Near the small Peruvian city of Huaraz is Huascarán National Park, over 13,000 square miles that include the world’s highest tropical mountain range, and at over 22,000 feet, Peru’s highest peak.
The Park is named for its showiest mountain, which in turn is named for the Inca emperor Huascar. He didn’t reign for very long — only five short years in the middle of the 16th century — but his big snowy rock in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca (the White Mountain Range) in the central Andes rises high above all others in Peru. For a little perspective, the world’s tallest mountain, Mt. Everest, reaches 29,000 feet.
Since the 1980s, the Park has been a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it also falls under the umbrella of SERNANP, the Peruvian network of protected natural areas. Aside from the cloud-scraping mountains, there is a lot to protect. There are tropical glaciers, pristine turquoise lakes, and hundreds of unique — and sometimes eccentric — plants and wildlife. A short list would include spectacled bears (who really do look like they’re wearing glasses), giant hummingbirds (well, giant by humming bird standards), South American camels (called Vicuñas, the national animal of Peru), and scrappy, ring-tailed Andean mountain cats. On the flora side, there are almost 800 different species of high-altitude plants, including the spectacular Queen of the Andes, which shoots a flowery stem 30 feet straight up from her spiky bottom.
It’s rugged, it’s high, it’s cold — and it can get shaky up there (earthquakes are fairly frequent). But Huascarán’s show-stopping terrain and delicately balanced ecosystems make for a National Park like no other.