Most folks who make it to Huaraz are understandably eager to get out into the countryside and up into the mountains. The point of a visit to Huaraz is really to explore some of the most stunning scenery on the planet; the entire valley is characterized by spectacular snowcapped mountains, stunning alpine lakes, and tranquil meadows. Less rigorous excursions by organized tour are also possible; the most popular are the spectacular Lagunas de Llanganuco and the ancient ruins at Chavín de Huántar. The small towns of the Callejón de Huaylas, the valley that splits the middle between the mountain ranges of the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra north of Huaraz, make good bases for hikes and are worthwhile visits in themselves.
Chavín de Huántar
110km (68 miles) E of Huaraz
East of the Cordillera Blanca, Chavín de Huántar, the nearly 3,000-year-old ruins of the Chavín culture, is some 4 long hours by a largely unpaved and twisting mountain road (which is very slowly being improved) from Huaraz. The ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best-preserved ruins of the culture, consist of a U-shaped fortress-temple with excellent stonework constructed over several centuries. The Chavín, who thrived in the region from about 1200 to 300 B.C. and whose influence was felt from Ecuador all the way to southern Peru, were the most ancient of the major cultures known to exist in Peru, and certainly one of its most sophisticated. The Chavín are considered perhaps the most influential people to have existed in the Andes until the arrival of the dynasty-building Incas (who came along a mere 2,000 years later).
However, don't expect a stunning set of Machu Picchu-like ruins. The site's archaeological importance isn't nearly as transparently aesthetic. The temple comprises more than a dozen underground galleries or chambers; only a few are open to the public. Some appear as labyrinthine tunnels today because they were interred by a landslide in the 1940s. The main structure on the premises is a large pyramid, called the Castillo, built over well-constructed canals where water once flowed. A ways away is a large, sunken central plaza, a ceremonial gathering place. The highlight of the ruins is the Lanzón, a remarkable cultist carving in white granite and shaped like a prism or dagger. The monolith is found in an underground passage behind the original temple, which is much smaller than the several-times-enlarged Castillo. The huge 4.5m (15-ft.) carving depicts three figures worshiped by the Chavín culture: the serpent, the bird, and the feline, the principal deity. The Lanzón remains in its original location, at an underground crossroads, even though other important artifacts, including the famous Tello Obelisk and Raymondi Stela, were removed and are now housed at Museo de la Nación in Lima. A guide and a flashlight are needed to get the most out of the site. Once visitors could walk completely around and inspect the prized Lanzón; today, however, it can be viewed only from the side and a distance, down a cramped corridor.
The Monumento Arqueológico Chavín de Huántar (tel. 044/754-042), which includes a small museum, is open daily from 8am to 4pm. The most convenient and fastest way to visit Chavín is by organized tour from Huaraz. Virtually every agency offers the same program, a long day trip leaving Huaraz around 9am and returning around 8pm.
Nearby, the village of Chavín de Huántar is a traditional settlement. Although very few tourists stay overnight, the Lanzón has been known to exert a mystical hold on some visitors. In case you want to make a second day's visit to the ruins, there are a couple of decent inns in and near Chavín to spend the night.
Lagunas de Llanganuco
82km (51 miles) N of Huaraz
These two brilliant turquoise alpine lakes, at nearly 4,000m (13,120 ft.) above sea level, compose a dazzling vista at the base of the Cordillera Blanca's highest snowcapped summits. The views of Chopicalqui (6,354m/20,841 ft.), Huandoy (6,395m/20,976 ft.), and hulking Huascarán (6,768m/22,199 ft.) are simply mesmerizing. If possible, wait for a clear morning to go; the sun shining on the lakes makes them shimmer and their colors change. The glacier-fed lakes within the Huascarán National Park (entry fee S/5) are a popular day trip from Huaraz, and many tour companies in Huaraz offer Llanganuco as an organized tour for about S/35 per person. Those up for more of an adventure can also organize a day trek to the lagunas (those with more time on their hands might opt for the 4- to 5-day Llanganuco-Santa Cruz trek, one of the most beautiful and popular treks on the continent). If you're traveling independently, the lakes are easiest to get to from Yungay, which is 26km (16 miles) away; it's simple to catch a combi or truck up to the lakes from the Plaza de Armas in Yungay (about S/20 round-trip), but note that the ride can take up to 90 minutes.
70km (43 miles) S of Huaraz
The Cordillera Blanca is tightly packed with towering peaks that should be ascended only by skilled and properly outfitted climbers. If you're not in that camp, this relatively flat glacier, another popular day trip from Huaraz, might be a draw. Provided that you've already become acclimatized to the altitude of the area, the 45-minute trek up the glacier (5,240m/17,187 ft.) isn't difficult and can be done without special equipment, although horses and mules are frequently available to help those having a hard time trudging through the snow. Though Peruvians often ski and snowboard on the glacier, veteran skiers will be disappointed; the glacier is shrinking, the snow is icy, and the rope-tow seems to come and go. Bring sufficient cold-weather gear because it can get very frigid.
As an organized outing, the trip to Pastoruri is usually combined with a visit to the valley of Pachacoto, 57km (35 miles) south of Huaraz, an opportunity to see the Callejón de Huaylas's famous Puya Raimondi plants. The bizarre, spiky plants, like towering alien cacti, are the largest members of the bromeliad family (a relative of the pineapple). The species is thought to be one of the most ancient in the world, and it is found only in a few isolated, high-altitude parts of the Andes. The plant, which can reach a height of 12m (39 ft.), is like a tragic protagonist: It flowers but once in its life, and although it might live to be 100 years old, it dies immediately after flowering. Flowering usually happens in May, when tour groups make pilgrimages to witness the brief, beautiful sight, like a stage set against the snowy mountains. Organized Pastoruri/Puya Raymondi visits are about S/30 per person.
31km (19 miles) N of Huaraz
This quiet, rather plain Andean town stands in stark contrast to the tourism hustle of Huaraz. It's becoming better known as a base in its own right for mountain-adventure travel, but it doesn't have even a fraction of the tourism infrastructure found in Huaraz. Still, it has a couple of nice hostales and restaurants for people looking for a more serene atmosphere. Carhuaz is locally renowned for its Virgen de las Mercedes festival, which takes place for 10 days in mid-September and is perhaps the most raucous festival in the valley.
There aren't many actual sights in town, other than the bustling Sunday market, but a few places just outside Carhuaz are worth a look. Near the small town of Mancos (a half-hour from Carhuaz by combi) is the ancient cave Cueva de Guitarreros, which some anthropologists believe to be 12,000 years old. The cave, which contains primitive rock paintings, is a nice 30-minute walk from Mancos south across the river. There are good views of Huascarán. Near Marcará, about 6.5km (4 miles) south of Carhuaz, are the Baños Termales de Chancos (hot springs).
To get to Carhuaz, take a combi from Huaraz; the trip takes about an hour and costs S/4. If you want to spend the night in Carhuaz, perhaps your best bet is one of the family-run guesthouses, or casas de alojamiento. Try Las Bromelias, Jr. Brasil 208 (tel. 043/394-033), with rooms for $10 double, or, better still, La Casa de Pocha (tel. 043/363-058), an eco-ranch outside of town, boasting a peaceful organic farm and adobe guesthouse with excellent views and opportunities for horseback riding and hiking in the forest. It runs $40 per person for a double room including meals.
54km (33 miles) N of Huaraz
This small town is permanently marked by tragedy: It was completely buried in just a matter of minutes in a 1970 landslide, which was precipitated by the massive earthquake (7.8 on the Richter scale) that loosened tons of granite and ice from the north peak of Huascarán. The hurtling mass killed at least 20,000 people, nearly the town's entire population. Only a few children and those who, ironically, scrambled to the higher grounds of the local cemetery, survived. The rubble, called Campo Santo, is now a macabre tourist attraction. The only reminders of the life that once existed there are four palm trees that graced the Plaza de Armas and rosebushes and monuments honoring the dead. A new settlement was established about a half-mile away. Predictably, the rebuilt town isn't too easy on the eyes, save its alpine location; it's mostly a functional transportation hub for those looking to approach the stunning lakes of Llanganuco. In town, there's a small museum, the Museo de Arqueología e Historia Natural de Yungay, Avenida Las Palmeras, Ranrahirca (tel. 043/682-322), which exhibits regional flora and fauna, ceramics, textiles, and other historical relics.
Combis leave from the Quillcay Bridge on Alameda Fitzcarrald Huaraz for Yungay. The trip, which takes about 1 1/2 hours, costs S/3.
68km (42 miles) N of Huaraz
Caraz is the farthest of the valley towns north of Huaraz that are accessible by public transportation. More attractive than some of the other towns that have suffered great natural disaster, and located at an elevation about 1,000m (3,280 ft.) lower than Huaraz, Caraz makes a good base for trekking and climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. The town has a pleasant plaza and a growing amount of infrastructure to serve trekkers and mountaineers, including one of the area's top outdoor-adventure agencies. Many people end up (and rest up) in Caraz after trekking the popular Llanganuco-Santa Cruz route, although nearly as many embark from here to remote treks into the northern Cordillera Blanca.
Caraz has a couple small museums: a Museo de Arqueología, Esquina 1 de Mayo y Manuel Cáceres (tel. 043/791-029; Tues-Sun 9am-1pm and 2-5pm; admission S/3), which has some deformed skulls and artifacts uncovered at the Cueva de Guitarreros, and the Museo Amauta de Arte Ancashino, Av. Noe Bazán Peralta s/n (tel. 043/791-004; daily 9am-noon and 3-5pm; admission S/3), which contains some ethnographic exhibits representing villages of the Callejón de Huaylas. Nearby are some pre-Chavín ruins, Tunshucaiko, about a half-mile from the center of town across the Río Llullán.
Although many people make their way to Caraz to begin some hard-core mountain excursions, several worthwhile and easier excursions make excellent day trips. Gorgeous Laguna Parón is a bold, bright blue lake that sits at an elevation of more than 4,000m (13,120 ft.) and is surrounded by a dozen snowcapped peaks, 30km (19 miles) east of town. Colectivos run from Santa Rosa in Caraz to Parón (90 min.). The Cañón del Pato is a fantastic, sheer canyon formed by the Río Santa, dividing the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. Although it is more than 1,000m (3,280 ft.) deep, it is only 15m (49 ft.) wide. The road that knifes through the canyon, from Caraz to Huallanca, is one of the most thrilling in the country; it penetrates more than three dozen tunnels. By colectivo, it's about 2 hours to Huallanca, the far end of the canyon, from Caraz.
Caraz is a 2-hour combi ride from Huaraz. If you want to stay overnight in Caraz, try one of the following inexpensive inns that are popular with trekkers and backpackers: Hostal Perla de los Andes, Daniel Villar 179 (Plaza de Armas; tel. 043/392-007; www.huaraz.com/perladelosandes; $18 double) next to the cathedral, with simple rooms overlooking the handsome Plaza de Armas; Los Piños Lodge, Parque San Martín 103 (tel. 043/391-140; $20 double), an attractive place with a nice cafe; or Grand Hostal Caraz Dulzura, Sáenz Peña 212 (tel. 043/391-523; www.huaraz.com/carazdulzura; $20 double), a pleasant, modern hotel built around a patio.
In town are Pony Expeditions, one of the best trekking and mountaineering agencies in the valley, with equipment rental and good guides, and Apu Expeditions, Villar 215 (tel. 043/392-159). Café de Rat (tel. 043/291-642), Jr. Sucre 1286, on the Plaza de Armas above Pony Expeditions, is the place for mountaineers to hang out and fortify themselves with pizzas, pastas, crepes, good vegetarian meals, and beer. (It also has Internet access, maps, and guidebooks.)