It is the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca that draw most visitors to this region – many of them to follow the area’s awesome trekking trails and some to experience mountaineering in the high Andes (or “Andinismo”). The mountains are accessed via an immense desert coastline, where pyramids and ancient fortresses are scattered within easy reach of several small resorts linked by vast, empty beaches. Between the coast and the Cordillera Blanca, sits the barren, dry and dark Cordillera Negra. Sliced north to south by these parallel ranges, the centre of Ancash is focused on the Huaraz Valley, known locally as the Callejón de Huaylas. The city of Huaraz offers most of the facilities required for exploring the valley and surrounding mountains, though there are more rural alternatives.
The departamento of Ancash was a rural backwater when it was created in 1839. These days, the main industries are fishing (mainly restricted to Chimbote, Peru’s largest fishing port), tourism (everywhere but Chimbote), mining (gold, silver, copper and zinc) and agriculture (primarily the cultivation of wheat, potatoes, maize corn and pulses, but also over forty percent of Peru’s commercial marigold flowers). The region has a population of just over one million, with 250,000 of these people living in or around Chimbote.
For Peruvian and overseas visitors alike, Ancash offers more in terms of trekking and climbing, beautiful snowcapped scenery, “alpine” flora and fauna and glaciated valleys than anywhere else in the country. It is also extremely rich in history and pre-Colombian remains as well as possessing a truly traditional living culture. Given the severe earthquake damage this area has suffered throughout the twentieth century, it may lack some of the colonial charm seen in Cusco, Arequipa, Cajamarca and Ayacucho, yet more than makes up for it with the majesty and scale of its scenery. At around 3000m above sea level, it is important to acclimatize to the altitude before undertaking any major hikes.
Nestling in the valleys, the departamento’s capital, Huaraz – a six- or seven-hour drive north from Lima – makes an ideal base for exploring the region. It’s the place to stock up, hire guides and mules, or relax after a breathtaking expedition. Besides being close to scores of exhilarating mountain trails, the city is also near the ancient Andean treasure, Chavín de Huantar, an impressive stone temple complex that was at the centre of a culturally significant puma-worshipping religious movement just over 2500 years ago.
To the east of the Cordillera Blanca, roughly parallel to the Callejón de Huaylas, runs another long natural corridor, the Callejón de Conchucos. Virtually inaccessible in the wet season, and off the beaten track even for the most hardened of backpackers, the valley represents quite a challenge, and while it features the town of Pomabamba in the north and the spectacular ruins at Chavín de Huantar just beyond its southern limit, there’s little of interest between the two. The villages of Piscobamba (Valley or Plain of the Birds) and Huari are likely to appeal only as food stops on the long haul (141km) through barren mountains between Pomabamba and Chavín.
The Callejón de Conchucos was out of bounds to travellers between 1988 and 1993, when it was under almost complete Sendero Luminoso terrorist control; many of the locals were forced to flee the valley after actual or threatened violence from the terrorists. The region’s more distant history was equally turbulent and cut off from the rest of Peru, particularly from the seat of colonial and Republican power on the coast. Until the Conquest, this region was home to one of the fiercest ancient tribes – the Conchucos – who surged down the Santa Valley and besieged the Spanish city of Trujillo in 1536. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, even the fearless Conchuco warriors had been reduced to virtual slavery by the colonial encomendero system.
To the south of Huaraz, the Cordillera Huayhuash offers much less frequented but just as stunning trekking trails as those in the Cordillera Blanca. Most treks start in the small town of Chiquián, 2400m above sea level. The most popular trek hereabouts is the Chiquián Loop, which leaves Chiquián heading for Llamac and the entire Cordillera loop. There is also an alternative trek from Chiquián that is much easier.
The mountains here, although slightly lower than the Cordillera Blanca and covering a much smaller area, nevertheless rise breathtakingly to 6634m at the Nevada Yerupajá, some 50km southeast of Chiquián as the crow flies. Yerupajá actually forms the watershed between the Cordillera Huayhuash to the north and the lower-altitude Cordillera Raura to the south. Large and stunning lakes, flocks of alpaca, herds of cattle and some sheep can be seen along the way. High levels of fitness and some experience are required for hiking or climbing in this region and it’s always best to tackle it as part of a team, or at least to have a local guide along. The guide will help to avoid the rather irritating dogs that look after the animals in these remote hills and his presence will also provide protection against the possible, but unlikely, threat of robbery.
The Ancash coast is a largely barren desert strip that quickly rises into Andean foothills when you head east and away from the ocean. Most people going this way will be travelling between Lima and either Huaraz (6–7hr) or Trujillo (8hr). Huaraz is reached by a turn-off from the Panamerican Highway following a well-maintained road that climbs furiously to the breathless heights of the Callejón de Huaylas. There is a small beach resort near Barranca, and Casma and Chimbote have some intriguing archeological sites nearby, and offer alternative routes up to Huaraz.
The town of CASMA, 170km north of Barranca, marks the mouth of the well-irrigated Sechin River Valley. Surrounded by corn and cotton fields, this small settlement is peculiar in that most of its buildings are just one storey high and all are modern. Formerly the port for the Callejón de Huaylas, the town was razed by the 1970 earthquake, whose epicentre was just offshore. There’s not a lot of interest here and little reason to break your journey, other than to try the local speciality of duck ceviche (flakes of duck meat soaked deliciously in lime and orange juice) or to explore the nearby ruins, such as the temple complex of Sechin, the ancient fort of Chanquillo and the Pañamarca pyramid, 20km north.
A partially reconstructed temple complex, the main section of the Sechin ruins is unusually stuck at the bottom of a hill, and consists of an outer wall clad with around ninety monolithic slabs engraved with sometimes monstrous representations of particularly nasty and bellicose warriors, along with their mutilated sacrificial victims or prisoners of war. Some of these stones, dating from between 1800 and 800 BC, stand 4m high. Hidden behind the standing stones is an interesting inner sanctuary – a rectangular building consisting of a series of superimposed platforms with a central stairway on either side. The site also contains the small Museo de Sitio Max Uhle, which displays photographs of the complex plus some of the artefacts uncovered here, as well as information and exhibits on Moche, Huari, Chimu, Casma and Inca cultures.
Some of the ceremonial centres at Sechin were built before 1400 BC, including the massive, U-shaped Sechin Alto complex (21km away near Buena Vista Alta; not accessible via public transport), at the time the largest construction in the entire Americas. Ancient coastal constructions usually favoured adobe as a building material, making this site rare in its extensive use of granite stone. Around 300m long by 250m wide, the massive stone-faced platform predates the similar ceremonial centre at Chavín de Huantar, possibly by as much as four hundred years. This means that Chavín could not have been the original source of the temple architectural style, and that much of the iconography and legends associated with what is known as the Chavín cultural phase of Peruvian prehistory actually began 3500 years ago down here on the desert coast.