Why you should care
Because Peru is so much more than Machu Picchu.
The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
Most of the tourists who travel to Peru head south toward the ancient Incan temples of Machu Picchu. It’s a worthy destination. The surrounding tropical forests have myriad exotic treks and foreign species … of tourists. But for the traveler looking to experience the beauty and rigor of the Andes unspoiled by fanny-packs, I suggest heading north to the overlooked town of Huaraz.
About an eight-hour, slightly unnerving bus ride from Lima, between the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains) to the east and the Cordillera Negra (Black Mountains) to the west, sits a nomadic metropolis of about 100,000. At an elevation above 10,000 feet, Huaraz is perhaps South America’s most divergent base camp, leading to glaciers, subtropics and the tallest mountain in Peru: Huascarán. “You don’t get that breadth anywhere else on the whole continent,” says Kathy Jarvis, owner of Andean Trails, an expedition company based in Scotland. This capital of the Ancash region is not so much a destination in itself but a starting point for mountain biking, bouldering, ice climbing, hiking, snowboarding adventurers.
The mystic rock forest is one of the highest crags in the world, with endless routes to explore.
The most popular trek is the four-day Santa Cruz circuit, which National Geographic called one the world’s best hikes and which takes you through the entire spectrum of climates in one of the most concentrated collections of big peaks in the Western Hemisphere. For a condensed version, there is also the day hike to Laguna 69. Beginning in a green and sunny canyon, over 5,000 feet the trail ascends above the waterfalls to a white, blustery summit and a glacial turquoise lake. Or there are the 14-day treks Jarvis takes clients on. But for rock climbers there is only one place you go: Hatun Machay, or Big Cave. The mystic rock forest is one of the highest crags in the world, with endless routes to explore and, on a clear day, a view of the Pacific Ocean.
In between excursions, Huaraz is where you go to regroup — but not much else. Indeed, the city’s charm is found in the views from its ubiquitous rooftop decks, not its streets. Flattened by an earthquake in 1970 that wiped out half the population, Huaraz lacks the texture of other timeworn South American mountain villages. Instead of Incan architecture, its buildings feature exposed gray cement. “The beauty of Huaraz is not Huaraz,” says Rex Broekman, a Dutch transplant and editor of the Huaraz Telegraph. “It’s everything outside it.” Yet as Huaraz builds a reputation as a mountaineering hub, more restaurants and cafes have opened to feed the demand. There’s even a local brewery — perfect for a post-trek cocktail to relax the muscles. And I found the kids dancing to a boombox in the Plaza de Armas at midnight and the fried, doughy picarones that taste even more buttery after a cocktail to be as invigorating as the mountain air.
While Cusco has traded character for tourism, Huaraz remains untainted. It has an authentic — even harsh — edge to it, which perhaps most tourists don’t want to rub up against when they’re vacationing. But for this writer, that’s exactly what draws me to the unknown.