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Steamboat Magazine

The Peruvian Andes - Land of the Incas

07/01/2003 01:00AM ● By Stephen Ruddock

Summer 2003:

The Peruvian Andes - Land of the Incas

by Stephen Ruddock

Peru's spectacular mountain landscapes, rich culture and historical legacy make it a country of singular allure.As an ancient empire, the Peruvian Incas can only be compared to the Romans. And Peru's mountains, the Andes, are second only to the Himalayas in altitude.In 1475, the Inca Empire covered almost 3,000 miles, from southern Columbia through Peru and into central Chile, and included more than 12 million people. During their short epoch, the Incas built almost 5,000 miles of paved roads. On these roads, relay runners � trained from childhood � covered close to 1,500 miles to deliver messages from Quito to the capital, Cusco, in five days. Most of the distance was between 8,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation. By comparison, it took the Romans 30 days to carry a message 1,000 miles on horseback. Today, remnants of that road system remain, and visitors can literally walk in the path of the ancient Incas. Of equal appeal to the modern traveler are the timeless Andes, which range over 4,500 miles, making them the longest mountain range in the world. Peru straddles many of the highest peaks; access to these lofty sky dwellers is easy. Despite its exotic flavor, travel time to Peru from Colorado is relatively short. An eight-hour plane ride to Lima (available through airline consolidators for as little as $475-$585), followed by a seven-hour bus ride, places us in the city of Huaraz, at the entrance to the Parque Nacional Huascaran.The park was established in 1975 and is close to 110 miles long, 12-15 miles wide. Within the park boundaries are 30 peaks taller than 6,000 meters (19,686 feet), topping off with Nevada Huascaran at 22,205 feet. Not only is Huaraz the gateway to spectacular beauty, it is also affordable. The city offers good lodging, tasty food and a wide variety of camping, hiking and mountaineering supplies � all at reasonable rates. A visitor's most costly expense is likely to be a mountain guide. A low-altitude guide � and cook � charges $20-$50 per day. A high-altitude guide, who will take climbers beyond 17,000 feet, can cost $50-$80 per day.A guide is not essential to enjoy the Huaraz area, however. A good guidebook, some familiarity with the Third World and a little high school Spanish are all a traveler needs. Quechua, the ancient Inca language, is still spoken in the country.Adventurous climbers may want to attempt Huascaran or Alpamayo, or one of the other daunting, world-class peaks in the park. Huascaran is taller than Denali and Kilimanjaro, or any peak in Europe. You don't have to pack crampons in your luggage to enjoy many of the park's trails, though, Many are accessible by Japanese mini-buses, commonly called collectivos. The mountaintops and turquoise lakes can be easily seen from the bus. You can ride from one end to the other for $2. Mountain biking is popular, too, and bikes can be readily rented in Huaraz. The park is also conducive to whitewater rafting, with many rivers emptying from the mountains into the valley.Being so close to the equator, this part of Peru has only two seasons: rainy and dry. The rainy season begins in mid-October; the dry season starts in June.As in many Third World countries, caution is advised. Drinking unfiltered water can have unpleasant consequences. Fruit or vegetables washed in local water can cause trouble, too. Before traveling to Peru, visit your dentist and make sure your medical insurance will be valid. The same precautions you would take traveling in Mexico apply to Peru.Spend a fedays adjusting to the altitude before attempting strenuous undertakings. Remember: the very top of Mount Werner has the same elevation as main street Huaraz. Peru is a country of extremes. It has the driest deserts in the world, yet two-thirds of its land mass is rain forest. Just off the coast of Peru is a 25,000-foot-deep ocean trench. If you were to go from there to the top of Huascaran, the elevation gain would be almost 50,000 feet in less that 200 miles. Nowhere else in the world has this extreme variation in terrain.On our entire planet, there are 103 ecological zones, of which Colorado has seven. Peru has 84 within its borders. Homany do you want to experience?}Steve Ruddock is a long-time resident of Colorado who attributes his love of outdoor adventure to his parents and his experiences as an Eagle Scout. A photographer since 1986, Steve's work has appeared in Autoweek, the Mercedes Benz Star and On Track. His images are online at