Situated in the aptly named Cordillera Blanca, Huascarán National Park and Biosphere Reserve protects the heart of the world's highest tropical mountain range in the central Peruvian Andes. The deep ravines watered by numerous torrents, the glacial lakes and the variety of the vegetation make it a site of spectacular beauty.
The Huascarán Biosphere Reserve is located in the department of Ancash, north of Lima, in the central-west region of Peru. Its altitude ranges from 1,020 m (3,346 ft) to 6,768 m (22,204 ft) with 11 different types of habitats from tropical desert scrub to Andean tundra.
The Cordillera Blanca is the most extensive tropical ice-covered mountain range in the world, with the largest concentration of ice found in Peru. Peru’s highest peak, Mount Huascarán (6,768 m or 22,204 ft), is located in the Cordillera Blanca and contains a variety of formations including sub-alpine wet Paramo, Alpine and Nival Pluvial Tundra, with moist Montane forest formations found in the majority of ravines.
The soils of the Huascarán Biosphere Reserve are alluvial, colluvial-alluvial and glacio-fluvial, with residual material soils and anthropogenic soils. Glaciation is a major element in the geomorphology and hydrology of the area: it is estimated that around one-quarter of the volume of glacial ice in the Cordillera may have disappeared since the late 1960s — an ongoing process that will likely transform the landscape of the reserve.
Glaciers range approximately 180 km (110 mi) from Nevado Tuco in the south to the vicinity of Nevado Champara in the north, and cap a series of imposing mountains. Around 296 lagoons have also identified within the limits of the biosphere reserve.
Among the most representative vegetation in the area are the Polylepis forests and the Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii), known for its giant flower spike. Fauna represented in the area include the northern viscacha (Lagidium peruanum), Andean fox or culpeo (Lycalopex culpaeus), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornates), Andean white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus peruvianus), taruca (Hippocamelus antisensis) and Andean condor (Vultur gryphus).
The total population of the reserve amounts to 360,000 people distributed across 2,600 populated areas. The population is mostly ethnic Andean mestizo and is mainly engaged in agriculture and livestock-rearing. The region also contains mining concessions as well as a commitment to tourism, although no data are available on the latter.
Two million people depend on water originating from the Huascarán Biosphere Reserve and are vulnerable to risks of water shortages and floods, including glacial lake outburst floods. During the years 1941–2005, at least 30,000 people were killed by more than 30 glacier-related disasters in the Cordillera Blanca.
The Huascarán National Park, which lies within the reserve, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The property of 340,000 ha (840,000 acres) covers a diverse mountain landscape. It includes the spectacular Nevado Huascarán (Mount Huascarán), Peru's highest peak, named after the 16th Century Inca leader Huascar. The snow covered peaks, the numerous tropical glaciers and glacial lakes, the high plateaus intersected by deep ravines with torrential creeks and the variety of vegetation types form a spectacular landscape of rare beauty.
Appreciating the geomorphology and striking landscape beauty it is easy to overlook that the property also boasts noteworthy ecosystem and biodiversity values. The wide range of ecosystems and vegetation types includes small pockets of montane tropical forests in some of the lower elevations and valleys. Diverse types of Paramo and Puna grasslands and scrublands are the dominant vegetation types in the property, at higher elevations transitioning into tropical tundra.
Huascarán National Park is home to the emblematic Vicuna, which was close to extinction in the 1960s but has since recovered, one of the most spectacular conservation successes in South America. Other charismatic mammals include the North Andean Deer, Puma or Mountain Lion, the vulnerable Spectacled Bear and the endangered Andean Mountain Cat.
The avifauna boasts more than 100 recorded species, among them the Andean Condor and the Giant Hummingbird. Around 800 plant species have been documented, the most famous being the endangered Queen of the Andes, known for its giant flower-spike.
The entire region has been settled for millennia, as evidenced by the many pre-Columbian manifestations in and around the property. Early inhabitants left remnants of agricultural terraces and corrals, as well as roads, dams and water canals. Moreover, there are noteworthy cave paintings, stone tombs and countless artifacts.