The bustling city of Huancayo is the natural hub of the mountainous and remote region south of Tarma. Nearby Jauja Valley is significantly more beautiful, less polluted and friendlier. Further afield, Ayacucho is a must for anyone interested in colonial architecture, particularly fine churches; while Huancavelica offers a slightly darker history lesson – the area has suffered from extreme exploitation both in colonial times, with the mines, as well as in the 1980s and 90s when terrorism was at a peak. The area is still occasionally visited by remnants of the Shining Path terrorist group (see Sendero Luminoso), but there have been no related problems for tourists in recent years. The trip out here by train (some 130km south of Huancayo), one of the world’s highest railway journeys, passes through some stark yet stunning landscapes.
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A large commercial city with over 350,000 inhabitants, HUANCAYO is the capital of the Junín departamento. An important market centre thriving on agricultural produce and dealing in vast quantities of wheat, the city makes a good base for exploring the Mantaro Valley and experiencing the region’s distinct culture. While the area is rich in pre-Columbian remains, and the cereal and textile potential of the region has long been exploited, the city itself is mostly relatively modern, with very little of architectural or historical interest. It is still a lively enough place with a busy market and even some nightlife at weekends. It’s also worth trying to coincide a trip with the splendid Fiesta de las Cruces each May, when Huancayo erupts in a succession of boisterous processions, parties and festivities.
The region around Huancayo was dominated by the Huanca tribe from around 1200 AD, and the Huari culture before that, though it wasn’t until Pachacuti’s forces arrived in the fifteenth century that the Inca Empire took control. Occupied by the Spanish from 1537, Huancayo was formally founded in 1572 by Jeronimo de Silva, next to the older and these days relatively small town of Jauja. In 1824, the Battle of Junín was fought close to Huancayo, when patriotic revolutionaries overcame royalist and Spanish forces. Apart from the comings and goings of the Catholic Church, Huancayo remained little more than a staging point until the rail line arrived in 1909, transforming it slowly but surely during the twentieth century into a city whose economy was based on the export of agrarian foodstuffs and craft goods.
More so than any other Peruvian city – except perhaps Ayacucho – Huancayo was paralyzed in the years of terror during the 1980s and 1990s. As home to a major army base, it became the heart of operations in what was then a military emergency zone. In 1999, an extensive army operation captured the then leader of Sendero Luminoso, Oscar Ramírez Durand, who had taken over from Abimael Guzmán in 1992.
Remote HUANCAVELICA, at 3676m, is almost purely Indian in its ethnic make-up, which is surprising considering its long colonial history and a fairly impressive array of Spanish-style architecture. There’s little of specific interest in the town itself, except the Sunday market, which sells local food, jungle fruits and carved gourds. A couple of pleasant walks from town will bring you to the natural hot springs on the hill north of the river, or the weaving cooperative, 4km away at Totoral. Local mines (see Plaza de Armas) are an attraction, too.
Originally occupied by hunter-gatherers from about 5000 years ago, the area then turned to sedentary cultivation as the local population was, initially, taken over by the Huari tribe around 1100 AD, a highly organized culture which reached here from the Ayacucho Valley. The Huanca tribe arrived on the scene in the fifteenth century, providing fierce resistance when they were attacked and finally conquered by the Inca. The weight of its colonial past, however, lies more heavily on its shoulders.
After mercury deposits were discovered here in 1563, the town began producing ore for the silver mines of Peru, replacing expensive imports previously used in the mining process. In just over a hundred years, so many indigenous labourers had died of mercury poisoning that the pits could hardly keep going: after the generations of locals bound to serve by the mitayo system of virtual slavery had been literally used up and thrown away, the salaries required to attract new workers made many of the mines unprofitable.
Today the mines are working again and the ore is taken by truck to Pisco on the coast. The Mina de la Muerte, as the Santa Barbara mines tend to be called around Huancavelica, are also an attraction in their own right, located several kilometres southeast of town (about 1hr 30min by foot); the shield of the Spanish Crown sits unashamedly engraved in stone over the main entrance to this ghostly settlement. There’s plenty to explore, but as with all mines, some sections are dangerous and not visitor-friendly, and it’s best to ask local advice before setting off.