For lovers of the great outdoors, there are few places on earth that can rival this town’s location. Whether you’re a hiker or mountaineer, birder or mountain biker, rock climber or cycle tourer, a myriad of opportunities present. Some are right on your doorstep in the magnificent Cordillera Blanca; others are over the Río Santa in the understated Cordillera Negra, which lacks the Blanca’s dramatic granite walls and headline-grabbing ice falls, but makes up for it with sweeping panoramas of the country’s highest peaks. Slightly further afield, though still only a few hours by minibus away, lies the rugged Huayhuash, a concatenation of razor sharp ridges, colourful lakes and staggering views; the circuit of the range is thought by many to be one of the world’s great treks.
If you’re not already acclimatized, it pays to take it easy for a few days and let your body get used to the lack of oxygen in town, tempting though it is to head straight out onto the high mountain trails and see those peaks even more close-up. The most popular mountain day-trips to Laguna 69, Laguna Churup and Pastoruri all reach altitudes in excess of 4450m, or the summit of Mt. Whitney, and as you can get so high so rapidly, altitude sickness is a risk that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Huaraz lies at just over 3000m and is a good place to get a feel for Andean life, while simultaneously being able to take advantage of some tourist comforts. Pleasant hotels, lip-smackingly good local and international food, quality coffee, and even a couple of craft breweries are all to be found in the Ancash capital; not to mention friendly inhabitants of course. There are plenty of entertaining diversions in and around town too – check out the Archaeological Museum or what’s going on at the Centro Cultural on the Plaza de Armas, and, if you’re around on a Sunday lunchtime, head to the food fair at Jr. José Olaya.
The central market is always worth a wander, and is a more interesting and slightly cheaper place to stock up on supplies for the mountains than the supermarkets; you might want to avoid the meat aisle though. The food sellers that dot the streets offer some good interactions if your Spanish or Quechua is up to it, as well as some really tasty treats – look for churros (deep fried batter with a manjar filling), picarones (deep fried pumpkin and sweet potato doughnuts covered in honey syrup), papas rellenas (ball of mashed potato stuffed with meat and onion) or empanadas (pastry parcels stuffed with chicken or meat, egg and olive). If you fancy eating inside, head to a chifa for some Peruvian-Chinese food, or a local restaurant for some picante de cuy (spicy guinea pig) or lomo saltado (stir-fried beef, onion, tomato and chips), washed down by chicha morada (a non-alcoholic purple maize drink).
People first settled in this valley over 12,000 years ago, and visiting ancient ruins is a fine way to spend your initial acclimatization days. Check out the Recuay- and Wari- period ruins of Wilcahuaín and Honcopampa, or bus over the other side of the Blanca to the Callejón de Conchucos and the most important and mystical site in the region: Chavín de Huántar. The Chavín culture dates from 1000 BCE and was a hierarchical society led by priests and a political elite. At its centre was the pilgrimage site of Chavín de Huántar, the ruins of which can now be visited Tuesday – Sunday (entry S/.10).
Some Trekking Ideas
The well-known treks of Santa Cruz, Alpamayo Basecamp and the Huayhuash Circuit are scenically spectacular and showcase some of Peru’s, and also the continent’s, finest and most famous alpine vistas; but there’s a lot more to the mountains here than these few trails alone. Gaze out from your hotel rooftop, and look east. Quebrada after quebrada awaits, each brought to a sudden end by a glacier-draped peak. These valleys are within Parque Nacional Huascarán and most are accessible and open to tourists – a day visit will set you back S/.10, while multi-day trips involving overnight camping simply require the 21 day park ticket, which is superb value at S/.65.
To escape the groups and have a bit more adventure, consider some more challenging treks where route finding is less straightforward. Closest to town is the wonderful Quilcayhuanca – Cojup loop, or how about heading north and trekking over Punta Yanayacu from Quebrada Ulta to Yanama? Don’t forget the eastern side of the range where a whole host of quiet trekking options lie – why not try glorious, laguna-laden Quebrada Carhuascancha, or a walk in Quebrada Rurec?
Rock climbers will want to lay their hands on the newly published Huaraz – Peru – The Climbing Guide by David Lazo and Marie Timmermans, while mountaineers should hunt down Brad Johnson’s Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca for some vertiginous route and photographic inspiration; both are packed with ideas and available locally. Global warming is wreaking havoc on those glaciers, causing routes and objective hazard levels to change, so always ask around for the latest before committing to a climb.
Head out on two wheels?
If you’re more interested in pedalling your way round the area, you’ll be glad to know bikers are spoilt for choice too. You may well have noticed on the bus journey here, and I can confirm, that Peruvians are the master road builders of the Andes. With vertical terrain seemingly just a minor irritation rather than a game-ending impediment, the most exciting high passes in South America await – iconic roads over the likes of Punta Olímpica and Portachuelo de Llanganuco. Zigzagging up through queñual forest, then on into the domain of glaciers and condors, these rides are but a couple of days pedalling from town.
Mountain bikers aren’t short of options either. Whether you’re after some cross-country trails, or prefer shooting down 1000m descents with the local downhill crowd there’ll be something that takes your fancy. A couple of excellent mountain bike guides and agencies who know the local chakinani (singletrack) like the back of their hands operate out of Huaraz. If you’d rather head off alone, be aware that it’s an exploratory process – you’ll happen upon plenty of adventure, but no trail signs round these parts.
As with many things in life, you’ll probably get what you pay for when it comes to guides, arrieros and agencies in Huaraz. Don’t let price be the sole factor in choosing any kind of tour: the wellbeing of staff and the environment as well as your own comfort and safety are far more important.
And please, one last favour to ask. This region is in many ways a natural paradise, but as with magnificent trekking areas all over the world, tourism has brought its fair share of problems. On popular treks facilities struggle to cope with the volume of visitors, and particularly on the Santa Cruz trek you’ll find toilet blocks out of commission. If you’re not au fait with Leave No Trace principles, please read up on the internet before heading to the hills. For starters, if there are no working toilet blocks, dig a hole and bury your excrement, well away from any water sources, trails, or people’s houses. Camp at official sites, pack all rubbish out, don’t light fires and don’t use soap in streams. Remember you’re just visiting and should behave as you’d want visitors in your own country to – even though there are few guardaparques and fewer repercussions for breaking rules. Raise the issue with anyone you see behaving badly – it’s the best way to stop irresponsible behaviour and to help preserve this unique, fantastic and magical natural environment.
There’s little left to say other than start exploring, enjoy the peaks and valleys, and hopefully like me and many others who know the Blanca and Huayhuash, you’ll end up staying that little bit longer than you initially expected…
By: Neil Pike.