Why the Cordillera Blanca is Best

By: Chris Bettencourt

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January 4, 2019 | 50th Anniversary Stories

Some years ago I was fortunate enough to take our wonderful “Treasures of the Incas” journey to Machu Picchu, and during the flight from Peru’s capital city, Lima, to the ancient Inca capital of Cusco I was stunned by the panorama of high mountains laid out below us. Now I knew we weren’t going that high on this particular trip, but I quietly vowed to myself that one day I would come back to check out them out for myself.

So about two years later I signed up for our Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca trip. Since this was my first Ultimate Challenge trip, I was a bit worried, especially since other members of the group were marathon runners, and a couple had even summited Everest! I definitely didn’t want to be at the back of the pack, so I asked questions of the Program Director, Adventure Coordinator, and a co-worker who had done the trip, and based on their recommendations began training so that I’d be able to handle both the physical demands of the trekking but also those of the altitude. The trail, after all, crosses multiple passes in excess of 15,000 feet, and one that is just this side of 16,000. Up to then I had never been above about 12,000 feet.

Cordillera Blanca was, in a word, stupendous! At that point I had never been to the Himalaya, but what I saw made me think there’s no way the Himalaya can be any grander than this. Every day we hiked in the shadows of immense, ice- and snow-covered peaks the likes of which I had never laid eyes on before, and I grew up backpacking in the Sierra Nevada! The views were knockout, and the friendly Quechua and Aymara people we met in small, remote villages along the way were icing on the cake.

A funny story about that: years prior to my trip, one of my friends at MTS had done the same trip and taken a great photo of two small children—a girl and her younger brother—in one of those villages. We thought it would be fun if I took the photo along and tried to find them again. And one day, just as I was beginning to think that this was never going to happen, I turned a corner on the trail and about 20 yards below, washing clothes in the stream with their mother, I spotted them! A couple of us ran down to where they were, I pulled the wrinkled photo from my pack, and showed it to them. The kids seemed a bit confused, but their mother burst into the widest grin I had ever seen! She was thrilled, and I snapped a photo of the kids holding the photo that my friend had taken, which I left with them as a keepsake. Just another one of many stories of the irreplaceable personal encounters that make this kind of travel so fulfilling.

To this day, if someone asks me which trip I’d repeat, Cordillera Blanca is always at the top of my list. OK, if I’m honest it shares that spot with Antarctica…but Blanca is a whole lot closer!

Chris Bettencourt, MT Sobek Art Director

MT Sobek Trip: Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca, 2002