The vast 6000 mile long range of the Andes cuts through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina like the prow of some huge ship. All of our domestic mountain ranges strung out end to end would not amount to half of the Andes. It offers climbing higher and more challenging than anything in the continental states. One range (“Cordillera”) after another stretching so far as to offer a whole range of climbing seasons: Our winter for Ecuador, northern Argentina, Chile, and Patagonia, and summer for Bolivia and Peru in the mid latitudes.
Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes” is a frequent first stop for budding Andinistas. Although tamer than some other ranges in South America, even the normal routes on 19-20,000 ft Cotopaxi, Cayambe and Chimborazo are more committing than anything in the 48 states. The hip and bustling capitol city of Quito offers a variety of services to climbers: cheap climbers hostels ($5-10 a night) like the Magic Bean or the Crossroads, excellent guide services such as Safari Ecuador and SurTrek, nice huts on most peaks, and an abundance of public and 4X4 transportation (Try cotopaxi.com, themagicbean.com, surtrek.com). All of this at an altitude (9500ft) that allows you to maintain acclimatization between peaks. The Avenida also contains some harder and less frequently climbed volcanoes such as the peaks of El Altar, Illiniza Sur or Antisana. Ecuador is the obvious choice for a first foray into the Andes.
Chile and Argentina are also good first choices, offering mostly desert peaks such as Aconcogua (the Mt Whitney of South America) or the Atacama giants Pissis and Ojos Del Salado, which are dry 6000m peaks. These venues are more expensive and generally less accessible, but still charming and a good introduction into high altitude andinismo. Don’t include Patagonian peaks in this generalization, they do offer excellent technical rock routes on very scenic and demanding peaks but are cursed with horrid weather.
Bolivia has a fine combination of great weather and big, beautiful mountains. Being the poorest country in South America it is generally inexpensive (Rooms at the Hotel Austria in downtown La Paz are $1.75!), and the streets of La Paz are at 12,000 ft. Dozens of 17,000 – 21,000 ft peaks to choose from in the Cordillera Real (Potosi, Condoriri, Illumani) and Cordillera Apolobamba make it seem like the place climbers might go in the afterlife. It is a more remote and adventurous place to climb with fewer guide or jeep services (Try Club Andino Boliviana 591-2-324682 or Colibri firstname.lastname@example.org). Bolivia has a sort of warm glow to it that’s hard to put into words (“Tranquilo” is a word the locals use), but its reflected in the faces of the people of the altiplano whose wizzened smiles are hard to forget.
Saving Peru for last here and in your Andean climbing career is a good idea; the climbing here is epic in its difficulty, scale, and beauty. The climbers’ town of Huaraz is a ramshackle, knockabout sort of town that a grubby mountaineer feels at home in. There are climbers from all over the world strolling the streets, ropes slung across their chests like suits of armor, and the scenery is as beautiful as anywhere on earth. Most of the peaks look unclimbable, “Impossible” I once said looking up at a peak in the Huayhash range until my partner reminded me we had just climbed it. Any summit of a 6000M peak in Peru is an accomplishment that’ll brass your buttons for the rest of your life. Some of the more popular peaks such as Alpamayo, Copa, and Huascaran, are within a few hours drive from Huaraz, as well as plenty of 5000m acclimatization peaks such as Ishinca, Churup and Urus Este. The snow never consolidates, and the difficulty rarely relents. When you are ready, see the folks at Casa De Guia (Tel 72-1811), or flag down an Arriero (Muleteer), plenty of climber services are available at moderate prices.
You don’t have to speak Spanish to get along in most of the climbing venues, but it will save you some money by allowing you to live and eat with the local people. How good a climber you have to be depends largely on which Andean summits you lust after: at a minimum your experience should include glacier travel and you should be able to bag any domestic fourteener. Generally you do not need inoculations (unless you are going down to the jungle areas), nor do you need a visa for stays of less than 30 days. Even currency exchange is not needed, as your yankee greenbacks are welcomed.
Sure you can accomplish a lot of hard climbing without ever leaving your own backyard (try a winter climb on any 14teener), but staying in your own backyard isn’t what being a mountaineer is all about. Staring up at a hanging glacier pinned against a blue-black sky while standing thousands of feet higher than any summit in the 48 states, this is what you had in mind. Adean mountaineering is more than just a peakbagging experience, climbing in the Andes is a vacation from your sanitized American life, or in other words: its not just a climb, its an adventure.
For additional beta: Climbing in Bolivia, (The late/great) Yossi Brain. Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca, David Sharman. A climbers guide to Ecuador, Bradt Books. Aconcagua, a climbing guide, RJ Secor. Mountaineering in Patagonia, Alan Kearney. Mountaineering In the Andes, Jill Neate. And Lonely Planet travel books.