Huaraz & the Cordilleras
Ground zero for outdoor-adventure worship in Peru, the Cordilleras are one of the preeminent hiking, trekking and backpacking spots in South America. Wherever you throw your gaze, perennially frozen white peaks razor their way through expansive mantles of lime-green valleys. In the recesses of these prodigious giants huddle scores of pristine jade lakes, ice caves and torrid springs. The Cordillera Blanca is one of the highest mountain ranges in the world outside the Himalayas, and its 18 ostentatious summits of more than 19,685ft (6000m) will not let you forget it for a second.
Huaraz is the urban decompression chamber through which practically all hikers, trekkers and mountaineers pass and swap stories. Plans of daring ice climbs, mountain-biking exploits and rock-climbing expeditions are hatched over ice-cold beers in fireplace-warmed hostels and bars. Lurking quietly on the sidelines, and worth a day of quiet contemplation, are the enigmatic 3000-year-old ruins of Chavín de Huántar.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Huaraz & the Cordilleras.
The largest lake in the Cordillera Blanca — a snowcapped range of the Andes in west central Peru — and a gorgeous natural reservoir, Laguna Paron is a unique destination for hikers, rock climbers and nature enthusiasts. Located within the Huascaran National Park and 62 miles north of the hiking mecca Huaraz, the 17.1 square mile lake is distinguished by its striking turquoise hue, a result of high concentrations of dissolved lime. From its shores visitors can take in precious views of formidable peaks blanketed in fresh snow (including Artesonraju, the pyramid peak many believe to have inspired the logo of Paramount Pictures). Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985, Laguna Parón can be reached by car or by foot. Having arrived at this awe-inspiring body of water at 4185 meters above sea level, the serene environment welcomes one to meditate, rock climb, kayak or even set up camp near the quiet shores. How to get to Laguna Parón Most people visit the lake as part of an organized tour out of Huaraz or Caraz (from S/50), as the logistics of getting to Laguna Parón — whether by car, hike, or a combo — can become complicated. From Lima, Huaraz can be reached by an 8hr bus ride (take a night bus to pass the time sleeping). A variety of companies whose offices are spread throughout the capital city offer the commute. One of the better recommended is MovilBus. The city of Huaraz is not large, and a short stroll around the plaza will lead you to numerous offers from local agencies and guides for full-day tours of Laguna Parón. Be sure that the guide you hire is certified for Laguna Parón and expect to pay between S/50-70 per person for a group tour. Reputable tours won’t set out until 7:30am or 8am the following day, so take the first day in Huaraz to acclimatize (the city is 3052m/10,013ft above sea level). If you want to venture to Laguna Parón on your own, you will need to commute from Huaraz to Caraz by "combi" (public shuttle van). The 45-mile ride takes less than two hours and costs between S/6-8 per person. These vans depart throughout the day and can be found on Jr. Cajamarca, a 10-minute walk north of the Plaza de Armas in Huaraz. Having arrived in Caraz, find a taxi (there are no rideshare apps here) that is willing to take you to the lake and wait until you are ready to return. Including a wait time of 2-3 hours, a round-trip taxi ride will cost between S/150-180. The bumpy ride takes nearly two hours. Walking to Laguna Parón Those in physical shape and with proper acclimatization to the altitude can hike to Laguna Parón from the town of Parón, a S/8-10 combi ride from Caraz. The 8-mile hike can take three to five hours, depending on stamina as it is quite steep and rocky. Be warned: signs along the route are few and far between, another reason to hire a local guide. Apps such as Maps.me can be helpful navigating the route even without a wi-fi or data connection. Trekkers looking to return to Caraz the same day must get back to the town of Parón before 3pm, when the last shuttle van leaves, or should coordinate for a taxi to wait at the park entrance. What to do at Laguna Parón The lake continues to promote water-based activities despite the fact that its water level was lowered from 75 meters to 15 meters in the mid-1980s to prevent a collapse of Huandoy’s moraine. You can rent a kayak and navigate the smooth frigid waters for half an hour (S/20). Families may be interested in taking a boat ride, though it is costlier and lasts far less time (S/10 per person, and just 15 minutes). Rock climbers will find a challenge at Torre de Parón, known as the Sphinx. There are at least 13 wall routes on the granite monolith. Take an easy hike to the lookout point, the Mirador. This 30 to 40 minute trek is well marked and leads to a prime view (and plenty of photo opportunities) of the turquoise lake. But take your time as you inch your way up in altitude. Looking to soak up the most of your time in Laguna Parón? Campers are welcome and can camp without a fee, though there are no amenities or equipment available on site. You'll need to bring a tent, a warm sleeping bag, plenty of layers and all your food. The following day be sure to take everything with you, including your trash of course, to continue to preserve this pristine natural gem. Tickets and other practicalities Entrance tickets to the lake can be purchased once you’ve reached Huascaran National Park. The entrance fee is S/5. Buy food and water in Huaraz or Caraz, whichever will be the final city/town before heading up to the lake as there are no guarantees of finding vendors at Laguna Parón. The best time to visit is between April and September, when it is sunnier and dry in the Andes. Take a day or two in Huaraz or Caraz to acclimatize to the high altitude. The lake is located at over 4,000 meters above sea level, and rushing to the top can result in stomach sickness or extreme headaches. Restaurant options in Caraz are slim, though La Peña del Gordo is a prime spot to try local flavors, including charqui, a dehydrated meat typically beef or alpaca. Have plenty of Peruvian soles on hand as all transportation, restaurants and entrance fees are all paid in cash not with a bank card.
In most people's minds, Chavín is less a town and more a set of ruins – not any old ruins, but the erstwhile ceremonial center of one of Peru's most sophisticated early civilizations, and a Unesco World Heritage Site to boot. Most visitors zip by on a day trip, ignoring the diminutive colonial town with its whimsical plaza and somnolent streets that sits somewhere on the charm-o-meter between gorgeous Chacas and slightly less gorgeous Huari. If you decide to overnight here, you can visit the impressive archaeological site in the early morning and have it all to yourself. Things to do at Chavín de Huántar From Chavín you can hike for a few hours into a lofty valley, in the direction of Olleros, to a high pass with stirring views of Huantsán (6395m) – the highest mountain in the southern Cordillera Blanca. Longer hiking trips with mules and guides can be organized through Cafetería Renato. After admiring the Chavin ruins from ground (and underground) level, you can climb up to this trio of crosses grafted onto a crag high above town for a full view of the archaeological site. Walk four blocks north of Plaza de Armas on Jirón Huaca, turn left, and take the stony, well-marked path uphill. It’s around 3km round-trip. The sulfur Quercos thermal baths, a 30-minute walk south of town, house numerous windowless bath cubicles that fail to take advantage of their riverside setting. Still, the waters work wonders on post-hike muscles. Steps lead down from the main road to modest facilities by the river. A taxi from town costs S10. The outstanding Museo Nacional de Chavín, funded jointly by the Peruvian and Japanese governments, houses most of the intricate tenon heads carved with horror-stricken expressions from Chavín de Huántar , as well as the magnificent Tello Obelisk, another stone object of worship with low relief carvings of a caiman and other fierce animals. The obelisk had been housed in a Lima museum since the 1945 earthquake that destroyed much of the original museum, and was only returned to Chavín in 2008. The museum is located around 2km from the ruins on the north side of town – an easy 25-minute walk It's best to get an early start and make the most of daytime activities while you can. Chavín goes to bed early; this is no party town. Stifle your late-night pisco-sinking urges until you get back to Huaraz. Where to stay and eat There are several lodging options and eateries in Chavín, even if it isn't the most bustling part of Peru. Lodging Finca Renato is perched on a hillside overlooking town, this 6-hectare farm has icy showers but offers fantastic views over rooftops to the ruins. There's a basic refugio with dorm beds and cooking facilities, plus campsites. Make bookings and pick up directions at Cafeteria Renato before venturing up. Hostal Chavín Turístico is a go-to, family-run option for the few travelers who stay overnight in Chavín has well-appointed rooms with cute bedspreads, large bathrooms and – perhaps most refreshingly – no chipped paint or rusty pipes. The rooms are one block away from the same-name restaurant where you check in. Uploading your Instagrams will have to wait, however. There's no wi-fi. Hostal Inca 's street profile is alluring enough – a whitewashed colonial building in Chavín's main square with some flowery arrangements in the courtyard. However, when you get down to the nitty-gritty the Inca is overdue a refurb, with dusty rooms, slightly lumpy beds and no hot water. Breakfast is S12 extra. Dining Churning out sophisticated dishes that outpunch its location’s weight class, Buongiorno is a pleasant surprise in a cordial garden setting. The lomo a la pimienta, a Peruvian fave of grilled steak in wine, cream and cracked-pepper sauce (S35), is three-star Lima quality and the menu also has some strong Italian inflections courtesy of the owner who spent several years abroad. The cooks at often dart out to the extensive gardens and grab some fresh organic herbs – a nice touch. It’s 50m across the bridge from the entrance to the ruins. The restaurant mainly focuses on the busy dinner trade (when it fills with tour groups). If you're planning on dinner, check ahead as closing times are flexible. For simple international breakfasts alongside homemade yogurt, cheese and manjar blanco (homemade caramel spread), head to Cafeteria Renato, a rustic cafe done out like a cowboy corral with saddles slung over walls and maps decorating the walls. The owners also organize horseback riding and hiking trips in the area. A solid option, especially for trucha al ajo (garlic trout) and trout sudado (in sauce), Chavín Turístico has rickety tables around a tiny courtyard and a chalkboard of traditional dishes. The food doesn't lack flavor, and local archaeologists say it’s the most reliable choice in town. It's affiliated with Hostal Chavín Turístico. How to get to Chavín The paved road across the Cordillera Blanca to Chavín passes the Laguna Querococha at 3980m from where there are views of the peaks of Pucaraju (5322m) and Yanamarey (5237m). The road continues through the Kahuish Tunnel (4516m above sea level), which cuts through the Kahuish Pass. As you exit the tunnel and descend toward Chavín, look out for the massive statue of Christ blessing your journey. It was built by Italian missionaries. In Chavín, most transportation leaves from the ugly new bus station several blocks south of the plaza. All local buses pick up and drop off where the highway bends at the plaza. Olguita Tours has regular departures to Huaraz (S12, 2½ hours, six daily) as well as Huari (S5, two hours, four daily) to the north. Transportes Sandoval offers similar services. Combis / colectivos head to Huaraz (S20/25, 2½ hours) from the oddly named Plaza Chupa, a block north of the quaint Plaza de Armas. Both Movil Tours and Turismo Rosario have 7:40pm departures to Lima (S55 to S75, nine hours). The former is far superior, with comfortable and reliable coaches equipped with reclining seats. To continue north along the east side of the Cordillera Blanca, most of the buses originating in Huaraz continue to Huari (S5, two hours). Colectivos leave frequently from near the Plaza de Armas to San Marcos (S2, 20 minutes) from where you can catch colectivos to Huari (S5, 45 minutes). Other than these buses, there is no other public transportation beyond Huari. Hikers can walk to Chavín from Olleros in the Callejón de Hualyas in about three days; it’s an uncrowded trek. The history of Chavín de Huántar Named after the site at Chavín de Huántar, this is considered one of the oldest major cultural periods in Peru, strutting its stuff on the pre-Inca stage from 1200 BC to 500 BC. The Chavín and its contemporaries wielded their influence with great success, particularly between the formative years of 800 BC to 500 BC when they excelled in the agricultural production of potatoes and other highland crops, animal husbandry, ceramic and metal production, and the engineering of buildings and canals. Chavín archaeologists have formerly referred to this time of political ascendance as the Chavín Horizon, though Early Horizon or Late Formative is also used. The principal Chavín deity was feline (jaguar or puma), although lesser condor, eagle and snake deities were also worshipped. Representations of these deities are highly stylized and cover many Chavín-period sites and many extraordinary objects, such the Tello Obelisk in the Museo Nacional de Chavín; the Lanzón, often referred to as the Smiling God, which stands in mystical glory in the tunnels underneath the Chavín site; and the Raimondi Stone at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología e Historia del Perú in Lima. The Raimondi Stone (which is currently considered too fragile to move to Chavín) has carvings of a human figure, sometimes called the Staff God, with a jaguar face and large staffs in each hand – an image that has shown up at archaeological sites along the northern and southern coasts of Peru and which suggests the long reach of Chavín interactions. The images on all of these massive stone pillars are believed to indicate a belief in a tripartite universe consisting of the heavens, earth and a netherworld, or, as an alternative theory goes, a cosmos consisting of air, earth and water, though these remain elaborate guesses – archaeologists at the site have seen no good evidence to support any of these theories. As a major ceremonial center, the most powerful players in Chavín were its priests, who impressed the upper ranks of society with complex rituals that were occasionally terrifying. One theory says priests relied on sophisticated observation and understanding of seasonal changes, rain and drought cycles, and the movement of the sun, moon, and stars to create calendars that helped the Chavín reign as agriculturalists, though there is as yet no evidence that calendars were created. Others believe that Chavín leaders were getting to the point of being free of system-serving, and heading for authority based on belief rather than for serving an agricultural purpose. Some archaeologists have argued that women also served as priests and played a powerful role during the Chavín period. Chavín, it seems, remains a rather polarizing mystery.
Chacas’ showpiece building, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, is not just a work of art but an admirable rehabilitation project, courtesy of a charitable Italian priest. The original church was constructed in 1587 in adobe brick, but radically rebuilt after earthquakes in the 1970s. The present renaissance-style beauty with its dramatic wooden door was completed in the 1980s, inspired by Padre Ugo de Censi and the Don Bosco wood-carving cooperative he created.
If you continue north from Caraz along the Callejón de Huaylas, you will wind your way through the outstanding Cañón del Pato. It’s here that the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra come to within kissing distance for a battle of bedrock wills, separated by only 15m in parts and plummeting to vertigo-inducing depths of up to 1000m. The harrowing road snakes along a path hewn out of sheer rock, over a precipitous gorge and passing through 54 tunnels.
This outstanding museum, funded jointly by the Peruvian and Japanese governments, houses most of the intricate tenon heads carved with horror-stricken expressions from Chavín de Huántar , as well as the magnificent Tello Obelisk, another stone object of worship with low relief carvings of a caiman and other fierce animals. The obelisk had been housed in a Lima museum since the 1945 earthquake that destroyed much of the original museum, and was only returned to Chavín in 2008.
A dirt road ascends 1350m from Yungay, winding over 28km to the Llanganuco Valley and its two robin-egg blue lakes, which are also known as Laguna Chinancocha and Laguna Orconcocha. Nestled in a glacial valley just 1000m below the snow line, these pristine lagoons practically glow under the sun in their bright turquoise and emerald hues. There’s a half-hour trail hugging Chinancocha past a jetty and picnic area to where sheer cliffs plunge into the lake.
Still hanging on by the skin of its teeth high up in the Cordillera Blanca, the rapidly retreating Pastoruri glacier is one of the few remaining glaciers in tropical South America. Despite its lofty vantage (5050m), it is the only icy monolith in the Peruvian Cordillera accessible by road. Due to its remoteness and the lack of public transportation serving it, the glacier is usually tackled as part of an organized day trip from Huaraz.
This small Wari ruin about 8km north of Huaraz is remarkably well preserved, dating from about AD 600 to 900. It’s an imitation of the temple at Chavín done in the Tiwanaku style (square temples on raised platforms). Wilkahuaín means ‘grandson’s house’ in Quechua. The three-story temple has seven rooms on each floor, each originally filled with bundles of mummies. The bodies were kept dry using a sophisticated system of ventilation ducts. A one-room museum gives some basic background information in English and Spanish.
In a scoop of a valley 8km above Huari and just inside the Parque Nacional Huascarán, this idyllic lake is well set up for day excursions, but is surprisingly little visited. You can rent kayaks from the friendly park attendant (S10 per hour), follow the lakeshore to the pre-Hispanic ruins of Mama Shoco, or enjoy local trout at a lakeside restaurant. Camping (S40 per night) is also available.