The Pastoruri Glacier in Huascarán National Park in Peru is the only glacier in the Cordillera Blanca that’s accessible by road. Sadly, because of climate change, it’s also one of the region’s fastest retreating glaciers. Plan a day trip to this high-altitude natural wonder before it’s gone for good.
Now you see it, soon you won’t
Climate change is putting pressure on glaciers around the world, contributing to accelerated melting during summer months and less (or no) ice accumulation during winter months. Many glaciers are receding at alarming rates. In Peru, researchers from the Yale School of the Environment calculated that the area covered by glaciers shrank by nearly a third from 2000 to 2016. According to their research, 170 glaciers in Peru (covering an area equivalent to 100,000 football fields) disappeared altogether.
So, a visit to the Pastoruri Glacier is bittersweet. For decades now, this once massive glacier has been receding. In fact, some experts no longer consider Pasoruri to be a true glacier at all since it no longer accumulates ice during the winter. Others predict it’s only a matter of time before Pastoruri Glacier disappears for good.
A number of measures have been taken to try to slow the loss of this glacier including insulating it with sawdust and painting exposed nearby rocks so they reflect the sun’s rays away from the ice. However, this glacier continues to get smaller and smaller each year.
Pastoruri Glacier day trip
We headed out for a day trip to the Pastoruri Glacier with excitement and a sense of urgency (we drove ourselves, of course, but there are plenty of tour companies in Huaraz who offer this trip). The 45 mile (70 km) drive southeast from the town of Huaraz took us about three hours each way on a road that was paved for about the first hour. Then the road turned to dirt which became extremely potholed in the final stretch to the glacier.
The Pastoruri Glacier is within Peru’s Huascarán National Park which was created in 1975 to protect an 840,000 acre (340,000 hectare) portion of the Cordillera Blanca area of the Andes (Huascarán National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985).
This park is home to 27 peaks over 19,000 feet (6,000 meters), around 400 lakes (including Laguna 69 and Laguna Parón), and more than 650 glaciers–hence the name Cordillera Blanca which means White Mountains in Spanish.
The Pastoruri Glacier is, by far, the most accessible glacier. Visitors practically drive right up to it before parking in a lot at 15,879 feet (4,840 meters). From there, a concrete and rock trail (more like a sidewalk) climbs slowly up another 650 feet (200 meters) or so to the receding glacier. Allow 30 minutes to an hour each way–more if you are not acclimatized. It is possible to rent a horse to take you about ¾ of the way up to the glacier along a horse path that is parallel to the trail.
Visitors end up at a glacial lake near the foot of Patoruri where various vantage points on the glacier can be accessed for photos of the shrinking wonder. In the 1990s, when some estimates put the number of annual visitors to the glacier at 100,000, people were allowed to ski down its face, build snowmen, and generally cavort on the glacier. None of that is allowed now.
Other cool stuff to see around the Pastoruri Glacier
This part of Huascarán National Park is also home to hundreds of puya raimondii (aka Queen of the Andes) plants. This plant is the largest bromeliad in the world and it’s related to the pineapple. But those aren’t its most impressive qualities.
Named for Italian scientist Antonio Raimondi who found examples of the species in Peru in 1874, each Puya Raimondii plant can live for 100 years. The plant spends many years growing a ball made up of hundreds of long, thin, spiky green leaves around its base. The plant’s trunk eventually grows up to 16 feet (5 meters) tall.
When the plant reaches between 80 and 100 years of age, it begins to flower. First, a stalk up to 50 feet (15 meters) tall is grown. Then that stalk begins producing tens of thousands of flowers and millions of seeds. The flowering stalk can survive for a couple of years, but once it’s done the entire plant dies.
The puya raimondii blooming season takes place between June and September, though we were in the area in late May and while we saw many puya raimondii plants and many of them had stalks that seemed to have flowered in previous seasons. We did not see any fresh blooms or any fresh buds.
Botanists consider the puya raimondii plant to be an endangered species because of loss of habitat, damage from grazing animals, and the fact that its seeds are hard to germinate. We were told that some locals also burn the bases of the puya raimondii plant because they believe the plants eat sheep which are attracted to the grasses that grow around its base.
You’ll pass Patococha Lake (Duck Lake in English) which is, true to its name, a good place to see Andean waterfowl including ducks and Andean geese.
You’ll also pass a small collection of petroglyphs and rock paintings in a fenced-off grotto right on the side of the road.
The park also has an unusual naturally carbonated spring that pumps out water with lots of iron in it. The iron makes the water an eerie red color and renders it undrinkable.
We also saw two very chill alpacas wearing sunglasses (true story and we can prove it with the photo, above), a few vicuña (the wild supermodel cousin of the alpaca), and lots of cows, sheep, and horses.
Pastoruri Glacier travel tip
Even if you’ve booked your visit to the Pastoruri Glacier with a tour company, you will probably need to purchase your own entry ticket to Huascarán National Park. Entrance fees for foreigners are 30 soles (US$7.50) for one day, 60 soles (US$15) for an entry ticket that’s good for up to 3 days, and 150 soles (US$36.50) for an entry ticket that’s good for up to 30 days.
You can buy entry tickets at any park entrance or you can buy them at the national park office in Huaraz which is near the main plaza. Note that when we visited the glacier, you were not able to buy multi-day entry tickets for Huascarán National Park at the entrance near the glacier, so if you want multi-day entry buy your park tickets at the office in Huaraz.
Continue planning your trip to the Cordillera Blanca and Huascarán National Park in Peru with our day-by-day trail guide for the iconic Santa Cruz trek, our post about the day hike to Laguna 69, our post about hiking around Laguna Parón, our post about the epic drive through the Cañon del Pato, our photo essay from scenic Punta Winchus, our adventure town travel guide to Caraz, and our adventure town travel guide to Huaraz, the self-proclaimed Adventure Capital of Peru.
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about National Parks in the Americas