Throw the words “Huaraz” and “Cordilleras” at any backpacker who has travelled through Peru, and you’ll probably receive a string of tales in return about difficult but rewarding hikes amidst beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks, glaciers, pristine lakes, and bubbling geysers. You’ll hear about ice climbing, mountain biking, and river-running exploits, about stunning panoramas, challenging terrain, and a multitude of physical challenges and achievements.
Indeed Huaraz is the gateway to the Cordilleras; the beating heart of the restless adventure kingdom that surrounds it.
Aside from the Himilayas, central Peru is home to the highest mountain range in the world – the spectacular Cordillera Blanca, which contains no less than 18 summits of more than 6000 metres above sea level.
If you are a fan of outdoor pursuits and photography, this is somewhere not to be missed. Just remember to give yourself plenty of time – there is a lot to do here, and whilst Huaraz is not one of Peru’s most beautiful cities (much of it was destroyed in the 1970 earthquake), it does have a certain charm and appeal that is unlike anywhere else in the country.
We spent 6 nights here (the longest continuous amount of time we’d spent anywhere in Peru – with the exception of Máncora) and would probably have spent longer had we not had a finite amount of time to make it to Cusco, for our scheduled Inca Trail trek.
Here are a few of my highlights:
This infamous lake is known as the “jewel of the Cordilleras”, partly due to its magical turquoise waters, and partly as a result of the sheer effort it takes to reach it.
The Laguna 69 day-hike is both challenging (due primarily to the altitude; the 700 metre climb begins at 3900 metres) and beautifully rewarding. You’ll walk through lush green valleys populated with colourful, interestingly-textured flora, tiny stone round houses, and the odd grazing cow. You’ll cross glistening streams, climb narrow tracks overgrown with vegetation, and marvel at snow-capped mountain peaks and imposing waterfalls.
This was the first trek I completed at over 4000 metres above sea level, and for that reason it is also one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ever completed, but don’t let this discourage you. The day-hike to Laguna 69 is completely and utterly worth every breathless, oxygen-starved minute.
Read more about my experiences here.
If Laguna 69 sounds too much for you, and you’d prefer to be able to enjoy the spectacular landscapes of the Huascaran National Park at a more leisurely pace, book yourself on a day tour to Pastoruri Glacier, the only glacier in the world accessible by road.
The base of the glacier is located at 5050 metres above sea level, and you’ll need to undertake a short 1-hour hike in order to reach it. Alternatively you can hire mules to make the journey.
Pastoruri is a fascinating place – both visually and geologically. So, if you’re a budding geologist or photographer, or you’re just a sucker for beautiful landscapes, then don’t leave Huaraz without catching sight of this amazing natural wonder.
You can read more about the day trip I took to Pastoruri Glacier here.
Chavín de Huántar
Located to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, around 110 kilometres east of Huaraz and at an altitude of 3180 metres above sea level, Chavín de Huántar is an archeological site that dates from the Chavín period. Constructed somewhere between 1200 and 300 BC, Chavín de Huántar is the only large structure from the Chavín culture that remains in existence today.
There are ruins of grand temple-like structures above ground, but what really peaked our interest here was the impressive drainage system and immense network of labyrinthine underground passageways. Although now electronically lit, it’s still very dark below ground here, and therefore unfortunately nye on impossible to get any decent photographs of these fascinating subterranean chambers.
El Señor de la Soledad
Every year, beginning on May the 3rd, Huaraz pays homage to its patron saint (the christ of Solitude) by hosting a week-long festival in his honour. We hadn’t realised this prior to arriving in Huaraz but we’d timed our visit to the city with absolute perfection, arriving on the first day of festivities and leaving the morning after the last.
Throughout our stay the city was alive with music, dancing, and elaborately costumed processions. Fireworks were set off every night, and drinking continued through until the early hours of the morning.
As our hostel was literally up the road from the Soledad church, the majority of the festivities took place right on our doorstep. There would be a daily hog roast served in many of the cafes that lined the streets surrounding the church, market stalls selling churros and other popular Spanish/Peruvian sweets and delicacies, and even a small selection of fairground rides.
Cozy Restaurants and Good Food
When you return to Huaraz after a strenuous day of hiking, there’s nothing better than finding a cozy restaurant, warming drink, and some healthy, hearty food to replenish those energy levels. Huaraz is awash with many such establishments.
Cafe Andino was our go to place for some of the most creative and delicious salads around. Loaded with ingredients such as quinoa, cheese, olives, beans and hummus, the salads at Cafe Andino alone will persuade you to return to this deceptively large upstairs restaurant, boasting multiple levels, tasteful decor, and a big open fire.
For something a little more intimate (and spicy), we loved Chilli Heaven in Parque Ginebra. As the name suggests, the majority of the dishes on the menu are curries – Thai curries and Indian curries. You decide how spicy you want them, and you can also choose to wash them down with one of their artisan beers (sourced from the bar next door).
The staff are super-friendly here, it’s got a wonderful bohemian feel to it, and it’s popular with travellers.
Next door is Los 13 Buhos, a cozy cafe-bar whose owner, Lucho , was the first craft beer brewer in Huaraz. Yes I know the official advice is to avoid alcohol at altitude but the tasty choices here – which include red and black ales laced with coca – are too good to miss.
California Cafe, although a little on the expensive side, is also another great little cafe with cozy sofas, hearty breakfasts and hundreds of books available for exchange.
Simply wandering the streets of Huaraz, on your ‘rest days’ in between hikes, can offer some interesting old vehicle sightings, as well as plentiful glimpses of locals in traditional dress going about their daily routines.
We giggled as we watched a group of children take it in turns to climb a lamp-post like clumsy monkeys, in an attempt to retrieve an item of clothing trapped on top, and we smiled every time we spotted a cat asleep on the roof of a parked motor vehicle.
Huaraz, although big enough to be interesting, does not feel intimidating or overwhelming. Its streets feel safe, its residents are friendly, and its surrounding landscapes are some of the greatest, most spectacular and awe-inspiring that you’ll ever be fortunate enough to set eyes on.
Have you ever visited Huaraz before? What were YOUR highlights? Or is Huaraz somewhere you’d like to visit?
This is part of the #SundayTraveler link up, the spot to be to get the lowdown on all things travel.