Chavín de Huántar
Chavín de Huántar (tel. 043/42-4042, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, US$3.50), four hours east of Huaraz, was the capital of the Chavín culture, which spread across Peru’s northern highlands 2,000–200 B.C. The site includes a sunken plaza ringed with stylized carvings of pumas and priests holding the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. A broad stairway leads to a U-shaped stone temple, called the Castillo, which rises 13 meters off the ground in three levels of stone.
This site was visited by Italian explorer Antonio Raymondi in the 19th century and later excavated in the early 20th century by Julio Tello. Both men brought back elaborately carved pillars, which are now on display in Lima’s museums.
Tello developed an elaborate theory that Chavín de Huántar was the launching pad for all of Peru’s advanced cultures. Recent excavations have revealed that the city was preceded by Caral and other important centers on the coast, but Chavín’s importance is still irrefutable.
During its peak from 400–200 B.C., the Chavín culture spread across Peru as far as Ayacucho in the south and Cajamarca in the north. Its exotic deities, which included the puma and a mythical deity with a staff in its hand, became central icons throughout Peru’s ancient art and iconography.
The highlight of Chavín de Huántar is the series of underground chambers beneath the main temple. Illuminated by electric light, three of these passages converge underground at an extraordinary stone carving, known as the Lanzón.
This granite pillar is carved with a frightening mythical being, which has thick, snarling lips and a pair of menacing, upward-arching canines. Heavy earrings hang from the ears and snakes appear to grow from the head. The notched top of the pillar extends upward into an upper gallery, where priests may once have performed rituals.
Its underground architecture gives Chavín de Huántar an entirely different feel than the other cultural ruins of northern Peru. The sensation is part-playful and part-terrifying. As you wind your way through impressive, ventilated tunnels that once led to dressing and ceremonial rooms, you can’t help imagine the terrible existence of the prisoners who were also kept in the tight underground passageways.
There is an excellent weavers co-op in Chavín (across from the Centro de Salud, 2–6:30 p.m. daily). You have to knock to be let in, but the Centro Artesanal’s sweaters, tablecloths, and hand-knit shawls are worth a heavy pounding. Made by local women, who study weaving at the center, the textiles are brightly colored and high quality. If you ask, you can usually see the women at work.
Hostal La Casona (Plaza de Armas 130, tel. 043/45-9004, US$5 s without bath, US$10 d with bath) offers pleasant rooms circled around a stone patio. All rooms have good beds and TV. Bathrooms may be private or shared.
Once a busy house full of eight children, Gran Hotel R’ickay (17 de Enero 172, tel. 043/45-4068, www.hotelrickay.com, US$22 s, US$38 d) is now a quiet and clean hotel. Rooms are a bit dark, but they are wrapped around sunny patios.
Café Renato (Huayna Cápac 285, Plaza de Armas, tel. 043/50-4279, 7 a.m.–10 p.m. daily) makes its own yogurt, cheese, and manjar, which it serves up in a small corridor of a patio. The café can also arrange horseback riding trips.
Close by is La Portada (17 de Enero 311, tel. 043/50-4292, 7 a.m.–8 p.m. daily, US$2–6), which has good food, including cuy and conejo (rabbit).
Next door to the ruins, Buongiorno (17 de Enero 520, tel. 043/45-4112, 7 a.m.–8 p.m. daily, US$2–5) has a flavorful and interesting menu, which features local foods like trout, guinea pig, and pachamanca. Service can be slow.
At lunchtime, Restaurant Chavín (17 de Enero 439, tel. 043/45-4051, 7 a.m.–10 p.m. daily) is full of tour groups filling up on trout, chicken, and rabbit. Word has it that the restaurant serves a mean pastel de manzanas (apple pie).
Getting to Chavín de Huántar
Many Huaraz agencies offer a day tour to Chavín de Huántar, which leaves Huaraz at 9:30 a.m. and returns about 10 hours later. Although this is an efficient way to see the ruins, with a tour group, you are unlikely to perceive the true magnitude of the sight, because all agencies hit the ruins at the same hour (right after lunch). There’s a bit of herding as people try to move in and out of tight spaces.
There is a spectacular trek that crosses the southern end of the Cordillera Blanca from Olleros, a village just south of Huaraz, to Chavín de Huántar. The trek, which is not crowded, heads along an ancient trade route up and over Yanashallash Pass at 4,700 meters.
From Huaraz, Chavín Express buses (Mariscal Cáceres 338, Huaraz, tel. 043/42-4652, 5 a.m.–10 p.m. daily) head to the town of Chavín, about one kilometer north of the ruins. Until 4 or 5 p.m., regular combis head through the valley toward San Marcos.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition