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.
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.
Of course I bought a piece for myself (and gifts for my family!), but since it’s in storage, here’s a link to a photo of some mates burilados so you can get a sense of what I’m talking about.
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.
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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]