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!
(ps…Stay in touch with me and my travels by following blueskylimit on Instagram!)
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).
- The excellent English language blog Vida Huancaína has posts on Hualhuas, the Festival San Roque in Hualhuas in 2014 (my photos are from 2013), and San Jerónimo.
- 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!
[Valle de Mantaro, Junín, Peru: August 24, 2013]