The main hub for mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts in Peru, and possibly the whole South America is Huaraz, the biggest city in the Cordillera Blanca region. Place where nature is the decision maker, this Peruvian outdoor heaven will push your limits to the sky.
Have you ever wondered which place to visit in South America to get most outdoor activities in one place? Have you ever heard of mountain range Cordillera Blanca in the Andes? The closest glacial covered tropical mountain range in the world to the equator.
Huaraz is the capital of Ancash region with more than one million people and lies at an elevation of 3,050m above sea level. At this height, your body will be tested for altitude sickness resistance. Huaraz is located in the upper part of Santa Valley (Callejón de Huaylas) between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra mountain ranges.
It’s a city to set up a base camp when you come to the Peruvian mountains to expand your boundaries. While trekking, mountaineering, cycling and fighting altitude sickness.
The valley is tested by power of nature every year with really catastrophic outcomes almost every 30 years. This region is a place where nature makes decisions. No money in the world will protect this valley against nature.
History of Huaraz and the region
Ancash region of Peru has been inhabited since 10,000 BC. First signs of modern human population had been found in Guitarrero Cave north from Huaraz. On the eastern slopes of Cordillera Blanca is another well-preserved proof of Pre-Inca settlement Chavín de Huantar. The archaeological site was occupied around 1200 BC and is about 6 times older than famous Machu Picchu. In the recent history, this region became known for devastating natural disasters. Two main reasons that caused them were rain and earthquakes.
In 1941, the city of Huaraz was flushed down by flood probably caused by a local earthquake. A big chunk of glacier fell in the Lake Palcacocha and caused bursting the dam and releasing a great amount of water, mud, and ice. The debris stopped at the confluence of the creek and river Santa and dammed the Santa River for a few days before finally debris were flushed down. The flood killed around 5,000 people.
Another disaster happened almost three decades later. In 1962 two scientists notified the government of a massive crack in the wall of Nevado Huascaran mountain that was undermined by a glacier. On the last day of May 1970, a massive earthquake struck at Peruvian coast. Consequently, cracked wall detached from the mountain and an avalanche buried town of Yungay with 20,000 people. The avalanche reached speed of 300km/h when it rolled down the hills. And that wasn’t all.
Same earthquake a few kilometers upstream in Huaraz destroyed almost every single house. Above mentioned Lake Palcacocha dam yet again burst in seams and killed around 20,000 people in Huaraz. Only 91 people reportedly survived. Total death toll was up to 70,000 Peruvians across the country.
Keep these events in mind when you question the architecture of city buildings. Peruvians have strong character carved by nature as now roughly 120,000 people live in Huaraz.
Seasons and weather in Huaraz
Huaraz is close to the equator and travelers would expect warm and stable weather all year long. Santa Valley and the Cordillera Blanca has just two seasons- rainy and dry. Due to its proximity to the equator, daylight hours are constant all year round.
The dry season in Huaraz is at the same time as summer in the northern hemisphere in July and August with daily highs of 23°C. Sky is clearer during “Andean summer” and that means that nights get quite cold. Often the temperature gets below zero especially when you are trekking in the mountains. On certain treks temperature can fall down to -11°C. Also this time of the year is the busiest. Most tourists come here, especially mountaineers, who require the best weather possible for their climbs.
The rainy season in the Cordillera Blanca starts from January and peaks in March with the most rainfall. We visited Huaraz in February and were quite satisfied with the weather. Daily highs get to 20°C but most importantly, night temperatures only go down to about 7°C, which is an ideal temperature for trekking (you don’t have to carry heavy sleeping bag and wake up with frost on the tent).
During the rainy season, most mornings are almost completely clear and it usually starts to rain between 3 and 4 in the afternoon. Be careful as the rain might be heavy and you will get soaked. The region experiences high water levels and flash floods with an intense rain.
Landscape and Geography
Mountains are the most important element that makes this region so popular. Huaraz and the valley are surrounded by two mountain ranges – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca. They used to be one range before Santa River sliced them in two at deep and narrow Cañon del Pato. The Cordillera Negra doesn’t have any snow and traps the warmth from the ocean, so the Cordillera Blanca can have ice and snow from 5,000m elevation.
Mountain ranges are rugged and without compromises. Effects of global warming can be seen with increasing flooding frequency and melting the ice cap. Once a ski resort, the Pastoruri Glacier almost disappeared in the last 30 years.
The Cordillera Blanca and Huascarán National Park
Huascarán National Park covers most of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. This range is the tallest tropical mountain range on the planet and part of the continental divide in South America. National Park was named after the tallest mountain in Peru, Huascarán (6,768m).
The Huascarán National Park has 35 peaks taller than 6,000m and more than 700 glaciers. UNESCO added it to the World Heritage List. The park is home to many unique species: Queen of the Andes (plant), Vicuna (type of lama) or Spectacled Bear are few of them. Entrance fee to the national park is S/.10 (3USD) a day or S/.65 (20USD) for 21 days.
Mountains are what people are coming here for and dying for. In 1932 Annie Peck climbed Huascaran Norte and made the altitude record in women’s climbing. Later to find out that she miscalculated the height of mountain and lost the record. Under the southern Huascarán peak during the 1970 infamous earthquake, 15 unlucky climbers from Czechoslovakia were buried under an avalanche and have never been found.
Park has many mountaineering routes even for beginners, single day hikes or multi-day treks. For cross-country bikers, every single valley offers blood sweating uphill climbs up to almost 5,000m elevation and endless downhill rides mainly on the dirt roads. You can even ski down the glaciers if you’re crazy and brave enough.
Part of the Andes range, 100 km south from Huaraz, is the Cordillera Huayhuash. This range is protected since 2002 as Cordillera Huayhuash Reserved Zone.
The second tallest peak in Peru, Yerupajá is in the Cordillera Huayhuash. Just twenty years ago, locals welcomed tourists with guns and robberies. But now they understand that tourism can bring them easy money so they charge tourists for passing through their land. Mountains don’t have deep valleys and mountain passes are higher and more difficult than in Huascaran National Park. The trekking circuit goes around the main ridge.
Best time to visit Huaraz in Peru
Huaraz as a base camp for high altitude adventures is best to visit as soon as possible. The number of visitors is increasing every year and global warming is slowly decreasing size of the glaciers.
Come here if you want to:
- see true Peruvian culture
- try activities in high altitude and test your endurance
- train your body for high altitude
- avoid herds of tourists seen in Cusco
- get great prices for the tours
Breathing and altitude sickness
Being at an elevation above 2,500m will impact your daily activities. Don’t be surprised by having breathing problems while lying on bed and doing absolutely nothing. Allow few days to adjust to the altitude of Huaraz before doing any activities.
One thing is taking it slowly as you “feel the altitude” and the other is not being able to do anything while having really big problems with a headache and nausea. Read about altitude sickness before you go into high elevation. Altitude kills every year tourists that didn’t recognize their symptoms and didn’t descent from the elevation.
Interesting things to know about Huaraz & Cordillera Blanca
- Mount Artesonraju in the Cordillera Blanca is the mountain you saw many times while watching movies and had no clue. It was the inspiration for the Paramount Pictures logo.
- Alpamayo was voted the world’s most beautiful mountain at photography competition in Munich in 1966.
- Lamas (llamas in Spanish) are everywhere. Especially in the valleys of Cordillera When you see lamas behind each other and hear them humming, let them be as they are making love.
- Quinoa – trendy substitute of rice comes from Peru. You can get one kilo for stunning S/.10 (less than 3USD) in the market compared to western prices of 15USD or more per kilo.
- Spanish – knowing the language goes a long way. It is not a touristy place where people speak English. Peruvians in Huaraz speak Spanish and their native language Quechua.
- Houses are cold and usually have no heating. Mornings can be really cold. If you need, ask for more blankets.
- Huaraz has a lot of small outdoor clothing/equipment stores. Prices are similar to any other part of the world. If you forgot to bring something, you should be able to find it here.
- Street dogs – you should carry some rocks in the pocket to protect yourself from street dog gangs, when you go outside of the main streets. They are usually friendly, just looking for food and have respect but once in a while, a brave “gang” member can charge you and rocks become handy. Sweet or threatening talk doesn’t help
How to get to here and travel around
Small airport 15 min north of Huaraz is mainly used by private mining companies which have mines near Huaraz. There are three direct flights a week with company LC Perú from Lima to Huaraz and back. Most people arrive in Huaraz by bus from two main directions. They either fly to Lima and take a bus directly to Huaraz or they arrive from Ecuador via Trujillo by bus.
Getting from Lima to Huaraz
It takes around 8 hours, as long as the road conditions are optimal. After or during strong rain, loose rocks and small mudslides can block roads or slow down traffic on the way to mountainous parts of Peru. There are several companies (Cruz del Sur, Linea, Movil Tours, and more) you can use to book your ride to Huaraz. Peruvian bus companies offer reasonable, reliable and quality bus services.
Government is behind with building bus terminals. Every bus company has its own bus terminal. There are approximately 6 reliable bus companies which can get you to Huaraz. Companies offer a great variety of options for reclining seats from 140°,160° to 180° full bed seat. All buses leave in the morning between 9-12 or late evening 9-11pm. Prices vary significantly as night buses are more expensive compared to day buses. Also, price varies from S/.30-120 (10 – 40USD) depending on the type of the seat.
We recommend taking a day bus to see the change in landscape from desert like Lima to snow-peaked mountains of the Cordillera Blanca.
Most of the international travelers stay in Miraflores district in Lima where many of the hostels are, and is considered one of the safest parts of the city. Check carefully from which terminal the bus to Huaraz departs and how long it takes to get there.
Arriving to Huaraz from Trujillo and Chimbote
Same national transporters offer buses from Trujillo and Chimbote to Huaraz. Big bus companies take the route via Casma to avoid dangerous Cañon del Pato as their buses wouldn’t get through one lane tunnels. This bus route takes around 8 hours. Buses from Trujillo depart in mornings and evenings at similar times as from Lima. They offer similar services and prices vary from S/.30-120 (9 – 40USD).
To get to Huaraz from Chimbote there is an option of using small local bus services Yungay Express and Turismo Huaraz which takes you to Huaraz through 35 tunnels in Cañon del Pato. You will have less space on the bus and it also can be packed during rush hours, but the view is priceless. Price of the buses is S/.40 (12 USD). These small buses depart more often than long-distance buses.
Getting out of Huaraz, you will have to deal with the same problem as in Lima. Huaraz doesn’t have main bus terminal yet. There is one under construction. Before it is built you have to use a map and check where the bus is leaving from and which company you are using. Buses to Trujillo and Lima also leave in the mornings and late evenings. It is definitely worth to book your bus at least day in advance as they tend to be booked out.
Travelling within Callejón de Huaylasand Huaraz
In Huaraz, you can easily wave down any taxi or tuk tuk. Most of the rides are within S/.5-10 (1.5 – 3USD). You can also use small shared taxis S/.3-5 (1-1.5USD) but we didn’t have a chance to use these.
Travelling within the valley is really easy. Every 10 to 15 minutes a small van (colectivo) leaves from many of its stops. It can be more often, if the van fills up faster. Don’t be surprised, if the driver fits another 4 or 5 people in the already full combi at the first stop. Usually, the official price list is taped to the window inside the van.
They can even take bikes, but you will have to pay for unused seats. Rides are from S/.2 – 10 (0.6 – 3USD) depending on the distance. Only small problem is to find the right stop, especially in Huaraz as the stops are spread around the city center. Asking locals always helps. You might need to change colectivo, especially if you’re going higher in the mountain slopes. They also drive over the hills to the villages on the eastern side of the Cordillera Blanca.
Where to stay in Huaraz
Many locals in Huaraz try to use their homes as an income source. A lot of accommodation in Huaraz is B&B style. Most of them offer private room and private bathroom. The Internet is included in the price. Keep in mind that most houses don’t have heating. To stay warm, hotels provide thicker blankets. Huaraz has plenty of hotels and hostels. Other towns in the valley also have some decent accommodation options. The great thing is, breakfast with morning coca tea is often included.
Where to eat and drink
Quechuan cuisine is very delightful but one food, in particular, makes you consider your pet preferences. Guinea pig or “cuy” is a traditional meal and might not be for everybody.Try not to be picky and give local cuisine a chance. In restaurants for locals, there is much more than guinea pigs, such as ceviche or papas a la huanciana. Coca tea is the most common drink here and helps to cope with the altitude. Once you feel ok, try their alcoholic drink pisco which is made of brandy with lime juice and egg white and it’s much better than it sounds).
Restaurants dedicated for tourists are within walking distance of the main square – Plaza de Armas. Some offer local cuisine, many on the other hand offer international. Some places offer vegetarian options, but meat dishes are still prevalent. Huaraz has several breweries, try their local artisanal beer. For the breakfast, visit stands on the streets which have buns with fresh made fried eggs and cheese for just S/.2 (0.6USD). Add fresh squeezed orange juice for S/.2 (0.6USD)! For a bigger selection of local food, visit local Mercado central.
You can get traditional tourist/continental breakfast in restaurants around Parque Periodista. We also came here a few times for lunch menus for S/.10 (3USD). We tried a different restaurant every time and all of them offer similar tasty fulfilling portions. Dinner options will fit within S/.30 (9USD) per person. Some restaurants have a quarter of grilled chicken with fries for S/.8 (2.5USD). We went twice to Noarabuena Pollos de la Brasa for their delicious chicken with garlic aioli, fries, and warm apple cider. We definitely recommend visiting this restaurant.
Some well known places to eat and drink are: Trivo Resto Bar, Creperie Patrick, Cevicheria Al Punto, La Brasa Roja, 13 Buhos and Picolo.
What to do and why you should come to Huaraz
We came up with the name for Huaraz: Outdoor Capital of South America for a reason. If you have enough energy and your body can cope with the altitude, you have countless options to enjoy mountains, walk some great treks, bike hundreds of kilometers of high altitude dirt roads, climb some snow-capped peaks or for the ultra-experienced, climb the tallest mountain in Peru, Huascaran.
Huaraz used to be a great place for skiing, but global warming is causing melting the Pastoruri Glacier and skiing on the glacier is not possible. You can also visit local hot springs, ancient sites, explore the culture of Quechua people by visiting their markets or watch farmers working on the fields.
Keep in mind: Be aware of scammers because they are common in Huaraz. Don’t buy any tour on the street. Check multiple agencies before making a booking.
Biking in Huaraz
Single day rides – Almost every single lake in the Cordillera Blanca is accessible by dirt road. It is due to extensive irrigation and power plant system in the valley. Most of the lakes are in elevation 4,000m or more. You can try to climb up or you can hire a ride and go only downhill. To get down to the main valley you can have one to two hours long bike rides. There are few great rides, just ask in a tour agency.
Best downhill (dirt road) is from Portachuelo de Llanganuco to Yungay village with an elevation difference of more than 2,300m. Want to step up your adrenaline experience? Bike Cañon del Pato, one of the deadliest roads in the world. You can see photos and read about our experience.
Prices for bike tours in Huaraz vary from 30-80USD per day, daily prices for bike rental only are between S/.30 – 70(10-30USD) where the most expensive bikes have hydraulic brakes and front or full suspension.
Multi-day biking –You can go traversing along the Cordillera Blanca or cross the ridge and bike along the east side of the mountains. For the strongest ones, ride the Huascaran circuit in 5 to 10 days. You will climb more than 5,000m of elevation and distance from 170 to 230 km.
Cyclists who have done it consider this ride one of the best circuits in the world. Agencies in Huaraz offer many easier options to ride in the Peruvian Andes. Best time to go on multi-day bike rides is during the dry season, most of the trails are located at high elevation dependant on weather.
Hiking & trekking in Cordilleras
Visitors are supposed to do an acclimatizing hike to adjust to the altitude. That means taking it easy on the first day without any activities and on the second day hiking to the elevation higher by at least 1,000 m and return back down to the hotel. Therefore companies in Huaraz offer many one-day hikes. Most famous is a hike to Laguna 69 or Pastoruri Glacier.
All hikes can be done either with a guide or without. If you have never been to 4,500m elevation, we recommend at least the first tour going with a guide. As you are not familiar with symptoms of altitude sickness (high altitude), guides are there to help you and provide some relief with effective remedies. Some other options are hikes in the Cordillera Negra, Laguna Churup or Laguna Ahuac.
Multi-day trekking in the Cordillera Blanca is a real treat. Well-known Santa Cruz Trek is a medium difficulty trek that can be done in 3 to 5 days. As this was our second trek that we have ever done, we went with a guide. Our group also paid for a porter who cooked for us and donkeys who took our backpacks. Total price for this trek is between S/.300-330 (90-100USD). It also can be done as self-guided tour when you’re experienced; however, by taking the tour, you’re helping local economy. You will hardly find a more affordable multi-day trek in South America.
Another great multi-day trek is a little further south in the Cordillera Huayhuash, about 150 km from Huaraz. This is difficult to extreme trek with a distance of 145 km. You have to cross 5 passes over 5,000 m and it takes between 10 to 14 days.
Create your own hiking itinerary and consult it with local agencies. There are more hiking trails than just the most popular ones. With the prices for services in Huaraz, it’s simple and affordable to do your own private arranged tour especially for groups.
Not a thing for you? It wasn’t for us either especially with my fear of heights. We had a lunch few times in a restaurant right next to the travel agency that offered mountaineering ascent for beginners. That idea quickly sparked a massive flame in Maya’s head. The next thing I know we were sitting on a bus at 4 am on the way to our first mountaineering experience. If you’ve never tried it and you don’t have a fear of heights or are ready to conquer it, Cordillera Blanca is the right place to give it a try. We climbed Mateo and it was great experience.
There are a few options for beginners to get the first taste of what is like to climb an ice-covered peak with the rope, axe, and crampons. Many agencies offer mountaineering day tours for a reasonable price around S/.280-370 (90-120 USD). For experienced and professionals, possibilities here are endless. From few day climbs to Alpamayo to week-long Huascaran expeditions. Prices are negotiable and greatly reasonable with local guides.
Great rock climbing routes are in the Cordillera Negra, where temperatures are warmer such as Los Olivos and Hatun Machay. Other climbs include walls of Monterrey, Torre de Paron or around Antacocha Lake. More importantly, a lot of routes are yet to be discovered.
Prehistoric ancient site Chavin de Huantar is only 3 hours bus ride from Huaraz. Bus ride costs around S/.12 (4USD) and four daily bus lines will get you there. This UNESCO site was occupied 3000 AD by Chavin people and offers a look in the city culture of this pre-Inca civilization.
Another really old site is Guitarrero Cave that was inhabited about 10000 AD probably by ancestors of Chavin people. The cave is located 2 km north of Shupluy, about an hour from Huaraz. Scientists found here old artifacts such as bones, textiles, seeds, and campfires.
Few minutes driving from Huaraz city are Ruinas Wilcahuaín, a well-preserved archeological site. Small house that reminds Chavin ruins. It was built around 600 AD.
Wake up early and go observe people on the streets. Visit a local market in Huaraz. If you never had a chance to travel by colectivo, take a ride and enjoy the local experience. It’s great to know some basic Spanish, so you can talk to locals about life in the Callejón de Huaylas.
On Sundays, you can visit farmers market in Carhuaz. It’s about an hour north from Huaraz. Colectivo costs only S/.5 (1.5USD). You will get an exceptional opportunity to make colorful pictures and vivid memories of Quechua culture. Locals come down from hilly slopes and sell fruits of their labor. Bring home souvenirs from the market and help the local economy, you won’t find better prices in Peru.
More things to do
Huaraz city was destroyed by multiple natural disasters, so there are not many historical building to admire. Similar to other South American cities, the main square is called Plaza de Armas. It is surrounded by Cathedral, Museum of Ancash Region and Artesanal market with local products.
During the day you can buy a freshly made popsicle on the main square or take a picture with lama and local Quechua ladies who frequent the square.
In surrounding Cordillera Blanca mountains, you can go and relax in a couple of hot springs. Visit waterfall Maria Jiray or bike through the second highest road tunnel in the world Punta Olimpica (4,736m.a.s.l.). Or maybe you want to cross River Santa on a cable car (you definitely need to have guts for it), look at Cañon del Pato power plant or decommissioned open-pit gold Pierina Mine north from Huaraz.
Would like to visit Huaraz and Huascarán National Park?
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