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.