My interest in Huancavelica had been piqued at an artisan market I visited in Miraflores in July 2012. While there are several commercial markets in clusters around Lima filled with mass produced wool and alpaca goods at low prices, Miraflores hosts the occasional artisan market in Parque Kennedy. One such market, De Nuestras Manos (From Our Hands), invited the most talented artisan collectives from around Peru. I wandered around for hours, familiarizing myself with the knitted goods, weavings, embroidery, silver jewelry, and other handiwork specific to the various regions of Peru. I fell in love with Ayacucho’s brightly colored flower embroidery as well as the geometric patterned shawls and multicolored gloves from Huancavelica (which you can see here and here). I knew I had to go direct to the source of this artwork and see if I could learn a thing or two about their craft.
In terms of physical location, Huancavelica is relatively close to Ayacucho, but in reality, it is a bit challenging to get there. One reason is that this area still sees the occasionally robbery on night buses and certain highways are to be avoided outside of daylight hours. After consulting with my friends at iPeru, I decided that the safest and most direct option was to take a combi from Huamanga to Rumichaca and then catch the daily bus from Rumichaca to Huancavelica.
Rumichaca is nothing more than a truck stop located along the main highway between Ayacucho and Lima, filled with food stands and basic hostales. Combi buses leave from Huamanga at 4:30 and 5:30AM for Rumichaca and take about three hours. I bought my ticket the day before, which got me a more comfortable seat up front with the driver, where I could admire the views out of the front window. I will never forget the colors of the amazing sunrise over the hills of Ayacucho as our bus climbed out of Huamanga. Unfortunately, as the only foreigner on the bus, I was a little shy at first about taking out my camera to capture the gorgeous scenery so all I have are my memories.
Leaving Ayacucho, the bus climbs slowly but steadily towards Abra Apacheta, the highest pass on our route, located at 4,746 meters above sea level. The high altitude meant that I dozed in and out of sleep, opening my eyes long enough to catch the gorgeous colors of the hillside. At Abra Apacheta, our driver stopped for a moment to lay an offering of a bouquet of fresh flowers at a small altar at this high pass. I still wonder whether he had lost a colleague in an accident here or if it was simply a gesture of gratitude for safe travels on these dangerous, winding roads. The above photo captures some of the multicolored hills soon after this high pass.
After about three hours, we arrived in Rumichaca. I bought my ticket to Huancavelica and stored my big backpack under the bus, then turned my attention to breakfast. I opted for papas con queso, small local boiled potatoes served with the queso fresco, or farmer’s cheese, common throughout Peru. After, it was a quiet wait in the sun for our bus to leave at 10AM.
As it turned out, this bus generally is filled with locals who know each other, commuting for work or school. As passengers got on at the small villages along the way, most of the other passengers greeted them and inquired after their families. Although the route is unpaved, the bumps are minimal and lulled me to sleep for much of the ride. As you can see, the route passes through amazingly blue lagoons on both sides of the bus. In fact, this road is called the Ruta de los Espejos, or the Route of the Mirrors, for the lakes that appear to reflect the equally blue sky. We passed Laguna Pacococha, Laguna Orcococha, and Laguna Choclococha, the last of which is the largest. (I sat on the left side of the bus and got some good shots of Laguna Orcococha, but you might want to sit on the right side to capture the giant Laguna Choclococha.)
The Huancavelica region is a generally tranquil stretch of farmlands in the high Andes. With so many idyllic landscapes, it is considered a great place to relax and recharge. Since combis and buses are so regular, if not frequent, around the area, it is possible to visit many of the small villages that dot the landscape.
After a long trip with a lot of stops to pick up and drop off passengers, we arrived in Huancavelica. Huancavelica is a compact city, but the buses leave you relatively far from the Plaza de Armas. The kind gentleman seated beside me took it upon himself to put me into one of the taxi colectivos that travel through the city and commanded the driver to drop me off in front of my hostal, La Portada. This was just another example of Peruvian kindness. After splurging for a nice room with a private bathroom, tv, and free wifi, I set out on foot to take advantage of the afternoon sun and to get a feel for the city.
After wandering around the Plaza de Armas, I walked a few blocks over to the Plaza Bolognesi, where two of Huancavelica’s distinctive churches are located. I stopped in a small cafe situated on the plaza to have a snack before continuing my wanderings around Huancavelica’s small downtown area. Of course, I couldn’t resist checking out the artisan stands located in a small alleyway near the main plaza. I ended up chatting for quite a while with an older couple selling the regional knitted goods.
I also managed to find my way to Dircetur, the regional tourism office, where they walked me through all of my options around the area. While there are interesting Incan ruins around the region, there are not many tour operators and it is challenging to visit them independently. In the end, I decided to visit the most important tourist attraction in Huancavelica, the Santa Barbara mines, by hiking up independently.
I set out for Mina Santa Barbara early in the morning, knowing that the sun in the high Andes would only get stronger as the day went on. There is a well-marked path from Plaza Bolognesi which follows the river until you reach the stone walkway that leads up towards Sacsamarca, the small village located en route to Santa Barbara. I climbed steadily and was accompanied for much of the way by an elderly gentleman who owned some of these llamas grazing amongst the trees and grasses that lined the path.
However, he was much more capable (read: faster) than me at this high altitude and eventually I had to stop and rest and breathe, taking in the pretty scenery as I admired the views of Huancavelica from above.
Finally, I made it to the small village of Sacsamarca, a quiet collection of houses and stone buildings that looked like they might date back to the colonial era. After spending the previous day wandering the busy streets of Huancavelica, it was refreshing to walk along these empty roads.
Apparently, this small town has a strong sense of community and hosts traditional fiestas popular with Peruvian tourists. Its unique setting among the rocky hills of Huancavelica must make for a picturesque setting as well as a natural amphitheater.
This stone bridge dates back to colonial times and is one of the main attractions of the town, providing an easy way to cross the small stream that criss-crosses Sacsamarca.
I felt instantly welcomed to Sacsamarca by this local woman herding her sheep, who greeted me warmly as she continued along her way.
On the outskirts of town, there is a trout farm. I walked most of the way there, just to get another perspective on the area around Sacsamarca, watching women doing their washing in the river and children playing outside with their teacher.
After exploring Sacsamarca, it was time continue my walk uphill to Santa Barbara. Even though it’s cold at night in Huancavelica, the sun is very strong at this altitude. Revisiting these photos, I can almost feel the sun beating down on me!
Along the way, I got a great view of Huancavelica from above, peeking through the craggy rocks that surround the city.
Unsure of the best route to Santa Barbara, I decided to follow the vehicle road. Luckily for me, it was signposted so I had a clear sense of how much progress I was making on the steep 2km climb.
En route to Santa Barbara, I passed through Chacllatacana, an even smaller village known for its bullfights. The town consists of a small church and several brick buildings built around a large open plaza.
I knew I was getting close when I heard voices calling out to me. A few miners on their lunch break were trying to signal to me that my friends (other foreigners) were up ahead and had taken a shortcut to the top. Because of the wide, flat expanse, I could hear them clearly even though they were off in the distance. I took their advice and tried the even steeper, direct route through the high desert brush, but ultimately opted to continue my slow but steady journey along the main road.
As I approached Santa Barbara, I passed the entrance to the modern mine, where I spoke with the friendly driver of the shuttle bus that brings the miners to and from work each day. He waits around all day for the miners to finish their work and was eager for a distraction. He suggested that I take the detour to the viewpoint that overlooks Huancavelica and head back to Huancavelica from there. Otherwise, he promised that he would be happy to drive me down when the miners finished their work for the day so that I would not be harassed by the teenagers who lurk around the stone path after school.
After saying goodbye, I continued along my way and finally arrived at the old mine of Santa Barbara, which still bears the Spanish crown over its entrance. For safety reasons, the mine is off limits to visitors, and it is impossible to see much inside through the gates. I read some reports that there was a full city constructed underground. Standing at the entrance, I couldn’t help but be moved by the thought of how many lives had been lost working in this mine since colonial times. This mine is known as the “Mina de la Muerte,” or the mine of death, for the deadly work of extracting mercury.
A few meters beyond the colonial mine lies the abandoned town of Santa Barbara, located at 4,200 meters above sea level. The small central plaza is surrounded by crumbling stone buildings, and the whole effect is eerie. Scraggly dogs wandered around the plaza, but the only sound you can hear is the machinery of the modern mine, nearby.
While many of the buildings are in ruins, the church retains some of its former elegance. Its distinctive red and white style echoes the churches located in Huancavelica. Here, I ran into the other foreigners that the miners had thought were my friends. The four French travelers had stopped to have a picnic lunch; I was relieved to find out I was not the only gringo in town. We ended up making plans to have dinner together that night, and then we continued our separate explorations.
After sufficiently exploring the area around Santa Barbara, I retraced my steps and headed to the viewpoint overlooking Huancavelica.
Along the way, I passed a herd of llama grazing in the grasses of the area around Santa Barbara. Some of them stared right at me, suspiciously, as I stopped to take their picture. I couldn’t get enough of these adorable creatures.
The pathway to the viewpoint overlooking Huancavelica is well-marked; the detour to the mirador is well worth it.
After climbing over and around the boulders around the mirador, I arrived to the spot with the best views in the area. You can’t help but feel an affinity for this picturesque town nestled within the rolling hills of the high Andes. I looked around and identified the main plaza and other recognizable buildings from above.
Even though the city felt relatively small when I was wandering through its streets, I realized just how big it was when observing it from this altitude!
After enjoying a quiet moment looking out over Huancavelica, I decided to head back to Santa Barbara to hitch a ride with the miners. After so much time walking under the bright sun, I was tired and figured I would take advantage of the generous (and convenient) offer.
I really enjoyed my solitude for the majority of the day; I felt very relaxed and centered after walking through these golden brown hills. It reminded me of my long walks around Easter Island, only occasionally running into other people.
As it turns out, riding with the miners was a great way to end my afternoon. They were so friendly and intrigued by this foreign woman hitching a ride with them. The ride took all of ten minutes, and this gave me some extra time to wander around the commercial streets of Huancavelica, buying delicious street food like churros, choclo con queso, and local bread. Afterwards, I went out for pizza at Roma II with my new French friends and enjoyed some hot wine. Even though I had roasted under the sun all day, the nights were cold and I couldn’t resist a warm drink!
After spending the day observing Huancavelica from above, I was curious to expand my wanderings and explore some of its other attractions on foot the next day. I also was ready to shop for the knitted gloves and woven shawls that had brought me to Huancavelica in the first place!
Recommendations for Huancavelica, Peru:
- Wikitravel has a lot of good recommendations for things to do and places to eat, shop, and stay around Huancavelica.
- To get to Huancavelica from Ayacucho, take the 5:30 bus to Rumichaca from Transporte Lalo’s near the Grifo Ayacucho in Huamanga (Ayacucho). It cost S/.13 in August 2013. Buy your ticket the day before if you want to guarantee a good seat. Pay attention to the gorgeous scenery along the route, particularly around the Alta Apacheta pass. In Rumichaca, there is only one bus to Huancavelica, which leaves at 10AM every day with Transporte San Juan Bautista and costs S/.12. There are plenty of food stands for breakfast but keep in mind that this is literally a truck stop, nothing fancy. (It must be said: Rumichaca has the most disgusting outdoor latrines I have ever seen in all of my travels, and I am not particularly squeamish.)
- I highly suggest trekking up to Santa Barbara, especially if you are trying to build your stamina for other high altitude hikes in the central highlands. Get a map from Dircetur or the municipal tourist agency located on the Plaza de Armas. The route to Sacsamarca/Santa Barbara begins behind the Plaza Bolognesi and is well-marked. Once I reached Sacsamarca, I found it easiest to follow the main vehicle road to Santa Barbara, but there are also local footpaths that are probably shorter if you’re more daring than me.
- Make sure you take a look around Sacsamarca to get a sense of the traditional stone village. If you read Spanish, this blog post provides some good information on Sacsamarca.
- Stay at La Portada, located just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas at Virrey Toledo 252. In August 2013, I paid S/.35 per night for a room with a private bath with consistently hot water and cable television. Their wi-fi connection is strong and they offer plenty of blankets to get you through the cold Andean nights.
- This blog post has some great photos of Huancavelica, as does this one.
- This is a lovely tribute to the people of the small communities of the Huancavelica region.
[Huancavelica, Peru: August 19-20, 2013]