THE CHAVIN DE HUANTAR

The ruins of Chavin de Huantar are located to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, about 110km from Huaraz, and at an altitude of 3250m. This fortress-temple was constructed between 1200 and 300 BC and is the only large structure remaining from the Chavin culture. It is thought to have been a major ceremonial centre. In 1985 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Trust Site.

Most visitors come here on a day trip from Huaraz. It is a long 4-hour drive along a largely unpaved twisting road, but things should improve in the future when the road is fully paved cutting the journey time in half. The most convenient way to visit Chavin is by means of an organized tour from Huaraz (Try Chavin or Pablo Tours). Prices cost around US$15 per person including entrance fees. Tours typically depart at 9am and return to Huaraz at about 8pm.

The Chavin are considered to be one of the most influential people to have lived in the Andes prior to the Incas (who arrived some 2000 years later). They were certainly one of the most sophisticated.

The site contains a large central square, slightly sunken below ground level, with an intricate system of channels for drainage. Much of the site comprises a series of underground chambers. A broad staircase leads up from the square to a large pyramid structure called the Castilla. In the heart of the underground complex is the crowning glory of the Chavin religion: a 5m-high carved rock known as the Lanzon. This dagger-like monolith depicts important deities worshipped by the Chavin culture: the Serpent, the Condor and the Feline (jaguar or puma).

Other important artefacts from within the temple, including the Tello Obelisk and the Raymondi Stela, were removed and are now housed at the Museo de la Nacion in Lima.

BEST PLACES TO EAT

* Mercado central. On the second floor you can indulge in a true Peruvian set meal of soup, rice and chicken and limonade. All for 2.50 soles. The first floor is good for stocking up for your trek.

* Chifas, there are several in town. Their dishes are cheap and feed two. And in contrast to Peruvian cuisine they tend to sneak in some veggies.

* Fuente de Salud. Very cheap, very tasty vegetarian food. Highly recommended for vegetarians and those who are feeling the effects of traveller's diarrhea.

* Siam de los Andes. A traditional Thai restaurant in the middle of small-town Peru, serves up delicious curry and stir fry dishes. Price range: moderate: 15-50 soles per meal.

* Creperie Patrick, Av. Luzurriaga 422. A well-known restaurant that serves up many different styles of sweet or savory crêpes, Creperie Patrick is also known to be relatively expensive: 25-50 soles per meal.

* Mi Chef Kristof, Parque del Periodista (through the last passage on the right side of the first block of Av. Luzuriaga going north from the Plaza de Armas). Great restaurant where Chef Kristof will prepare amazing meals for you. The Peppersteak en the homemade pasta's are a recommendation! It is a little bit more expensive but also a real treat to yourself!

* Jirón José Olaya, Jirón José Olaya is the only street that remained intact through Huaraz' various earthquakes. It gives a good indication of what the town once looked like. On Sundays there is a street market where the local population sells regional foods. Sit down at one of the little “restaurants” and enjoy your Picante de Cuy.

LOCAL ATTRACTIONS

Huaraz is also the departure point for tours to see Chavín de Huántar, the center of a cultural and artistic revolution in Peru that took place between 600 and 300 B.C.E. Museums in Huaraz contain many fine examples of Chavin sculpture and older Cupinisque pottery.

* Puya Raimondi. Puya Raimondi are the biggest pinapple plants of the world. They bloom with 50-75 years once for 9 months with 8.000-10.000 niches and a flower altitude of up to 10m higth, then they die. They grow between 3500 and 4700m altitude. edit

* The Museo Regional de Ancash, The Museo Regional de Ancash houses the largest collection of ancient stone sculptures in South America. It gives information about all the cultures that have inhabited the Cordillera Blanca region. It is small but interesting, it has a few mummies, some trepanned skulls (an ancient form of surgery involving cutting into the skull) and a garden of stone monoliths from the Recuay culture (400 BC to AD 600) and the Wari culture (AD 600 to 1000). A pottery collection, textiles, and metal works cover the Wari, Chimú, and Inca cultures.

GETTING HERE

Huaraz is approximately 8 hours coach drive from Lima; it's simple and a reasonably cheap and reliable service. Movil Tours, Ormeño, Cruz del Sur and CIAL are most frequently recommended bus companies.

When you arrive you will find out that ´captadores´ are trying to bring you to lowly recommendated hostels and places. They spread bad words about the hostel you are willing to go to. Do not believe any of these popular phrases like: that hostel is always full, that hostel is far away. Especially at Cruz del Sur it is tough to leave. These 'captadores' get commision for each night you stay at the place that they recommend.

There are several daily buses to and from Chimbote & Trujillo. Movil Tours & Transportes Linea are the best (US$14, 9 hours to Trujillo), followed by Chinchaysuyo & Comite 14, all of which only travel by night, & continue to Trujillo. All night buses travel on the tar sealed road from Huaraz to Pativilca (Caral is near there) to the Panamerican Highway, midway between Trujillo & Lima.

Transportes Linea, America Express & others run from Trujillo from 6AM or earlier to catch the 8-8.30AM bus of Turismo Huaraz & Yungay Express from Huaraz via Caraz & the spectacular Cañon del Pato. It's a rough 8 hour bus ride, the buses are basic for the unsealed road (Caraz to Chimbote) and may be overcrowded between Caraz & Huaraz. The views are stunning. Price is around US$7 (S/. 25). If you have your own vehicle, obtain permission (& confirmation of entrance times if maintenance is in progress) from Proyecto Chavimochic in Trujillo (Telefax 044 272286) or Viru to leave the Panam (485 km north of Lima) via the well kept Brasileiros maintenance road alongside the canal to the north bank of the Santa River to Cañon del Pato. It is possible to cover Trujillo to Caraz in 5 hours (+ photo stops) on this straighter, smoother road. Almost 40 tunnels are large enough for all but the largest tourist buses.

There are also day buses between Huaraz & Chimbote via the Callan Pass, Pariacoto & Casma (for Sechin). Longer, rougher & not quite as visually stunning.

Every 20 minutes or so combis leave Huaraz for Caraz visiting Carhuaz and Yungay on the way.

WHY VISIT HUARAZ?

The peaks of the region have for many decades have been the testing grounds for mountain climbers anticipating future expeditions into the Himalayas. Huaraz is a popular base for expeditions into the Cordillera Blanca and the Huayhuash south of the Callejon del Huaylas.

Huascarán National Park is a popular destination for tourists.

In the streets surrounding the farmers' market, the paraditas (street markets) of local sellers offer craft products such as ponchos, alpaca textiles (carpets, sweaters, etc.); jewelry made of locally-mined tin, copper, and silver; cuarteados (a typical dessert from the nearby town of Caraz made by mixing manjarblanco and fruit cake); boxes of manjarblanco, butter, cheese, honey, smoked and salty hams, jerky (Quechua charqui), etc.

Huaraz is known as the 'Switzerland of the South' because of its beautiful peaks that are visible from the city centre.