Location: Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Distance: 6.5 km (one way)
Days: 1 or 2
Camping: Wild camping
People seen: 3
Guidebook: Cordillera Blanca North map
Laguna 69 is one of the most popular short treks in Peru’s Huascarán National Park. It can be hiked as one long day or as an overnight camp, returning either the same way or via the Pisco base camp (which I highly recommend). The hike should not be taken lightly however – at 4600 metres (over 15,000 feet) you need to be well acclimatised and, if camping, you must be prepared for extreme cold (my water was frozen solid when I woke in the morning). If you have the appropriate equipment though, you have the opportunity to camp at one of the most beautiful wild camp sites I have seen – right next to the lake itself, often with nobody else around.
The hike proper starts from an area known as Cebollapampa at the far end of the Llanganuco gorge – about 45 minutes from the park office and 2 hours from Yungay. I stayed at the excellent Llanganuco Mountain Lodge which is a short walk from the Huascaran National Park gate – from there I found it easy to hitch a lift with one of the minibuses which ply the route from Huaraz to the Portachuelo pass via the park.
From the road side at Cebollapampa (3950m / 12960ft) the trail runs alongside a river (stay on the right hand side) where a few enterprising locals have set up small stalls selling water and soda to exhausted hikers coming back from the mountain. Then I was immediately into the ‘wilderness’ (the area is still grazed by cattle), climbing very gently for the first 45 minutes or so, then entering a series of switchbacks – the climbing was never steep but the altitude rather than the steepness of the trail caused a lot of stops for ‘photographs’. All around are beautiful views – on a clear day – back down the Quebrada Demanda and south towards Chopicalqui (6,354m / 20,846 feet) and the twin peaks of Huascaran (6,768 m / 22,205 ft). In this area of the Peruvian Andes you can take your pick of 6000 metre peaks.
The switchbacks end at a small lake which isn’t named on the map (Laguna 68?), altitude 4400m / 14435ft where the path flattens out in a wide plateau, which made a great place to stop for lunch before the final 200 metre climb to the lake. Near here is a side trip down the Yanapaccha valley, past the overhanging snow and ice of Yanapaccha (17913ft / 5460m) to the glacial lakes at the end of the valley (if you are going to Pisco the next day you will also get views of these lakes from the high route there). I wandered down the indistinct trail for a few minutes, decided it would be wise idea to take the weight off my back since I would be returning this way anyway, and stashed my rucksack next to a large and apparently not very distinctive boulder. Coming back I spent nearly 20 minutes searching for the boulder and the pack before finaling finding it – not a wise move!
Reunited with my rucksack and back on the main trail, I struggled up the final few switchbacks, climbing the last 200 metres. On the last switchback I passed a group of day-trippers coming back down, who happily told me they were the last of their group – good news for me because I would have the lake to myself! They seemed genuinely surprised and a bit worried that anybody would camp at the lake – alone – overnight.
Finally, as the noise from the hiking group faded, the path flattened out and I had reached Laguna 69, hidden in a natural bowl below Chacraraju. The hike was more than worth it! The clear glacial waters of the lake were quickly changing colour in the varying light levels, while Chacraraju (6108 m / 20039 ft) loomed overhead, constantly dropping small pieces of snow and ice into the lake below. I couldn’t believe my good luck at having such a beautiful and peaceful campsite all to myself.
The night at Laguna 69 was one of the most tranquil – and cold – I’ve spent anywhere. The moonlight lit the lake and surrounding mountains perfectly, and the sounds of small rocks and ice falling into the lake from Nevado Chacraraju were a constant reminder that nature that the landscape is ever-changing.
I spent the early morning huddled in the tent, waiting for the sun to rise behind the surrounding mountains and cast its warm light over my tent.
The second day presented two options: returning back along the trail I walked up yesterday, or climbing a few hundred metres higher on a trail known as the Pisco High Route, which takes hikers around the site of a mountain and down into the valley below Pisco, where climbers typically set up their base camp. Naturally, this was the option I went for….