The Central Sierra Travel Guide
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Peppered with traditional towns and cities sitting in remote valleys, the green and mountainous Central Sierra region boasts some of Peru’s finest archeological sites and colonial buildings. Although significantly fewer travellers make it here, compared with hotspots like Cusco and Machu Picchu, anyone with the time to spare will find this region a worthwhile destination in its own right, rather than just somewhere to stop en route to the Central Selva. As well as fantastic mountain scenery, this amalgam of regions in the central Peruvian Andes offer endless walking country, a caving opportunity and a gateway into the country’s Amazon rainforest.
Almost all travellers from Lima enter the Central Sierra by road, along the much-improved Carretera Central. The road passes close to the enigmatic rock formations centring on Marcahuasi and the village of San Pedro de Casta before climbing over the high pass at Ticlio. The old train – the “Tren de la Sierra” – now only rarely takes passengers up to the city of Huancayo.
The most attractive hub in the Sierra Central is the laidback town of Tarma, which has a relatively pleasant climate influenced by the cloud forest to the east, and is a major nodal point for pioneers from the jungle, traders and, to a lesser extent, tourists. To the north, pleasant Huánuco serves as a good base for exploring some of Peru’s most interesting archeological remains, and Tingo María, the gateway to the jungle port of Pucallpa. To the southwest of Tarma lies the largest city in the northern half of the Central Sierra, Huancayo, high up in the Andes. South of Huancayo are the two most traditional of all the Central Sierra’s towns: Ayacucho – one of the cultural jewels of the Andes, replete with colonial churches and some of Peru’s finest artesan crafts – and Huancavelica. Immediately north of Huancayo lies the astonishing Jauja Valley, which has beautiful scenery, striped by fabulous coloured furls of mountain.
Vehicles take four to six hours to cross the high pass at Ticlio, after which they drop in less than an hour to the unsightly and mining-contaminated town and pit-stop of La Oroya. Just beyond here the road splits three ways: north to Cerro de Pasco and Huánuco; south to Huancayo, Huancavelica and, for the travel hardened, Ayacucho; or, eastwards towards Tarma, which is just another hour or two further.
MARCAHUASI (4100m) is a high plateau that makes a fantastic weekend camping jaunt and is one of the more adventurous but popular excursions from Lima. Its main attractions are incredible, mysterious rock formations, which, particularly by moonlight, take on weird shapes – llamas, human faces, turtles, even a hippopotamus. Located 90km east of Lima (40km beyond Chosica), the easiest way to visit this amazing site in the hard-to-access Santa Eulalia Valley is on a day-trip from Lima (see Travel agents and tours). The annual Festival de Aventura takes place in Marcahuasi in early November, incorporating live music with outward-bound activities such as mountain biking, marathon running and motocross. Visitors at the end of July may well come across the annual village festival involving three days of ceremony, music, dance and festivities.
With your own transport, you can head northwest of Tarma to the beautiful village of San Pedro de Cajas, where craftspeople produce superb-quality weavings. As an example of how landscapes can influence local art forms, the village lies in a valley neatly divided into patchwork field-systems – an exact model of the local textile style.
North of Tarma there are two main routes: closest is the steep road which heads northeast down from the Andes into the Central Selva of Chanchamayo and beyond to a large region with its own possible but adventurous overland routes. The other goes back up to the crossroads just before La Oroya and then heads north to cerros de Pasco and Huánuco, interesting for its nearby archeological remains, such as Tantamayo, and itself another important gateway to the jungle region.
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.
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.
The original opening of the Lima-to-Huancayo railway line into the Andes in the late nineteenth century had a huge impact on the region and was a major feat of engineering. For President Balta of Peru and many of his contemporaries in 1868, the iron fingers of a railway, “if attached to the hand of Lima would instantly squeeze out all the wealth of the Andes, and the whistle of the locomotives would awaken the Indian race from its centuries-old lethargy”. Consequently, when the American rail entrepreneur Henry Meiggs (aptly called the “Yankee Pizarro”) arrived on the scene, it was decided that coastal guano deposits would be sold off to finance a new rail line, one that faced technical problems (ie, the peaks and troughs of the Andes) never previously encountered by engineers. The man really responsible for the success of this massive project was the Polish engineer, Ernest Malinowski. Utilizing timber from Oregon and the labour of thousands of Chinese workers (the basis of Peru’s present Chinese communities), Malinowski’s skill and determination finished Meiggs’ railway over a 30-year period. An extraordinary accomplishment, it nevertheless produced a mountain of debt that bound Peru more closely to the New York and London banking worlds than to its own hinterland and peasant population.
Top image: The stone face of humanity in marcahuasi, Peru © NiarKad/Shutterstock