Around 50,000 people travel from Huaraz to visit the monumental pre-Inca site of Chavín de Huántar each year, taking the winding road over the Cordillera Blanca and through the Cahuish tunnel. About 49,500 then turn right around and return to Huaraz.
The number of visitors is sure to multiply now that the notoriously bumpy and tortuous road has been paved, making the trip from Huaraz to Chavín a comfortable two hours—and making a one-day round trip easier.
The southern end of the Callejón de Conchucos—meaning roughly the Mosna River region from Chavín north beyond Huari—certainly isn’t as spectacular at first sight as the Callejón de Huaylas west of the Cordillera Blanca. In fact the deep, narrow canyon offers no views of the glacial peaks. But this region has a wealth of wonderful areas to visit: trails into remote areas of the Cordillera, well-preserved sections of the great Inca Highway which connected Ecuador and northern Peru with Cusco and Bolivia, an unforgettable waterfall, pre-Inca archaeological sites, a village dedicated to fine weaving, and spectacular sunrises of the Cordillera viewed from the east.
The only real negative is the paucity of public transport, making it difficult to get to areas not along the main highway or obligating you to hire private transportation from the towns (which is not particularly expensive in any case).
Into the Cordillera Blanca
From the southern Callejón de Conchucos there are five valleys (quebradas) climbing into the Cordillera. One is relatively ordinary, three are outstanding, and one is probably the most beautiful in the entire range. All have the advantage of being far less visited than the valleys on the west side of the range. From south to north:
- Quebrada Huantsán or Alhuina: Starting above the ruins of Chavín, this route begins by climbing steeply up the popular Olleros-Chavín trail which crosses the range, Then it follows a stream to the north, climbing moderately seven kilometers farther toward meadows (4000m) directly below the towering east face of Nevado Huantsán (6395m). Adventurous hikers can follow faint paths over a rugged pass to the north in order to descend into the Quebrada Rima Rima, a side valley in the Q. Carhuascancha.
- Quebrada Carhuascancha: A wide trail climbs up this magnificent valley just to the north of San Marcos (and south of the town of Huántar). At the upper end (after a hike of 18 km. or so) the valley widens to reveal views of a semi-circle of peaks: Huantsán, Tumarinaraju, San Juan, Maparaju, and Cayesh. The long meadow below the summits is an ideal place to set up a base camp, then spend a few days visiting some of the ten lakes, exploring the extensive queñual forests, walking up side valleys, or climbing to the San Juan glacier. (It used to be fairly easy for people with fundamental climbing skills to cross the Abra Villón pass between Maparaju and San Juan, then descending a trail into the Q. Quilcayhuanca and Huaraz. The recession of the glacier has now made this crossing quite dangerous.) A short side trip to the south on the ascent up the main valley leads through deep forest to Laguna Ichicpotrero, one of the most beautiful lakes in the range.
- Quebrada Rurec: Starting from the village of Huántar (7 km. up a winding road from the highway), an easy trail leads up a beautiful green valley (19 km.) to the turquoise Laguna Yuraccocha at the base of the fearsome east face of Nevado Cayesh (5721m). A fainter, more difficult trail leads up a side valley toward Nevado Chinchey (6222m). Great views of Cayesh (and higher up, Huantsán) from paths up the northern slopes up the valley.
- Quebrada Rurichinchay: A moderately rugged trail leads up this long, beautiful valley from the village of Mallás (5 km. off the main highway, north of San Marcos). The upper reaches of the valley have extensive meadows, forests, several glacial lakes, waterfalls and views of Nevados Chinchey, Tullparaju and several lesser peaks. Only negative is the remains of a mine partway up the valley.
- Quebrada Jacabamba: An enjoyable but ultimately unexceptional valley, reached via a steep ascent past the villages above Huari followed by an easy trail to the upper end of the valley, below the minor peaks Perlilla and Copap. An alternate route climbs from the village of Acopalca (2 km. north of Huari) through a narrow, forested canyon past the impressive María Jivar waterfall (see below).
One of the inconveniences of hiking in these areas is the scarcity of competent cooks and burro-drivers (or at least they’re not easy to find) in San Marcos, Huántar or Huari. The only place to find reliable employees is in Chavín, at the association (ASAAM) office near the Hotel Chavín.
The Inca Highway
The great Inca Highway (also known as the Capac Ñan, or in this area as the Inka Nani) once connected the entire Inca Empire, stretching from Ecuador to Cajamarca to Cusco and Bolivia. Some of the best-preserved sections of this road, paved with stones, often four meters wide and featuring impressive staircases, run from near Huari south to the Mosna River and then steeply toward the villages east of Antamina. Excellent for hiking (the route is clear 30 km. to the south where it reaches the Inca site of Huánuco Pampa), with great views.
Markajirca is an extensive and fascinating pre-Inca set atop a ridge southeast of Huari, with great views of the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. Reached via a 10-km. ride from Huari (infrequent public transport), followed by a very steep 3-km. climb.
A View of the Cordillera
One of the great panoramic viewpoints of the Cordillera Blanca is at about Km. 19 of the road climbing east from San Marcos toward the Antamina copper-zinc mega-mine. The unobstructed view stretches from the monolithic Huantsán in the south past Chinchey toward the north; sunrises are particularly spectacular.
María Jivar Waterfall
A short walk from Acopalca (2 km. north of Huari) leads up a narrow forested canyon to a waterfall which tumbles more than 400 meters into the principal stream. A great sight, especially during the rainy season (November-April).
A large blue lake a few km. north of Huari. Very popular among locals, with the only Huascarán National Park office on the east side of the Cordillera Blanca, but not particularly impressive, certainly not if compared to the nearby María Jivar waterfall.
Of the three towns in the southern end of the Callejón de Conchucos, San Marcos is by far the most pleasant. It retains much of its traditional charm, with a nice central plaza, cobbled streets, and homes painted white with blue trim. The Rinconada is a good place to stay, along with a couple of newer places right beside the plaza. (The upscale Konchukos Trekking Tambo is located a kilometer to the south of town,) The small, friendly Rincón Sanmarquino on the north side of the plaza is the best place to eat.
Aside from the ruins Chavín is pretty dreary, but the Hostal R’ickay (just north of the main plaza) is very nice. The Chavín is a standard modern hotel, perfectly acceptable, and the Inti on the west side of the plaza is also acceptable. The Restaurante Turístico two blocks from the ruins is the best place to eat.
The provincial capital of Huari seems choked by cement, but has acceptable restaurants and hostels near the south side of the lower plaza.
By: Jim Bartle.