Huanchaco through Canon del Pato to Caraz 31 May:
We leave Huanchaco expecting a very full day’s drive. The drive down the coast to Santa goes so fast we can hardly quite believe we’re at the turn-off already. At a gas station various folks offer varying opinions on how long the drive should take us.
Soon enough, though we’re on a truly evil dirt road with lots of large rocks, and although we’re intermittently driving along a stream, the walls on each side are rocks or sand, with little sign that anything would be sufficiently demented to try to grow here. At some point there’s a barrier and a passport-check, and we buy a couple of cold cokes, knowing there isn’t much up ahead; and as soon as we get passed the checkpoint, the road gets worse. Higher up, there are 37 tunnels. I read that somewhere, I don’t count. It feels like more.
On the way there, we work our way up a very dry canyon. The heat, the aridity, or the steepness has the car suddenly overheating, for the first time since we bought it — and we’re uncertain whether we’ll reach water before the radiator boils over. I want to go a little faster, to help the engine cool itself off, and I want to go a little slower, to avoid kicking up rocks that could damage something underneath the car. For a lot of kilometers I watch the dashboard as closely as the road, as the needle flirts keeps caressing the top end of the temperature guage, teasing for a moment then retreating slightly, then jumping up again. Finally, just before we do reach a town, the needle falls back to its accustomed home at the midpoint, and stays there.
It’s not a day when our mood or the countryside leads us to stop a whole lot to shoot photographs. Around mid-day, I do shoot a few at a coal-mine that strikes me as hellish: the environment is dry, hot, dusty, and barren, and these guys live here for some period of time. Access to the mine itself is over a foot-bridge across the river, and we see a few men carrying large burdens across. Other than those and a few shots of the countryside, we’re paying too much attention to road and radiator to shoot pictures.
Caraz — and Huaraz, the larger town an hour or two south of it — I have wanted to visit since I first started thinking about the trip. The Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra . . . numbers of high peaks . . . special beauty, yet not as popular as Cuzco.
My understanding is that this area has incredible natural beauty, but is not nearly so popular with tourists as Cuzco and Macchu Picchu. Thus the local folks . . . no bermuda shorts . . . without the crime and tension now turning into a problem in Cuzco. Most of the foreign visitors who turn up here are trekkers.
Starting about 20 km. before Caraz, we’re driving through a placid, green valley.
We reach Caraz early enough to wander about trying to find and compare various affordable hostals we’ve read about. We settle on Hostal Tumshukaiko, and check in and have a coffee.
After dark, we walk down through a surprisingly lively open-air mercado to the Plaza de Armas, and happen on a new restaurant not mentioned by the Lonely Planet folks only because it’s just three months old. [Café Venetia, on the east side of the Plaza; S./ 46 for a pretty good supper and two glasses of wine; opened in March 2008 by a fellow who lived several years in the U.S. and speaks English.]
Upstairs some tables boast a very good view of the plaza, which we suspect will soon become meaningful. Plenty of Peruvians are gathered in the plaza, anticipating something, and soon after we finish our food there begin fireworks and a parade. Numerous young folks in ghoulish or other outlandish masks, and brightly colored costumes, crack whips as they move slowly around the plaza, followed by a couple of floats with girls in white waving like Texas homecoming queens and tossing bits of something to the masses. Cheerful – and plenty of fun for the kids.
Hostal Tumshukaiko, S./ 80, including breakfast. Basic, pleasant, convenient to Plaza de Armas but a few blocks away and quieter. A local man who spoke good English told us at supper that the hostal was the best in town [and that there was a better one just outside town, across the river, but then you’re outside town and across the river in the evening, which I guess he thought would be inconvenient]. It may be, although the Hostal La Alameda also looked appealing and quiet.
Cafe Venetia, on the east side of the plaza, was just three months old when we went there, and just not mentioned by the Lonely Planet folks. It’s probably the best restaurant in town, certainly the best we ran across. The second floor has a nice view of the Plaza, and S./ 46 bought us a pretty good supper and two glasses of wine. The owner lived several years in the U.S. and speaks English. [Note: it may be on the site where El Mirador was.
If you undertake the drive from Santa to Caraz, undertake it with respect. There ain’t a lot up there, the road is uncomfortable, and the canon dry. I wouldn’t say you need a four-wheel drive vehicle, but there’s so much loose rock that I doubt the drive would be slow and painstaking without four-wheel drive. As I recall, we didn’t pass many vehicles of any kind on the way up; and we didn’t find the Canon de Pato so breathtakingly beautiful as to warrant going this way unless based on your plans before or after Caraz, it’s saving you a much longer drive.