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Unknown Destinations - Churup: Bejeweled Landscape

The hiking trails of Peru and the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains), in particular, are world-famous for their breathtaking beauty. Even amid such high standards, the hike to the Churup lake and mountain stands out for the perfect combinations of shape and colour.

© Mylene D'Auriol

The sunset lights up one of the snowy peaks visible on the way down from Churup Lake. © Mylene D'Auriol

 A young shepherd along the way. © Mylene D'Auriol

Churup in full view, the crowning moment of the trek. © Mylene D'Auriol

The perfect clarity and indescribable nuances of the water give this lake a unique personality. © Mylene D'Auriol

Women cattle herders somewhere between Llupa and Pitec. © Mylene D'Auriol

© Mylene D'Auriol


We started our journey about six blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Huaraz, where we boarded a dilapidated lorry, fitted with small wooden benches along the sides. Cargo was strapped onto the roof, then in the cabin, and finally on the floor between the passengers.

While it seemed to me that we could not possibly take on any on more passengers, the driver clearly had other ideas and as we began to climb the steep hills we stopped to take on more passengers (both people and live animals). During the trip I could not help but wonder about the Japanese engineers who designed the vehicle; they’d have a collapse, never mind the bloody lorry!

The Route

The trip, far from being uncomfortable, was actually enjoyable in a folkloric kind of way. A trip by the sea in a convertible is pleasant, but this journey, standing in the bed of a lorry in the middle of the mountains, was nothing short of spectacular.

Besides the impressive views of the Vallunaraju and Oschapalca glaciers, I was able to contemplate the complex, intricately made, and beautiful traditional clothing still worn by the women in the Callejón de Huaylas. Though different from the traditional western stereotypes, the ethnic purity is attractive. (Now I know what anthropologist Malinowski meant when he advised his fellows not to stay too long in such communities).

Just as we were beginning to settle into the ride we arrived in Llupa. After adjusting our backpacks and exchanging pleasantries with the local people, we began an easy climb with about three short, steep sections (actually the locals will insist that these are flat). After about an hour of walking at a moderate pace we reached Pitec. From there the path begins to descend towards three beautiful gorges: Quilcayhuanca, Shallap and Rajucolta. However, we turned left and continued along the first hillcrest. There is not much in the way of civilisation here except for a scattering of dwellings and a lodge run by a friendly woman, who speaks perfect English, Quechua and Spanish.

The climb starts up a fairly steep slope. We reach a ‘flat’ traverse to a giant rock which we must scale in order to reach the second leg of the climb, which is steeper than the first. After that arrive at a small grassy plain with a river running through it and a thinly wooded forest. This is where the last and most interesting part of the trek starts.

Facing the river, which drops into a waterfall, you need to veer slightly to the left in order to ascend a very steep slope. Although there are steps, you will need to use some basic rock-climbing techniques. The climb is not very complex, demanding basic common sense and training, and no more adrenaline than your body would normally generate in such situations. It is more difficult if you are carrying camping equipment.

It is not very obvious which route to take because there are several alternatives, some trickier than others. However, all are marked by footprints. I have seen photographs of groups roped together, which is probably a good idea if you are an inexperienced climber. It all adds to the satisfaction though, because after about four complicated maneuvers you reach the top and suddenly you’re faced with a stunning view of the Churup lake and mountain.

A Captivating Spot

At the entrance to the lake there is a massive granite block, which diverts the waters from the river we had seen from our earlier vantage point. The absolute transparency of the water, its unimaginable shades and mirror-like reflection -- when the wind drops -- are altogether spectacular.

Once you get over your first impression, you can climb to the top of the granite block to see the whole panorama spread out before you. The lake is anchored in a kind of hole enclosed by great granite walls that partially protect it from the wind, creating a feeling of intimacy and peace. Dense stands of trees have managed to grow in the less steep parts and there are even some beaches.

Continuing along the right hand side there is a small bay that looks straight out of a picture postcard: small, bonsai-like trees, shining granite (steely gray during the day and silver by moonlight), surreal shadows on the lake, and gold-coloured lichens that offset the coldness of the rock and the water.

There was an area on the beach where there was enough room to pitch a small tent. It is the most beautiful spot I have ever camped in.

Just as I began to think that this landscape had no more surprises up its sleeve, the sun set and a huge moon appeared, creating its own spectacle. In the stillness of the lakeside night wreathed in welcoming silence, the suggestive profiles of the mountain landscape reflected off the diaphanous lake surface. Ignoring the intensifying cold, I watched as the moon rose and the display reached new heights, with the shadows seeming to move in rhythm, like a Beethoven sonata. At last, flirting with hypothermia, I reluctantly retreated into my tent, still feeling the intense pull of the place. (Now I know where to take my girlfriend the next time we go camping!).

A Spectacle of Colour

The next day, after a much appreciated breakfast, I continued along the right side overlooking the lake. The spectacle of colour was repeated. The route crosses a small forest and ascends directly towards the snow-capped mountain. Within an hour you reach the next lake (which is smaller and emerald in colour, its waters much less transparent).

From here you can see the routes to the summit in detail. The routes are technically challenging, which is why no guide will agree to take you up. There is the American (eleven joints) and the most radical (Not a Single Joint), which was established by the Peruvian climber, Guillermo Mejía. The mountaineer who pioneers a route earns the right to name it. With that in mind, I studied a new route that I intended to try a few days later with my climbing companion, Felipe Villanueva.

From the base of the glacier I could see Huaraz, reminding me that it was time to come back to earth and begin the trek back to Pitec, Llupa and Huaraz, where I would pay a mandatory call on El Tambo bar after supper.

If you love nature, are fit enough and, more importantly, have the determination to try climbing, bear this spot in mind. No photograph or description can do justice to the experience of arriving at the lake, contemplating its beauty and spending a night under the moon and stars.


By Jorge Yamamoto
Volume /Issue 15, Page 62
Updated, 2003

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