If you’re spending an extended amount of time in Huancayo, you can really get to know the region. You can explore its natural wonders and do some hiking by heading to the rock towers at Torre Torre and the Bosque Dorado in nearby Paccha. You can explore artisan traditions by taking in the mates burilados at Cochas Chico, traditional hats in San Agustín de Cajas, weavings in Hualhuas, and gold and silver jewelry in San Jerónimo de Tunan. You can visit the fascinating parks in the center of Huancayo or head to Jauja to visit the Laguna de Paca.
If you want to know more about the history of the region, be sure to visit the Franciscan convent at Santa Rosa de Ocopa, but if you really want to get off the beaten track, you should head to Huari, in Huancán, near Huancayo, where you can visit pre-Incan ruins related to the Wari/Huari, another giant empire that once ruled much of what is now Peru. (You can read more about the Wari in my post about visiting Wari ruins in Ayacucho.)
And while you’re over in this part of Huancayo, you should head to Chongos Bajo, founded in 1532 and one of the oldest towns in the region. Both can be visited on a day trip from Huancayo that is really off the tourist trail but well worth your time.
Huari and Wariwillka
The little population of Huari is located on the outskirts of Huancayo, basically where the most distant neighborhoods of the city turn into small farms.
You’ll know you’ve arrived because of these statues in the tiny plaza, commemorating the Wari people who once had one of their major sites here. (And, well, because it’s the last stop on the bus!)
The plaza also displays replicas of the ceramic tradition followed by the Wari, as you can see here.
Although I’d done my research on the ruins of Wariwillca before hopping on the bus, I’d heard conflicting reports about whether it was open on Mondays and decided to risk it. Unfortunately, it’s not – so I wasn’t able to head inside the ruins and decided to just walk the perimeter to see what I could scope out.
Although this site was once very extensive, the ruins that are currently preserved are pretty small. That said, the legends about the place seem fascinating (some details in Spanish here) and it’s probably well-worth hearing what the guide has to say.
I think this photo particularly captures what it was like for me to be outside, looking in. Travel fail! 🙂
In any case, I enjoyed the peacefulness of the little población, which probably doesn’t see that many foreign visitors.
In the end, it was worth heading here just for the views looking over the Valle del Mantaro. When you’re traveling by bus through the Huancayo/Junín region, you pass through so many hills like this one. This photo transports me back. <3
Since it was a beautiful day, I decided to continue on to Chongos Bajo, located a little further outside of Huancayo and also easily accessible by public bus. If for nothing else, this trip is worth it to admire the views passing through the foothills of the Andes.
Chongos Bajo is one of the oldest towns in Peru. Once inhabited by the Wanka, then taken over by the Incas, this city was one of the first invaded by the Spanish colonizers.
The city was founded as Santiago León de Chongos in 1534 and became one of the first places where the Inquisición took place.
The Spanish were particularly interested in this area when they found gold and silver nearby. I wonder if the golden lions are a reminder of that former richness.
The Iglesia Matriz (mother church) was built in 1565, and much of the construction is original, having survived centuries. In fact, that was the reason I was told to visit – the history and art contained within the church.
Although I did not know this at the time, there is also a beautiful little chapel located in the foothills of Chongos Bajo. The Capilla el Copón was founded in 1550 by Inés Muñoz de Alcántara, Francisco Pizarro’s cousin and apparently the first Spanish woman who arrived to Peru.
If you do make it to Chongos Bajo, be sure to visit this little photogenic chapel too (and send me pictures!).
Even this little side chapel had beautiful art. There was so much to see in and around the plaza.
In the plaza, you can also spot these fascinating statues in costumes reflecting the dances of the region (the other one leads this post up). I enjoyed that each town I visited had a unique representation of the strong Huanca (regional) identity.
But what most surprised me about my visit to Chongos Bajo was this cross in the center of the plaza, called the Cani Cruz, a much venerated symbol of devotion.
Every single day, the faithful flock to this cross to pray and give offerings of flowers and candles. The effect of all this devotion is that the spot has a very different, peaceful energy that I personally could feel in the air. I can understand why this has become a pilgrimage site of sorts.
After exploring the plaza I walked down some of the side streets to get a sense of the town. I loved the sense of being surrounded by the hills. Here in Chongos Bajo, I felt like I was in the middle of the Andes, experiencing life as it occurs on a daily basis.
Despite its long history, Chongos Bajo is a well-kept secret in the Junín region. If you want to see what life is really like near Huancayo, it’s only a bus ride away.
It’s towns like these that inspire me throughout my travels, and maybe it’s because I’m from a small town myself. I love beautiful landscapes and fascinating ruins as much as anyone else, but slow travel means getting to spend time exploring places like Chongos Bajo, where centuries-old traditions continue in the middle of the Andes.
Recommendations for Huari and Chongos Bajo, near Huancayo, Peru:
The archeological site of Wariwillca in Huari is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9AM to 1PM and then from 2-5PM. Don’t make the mistake of going on a Monday because you won’t be able to visit!
The buses to Huari leave from one of the plazas in Huancayo, but check locally to be sure. To get to Chongos Bajo after Huari, ask the cobrador or driver to drop you off at the traffic circle where you can then catch a bus to Chongos Bajo. They’re both located in the same part of Huancayo but on different combi routes, so just ask!
Chongos Bajo has so much history and is well-worth the visit just for the views along the way. Be sure to visit the Iglesia Matriz, the Cani Cruz, and the Capilla el Copón. This is a rural town where you can get a sense of daily life outside the busy city of Huancayo and was probably the place I most enjoyed visiting in Huancayo (and I loved Huancayo).
If you’re intrigued by central Peru, particularly Ayacucho, Huancavelica, and Huancayo, chances are you’re attracted by one of three things: strong artisanal traditions, the chance to experience living culture, or a deep curiosity for the history of the region. Although the views of the sierra central (central highlands) are stunning (just glance at my photos of Paccha if you’re harboring any doubts), Peru is filled with gorgeous landscapes. So there has to be something else that draws you there.
For me, it was a little of all three, but I was especially interested in learning more about the textiles and silver jewelry that are crafted in the Valle del Mantaro. So I knew I had to head to the small towns that dot the carretera central (central highway) outside Huancayo: Hualhuas, San Jerónimo de Tunan, and Concepción. (I’d already learned about mates burilados in Cochas Chico.)
Lucky for me, they’re all easily accessible with public transportation, which gave me the chance to do a self-guided, slow-paced tour of the Valle del Mantaro. And if you have the time, I highly suggest you travel this way too.
My first stop in the Mantaro Valley was Hualhuas, a small town located about 12 kilometers from Huancayo and easily accessible on one of the buses that runs between Huancayo and Concepción. My motivation to visit Hualhuas was twofold: not only did I want to see the colorful weavings that Hualhuas is known for, but I also knew that Hualhuas was celebrating its annual fiestas during my visit.
After getting dropped off at the entrada (entrance) to Hualhuas, I jumped into a mototaxi to head to the main plaza. On the way, we picked up a trombone player running a little late to the celebrations in front of the church. He was a little surprised to see a foreigner on her own, but gave me a brief explanation of the importance of the music and dance and encouraged me to stick around to watch him perform.
I’d arrived just on time, as the party was just getting started. Everyone from Hualhuas was hanging out in the main plaza, eating snacks from the wandering vendors, enjoying cases filled with big bottles of beer, kids running around playing with toys. And then the dances began, and I tried to find a discreet spot to watch the dancers and take pictures.
As I mentioned on Instagram, most Andean dances play with power and parody, serving as expressions of cultural survival and endurance. You can see the men above are wearing wigs and often masks, whereas the women are in especially fancy versions of local dress, carrying baby dolls tied into their mantas as they dance.
Despite my research back in grad school about Peruvian music, there’s a lot I don’t remember about Andean dance traditions, but one thing that stuck in my mind is that many of them mock the way Spanish ruled during the colonial era. You can see a reminder of those times in the mural above.
After some of the dances, the entire town joined in a religious procession around the plaza before entering the church. This elaborately dressed icon was paraded in circles, passing through artistic mats made of flower petals.
This reminded me of watching the Easter Sunday celebrations in Huaraz earlier that year. Even if you don’t understand all the aspects of another community’s devotion, it can be moving just the same.
After watching the celebrations for a while, I wandered around the food stands near the plaza, hoping to find vendors selling some of those famous weavings, but I left without any luck. Thankfully, I was able to buy some at the feria dominical in Huancayo the next day. You can see that Hualhuas is called the “cradle of textile art” in the photo above!
(If you’re interested in learning more about the textile traditions and yarn, the fantastic blog Vida Huancaína has lots of pictures of what Hualhuas looks like on a normal day – with stores open for business! This is what the traditional weaving style of Hualhuas looks like.)
San Jerónimo de Tunan
Next up was another lovely little town set within the foothills of the Valle de Mantaro: San Jerónimo de Tunan. Where Hualhuas is known for its weavings and Cochas Chico is known for its carved mates, San Jerónimo is known for its silversmithing. (As I mention in my post on Cochas Chico, the Spanish made sure that each community had a specific skill to keep them busy and paying tribute to the crown.)
San Jerónimo is a typical small Andean town with a quiet, tree-lined plaza, attractive statues celebrating local dances, and businesses all around the plaza.
It seemed that there was another fiesta going on here as well, but it may just have been a family celebration. I wandered around the plaza and over to the Saturday market, getting a sense for the place.
But let’s be honest, San Jerónimo is a small town; the real attraction is the jewelry.
Lucky for shoppers, the main street is lined with stores selling jewelry at extremely affordable prices. There are many different stores and it’s worth taking your time to find the place that sells pieces that are more your style.
I wandered in and out of the shops, resisting my impulse to buy too many pieces, although there were a lot that caught my eye! Most earrings cost about S/. 30-35, or $10 USD, so it would have fit within my budget. The four pairs of earrings I walked away with continue to be some of my favorites three years later (I’m even wearing a pair as I write this, unintentionally!)
If you’re into jewelry, San Jerónimo has some of the best pieces I saw in all of Peru and Ecuador. Look at those details! If you’re lucky, they may even offer you a tour of the workshops in the back. And since they do so much business, there isn’t too much pressure to buy, although you’re absolutely going to be tempted if you like jewelry!
Purchases made, it was time to head to Concepción. Concepción is a slightly larger town with several churches worth looking at; it also has well-preserved colonial buildings and a laid-back vibe.
I spent a little while just wandering around the plaza and taking in the buildings. There’s a historical vibe to Concepción that reminded me a lot of Ayacucho with its many churches.
So many well-preserved colonial balconies! And look at this amazing interior patio! I could have spent a couple of hours just wandering the streets of Concepción trying to spot interesting architecture.
But at this point it was mid-afternoon, and I knew I had limited time to visit my final destination for the day: the convent at Santa Rosa de Ocopa.
Santa Rosa de Ocopa
The final destination for any tour through the Valle de Mantaro is Santa Rosa de Ocopa, a convent founded way back in 1725 by the Franciscans.
Even if you’re not religious, heading to a place that has seen so much history and so many changes over the years is pretty fascinating. This banner says “God, make me an instrument of your peace.”
The Renaissance-style church is open to the public and is well worth a look, with its vividly painted artwork and colorful altars.
There is also the opportunity to wander around the outside of the convent, taking in the size and peaceful location inside a forest. With few other visitors besides us, it seemed like a nice place to have a picnic and there were families hanging out there.
If you want to get inside the convent, they offer tours that enable you to see a vast number of paintings in religious themes, as well as the celebrated library containing over 20,000 volumes, maps of the Franciscan missions in Peru, a small museum dedicated mostly to butterflies and insects from the jungle, and the main attraction, a brightly painted mural. Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside, but it gives you a sense into how this convent has operated for centuries.
Regardless of how I feel about the impact of religious missions over the years, visiting the convent enabled me to understand a little more about how this tradition has influenced the region, particularly the religious art produced by the talented painters of the escuela cuzqueña.
After a very peaceful tour, I headed back to the tiny plaza near the convent, where a combi was collecting passengers to head back to Huancayo. Returning was as easy as that!
Recommendations for the Valle del Mantaro, Junín, Peru:
If you are interested in learning more about this region, I highly suggest spending a couple of days exploring the towns in the Valle del Mantaro (Mantaro Valley). You can book a tour or do as I did and head there on public transportation. Though it takes longer and I probably saw a little less, I appreciated the time to wander about on my own and get a sense of the small towns in the region.
The tours to the Valle de Mantaro start in Hualhuas, head to San Jerónimo, and then head to a milk-processing plant near Concepción where you can try yogurt and cheeses. From there, they head to Jauja to take a boat ride on the Laguna de Paca (which looks beautiful), followed by lunch at Ingenio, where trout are raised. Finally, they end at the convent. That’s a lot to squeeze into one day and I preferred to take my time, just visiting Hualhuas, San Jerónimo, Concepción, and Santa Rosa de Ocopa.
While you can buy weavings from Hualhuas at the Feria Dominical (Sunday Market) in Huancayo, you can’t really find the selection of jewelry that is available in San Jerónimo, and it’s well worth your time to head to all the shops in San Jerónimo. You just get off the bus at the entrance to San Jerónimo and walk in and there they are! If you only have time for one place, make it this one.
Besides Hualhuas and San Jerónimo, nearby Cochas Chico is known for its carved gourds, or mates burilados, which I describe in more detail here. If you like hats, San Agustín de Cajas is known for its traditional hat-making and is located near Cochas Chico, only 15 minutes from Huancayo. I thought I would head there but the weather wasn’t super cooperative during my visit. More info here (in Spanish).
A tour of Santa Rosa de Ocopa costs S/.5 and leave on a set schedule, so you may want to check the hours of operation before visiting (they take an extended lunch break from 12-3PM). The last tour is at 5PM.
Buses to Concepción leave from Av. Ferrocarril in front of the mall/market and have a frequent schedule so you can get on and off. There are also colectivos (shared taxis). I spent a grand total of S/.9 the whole day!
Views from Paccha’s Bosque Dorado, near Huancayo, Peru
Arriving in Huancayo just before my birthday, I wanted to make sure I did something special to commemorate this once-a-year occasion, but how should you celebrate if you don’t know anyone in town?
As I wandered through the center of Huancayo, I stumbled across one of those tourist information stands that actually double as a tour agency, curious about what kind of adventures I could have in the area. Well, luckily for me, the person manning the stand was actually a professional tour guide covering for his friend. So when I told him I really wanted to get out in nature for my birthday, he had the perfect suggestion: a hike up to Paccha to see the Bosque Dorado and down to Cochas Chico to learn more about the art of mates burilados.
And since it was his day off, he offered to join me on a low budget adventure. That’s the universe providing a birthday gift!
Paccha & the Bosque Dorado
Getting to Paccha from Huancayo is fairly straightforward. We headed to Av. Ferrocarril, right in front of the markets by Real Plaza shopping mall and the mercado, and waited until we spotted a bus to Paccha (the destination is on a placard in the window of the bus, but you can always check with the cobrador to verify the final destination).
Paccha is just 10 kilometers outside of Huancayo in the gorgeous Valle de Mantaro, and to hike up to the Bosque Dorado you need to get off at the last stop. Like many of the towns in the Valle de Mantaro, Paccha is all about farming, so we were greeted by these adorable lambs.
After buying some more snacks and provisions at a little shop at the bottom of the hill, we set off on our walk up towards el Bosque Dorado. While totally doable, the walk is pretty steep and at altitude, so you should be in pretty good hiking shape or be prepared to stop a fair amount along the way. That gives you a chance to appreciate the views.
On our hike, we ended up being joined by another companion, this one canine. This dog decided to hike with us the entire way (it may have been the food in our backpacks he was actually interested in). I only hope he found his way home afterwards – it was a long journey!
So the journey continued up and up and up, with the views getting more broad and sweeping as we increased in elevation. Look at those treelines! Look at those storm clouds! I particularly appreciate the natural patterns made by the crops in the valley below, and the contrast between the healthy green trees and toasted brown fields.
About halfway up the hike, we came to our first destination: these carved rocks that tell the story of Huanca traditions and culture. In this picture, you can see a woman dressed in the local style carrying a load on her back inside her manta (a cloth tied around her neck, used to carry both babies and heavy items!). You can also see a pack animal and an owl in the background. According to my new friend, these rocks were carved by the community as a fun celebration of local culture.
And we continued our climb up, and up, and up… Wouldn’t you fall in love with the Valle de Mantaro too?
Finally, we reached our first destination: the Bosque Dorado, or Golden Forest. This forest is named due to the quinual trees. The quinuales are native to Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia and are threatened with extinction so are preserved by locals as much as possible. According to my research, this area was restored through reforestation with an eye toward preserving native plants and other types of trees and bushes.
The forest surrounds an open stone amphitheatre constructed by the community. It is a gorgeous open space with so much possibility. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, there are various services nearby including a conference center (!) and buildings where you can learn more about how crops are grown and processed. I imagine that means there’s an access road for cars somewhere nearby. 😉
I particularly loved the look of the trees creating natural shade along the paths around the amphitheatre. This ended up being natural protection for rain – just as we sat down to start our picnic, the skies opened up and it started pouring! So we ran underneath the trees and then to a nearby cave… hence why I don’t have any photos of just the amphitheatre!
Thankfully, the storm passed quickly and we were rewarded with even more beautiful views of the valley – and of course, my favorite clouds. This continues to be one of my favorite pictures from my travels, with the skies opening up and the sunrays peeking through the clouds.
After sufficiently admiring the views (I took a lot of photos and had trouble narrowing them down for this post), we left our perch above the Valle de Mantaro and continued our hike down to Cochas Chico. Downhill was much easier than uphill.
Cochas Chico & Mates Burilados
I mentioned recently on Instagram that the reason you see so many small towns in Peru dedicated to one specific type of artesanía, or handmade folk art, such as knitting, weaving, pottery, woodworking, or silversmithing dates from the Spanish colonial era. The Spanish wanted to keep the locals busy so each town became known for one specific type of craft.
To be fair, this tradition has been in the Andes for centuries – the pre-Columbian cultures were master artisans and their stories were encoded in their designs. Keeping subjugated peoples busy and paying tribute was a priority for all the conquerors, including the Incas and their many predecessors!
As you can probably guess from the photos above, Cochas Chico is known for its mates burilados. Mates are dried gourds; you may be familiar with yerba mate, the strong herb drunk throughout Argentina, Uruguay, and even Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile. Well, yerba mate is drunk from a mate, usually a hollowed out gourd.
In Peru, these mates are carved using a stick from the quinual tree fitted with a steel tip. The designs are intricate and depict daily life in the Valle de Mantaro, pastoral scenes including people and animal and crops. To get different colors, artisans use techinques that involve coating the surface, burning the surface and carving with burning tips. It’s pretty fascinating stuff.
As I mentioned in my post about Huancayo, this region loves its themed parks. The Parque Turístico Artesanal de los Mates Burilados (the Artisanal Tourist Park of the Carved Gourds) is dedicated purely to the art of this tradition. Throughout the park, there are giant sculptures echoing the same styles that you see in the tiny carved gourds.
Yes, that means birds and cuy (guinea pig) and other animals. There’s a little bit of everything at this park, and it is adorable.
Besides the giant sculptures, the artisans have stalls set up and sell their amazing pieces of art. There are more accessibly-priced pieces in much more simple styles, and then there are the true treasures, intricately carved gourds that tell stories.
Remember that I mentioned above that the pre-Incan cultures told their stories through their artwork? That tradition continues through today. I chatted for quite a while with one of the artisans there, who walked me through the process and explained her particular style and technique.
Despite the rain, the visit to Cochas Chico was absolutely worth it. We just visited the park, but apparently you can also visit the artisans’ workshops.
As you can see, visiting Paccha and the Bosque Dorado de los Incas and Cochas Chico and the Parque Turístico Artesanal de los Mates Burilados was a perfect easy day trip from Huancayo. There was a little bit of everything I love: hiking out in nature, amazing views, lots of cool clouds, and, of course, artesanía with a history and culture lesson thrown in for good measure. All in all, an excellent birthday.
(ps.. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow me on Instagram for more photos and stories from my adventures.)
Recommendations for Paccha and Cochas Chico, near Huancayo, Peru:
Paccha is only 10 kilometers for Huancayo, and Cochas Chico is even closer, so you basically have no excuse to avoid going here on a day trip from Huancayo. There are buses that run to and from Paccha and Cochas Chico from the center of Huancayo. I suggest waiting on Av. Ferrocarril and checking the placards in the front of the bus. If you’re not interested in the hike, there are more frequent buses to Cochas Chico, but el Bosque Dorado was totally worth it.
My favorite English language Huancayo blog is Vida Huancaina, and since they lived in Huancayo for a year, they most definitely visited the Bosque Dorado and Cochas Chico. You can get their take on it at those links, and there is a great photo of the artisans carving the gourds!
There are some excellent photographs of the Bosque Dorado here. And if you read Spanish, this article tells a little more about the history of the project.
[Paccha and Cochas Chico, Junín, Peru: August 23, 2013]
Amazing Clouds in Paccha, near Huancayo, Junín, Peru
Before I moved to Chile at the end of 2014, I was enthusiastically sharing stories about my travels in central Peru. Visiting the sierra central (central Andes) was one of my travel dreams and the first opportunity I had to really get to know Peru off the beaten track. I started in Ayacucho, headed into the mountains of Huancavelica, and then took the Tren Macho to Huancayo.
Because that trip marked a changing point in my life, the memories are as vivid as ever, and it has been powerful to share snippets of life on the road in short Instagram posts. As hoped, this has created the necessary momentum to pick up the threads from three years ago and keep on weaving this blog, which I still hope will help readers consider other destinations that take you deeper into the heritage of this fascinating region of the world.
So let’s go!
Huancayo is imprinted on my memory as one of my favorite cities in Peru. I was enthusiastic about visiting Huancayo because many of the families I worked with in Huaycán were originally from Huancayo, and I was curious to learn more about this very agricultural and very artistic region.
I pulled into Huancayo on a train the day before my 32nd birthday, curious what the city had in store for me. Well, there was one thing for sure: a lot of rain. It says a lot about the city that the fact that it rained consistently throughout my stay didn’t mar my high esteem for Huancayo and the Junín region.
As always, I dropped off my heavy backpack and headed directly to the Plaza de la Constitución, Huancayo’s main square, where I admired the cathedral and got my bearings. Because Huancayo is relatively close to Lima, there were a number of Peruvian tourists milling about, but I only spotted a handful of fellow foreigners in my week there.
The commercial center of Huancayo is relatively compact, walkable, and easy to navigate. You can visit the pretty plaza where the municipality building is located and head to the (commercial) artisan market. A few blocks away, you’ll likely spot the blue towers of the Iglesia Maria Inmaculada (much more beautiful on a sunny day, but what can you do?).
But the real action in the center of Huancayo happens around the shopping mall, Real Plaza Huancayo, and the giant market located next door. Nearly all the combis and micros (small and large local buses) follow Av. Ferrocarril, and it’s where you’ll catch buses to the amazing destinations I’ll talk about in future posts. And let’s be honest: the mall is a good warm place to hang out during torrential winter rain storms and Starbucks has wifi. 🙂
Cerrito de la Libertad
But if we’re being honest, Huancayo’s appeal lies in its creative parks, located all over the city. Cerrito de la Libertad, located up a steep hill en route to Torre Torre, is filled with beautifully landscaped flower gardens, a pleasant gazebo, and a playground for kids (as well as a small zoo).
Cerrito de la Libertad is provides a good vantage point over the city, although for the best views you should continue up to Torre Torre.
As I continued climbing into the hills of Huancayo towards Torre Torre, I was struck by the different atmosphere just a couple of kilometers outside the hectic downtown area. Suddenly I was out of the commercial buildings and into the simple brick constructions typical of the farmlands that are found throughout the Valle de Mantaro.
After following the signs leading to Torre Torre, I ended up at these fascinating rock formations, shaped like towers (hence their name). I’m a big fan of red rocks, so these certainly did not disappoint!
The sun even managed to peek out from behind the clouds for a couple of pictures. Visiting Torre Torre felt otherworldly for a moment, as I faced the rocks away from the houses behind me.
As I was standing there admiring the view, I heard a woman call to me from below; she was herding her goats at the base of the rocks and suggested I get a different view from that angle. Nervously watching the skies and unsure of my climbing ability, I decided not to scramble down (or up). When no one knows where I am, I tend to err on the side of caution.
But I definitely was sure to admire the views as I descended back through the neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. Word to the wise – be careful what route you take through Cerrito de la Libertad on your way back, as neighborhood dogs can be aggressive.
Parque de Ajedrez
On the other side of Cerrito de la Identidad you find the Parque del Ajedrez, a small park dedicated to the game of chess (which is quite popular in Peru).
Totally worth stopping by if only to admire the creativity of the stoneworkers who set up this homage to chess.
Thankfully, at this point I was just a few blocks from my hostel, because the skies decided to open up as I arrived back. Saved by the bell once again!
Parque de la Identidad Wanka
On my last day in Huancayo, I was determined to visit Parque de la Identidad Wanka, another creative park dedicated to the culture of the region. As I’ve mentioned (and as you’ll see in future posts), Huancayo and the Junín region represent a fascinating intersection of farmlands and agriculture, rich indigenous traditions, skilled master artisans, and remnants from the Spanish colonial era.
All of this comes together in the unique Parque a la Identidad Wanka, or Huanca, where all these aspects are celebrated.
Even though the rain was constant, I spent some time wandering through this stone mosaic park (but sadly left my dSLR in my hostel). Here you see a sculpture honoring the mates burilados, gourds carved with a technique involving burning intricate tiny designs. (I’ll share more in my post on Cochas Chico, the town where this tradition has become an art form.)
Other statues honor distinguished musicians, dancers, and even a photographer who are from this region. The Wanka influence on Peru’s folkloric traditions cannot be understated. The huaylas dance is one of the most popular forms of huayno.
Of course, we cannot forget the adorable sheep that you see throughout the countryside. I love that the pastoral heritage of Huancayo and Junín is celebrated in art; I think it’s part of what makes this region so special.
So cute. And check out the detail on these stone mosiacs! I’m just going to let the rest of the photos speak for themselves. Such a cool park with so many nooks and crannies to explore and appreciate.
If you are planning a visit to Huancayo, I implore you to go the the Feria Dominical, or Sunday market, held in the center of town. Several streets close down to traffic and fill with stand after stand after stand of vendors selling their wares. The fair is so large that there are actually dedicated sections where you can find certain things sold together, such as clothes together, artesanía together, housewares, etc.
Although I don’t have any photos from the fair, it was an amazing experience and some of my most treasured textiles are from this fair. Artisans commute from Huancavelica, six hours away, in order to sell their art, as well as from nearby towns like Hualhuas. This means you have a selection of regional textiles and weavings sold by the artisans themselves.
It takes some wandering among the stalls to find the best art, but many of the artisans have won awards for their art. I actually had already met a couple who had been invited to sell their wares in a special artisan fair in Miraflores in Lima; I recognized their high quality items and style!
If you love Peruvian textiles and crafts, you need to go here to see all the amazing handmade pieces of art. As you may already know, I tend to take my love for folk art to the next level and travel to the towns and regions where they originate whenever possible (such as Ayacucho and Huancavelica, of course), but if you’re short on time, planning to be in Huancayo on a Sunday is a very good idea.
Recommendations for Huancayo, Junín, Peru:
Huancayo is one of my favorite cities in Peru and I recommend that you go if you like independent travel and want to get a deeper insight into what life is like in the central Andes. Because Huancayo is located on the Carretera Central (central highway), it is super easy to get around using public transportation. Huancayo is also a central hub for regional destinations and easily accessible from Lima.
I stayed at Hostel Samay, a family run guesthouse located about eight blocks from the center of Huancayo. It is totally walkable and is close to the Real Plaza Huancayo for ease of access to the supermarket as well as the public buses. It is located near the Cerrito de la Libertad and Torre Torre. I stayed there for a week and got to know the family and would recommend this hostel if you want to feel looked after and get great insight into the history and culture of the region.
As a vegetarian, I ate at Govinda’s Restaurante Vegetariano several times. There are other vegetarian restaurants but this one is located near the main plaza and has lots of seating.
Be sure to eat papa a la huancaina while in Huancayo. This potato dish with a creamy cheese sauce is typical of the region. If you visit in winter, be sure to drink a calentito at one of the local bars. Interestingly, the windows of the bars are blocked from the street so no one can see who’s drinking inside.
I traveled extensively on combis (local buse) throughout Huancayo and the Junín region, and future posts will detail some of the towns you can visit to expand your understanding of the region.
Be sure to check out the Feria Dominical on Sunday. If you love artesanía, you won’t regret it.
For great photos of Torre Torre from some daredevil travelers, read this blog post. If you read Spanish, this blog post has excellent information about the Huancayo parks (and great pictures if you don’t!). This is an interesting article about the huaylas dance (in Spanish).
This is a well-written blog documenting an American couple’s temporary residence in Huancayo, with great photos of their life and travels around the region.
If you want to take a tour, you can see more in one day. A lot of Peruvian tourists decide to see the Huaytapallana Glacier, visit Laguna de Paca or Laguna de Nahuinpuquio, or make it up to Jauja and the ruins at Tunamarca. I saw quite a lot, but would have seen more if it hadn’t been raining so much!
Leaving Huancayo, many people visit Tarma, also in Junín, or take the Chanchamayo jungle tour. I headed to Huánuco. If you haven’t seen Huancavelica at this point in your trip, you should find your way there!
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.
Malecón Santa Rosa; Escalonada or Staircase to the Piscina de San Cristóbal
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.
Mosaic on the Escalonada of Huancavelica
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.
Old Map of Huancavelica in the Museo Regional
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.
Train Station in Huancavelica, Peru
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.
Views from Villa Cariño, Huancavelica, Peru
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.
Views from Villa Cariño, Huancavelica, Peru
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).
Views Along the Train Tracks of the Tren Macho, Huancavelica, Peru
I retraced my steps along the train tracks that I would be traveling along the next morning and headed back into town.
Views of Huancavelica from Above the River
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.
Look Out for the Train Crossing, Huancavelica, Peru
Tourism Generates Development: Treat the Tourist Well, He is Your Friend
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.
Commercial Street in Huancavelica, Peru
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.
Train Station in Huancavelica, Peru
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.
Views from the Tren Macho from Huancavelica to Huancayo, Peru
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.
Views from the Tren Macho from Huancavelica to Huancayo, Peru
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.
Views from the Tren Macho from Huancavelica to Huancayo, Peru
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!
Views from the Tren Macho from Huancavelica to Huancayo, Peru
As we arrived into Huancayo, the scenery was definitely different, more agricultural, and more forested.
Views from the Tren Macho from Huancavelica to Huancayo, Peru
The train runs right through these fields, giving you a nice introduction to the natural beauty that surrounds Huancayo.
Map of the Tren Macho’s Route in the Huancayo Train Station
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!
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]