If you’ve found your way here you probably already want to go to the Cordillera Blanca and can skip ahead. If not, just take two or more weeks off of work and go. Don’t even think about it. If you’re unconvinced look at the pictures here, here, here, or here. Huaraz has access to some of the best rock climbing, mountaineering, trekking, and mountain biking in the world. When I say “some of the best” I mean on par with the Alps, the Himalaya, and Alaska. Approaches fall somewhere between alpine and Himalayan in scale, as do the mountains themselves. The town of Huaraz is a bit of an acquired taste but fun and relaxing after some adjustment.
- Types of climbing
- Climate and seasons
- How to get there
- Geography of Huaraz
- Map of Huaraz
- Rock climbing
- Local hiking
- Dining and food
- Burros and arrieros
- The Cordillera Huayuash
- Night life
There are heaps of bouldering, sport climbing, and trad climbing near Huaraz. In addition to developed 2000 ft granite walls like La Esfinge, which contains over twenty free and aid routes, there are innumerably many undeveloped walls like it. The sport climbing is serviced by a cozy European-style hut, and bouldering is beginning to take off thanks to development by top athletes like Abbey Smith.
Despite its incredible rock climbing, the Cordillera Blanca is most famous for its beautiful mountains. These include Alpamayo—known for decades as the most beautiful mountain in the world—and Artesonraju—purportedly the inspiration for the Paramount logo. The snow in the Cordillera Blanca is unique in its ability to stick to high-angle surfaces and forms bizarre and dangerous lumps called snow gargoyles. The range has simple, safe glacier walks as well as extremely technical alpine routes of world-class difficulty and prestige.
Climbers descend on Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca between May and August. Though Huaraz is technically in the southern hemisphere and it’s winter then, at 8 degrees south it’s close enough to the equator that it doesn’t have the usual four seasons. During northern hemisphere winter the Cordillera Blanca is in its wet season, during which the mountains receive prodigious rain and snowfall. An adventuresome few venture into the range during the wet season, but most wait until northern hemisphere summer, which is the dry season in Peru. It will snow several times per week even during the dry season, but accumulations greater than a couple of centimeters are rare. The daily pattern is clear, blue skies from morning until early afternoon, when clouds will begin to build. By mid or late afternoon a breeze will have picked up with light snowfall. The clouds usually dissipate by early evening. It’s rare but not unheard of for snow to fall for several days in a row even during the dry season. The Cordillera Blanca isn’t particularly windy. Since the range is equatorial and high-altitude, you will get fierce sunburns without skin protection. Good sunscreen is expensive in Huaraz, so bring some from home. If you run out get some at one of the local pharmacies.
Fly to Lima, Peru. The cheapest round-trip tickets from LA to Lima were $700 or $800 during the 2011 and 2013 seasons. Climbers advise each other to avoid Lima; one describes it as “London without culture” for its perpetual fog. If you want to take that advice, either sleep at the airport until it’s time to catch a taxi to the bus station or arrive at a time when you can go there immediately. There are a couple of cafes at the airport beyond customs where you can hang out for several hours with wifi; I usually arrange to meet partners at the conspicuous Starbucks.
Huaraz is eight hours north of Lima by bus. From the airport take a taxi to one of the many bus operators. I usually pay 40 soles for this fare, which is split among all the passengers, but if you speak Spanish and don’t look like a gringo you might bargain for a lower price. There are no taxi meters in Peru. Buses which run during the day will usually make a stop at a cafe or restaurant for lunch. Overnight buses won’t. These are the biggest operators:
There is more to using money in Peru than meets the eye, so read this part! American dollars are accepted at the majority of western-style establishments, whether they be hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, or agencies. Major credit cards are accepted at the same places, but be prepared to offer not only ID but a passport number. Since clerks can’t verify the number I would just make one up. In Huaraz, and especially outside the “downtown” part of Huaraz, expect to use only Peruvian cash.
On that note, counterfeiting is rife in Peru and it’s often gringos who pay the price for it. Learn to identify counterfeit bills and make sure to keep your bills tear-free; many people won’t accept Peruvian bills with even small tears.
To change money do not go to banks; they have awful exchange rates. Get just enough cash at the airport—at an awful rate—to make it to the buses and thence to Huaraz. Go downtown to Luzuriaga Street to one of the ubiquitous money changers. They advertise their rates on signs on the sidewalk, all of which will be within a cent of each other. The rates on Sundays are unfavorable because most of the money changers are off-duty. To get an estimate of reasonable rates, google “1 USD to nuevo soles” or “1 euro to nuevo soles.” None of the money changers will accept less-than-mint bills or bills whose serials begin with “CB,” so carefully check them at home before coming to Peru and keep them tear and crease-free. If you do end up with nothing but a crappy bill, go to every money changer; one of them might change it. The female ones are more sympathetic, but not everyone possesses my immense charm. If you run out of cash you can avail yourself of the services of the banks, of which there are many in Huaraz.
Price discrimination is common practice in Peru. Wherever a price is displayed like at the supermarket or bus station you will obviously get that price, but the majority of prices in Huaraz aren’t. Quiz hostel employees, expats, or Peruvians unaffiliated with sellers to develop a sense of local prices. Some unscrupulous people will start with sky-high prices just to see if they’ll get lucky with naïve gringos, and they often do. If you do get a high price, humor is the best way to bargain it down: laugh and confidently ask for the Peruano price and that’s the one you’ll get. All prices go up by around 25% around the end of July for Independence Day.
Theft and armed robbery are unfortunately not uncommon in Peru. Be sensible and don’t walk alone at night in expensive gringo clothes. That said I felt safe in Huaraz, especially once I was acclimatized and confident that I could run faster than criminals.
Huaraz lies at 3000 m, or 10,000 ft, in the Ancash department of Peru. It may initially seem polluted, crowded, and hot, but as with the carbonated, salty Persian yogurt drink doogh it is an acquired taste and you will grow fond of it. In particular it will seem less annoying if you adjust your expectations: the water goes on and off (and hot and cold) unpredictably, there are weekly daylong power outages, water from the tap is definitely not potable, right-of-way does not belong to pedestrians, traffic laws are usually ignored, and you will definitely experience gastrointestinal horror at least once… but if you can get past that it’s great!
To orient yourself in Huaraz, note that the Cordillera Blanca lies to the east. The brown hills of the Cordillera Negra lie to the west, and the valley of the Rio Santa runs north-south. Most of the streets in Huaraz are oriented north-south and east-west, so it’s easy to navigate. Almost all of the restaurants, offices, and stores of gringo interest are on the main street, Luzuriaga. If you use public transportation or want to go to non-gringo shops or restaurants you will have to go way from this central area. Another great way to remain oriented is to go to Plaza de Armas, which is on the map below.
On that note, the best way to get around inside Huaraz is by foot; most places are less than ten minutes away. If you’re rushed or have luggage, though, mototaxis, which are motorized tricycles with dust covers—you’ll recognize them when you see them—and taxis are cheap. As of 2013 they were three to four soles per ride within the city. If your driver asks for something higher than the inflation-adjusted rate for that then he’s levying the gringo tax; one of our drivers asked for ten for a one-minute ride, for instance. Laugh it off and you’ll get the real price.
If you need to travel outside Huaraz, e.g. to a trailhead or another town, you can take buses, taxis, or collectivos/combis. Buses only run between major cities, like the Lima-Huaraz, Huaraz-Trujillo, or Huaraz-Yanama. Be aware that there are gringo buses and local buses, the latter of which are cheaper and only marginally less comfortable. You can take taxis all the way from Huaraz to your destination, but it’s usually cheapest and most efficient to take a bus or collectivo to a place near your trailhead, then to take a taxi only if you must.
Collectivos are incredibly effective public transportation. Most people in Ancash don’t own cars, thus the collectivo network. They are usually minivans with their destinations printed on their windshields, but smaller taxi-type sedans often function as collectivos to remote destinations. Collectivos run frequently between major towns—every few minutes between Huaraz and Caraz, for instance—but you can get to even small villages by collectivo if you start early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Fares are posted inside the vans, so there is little guesswork to pay the proper fare. If unsure just ask another rider. Be aware that collectivos may justifiably charge you an extra fare for your backpack; since collectivos are usually packed with twice as many passengers as seats, drivers lose business when packs take up space. To get around this problem stow your packs under the last row of seats or on the roof.
To use collectivos you must know where to find them. The terminals might change locations over the years, so the best way to find them is to ask someone. Cafe and hostel employees will know where the stations are. People will often tell you to take taxis to trailheads, but you can almost always take a collectivo for a tenth of the price. For example, the collectivo to Llupa, which is close to the trailhead for a popular hike to Laguna Churup, costs five soles. A taxi which drives marginally farther costs thirty to fifty. See the map below for collectivo station locations.
Huaraz is at 3,000 m, or 10,000 ft. Most people will not experience altitude illness even if they ascend to Huaraz directly from sea-level, but if you do there is a hospital in Huaraz and it’s easy to descend to lower altitudes to the north. The most expeditious way to do that is to hop onto a Caraz-bound collectivo.
Acclimatization is a mysterious process, and as you climb at high altitudes you’ll learn how your body adjusts to it. It takes 1-2 weeks to lose the physical adaptions which constitute acclimatization. If you spend a few days at high altitudes in California, Colorado, or elsewhere, your acclimatization will carry over to the Cordillera Blanca as long as get there within one week.
Even if you’re acclimatized from abroad, take a day or two in Huaraz with little to no activity to further acclimatize. Huaraz has a couple of awesome cafes full of English-language books and climbing magazines which are perfect for this. After that take a few days of low-exertion activity such as rock climbing, mountain biking, or hiking at moderate altitudes. There is a huge variety of pure rock climbing available near Huaraz, from sport climbing at Hatun Machay—see below for more information on this incredible place—to grade IV or V granite trad climbs. Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast and other hotels organize mountain bike trips; I have heard fantastic reviews of mountain biking in the area but haven’t done any myself. Popular hikes include the ones to Laguna 69, Laguna Churup, and the Pastoruri glacier, but you can pick your own adventure too.
The choices are between hostels and hotels. There is no camping near the city. Hostels cater to young people and are inexpensive, but older people who can tolerate loud college kids are welcome to stay at them. In 2013 they cost ten to twenty soles per night per bed. Remember that this is Peru and that prices are rarely fixed, so you can ask for deals for long-term stays. You can also rent a room like an apartment so you don’t have to move in and out every time you go on a trip. Many hostels will also rent out dormitory-style rooms with many beds to just one or two people as private rooms. Some hostels offer breakfast, wifi, laundry, and kitchen access, but some don’t. Staying at a hostel is the best way to meet other climbers, adventurers, and cute boys or girls.
Hotels such as Olaza’s offer only private rooms and cost around 100 soles per night per room. They offer variable services as with the hostels, so inquire about the ones you want before you commit to stay. There are western-style gringo-run hotels in the area which cost hundred of soles per night; I can’t comment on the value of their amenities, but even if you have money to blow I recommend staying at a hostel if just to meet other people. Here are the most popular places to stay:
- Caroline Lodging is by far my favorite place to stay in Huaraz. The lobby is a little chaotic and the hostel is usually loud, but with a good pair of earplugs—bring some from home since they’re expensive in Huaraz—and with a little tolerance for dirt and grime, this place is perfect for climbers. Anita and Teo, who are wife and husband, run the place, speak a little English, and are unbelievably friendly. Teo went out of his way several times to arrange cheap taxis for us, and Anita drove us for free to the bus station before we returned to Lima. The hostel is named for their daughter, Caroline, who is often behind the desk in the lobby. She’s married, unfortunately. The family and the extended family of uncles and aunts live in rooms around the hostel. I saw Teo walk out of his room in boxers more than once. Dorm-style rooms were fifteen soles per night, and private rooms split between two people were 17.5 or 20 soles per night depending on the room. Anita will store valuables like laptops in her bedroom to keep them safe while you climb or trek, and you can toss everything else into an unlocked luggage room. In two months nothing of ours went missing, so the luggage room is probably safe. The best part of Caroline Lodging is the group breakfast upstairs; the food is simple—usually just bread, jam, butter, and tea—but it’s a wonderful and relaxed setting in which to meet other travelers. My partner and I made some great friends at these breakfasts. You can use their upstairs kitchen for lunch and dinner, but the pots, pans, and silverware aren’t the best. I stayed here for nearly two months in 2013.
- Olaza Bed and Breakfast: Brad Johnson, who wrote the English-language Cordillera Blanca guidebook, stays here. This is a standard and slightly upscale Peruvian hotel which serves a quality breakfast on the roof and has amazing views of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca. I didn’t personally feel that the eighty to ninety soles cost per night per room was worth it for the increased quiet and cleanliness over Caroline’s, but opinions will obviously vary.
- Joe’s Place: This hostel is very similar to Caroline Lodging in price and ambiance, and a lot of climbers stay there. I’m not sure if they have an awesome breakfast like Caroline’s. Joe’s Place is more centrally located in Huaraz and might as a result have more street noise.
- There are many other places to stay. Sleep wherever you can on your first night and ask around the next day for a better place!
There is bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, and big wall climbing all a stone’s throw from Huaraz. The sport climbing in Huaraz proper is dinky but fine for mellow days; the good stuff is at Hatun Machay. Make the trip–it’s worth it. The trad climbing and big wall climbing require walking and driving for a few hours, but the rewards of doing those approaches are awesome.
- Hatun Machay is a wonderful sport climbing area at 14,000 ft in the Cordillerra Negra one hour south of Huaraz. There are over three hundred routes as of 2013 and more are added every year. The routes are from 30 to 200 ft tall, have closely-spaced modern bolts, and are primarily steep face climbing from French 5+ to 8a or YDS 5.9 to 13a. There is also a ton of recently-developed bouldering, though I don’t know about the available grades. There is a newly built, well-equipped hut 5 minutes from the climbing area where you can take a bed for thirty soles per night or camp for twenty soles. The reason it costs so much to camp is that the local community charges the hut for land use on a person-by-person basis. Moreover, you’re allowed to hang out inside the hut at night and use the kitchen, which is well-stocked with cooking gear. You don’t need to reserve a spot at the hut: they will try hard to accommodate you if you just show up. There are two ways to get there: the easiest is to go to the agency “Andean Kingdom” near Casa de Guias and Chili Heaven (see my annotated map) and reserve a spot in a taxi. They charge thirty soles each way and will drive you all the way to the hut, which is 5 minutes from the climbing area. If you want to do a day-trip, if you’re carrying a ton of food, or if it’s your first trip there this is the best option. Otherwise, take a collectivo from the Catac terminal to Catac (3.5 soles). Get off at the end of the line next to a gas station and wait for a collectivo to take you south towards Laguna Conococha. Before 8 am this is easy, but by noon you might have to wait an hour. If you just tell the combi driver that you’re going to Hatun Machay he’ll probably know where that is and will drop you off at the right spot. If he doesn’t know, then your best bet is to use a GPS and tell him to stop when you get to (S10.063582 W77.321370). You have to walk for 1-1.5 hr along a well-traveled dirt road to get to the hut. There is one confusing fork, so here are the coordinates of the hut: (S10.083230 W77.348406).
- La Esfinge is an enormous granite monolith in Quebrada Paron a couple of hours north of Huaraz. Its rock is slick but features crack systems which would seem warmly familiar to Yosemite climbers. It itself is anything but warm, though; when routes enter the shade the cold is blistering! But what can you expect? It’s at nearly 18,000 ft. There are many aid and free routes on this cliff, including two high-quality long free routes which go at 5.10+ and 5.12. The former is the Regular Route and is described in detail in Brad John’s guidebook with a topo, and the latter is a bolt-protected face route. It’s worth noting that the fantastic dihedral which is pictured in Brad Johnson’s guidebook is not on the described regular route but on another farther to the right called Dion’s Dihedral. Find information on other routes at Casa de Guias. The Regular Route is trad protected and sometimes runout on < 5.9 ground. The guidebook rates it 5.11c, but in all honesty it would be 10c in Yosemite and at most 11a where ratings are soft like Squamish. Moreover, the cruxes are short, well-protected, and would be easy to aid. Unless you want to sleep on this climb for the experience, travel lightly and you will finish in daylight since there are loads of moderate ground. Note that La Esfinge’s east face, which contains the Regular Route, gets sun from sunrise to 1 pm. After 1 pm the face gets very cold but will likely stay above freezing. The rappels are as described in the guidebook. With a single 60m rope you will have to scramble down 3rd class ledges after rappel one to get to the second rappel. After that simply stop at the first station you encounter on each rappel and you’ll make it to the sea of slab from which you can walk off left to talus. To get to La Esfinge take a collectivo to Yungay early in the morning. If you get there early enough you might be able to catch a collectivo to Laguna Paron. The collectivos and taxis alike depart from near the mercado, which is several blocks southeast (up the street and back towards Huaraz) from the main Yungay combi terminal. Just ask a local or take a mototaxi. If you’re too late you’ll have to take a taxi, which will cost 80-100 soles one-way.
- Karma de los Condores is another incredible multipitch trad climb. It is truly apt to call it Astroman of the Andes for its high-quality crack climbing, position, and length. Its 5.11+ rating is accurate, and you will need a substantial trad rack of doubles from 0.3 to 4 in Camalot sizes along with a set of small nuts. Unless you’re solid on 5.11+ finger cracks, bring triples or quadruples of 0.4 and 0.5. This route was originally nine pitches long, but a couple of Americans recently added and bolted four more to the top of the formation. For details see the Mountain Project page.
In addition to or instead of acclimatizing at Hatun Machay, you can do some great hiking near Huaraz. In general you have to either catch a collectivo and walk to trailheads or hire a taxi (which will wait for you at the trailhead) for considerably more.
- Laguna Churup sits at 14,700 ft under Nevado Churup, which is a moderately difficult mixed peak. The views are amazing at the laguna, but the trail is crowded since most gringos who pass through Huaraz do this hike. Either catch a collectivo at the place labeled “Llupa” on the map or hire a taxi through your hotel/hostel. The taxi shouldn’t cost more than 30 soles per person (2013), so use that as a benchmark if you flag a taxi on the street. If you take a collectivo to Llupa, walk up a steep dirt road on the right side of the drop-off area towards the trailhead. Ask people along the way for “Laguna Churup” and they will point you in the right direction. It’s a 1 to 2 hour walk to the trailhead from Llupa depending on your acclimatization.
- Laguna 69. It’s possible to arrive here via collectivo, but you will need to start early in the morning. Take a collectivo from the place labelled “Caraz” on the map and disembark at Yungay. The fare should be posted inside the van, but in 2013 it was 5 soles. If you’re early enough there will be a collectivo headed to the east-side city of Yanama, which is the cheapest way to get to the trailhead. Ask the collectivo driver to drop you off at the Laguna 69 pullout, which is an obvious pull-out on the left-hand side of the road after the second lake. If you’re late just catch a taxi. Note that the taxis and collectivos don’t necessarily leave from the terminal on the highway where you’ll have been dropped off after the ride from Huaraz; ask someone for directions to the terminal.
- There are dozens of high-altitude overnight hikes possible in the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayuash. The most famous of these are the Santa Cruz trek and Huayuash circuit. Note that the Santa Cruz valley recently experienced a catastrophic landslide and more closely resembles a desert now than a high-altitude meadow for some of its length; if you do this trek make sure you leave time for the gorgeous detour into Alpamayo base camp. You can easily arrange the logistics for these trips on your own and can carry your own food, so there is no need to use an agency or burros. Of course, if you do use burros self-sufficient hikers won’t judge you when they see you eating steak for dinner instead of ramen. Find more information about these hikes online; they’re great ways to acclimatize and to see a large swathe of these mountains.
You will experience food poisoning or some kind of gastrointestinal distress in Peru. If you accept that fact you will have a better time. To minimize problems, however, use the following strategies:
- Avoid uncooked vegetables. Restaurants often wash them with tap water.
- Avoid under cooked meat. You are likely to get food poisoning from rare meat.
- Don’t eat tepid food. Stick to food which has been recently fried or roasted.
- Do not use tap water except to wash. Use bottled water even for brushing your teeth.
- Wash your hands frequently. Hand sanitizer isn’t available in Peru, so bring some from the states if you use it.
- Don’t assume that gringo restaurants are safe. A salad from a gringo restaurant is not necessarily safe to eat, whereas an omelet probably is.
- Be especially safety-conscious right before climbs. It is unspeakably horrible to get diarrhea overnight at 6000 m.
That said, here are some great restaurants/cafes in Huaraz:
- Cafe Andino is THE climbers’ hangout in Huaraz. It’s kind of like Blacksheep in Bishop or Zephyr in Squamish, but it’s way bigger, way more comfortable, and even has a library with hundreds of climbing magazines. Chris Benway runs the place and is a valuable source of information on climbs and logisitics.
- California Cafe is a smaller-scale and more intimate version of Cafe Andino. It has a library, including a book exchange, some board games, comfy couches, and two adorable long-haired hippie kids.
- Fatten Up For Cheap, The Bakery (not actual name). This is a great little bakery on Luzuriaga/Fitzcarald, which is the main street in Huaraz. Go to the intersection with Raymondi and walk north towards Caraz. The bakery will be a few shops from the corner on the right (east side). This place has some of the best apple pie I’ve had anywhere, and it’s worlds better than the pie at California Cafe or Andino’s for a quarter of the price. They have an assortment of lesser cakes and some decent hot drinks.
- Chifa. Peruvians adore Chinese food, which is called “chifa.” These restaurants are ubiquitous and serve a melange of Peruvian and Chinese food—it’s not unusual for a Chifa restaurant to serve lomo saltado, for instance. They tend to be cheap and safe for tenderfooted gringos, as germs are fried into oblivion. I particularly recommend their egg or chicken “pancakes,” which are actually greasy omelets served atop rice.
- Novaplaza is the largest supermarket in town, which isn’t saying much. They have food which gringos might find suitable for hiking and climbing. The Central Market is a better place to buy meat, vegetables, and bread if you’re on a budget or just don’t want to be a huge raging gringo.
- Bistro de los Andes is the locals’ Cafe Andino. The atmosphere is a bit weird, but the views out of the window of Plaza de Armas and Churup are fantastic. It’s quite expensive for Peru, but the tastiness of their food is (almost) commensurate with its price.
- Creperie Patrick is run by a French dude. I didn’t particularly like or hate it when I went in 2011. Haven’t gone back since.
- Sexburger, the one and only. It makes for some cute pictures but has awful food.
- Pollerias. These roasted chicken joints are more or less all the same and have the same prices. They have huge servings of chicken for very low prices. Watching Kevin Trieu down a full chicken at one of these was simultaneously jaw-dropping and vomit-inducing. Go to busy, crowded ones to make sure there’s high enough turnover for your food to be fresh and therefore safe.
- Chili Heaven is run by an ex-pat Brit named Simon who seems gruff initially but is actually a lot of fun to talk to. His restaurant bottles its own chili and serves excellent Indian food. The fajitas are the best in Huaraz but wouldn’t hold up against any Mexican restaurant in California.
- Trivio is primarily a brewery, but there is a swank (for Huaraz) bar and restaurant upstairs. The atmosphere wasn’t right for me, but I could imagine folks going on dates to this place. Their food was decent though expensive.
The Cordillera Blanca is halfway between the Sierra Nevada or Alps and the Himalaya in terms of access. Most base camp approaches are a day’s hike with a heavy pack, but some approaches would take even fit parties two or three days. Climbers have traditionally hired pack animals to help with these approaches, but acclimatized and fit climbers can get by without. In fact, it’s usually faster to hike in and out on your own because the donkeys and arrieros are slow.
This is a mountain range a few hours south of Huaraz. It is much more remote than the Blanca and its peaks tend to be on average steeper and more savage. It has been explored fairly thoroughly, but there are many more first ascents lurking there than in the Cordillera Blanca. Despite my tough guy posturing I would hire burros there since the approaches often take several days.
Having never been to a club or bar (ever), this section will be a bit sparse. I hear that El Tambo is THE disco; after we finished climbs Peruvian guides and collectivo drivers often asked us, “you go to El Tambo tonight?” A SoCal-based Huaraz regular notes that the women at El Tambo “like gringos.” The owner of Chili Heaven basically admitted to moving to Huaraz because of the women at El Tambo, too. Have at it! For the cowards among us, I will note that Cafe Andino stays open until 10 pm.