Huaraz is a small town high up in the Andes which acts as the gateway to the Corderilla Blanca National Park; it is because of this that it is perfectly set up for the multitude of backpackers, hikers, climbers and thrill seekers that descend on it every year. It was a last-minute addition to the itinerary as we charted a route through northern Peru into Ecuador – the promise of cosy cafes, good food and day hikes drew us in so we set aside three days to cram in what we could. Arriving early morning from an overnight bus on day one, and out on another overnight bus on day three. Given the variety of activities on offer, we had to whittle them down to the following itinerary in order to enjoy the best of what Huaraz has to offer in the short amount of time we had.
Day One – Arrive and Acclimatise
Overnight buses are a staple of AJ and I’s travel regime; you save on a paying for accommodation for that night, plus you don’t waste precious daytime exploring hours travelling from one place to another. The overnight bus from Lima arrives into Huaraz around 6am; after stumbling bleary-eyed out of the station you will be immediately accosted by numerous taxi drivers offering to take you wherever you need. Don’t be afraid to push through them if you don’t need one. It’s a small and safe town and walking the streets at this time of the day means you’ll get to see the city wake up; the vendors setting up their stalls, laying out their wares, opening shops, starting to cook up breakfast items for people to grab on their way to work. Depending on the time of year, you may only be able to dump your bag at your hostel/hotel, or they may have a room ready for you when you arrive, so you can take a much-needed nap before you face the day. If you don’t know where you’re staying, then head to the Plaza de Armas, there is a tourist information office here where you can make enquiries. You will most likely also be approached by a number of people recommending hostels to stay at or tours to go on. It’s best to give a straight up yes or no to them, as, based on our experience, they will continue to approach you whenever they see you again if you give a vague maybe. Remember, day one is your altitude acclimatisation day. Huaraz is high up, and if you’re coming from somewhere at sea level, you will almost definitely be feeling the effects of the altitude – dizziness, headache, shortness of breath – so take it easy and save the treks for days two and three.
Once you’re ready to make the most of day one, the first order of business is breakfast. For this you should definitely head to the California Café on Calle 28 de Julio. This is the ultimate hang out spot for travellers – there’s a mix of tables and chairs and SUPER comfortable couches, a good wifi connection, tasty coffee, good food for breakfast, lunch and everything in between, and a large library. If city exploration is not your thing, feel free to spend your acclimatisation day here. For those of you itching to get out and stretch your legs, the tourist information office at the Plaza de Armas has city maps ready and waiting. Huaraz is a small city, so you can easily see all the main spots in 4 – 5 hours. AJ and I did it in even less because at the time that we were visiting (October 2016), a lot of the city was under reconstruction, so we were unable to visit a number of churches, some open spaces and the cathedral. Judging by the outside of these buildings they are sure to be stunning when complete. There are also numerous tour companies lined up along the Plaza de Armas, so you can book your trips for days two and three with any of them. Our hostel – Benkawasi – worked with the tour group Golden Expeditions, so we booked with our hostel and paid 40 soles each per tour.
Highlights of Huaraz:
- The outside green spaces and parks: all small but beautiful. Plaza de Armas, Peru Square, La Soledad Square, Santa Rosa Square, Belen Square, and F.A.P. Square.
- Senor de la Soledad Sanctuary Church: beautiful inside; there are murals along the tops of the walls, stunning architecture and statues.
- Down by the river you can find all the market streets if that sort of madness and chaos is your thing. There are also some pretty murals along the way.
Lowlights of Huaraz:
- Pumacayan Hill: this is touted as an ancient ruin site, but honestly, it just looked like a dump on a small mound. There were a few small walls near the base to one side, and a very pretty tiny church on the top of the “hill,” but most of it is covered in rubbish and left-overs from buildings. It was seriously neglected, not even really worth the view of the city from the top.
- Potholes: to be honest, this is a lowlight of a lot of the towns in Peru we’ve been in, but it was especially noticeable in Huaraz where they were all filled either with litter or stones of various shapes and sizes.
Watch Out For:
- The strutting green pedestrian lights: around the main plaza the green light men look like they are on the cat-walk, while others are moving like speedy Gonzales. Absolutely delightful to watch.
- Men on typewriters: one evening near the Plaza de Armas, AJ and I stumbled across about 4/5 men sitting down with typewriters, typing furiously as people stood around them handing them pieces of paper. What it was for I have no idea, but it was very entertaining to watch nonetheless.
- Architecture: while not brimming with colonial buildings like other Peruvian towns, Huaraz does have some architectural gems – the city library is a wonder of glass and chrome, the churches are stunning, and the plazas great and small all contain either a beautiful water fountain, or regal statue, or a combination of the two.
After a day of exploration, dinner is in order. If you want something cheap, approved by the locals, and easy on the stomach, head to El Rin Concito Miniero on Calle Julian de Morales. This restaurant does a variety of Peruvian-style food at cheap prices, and has a daily menu, which consists of a starter, main and drink for 13PEN per person. We had the fried trout with lentils and rice – delicious!
Day Two – Nebado de Pastoruri – Puyas Raymondi/Laguna 69 Trek
Depending on what day you arrive in Huaraz, you may end up doing days two and three the other way around. I preferred doing the tours in the order we did – Glacier Trek and then Laguna 69 as I felt better acclimatised for the Laguna 69 trek which is definitely much harder than the glacier trek. However, I would have definitely appreciated being able to sleep in a bed after the Laguna 69 trek, so there’s an upside to doing that one first.
The Glacier tour involves a lot of driving to get to the National Park, which you must pay 10PEN to enter, but along the way you will get to stop at different points to see some highlights; lagoons whose waters have turned a bright aquamarine colour from minerals and algae, a bubbling hotspring, and the Puya Raimondi up close – a giant alien-looking plant which flowers once and then dies. It’s about a 45-minute walk up to the glacier, but believe me, walking at 5000m above sea level makes it feel like longer. It’s completely worth it however as the glacier is STUNNING; towering ice cliffs that dip gracefully into the glacial lagoon, which is one moment perfectly still as to create a mirror image of the ice above, and the next a flurry of motion as snow is blown down from the mountain.
On the drive back there’s a stop for lunch where you can try out the local cuisine: fried trout, chaufa, lomo saltado, or any number of dishes. Be warned, we ordered the fried trout and had a whole heap of trouble trying to pick the bones out.
You’ll arrive back in Huaraz around 4.30pm, which is enough time to chill out/nap before heading out to dinner. After a day freezing up in the mountains, there’s nothing better than revelling in the warmth of a wood-burning oven while chowing down on some pizza or delicious pasta. El Horno is just the ticket for this – it has a cosy atmosphere, cute décor and excellent food – we’d been warned against the vegetarian lasagne, but the meat lasagne was very good!
Day Three – Laguna 69 Trek/Nevado de Pastoruri – Puyas Raymondi and Away on the Night Bus
Fair Warning: the Laguna 69 tour leaves at 5.30am, so prepare yourself if you’re not a morning person. The main reason for this is that it is a fair drive to the starting point of the hike. On the way there’s a breakfast stop in a very cute outdoor restaurant where you can also buy sandwiches and snacks for the trek if needed. Again, you will need to pay 10PEN to enter the national park.
The hike itself takes about 5 – 6 hours in total, depending on how fast you walk. While at nowhere near the altitude of the glacier trek, the terrain combined with the altitude makes this a tough, but not impossible, walk. I found it much more of a shock on my system than the Inca trail because you start at a high altitude, and work your way higher, rather than steadily increasing altitude from a more comfortable starting height. The first hour is a pretty stroll through a valley criss-crossing over streams, admiring the wild cows lounging about and the pretty waterfalls in the distance. After that, the real trekking begins with a steep ascent up the mountains in a torturously never-ending zig-zag. At one point it seems like the end is near, but it’s simply another pretty flat-land to give you a moment’s respite before the second ascent begins. If you have hiking poles, bring them. As soon as you reach the lagoon however all the pain, huffing and puffing and breathless cursing melts away in the face of its surreal beauty. The water is the brightest turquoise I’ve ever seen, so much so that it looks photoshopped in all the photos I took. It’s genuinely astonishing to behold. Take full advantage of the hour you get up there – photograph it from every angle, stretch out on the ground and enjoy the sunshine, and try not to think of the walk back down.
The tour will get back to Huaraz around 6/6.30pm, which gives you time to clean up and head for dinner. After that trek a curry is definitely in order, and a proper one at that. When I read about Chilli Heaven – a curry house run by two British guys, I tried REALLY hard not to pin all my hopes and dreams of getting a proper curry in Peru on it and failed miserably. I could not wait to get there, and spent the entire drive back from the Lagoon dreaming of a chicken Rogan Josh, or any kind of Indian chicken curry. I was not disappointed – not only did they have a chicken Rogan Josh on the menu but it was DELICIOUS, and not just for Peru. I cannot recommend it enough. (NOTE: for those of you with the Lonely Planet guide, ignore the map that puts Chilli Heaven on some side street near El Horno – it’s in the same square as El Horno so once you find the square you’ll see both restaurants).
After dinner, there’s time to grab a drink/go for a wander before you need to head to the bus station for the overnight bus to your next destination. The different bus companies have stations in different areas of the city. Many of them are on the same street but, of course, ours was miles away from all the others! It is best to check with reception at your hotel exactly where your company’s bus station is, and in the long run it’s probably easiest to get a taxi there. Our bus station was a 10-minute walk from our hotel according to Google Maps, but after 20 minutes of unsuccessfully walking up and down the same street we finally found a traffic policewoman to ask for directions and were told it was another 20 minutes down the same street. Addresses are not a strong point for places in Peru.
In three days in this town you will be able to (a) explore a city (b) visit a glacier (c) trek to a beautiful lagoon and (d) try the best Indian curry in Peru. Of course, if you have more time then stay and explore the Corderilla Blanca in greater depth, but for those of you on a whistle-stop tour, this small itinerary packs the perfect punch.