Guest Post by Greg de Villiers
Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.
Ancash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.
The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.
Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.
The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.
The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)
The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.
The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.
The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.
A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.
The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.