were ground out by glaciers and the entire Río Santa valley is cut through glacial debris. However, anecdote suggests that the ice is now retreating much faster than before, perhaps due to a shift from snow to rain, perhaps associated with climate change. Computer models certainly suggest that the may suffer Andes more severely and more rapidly from greenhouse warming than most other regions. If true, this will be catastrophic for millions, as the run off from the melting snows feeds coastal agriculture on which many lives depend.

One of many snow peaks above Huaraz, in the Peruvian Andes

The higher reaches of the Cordillera Blanca have been settled by pastoralists who live in temporary or very basic accommodation for the wet months of the year, and retreat down to the valley during Winter. The beehive houses that are shown below are of this nature, and the arid slopes behind them are patched with stone walls and fields in which barley, potatoes and quinoa - a high altitude Andean crop - are grown in the wet season.

Temporary shepherds' shelters under Huascaran, Peru

A typically glacial valley mouth opens onto the high puna. Stone walls mark out pasture and a stand of alfalfa, used to fed cuy, the traditional guinea pigs of the Andes. The glacier's former moraine makes a diagonal wall that runs to the right of the photograph.

A high altitude community in the Peruvian Andes

Local people dress as though for a festival, perhaps to inject some brightness into a harsh winter landscape. Grand mother and grand daughter show a strong family resemblance.

Grandmother and grand daughter in an Andean village in Peru

A close up of the grand-daughter, who had never seen a digital camera before and who instantly snapped into "model mode" when she saw what it could do.

Winter fashions at 4000m in Peru

The view down the glacial valley towards its exit shows how steep and quickly-narrowing these formations can be. Raptors wheel overhead and small animals scuttle for cover, but the area is otherwise silent and little visited. The local community said that my companion and I were the first to visit in two years, although the small lead mine at the head of the valley is services by a weekly truck.

A steep glacial valley in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca

Closer to the head of the valley, snow peaks begin to be seen. Cattle graze the sparse vegetation, which consists of thistles and alpine flowering plants, sedges and a scattering of grasses. The scrubland is dominated by mixed shrubs and Lupin species.

Cattle browse on alpine pastures in the Peruvian Andes

The Cordillera Blanca is home to the high altitude quenual tree (Polylepsis sp.) which can be seen growing up the flank of the scree in the photograph that is shown below. It resembles an olive tree, often taking a contorted form that reflects its slow growth and difficult environment. Quenual form groves in sheltered niches, and it is always intensely used by the local bird population. High altitude Bromeliads are found all over the rock surfaces, but particular species seem to associate with the quenual and this, in its turn, creates further niches.

Quenual trees in the Peruvian Andes

High altitude lakes are common in the region. Their colour reflects the amount of sediment in them, generally derived from glacial flour, and the amount of nutrient. Lakes with much glacial sediment tend to be milky. (There is an example of this shown somewhat lower down.) Lakes with dissolved nutrients support alga, which tend to be reddish or brown. Such alga sink at night, so that the lake starts the day blue or emerald. As the alga rise, however, so the colour changes to red or pink, and a mass of water birds descend to this signal. Here, a small glacier discharges virtually no sediment and appears to contribute limited nutrients, to the waters are a sterile emerald. Giant lupins grow around the rim. There are, apparently, over eighty species of these in the region.

A crystal lake above Huaraz in central Peru

One can, without much difficulty, scramble up to an altitude and viewpoint from which snowfield photographs can be obtained with ease. Many of the region's peaks are non-technical, meaning that the well-prepared and fit can walk - or perhaps gasp! - their way to the top without complex equipment. Roads have been installed up to and beyond 5000m, chiefly for purposes of mining, but this gives the intrepid (and the well-acclimatised) the opportunity for quick sprint to the summit of unchallenging peaks.

Snow fields in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

A hawk spirals in the dying rays of the sun, at the foot of another glacier-carved valley. Many of these would be national monuments in Europe or the US, but are here very little visited either by Peruvian tourists or by foreigners. As mentioned above, access is generally extremely simple for those with good equipment and this makes this one of the most accessible, least exploited walking areas on Earth.

A hawk spirals over a harsh valley mouth in Andean Peru

An open valley, grazed by a few cows and visited sporadically by hunters and graziers. The road was built to service a mine which is now in decline, leaving the wilderness largely pristine.

A silent valley in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The theme of silent snow peaks, alpine valleys and winter Lupins is repeated along the 200km range and into the Southern Cordillera Huayhuash.

Lupines and snow peaks in Ancash, Peru

Lake Paron is fed with water derived from several large glaciers, and is surrounded by large peaks, including Artesonraju, Caraz peak and the Garcilaso Pyramid, seen at the end of the lake. The consequence is that the waters are a turbid turquoise. This lake - above Caraz, in the Northern part of the Cordillera - was once much visited, as it is 90 minutes of travel by car from Huaraz. However, the lake has now been dammed and tapped for hydroelectricity in order to support mining activities, and its has developed the characteristic and unsightly "high water mark" so characteristic of such reservoirs. It is, as a consequence, deserted except as a jumping off point for mountaineering expeditions. Day trippers now go to the lakes above Yungay, which are closely managed by the national parks authority.

Lake Paron in Peru

Once again, it takes a modicum of planning, some modest equipment and adequate fitness (and acclimatisation!) for one to be able to climb up to impressive snow fields. The point about acclimatisation must be re-stated. Huaraz lies over 3000m, and is a considerable jump for many people, not least as they are coming to it from sea level, but usually over a 4000m pass. It is, of course, physically possible to follow the mining roads and so rush up to some of the highest parts of the Cordillera. This is a recipe for altitude sickness, which is particularly dangerous in Huaraz insofar as there is no way to descend without first climbing.

A 5500m snowfield in the Peruvian Andes

The final image in this series is something of a cliche, but an irresistible one. It shows a sunset on the Northern end of the Cordillera Blanca, as seen from Huaraz. This was in fact taken from the comfort of my bedroom in the excellent Hotel Andino, but not all will want to pay their charges and there is a look out not far above Huaraz, which offers a similar view.

Sunset on the Cordillera Blanca, Peru