After immersing myself in the tragic past of Huancavelica by visiting the Santa Barbara mine, it was time for me to get to know modern Huancavelica. Huancavelica is considered one of the poorest regions of Peru, probably due to its reliance on subsistence farming and the continuing depletion of its mercury deposits. However, Huancavelica has a rich connection to its cultural heritage, demonstrated by the art found throughout the city that celebrates its traditional dances and lively religious festivals. Further, Huancavelica’s artisans are some of the most talented in Peru, which has led to the development of artisan collectives to produce and sell its colorful knitted and woven goods both nationally and internationally. I decided to learn more about the city by wandering the streets, visiting the artisan markets, and checking out the attractions favored by locals.
The city of Huancavelica is divided by the Río Mantaro (Mantaro River) that runs through the center of town. The attractive Malecón Santa Rosa follows the path of the river and brings you to the main bridge that connects the two sides of the city. Crossing the bridge leads you to a steep staircase which climbs directly up to the Piscina de San Cristóbal, thermal baths popular with locals.
This is no ordinary staircase; the escalonada has been thoroughly decorated with stone mosaics, statues, and murals that celebrate the local dances performed at the annual festivals. These performances reenact the complex cultural heritage of contact between the Spanish colonizers and the indigenous population. In a city whose history consists of centuries of forced work in the deadly mine, these dances are particularly powerful.
In the end, I decided not to bathe in the thermal pools, but rather wandered around a bit, taking in the people doing their laundry in the fountains outside. Nearby, there was a building that technically houses an artisan market, part of the Complejo Ecoturístico de San Cristóbal, but it looked fairly empty and abandoned when I wandered around inside, all of the stands closed, probably only staffed during seasons of high tourism.
After visiting San Cristóbal, I headed back to the center of town to check out the Museo Regional Daniel Hernández Morillo located near the Plaza de Armas. While this museum is very small, it gives you a sense of the ancestral heritage of Huancavelica. I was more interested in the older maps on the wall near the entrance, which showed the layout of the mountain town, along with some quotations commemorating the tragedies suffered by the people of Huancavelica in the Mina de la Muerte (Mine of Death). There is also a small bookstore, where I purchased a book of traditional folk tales from the region.
Next, I stopped by Qampaq Arte’s boutique, located at Jr. Arica 230. This small store has some of the highest quality alpaca goods you can find in Huancavelica, which are displayed like the pieces of art they actually are. Qampaq Arte is the storefront for the fair trade handmade goods produced by their artisan collective. Most of the artisans live in the communities around Huancavelica, particularly Yauli. What is unique about Qampaq Arte is that they ask the artisans to produce for the international market, using luxurious alpaca wool rather than the more common acrylic blend, and adapting the local style to be more wearable outside of cultural events. I highly suggest stopping by their store, if only to admire the talent of their artisans.
Next, I walked along the main commercial stretch of Av. Manchego Muñoz to the train station. In addition to its artesanía and traditional dances, Huancavelica is known for the Tren Macho which runs between Huancayo and Huancavelica.
Unlike the train that runs between Cuzco and Agua Calientes, the Tren Macho is still an affordable passenger train and the safest, most interesting way to travel between the two cities. The train runs every other day, and I really wanted to ride it. I bought my ticket for the next day, leaving bright and early at 6:30AM.
After the train station, I wandered over the Plaza Ramón Castilla to see the Iglesia Santa Ana, the first church constructed in Huancavelica. As you can see, this church has a lot in common with the church in Santa Barbara. This plaza is definitely where the locals hang out and enjoy the sunshine. Located beneath the plaza is an underground market catering to locals with several stands selling traditional costumes for festivals as well as shawls and other clothing used by the women of Huancavelica on a daily basis.
From Plaza Ramón Castilla, I continued on to Villa Cariño and Seccsechaca, located on the outskirts of the city. Villa Cariño hosts an outdoor park with more thermal baths. To get there, you follow the train tracks across the river and then walk along well-worn paths and staircases through boulders and large rocks.
As I was wandering along the rocky paths, I looked out over the more residential part of town, with the modern, nondescript brick constructions common throughout Peru. Locals passed me on the paths, heading to and from the center of town. I enjoyed the walk, my relative solitude, and the gorgeous views.
However, there were no signs marking the way, I couldn’t spot the thermal baths through the rocks, and eventually I felt a little uncomfortable climbing around on my own with my fancy camera. In the end, I never made it to Seccsachaca, where I could have visited the Baños del Inca and Tres Boas (which you can see at the end of this blog post).
I retraced my steps along the train tracks that I would be traveling along the next morning and headed back into town.
I decided to take another route back into town, following a different road which ran parallel to the river and the train tracks. This gave me more views of the residential part of town, whose buildings reminded me just a little bit of Huaycán.
On the way, I spotted this mural painted by Dircetur, the regional tourism office, encouraging the people of Huancavelica to embrace tourism. Huancavelica does not receive a lot of tourists and I found that the locals were generally disinterested in my presence, which I honestly didn’t mind too much. I think this is why some travelers are drawn to the small cities of central Peru; it feels a little more authentic to be ignored rather than courted.
Back in the center of town, I took advantage of the last of the daylight hours to go shopping for the gorgeous artesanía I’d come there for. I’d read that the most talented artisans travel from their villages and sell their handknit gloves, hats, and scarves along Av. Manchego Muñoz, near the Plaza de Armas, under the blue Municipal building (Municipio). Just walk towards the train station from the Plaza de Armas and you’ll spot the stands selling machine knit, generic goods. The women from the surrounding villages, such as Yauli, sit on the ground on a tarp spread with their handknit masterpieces, selling at prices that are so low that it actually hurts my heart. Many of these women sell items knit from alpaca, thanks to the encouragement of fair trade organizations that have helped them trust in the quality of their art. I bought several pairs of gloves, leg warmers, and arm warmers knit in the colorful traditional style, like you see here.
Further down Av. Manchego Muñoz at No. 420 is the storefront of another artisan group, Pacha Artesanas. I recognized their shawls and asked if they had shown their knitted goods in Lima at the De Nuestras Manos market. Of course, they had been there, and they also travel to the United States on occasion for expositions of Latin American artwork. I highly suggest looking for this shop; be sure to ask which goods are locally produced. (You can see the legwarmers I bought from a woman from Yauli and a hat I purchased from Pacha Artesanas in the photo of me at Boston Bike Party at the bottom of this post.)
On this particular day, all of Huancavelica was out in the main plaza to celebrate the life of their Monseñor, who had recently passed away. Like many Andean cities, Huancavelica is a deeply religious place and the entire town shut down with parades and musical performances honoring this man.
By the end of my third day in Huancavelica, I felt like I had experienced the best of Huancavelica and was eager to continue on to Huancayo, just in time for my birthday.
I left La Portada early in the morning to walk over to the train station for the 6:30 departure. At this altitude, carrying my heavy pack uphill was a challenge, so I gave myself extra time! I found my seat in the reserved buffet car, across from a friendly young medical student who attended university in Huancayo. She encouraged me to try the warm drink being sold by enterprising women wandering the aisles, a mixture of apple juice cooked with quinoa. Seriously delicious.
The Tren Macho is a century old; it began service in 1926 and was modernized in 2008. It covers 128 kilometers, passing through 38 tunnels and over 15 bridges. The Tren Macho was supposedly named for its unreliable service in the past, which was likened to a stereotypical chauvinist man: as the saying goes, “parte cuando quiere y llega cuando puede,” or it leaves when it wants and arrives when it can.
Today, there is a buffet car with reserved seating for S/.13, and open seating for S/.9. If you’re hungry, you can buy a full meal from the on-board restaurant, which looked amazing (but not vegetarian friendly at all). Otherwise, you can wait for the stops in the small towns along the way, where vendors get on board to sell their local delicacies. On a Thursday, there weren’t quite as many vendors as I had expected, but I did get bread and piña, or a slice of pineapple, a two of the stops.
One of the things I liked best about my trip was that I had my backpacks in view the whole time, stored on the luggage rack above my head. I ended up spending most of the ride chatting with the medical student, as well as a young civil engineer who couldn’t resist his curiosity about this adventurous gringa in their midst and joined us.
Knowing I was among friends, I snapped pictures of the rocky hillsides and greenery that passed by the window. I loved the relaxed ride, especially once we got into the sun and the chilly car began to warm up!
As we arrived into Huancayo, the scenery was definitely different, more agricultural, and more forested.
The train runs right through these fields, giving you a nice introduction to the natural beauty that surrounds Huancayo.
Riding the Tren Macho is definitely one of the most unique and authentic things you can do in this region, giving you a chance to see the countryside, eat local food, and meet friendly Peruvians.
After we arrived, my new friends put me into a taxi to my hostel in Huancayo. After such a beautiful train ride, I was ready to explore the city and countryside of Huancayo!
Recommendations for Huancavelica, Peru:
- If you’re interested in learning more about the history and culture of Huancavelica, you should visit the Museo Regional Daniel Hernández Morillo, half a block from the Plaza de Armas at the Plazoleta de San Juan de Dios. If you read Spanish, this Wikipedia article has a nice summary of Huancavelica’s history.
- If you love artesanía, particularly hand-knit and crocheted gloves, scarves, hats, and shawls, Huancavelica has some of the most talented artisans in Peru. There are several artisan collectives and fair trade organizations operating out of Huancavelica and its surrounding towns. Yauli, the town closest to Huancavelica, is known for its Sunday market. Artisans from Yauli commute to Huancavelica every day to sell their artesania on Av. Manchego Muñoz near the Plaza de Armas. There is also a small alleyway of artisan stands directly across the Plaza de Armas from the Cathedral, an artisan market near the Piscina de San Cristóbal, and a local market below the Plaza Ramón Castilla next to the Iglesia Santa Ana. Qampaq Arte sells super high quality scarves, sweaters, and other knitted masterpieces at its storefront at Jr. Arica 230 (near the museum). There is also a storefront filled with goods from another artisan collective on Av. Manchego Muñoz. Support Huancavelica’s artisans! (Here are some suggestions of where and what to buy in Huancavelica, if you read Spanish.)
- You should definitely visit Seccsechaca at Villa Cariño. If you get a map from the tourist office, you can follow the marked route there by walking along Av. Manchego Muñoz and crossing over to Jr. O’Donovan (which runs parallel) once you reach the Iglesia Santa Ana. Follow this street to its end and then follow the train tracks to Villa Cariño. It is not well-marked but it is a footpath followed by locals so you can ask around for directions. Seccsechaca hosts two thermal baths, the Baños del Inca and Tres Boas (which you can see at the end of this blog post).
- If you’d rather stick to the thermal baths in town, visit the Piscina de San Cristóbal by following the river until you find the wide staircase lined with artwork celebrating Huancavelica’s cultural heritage. Even if you aren’t interested in the thermal baths, the artwork along the way is absolutely worth seeing.
- If you visit Huancavelica, you have to take the Tren Macho to or from Huancayo. The full route costs S/.9 or S/.13 if you want an assigned seat in the buffet car. You can buy food on board, either from the train’s own restaurant or from the local vendors who sometimes get on at each stop along the route. If for some reason you can’t take the train yourself, please check out these amazing photos which capture the spirit of the ride by Oscar Durand, a talented Peruvian photographer/photojournalist.
- This blog post also has some great photos and videos of the trip on the Tren Macho as well as the artisans and artesanía around Huancavelica.
- The Wikitravel guide for Huancavelica has some great suggestions, including how to get to the Incan ruins at Uchkus-Incañan and the Sunday market in Yauli.
[Huancavelica, Peru to Huancayo, Peru: August 21-22, 2013]