If you are going to hike in the Cordillera Blanca, the primary town is Huaraz. This is an 8-hour bus ride from Lima on a luxurious bus...but it's still eight long hours. We took the bus that left Lima at noon, to arrive in Huaraz in the evening, but many of the buses leave Lima late at night, and arrive in Huaraz in the morning...after what we hope would be a nice night's sleep on board. On our trip, the Wifi on the bus didn't work, the movies were a dreary selection of Jennifer Lopez and Drew Barrymore (and they kept going blank about ten minutes from the end!) and the food was not very good--in fact the only time we got ill from something we ate in Peru on this trip was probably the food on this bus. Caveat Emptor.
Huaraz was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1970, and what has been built since is pretty basic: simple brick and concrete structures without much charm or decoration. It's utilitarian, but nobody takes pictures of the town itself. There's not much to like about the architecture, although the central Plaza de Armas always has some life in it. But the view from our hotel balcony showed the towering peaks of Mt. Huascaran looming over the town, and that's a pretty spectacular view.
That's the church, still under construction, above left.
And around the Plaza de Armas, you can find a nice area of artesania, with many merchants selling sweaters, hats, purses, etc. And you can even find a small collection of local scribes, like the one at right, who read and write for those who don't have those skills. We could not resist the alpaca sweaters that were selling for under $15 each.
But the town is very welcoming to those who are interested in hiking, and it has lots of stores that sell every possible bit of backpacking and climbing equipment. It may not be the brand you were hoping to buy, but you can find everything from crampons, ice axes, and climbing ropes to sleeping pads, stoves, and fuel. All of this is centrally located in the area just north of the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. There are also many "outdoor adventure" offices that offer to organize your trips here, often for a bargain price. Be careful. We strongly recommend reading a review on Tripadvisor before agreeing to any offer from these guys. We heard some really sad stories about people who had lousy experiences with some of them, including those whose offices in town look really nice and professional. There is also a wide range of accommodations in Huaraz, from very inexpensive hostels to a few very nice hotels. We really liked the somewhat upscale hotel Santa Cruz ($60-70 a night), but there are plenty of different choices. There is also a nice local museum of archeology on the edge of the Plaza de Armas, run by the local Ankash regional government. It has a few nice rooms of artifacts from various cultures, as well as a really nice sculpture garden full of stonework by the Chavin, Wari, and other cultures.
And if you are lucky, you may find yourself in the middle of the annual school parade in Huaraz, as endless troops of tiny school children goose-step their way along the streets of the Plaza de Armas...sometimes helped by mom, a teacher, or an older sibling. See below left.
Mondays and Thursdays are market days, when more of the local farmers come to town to buy things, sell things, and take care of business, We loved the elegant hats worn by many of the women. We also explored the ruins of Willkawain, just 5 miles from town. It's s steep hike (we took a taxi) up to the ruins, which were built by the Wari about 1,000 AD. And while we enjoyed seeing the ruins themselves, we also really liked the fact that they were smack dab in the middle of a very traditional Peruvian village, where the older folks were digging potatoes out of the ground while their kids played on the soccer field down below. Huaraz may have wifi in the restaurants and hotels, but this part of Peru, only five miles away, was very definitely off the grid. We also liked a well-organized group tour that we took to Chavin de Huantar. This is a large site about three hours away by bus. The first two hours are on a nice paved road that goes up to a pass about 14,000 feet or so on the eastern side of the Cordillera Blanca. Once over the pass (and through the tunnel) it's a whole different world. The road is a combination of dirt, rock, cement, and gravel, and the Amazon side of the mountains means a lot more humidity.
Chavin is a big site, and it was covered by a massive landslide a few decades ago. While some of it has been re-excavated, there is still a vast area under ten or more feet of mud, rock and debris. You can see some of that still on top of the ruins at right.
The Chavin culture flourished about 1500 BC, and it's a treat to be able to walk through these ruins, explore some of the underground passages, and see the clear orientation of the whole structure to the sun's location during the Winter Solstice. A small local museum has a nice presentation of some of the artifacts found at the ruins...although it's a couple of miles from the ruins themselves, for no apparent reason. There are also some perfectly nice restaurants in town, within easy walking distance from the ruins.
For more on our trek in the Cordillera Blanca, look at our blog posts here