Like most gringos, we came to Huaraz, Peru, to climb some big snowy peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, a 112-mile range with settled weather and 16 6,000-meter (19,685-foot) goliaths, including the hulking Huascarán (22,205 feet).
Huaraz is situated at 10,000 feet and base camps are typically around 14,000 feet, so it makes sense to spend a few days in the city acclimatizing, lining up supplies and getting to know the town. During this lull we discovered that mountaineering was just one of the many diversions to be found in the pleasantly cosmopolitan city of 100,000. Between trips to the mountains we lived a life of dissipation: breakfast at Café Andino on the square, bouldering on the nearby granite blocks of Huanchac, steaming in the eucalyptus sauna, feasting on anticuchos (skewered beef heart), cuy (guinea pig) and cancha (a toasted corn snack), drinking Pilsen Callao and Cusquenas till 5 p.m. and then switching to rounds of Pisco Sours at the Vagamundo travel bar, and finally dancing in our mountain boots and smelly polypro at the Tambo Disco with shy, young, dark-eyed Peruvian girls. We’d roll up to Zarela’s Hostel at an ungodly pre-dawn hour, rattle the gate to wake the guard, fall into bed and repeat the next day.
At some point I noticed a large-format photo book called Bosque de Piedras (Forest of Rocks) on the table at Zarela’s. It showed acres of odd towers, convoluted faces and mazes of overhanging, knurled blocks that squatted on perfectly flat pampas grass plats like an abandoned game of monster jacks. When I asked Zarela about the area she explained that it was an ancient pre-Incan holy place known for abundant rock art and ghosts.
“The rocks talk,” she said. “You can hear them if you know how to listen. It’s called Hatun Machay, which means ‘Big Cave’ in Quechua.”
The next day I hired a taxi and rode for an hour and a half to the edge of the stone forest, which abruptly broke the gently rolling 14,000-foot altiplano into stone corridors, boulders and cliffs. I walked along the border of the rocks until I reached a path leading inside and scrambled up an easy face to get perspective. The towers marched to the horizon.
As I slowly wandered the labyrinth, other paths crisscrossed the main trail. I wound through the carved towers and after a few hours I wasn’t sure which direction led out, and which way took me deeper into the warren. I ducked into a cave with some strange hieroglyphs and ran my hand over jugs and flakes. The rock was featured volcanic tuff, variable in quality, but highly climbable. On the right margin of the cave, I found a group of human figures etched deeply into the stone. They were misshapen with bloated abdomens, enormous genitals and block-shaped heads.
At that moment I heard a quiet voice speaking in a peculiar, vowel-rich language. It echoed faintly around the cave. I was alone and lost in a legendary stronghold of heart-eating pre-Incan spirits. The rocks were talking to me. Soon it would be dark.
I opened my pocketknife, stepped outside the cave and came face to face with a four-foot-tall, barefoot goatherder. He was dressed in a wool shawl and kilt, holding a crooked stick and wearing a conical felt hat pulled so far down his forehead it almost covered his eyes. When I stepped out of the cave he gasped and raised the stick. I let out a short yelp and skipped off deeper into the rocks.
Before long I reached a natural corral that hemmed some goats. Inside the corral a small round hut with a thatched roof was built out of boulders. Smoke coiled from the chimney and another hobbit-like person sat on the threshold sucking noisily on a clay pipe. I raised my hand in greeting, but he (or she?) just looked at me, unperturbed.
Somehow, through luck or instinct, I found my way back to the taxi and returned to Huaraz. Nobody seemed to know anything about climbing at Hatun Machay, so I left a note at the Casa de Guias suggesting that the area offered a lot of potential for sport climbing and bouldering. I didn’t mention my encounter with the locals. They seemed nice enough.
I returned to Hatun Machay a couple of times and explored the maze with a crashpad. The problems we found varied from excellent to horrible. The steep rock tends to be blank or featured with slopers and gritty tufa-like intrusions that are fun to squeeze. We unearthed a few cracks and slabs, but the friable edges and the height of many of the rocks made highballing scary. Since the area is vast, I figured that zones of quality rock would be discovered. And with Hatun Machay so close to Huaraz, the gateway to the Cordillera Blanca, climbers would be coming. More traffic would help clean up the boulders.
The sport-climbing potential appeared to be endless, with ranks and ranks of compact walls receding downhill toward a small village I believe is called Pampas Chicas. Some of the best-looking sport walls and caves are located down there.
Over the past few years Hatun Machay has become a hotspot. A local climber built a refugio on the flat place where my taxi parked and has bolted dozens of routes, and cleaned up bunches of boulders. While it’s probably not worth a trip to Peru just to climb at Hatun Machay, this mystical rock forest of the Cordillera Negra should not be missed if you’re in the region. Bring shoes, ropes, draws, a compass for exploring, and a couple of fresh hearts for the gods.
THE CLIMBING SEASON RUNS FROM MAY TO JUNE and August to September. Expect long periods of dry and sunny weather, cold nights and infrequent storms. Average highs to 65 F and lows to 45 F.
HUANCHAC/ JANANHIRCA BOULDERING
Huanchac is located about 15 minutes to the northeast of Huaraz at 10,500 feet. You can take a taxi from Huaraz for around $2. Here you can find eight boulders with lines from V0 to V8, 10 to 25 feet high with great landings. If the cowherd gives you a hard time, just give her 2 soles, which is about 70 cents.
Jananhirca is very popular for bouldering among locals and tourists. To reach it, get off before Huanchac in Huacrajirca on the top of a hill by a concrete arch. Head left along a trail, make your first right past the homes and walk down the hillside. One of the best-known boulders is called Gato Seco, with problems from V0 to V10.
Both areas offer high-quality, featured granite and flat landings in a beautiful mountain-ringed setting.
Located south of Huaraz near Lake Conococha, approximately one and a half hours from Huaraz. You can catch a taxi for around $40 round trip if you are going for a day. For more than one day, try to arrange return transportation since it is difficult to catch a ride back.
Alternately, you can take a public bus (combi) from Huaraz to the town of Catac for $1.25 per person.
From there taxis can be hired to Hatun Machay for $10.
You’ll find routes from 100 to 264 feet high, from 5.8 to 5.13a. There are hundreds of sport routes and many uniquely shaped boulders to try. You can camp, or stay at a rustic refugio with bunk beds, fireplace and kitchen for $7/night. Maps of the area are available at the Mountclimb climbing shop in Huaraz or at the refugio.
El Horno Pizzeria and Grill: 6ta. Cuadra Luzuriaga Ave. French owned and known for their wood-fired pizza, roasted meats and the best lasagna in Huaraz.
Café Andino: 530 Lucar y Torre Jr. Great coffee, free wifi and American-style food.
Pachamama Restaurant: 687 San Martin Ave. Good place to hang out playing darts or pool. Serving typical Peruvian-style food with bar.
WHERE TO STAY
La Casa de Zarela: 1263 Julio Arguedas Jr. ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
Very friendly staff adept at finding cooks and arrieros. Safe and clean.
Edward’s Inn: 121 Bolognesi Av. ( email@example.com) One of the most popular hostels in Huaraz, with excellent location and great atmosphere.
Hostal Quintana: 411 Mariscal A. Caceres Jr. (www.hostal-quintana.com) Located two blocks from the Huaraz Main Square with great view of the mountains from the terrace. This is a wonderful place to stay and meet fellow English-speaking trekkers and climbers.
ROCK CLIMBING TOPOS AND BETA
Mountclimbtravel: 421 Mariscal A. Caceres Jr. www.mountclimbtravel.com Climbing and trekking expeditions, mountain equipment rental, logistical support, free climbing information, climbing topos, maps, books, updates.
Casa de Guias: 28G Parque Ginebra (51) 43 421811 Situated near the Plaza de Armas, this is the spot to gather information about all kinds of climbing, recent snow and weather conditions, and notices from people looking for climbing partners.
The central market is mainly a food market but also sells a wide selection of household items, and a nice selection of veggies, fruit, dry goods and meat. Located on De La Cruz Romero and Avenida Raymondi and open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There are other smaller grocery stores on Luzuriaga Ave.
If you’re looking for handmade alpaca articles like sweaters, bags, blankets and trinkets, go to the market east of the Plaza De Armas. You can also find little stands with scarves, hats and gloves sold by local women in the streets.
Monterrey, four miles north of Huaraz, is the closest hot spring. Baths and pools with thermal water a bit brown in color but natural. Cost is $2 for entry. Best way to get there is by taxi, $2 one-way.
Chancos has a large and small pool next to natural vapor caves. These springs, located 17 miles outside of Huaraz, are more rural and cost $2. A direct taxi costs around $10 one-way or you can take a combi (with a bunch of people) for $1.25 to Marcara and from there, take a collectivo ($.50) two miles to Chancos. Be sure to check out the tasty choclo (Peruvian corn) sold by the local women.Monster Jacks.