The Other Hike You Need To Do In Peru
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is great, but so is this underrated trek.
The first time I heard of Laguna 69 was from a fellow backpacker I met in South America. As I typed the name into Google and saw images of its impossibly blue water surrounded by ice-capped mountains, I wondered how I hadn’t known about it until then. It might be because a certain other trekking destination in Peru gets so much attention (Machu Picchu, you might be familiar?). Or maybe it’s due to its remote location, tucked high up at 4600 metres above sea level in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range outside Huaraz, a small city 400 kilometres north-east of Lima.
Or maybe it’s because people are trying to keep it a secret so it doesn’t become overrun with tourists, like the Thai island in that movie The Beach. If that’s the case, this article probably won’t help on that front (my bad). But after going myself, I’m adamant no one visiting Peru should miss out on the beauty of Laguna 69.
From Lima there are two ways to get to Huaraz, the mountain town that’s best to base yourself in for the day trek to Laguna 69: by plane or by bus. If you’re tight on time, it’s only a 40-minute flight, but the eight-hour bus journey will save you a lot of Soles (the local currency) and you’ll see some stunning scenery on the way.
Once you arrive in Huaraz, ask your hostel or hotel to suggest a reliable company offering a day trek to Laguna 69 (my dealings with Peruvian Andes Adventures and Huaraz Treks & Climbs were both positive.) You could attempt it alone, but it’s not advised for beginner mountaineers since the route is not well sign-posted, the terrain is difficult at times and the weather is often unpredictable. And with the start of the trail being more than two hours outside of Huaraz, you’ll need to speak fluent Spanish to find out how to get there via public transport. In other words, attempt it alone at your own risk.
Before you hike Laguna 69, it’s recommended to do one or two treks at a lower altitude in the days before to help your body acclimatise. Ignore this advice at your peril – you’ll risk nausea, headaches and/or dizziness on the way to Laguna 69 if your body hasn’t had time to adjust. The Llaca Valley or Cordillera Negra hikes are good options.
On the day
Be prepared for a pre-sunrise start. The drive out to the beginning of the trail is a good couple of hours, and since the hike is around three-and-a-half hours up and about two hours down (depending on your pace), every minute of daylight counts.
It’ll depend on your individual tour, but chances are you’ll enjoy some breakfast at a base camp of sorts before you enter Huascarán National Park. Sip some coca tea if it’s available – it’s believed to help with altitude sickness.
The hike starts out relatively flat; there’s lush green fields with a bubbling stream flowing through them, the odd cow grazing nearby, and the steep mountains, many of them capped with snow, up ahead of you. Soon after the ascent begins and you might be surprised at how out of breath you feel. Don’t worry, it’s the altitude, not all the heavy Peruvian cuisine and last night’s drinking session catching up with you (well, it might be that too). Pace yourself and don’t be afraid to stop to catch your breath – besides, it gives you a chance to take in the view. And oh, what a view.
The incline is at its steepest just before you reach Laguna 69. When the terrain finally flattens out, you’ll be breathless with excitement – and less oxygen than usual – as you follow the path until at last, it’s there in front of you, even more stunning than it looks in the photos. Small waterfalls run from the mountain tops, crumbling ice into the lagoon in front of you. It’s enough to give you goosebumps.
You’ve worked hard to get here, so take your time walking around the water’s edge, and if you’re as game as one guy on my tour was, go for a dip in the icy water. The only thing better that taking in the other-worldly beauty of Laguna 69 is knowing it’s all downhill from here – in the literal, and best possible way.
(Photos: Erin Van Der Meer)