The charming modern city of HUÁNUCO, more than 100km east of the deserted Inca town of the same name, and around 400km from Lima, sits nestled in a beautiful Andean valley some 1900m above sea level. It’s a relatively peaceful place, located on the left bank of the sparkling Río Huallaga, and depending for its livelihood on forestry, tea and coca, along with a little low-key tourism. Founded by the Spaniard Gómez de Alvarado in August 1539, the city contains no real sights, save the usual handful of fine old churches and a small natural history museum. There are plenty of fascinating excursions in the area – notably, the 4000-year-old Temple of Kotosh.
If you can, you should aim to be in Huánuco around August 15, when carnival week begins and the city’s normal tranquillity explodes into a wild fiesta binge. Peruvian Independence Day (July 28) is also a good time to be here, when traditional dances like the chunco take place throughout the streets. On January 1, 6 and 18, you can witness the Dance of the Blacks (El Baile de los Negritos) in which various local dance groups, dressed in colourful costumes with black masks (representing the slaves brought to work in the area’s mines) run and dance throughout the main streets of the city; food stalls stay open and drinking continues all day and most of the night.
Only 6km from Huánuco along the La Unión road, the fascinating, though poorly maintained, TEMPLE OF KOTOSH lies in ruins on the banks of the Río Tingo. At more than 4000 years old, this site predates the Chavín era by more than a thousand years. A more or less permanent settlement existed here throughout the Chavín era (though without the monumental masonry and sculpture of that period) and Inca occupation, right up to the Conquest. The most remarkable feature of the Kotosh complex is the crossed-hands symbol carved prominently onto a stone – the gracefully executed insignia of a very early culture about which archeologists know next to nothing – which now lies in the Museo de Arqueología in Lima. The site today consists of three sacred stone-built enclosures in generally poor condition; but with a little imagination and/or a good local guide, it is both atmospheric and fascinating to explore one of the most ancient temple sites in Peru.
The Amazon is the obvious place to move on to from Huánuco and the surrounding area, unless you’re heading back to Lima and the coast. The spiralling descent north is stunning, with views across the jungle, as thrilling as if from a small plane. By the time the bus reaches the town of Tingo María, a possible stopover en route to Pucallpa, the Río Huallaga has become a broad tropical river, navigable downstream in shallow canoes or by balsa raft. And the tropical atmosphere, in the shadow of the forested ridges and limestone crags of the Bella Durmiente mountain, is delightful. From Tingo María you can continue the 260km directly northeast on the dirt road through virgin forest, going through the Pass of Padre Abad, with its glorious waterfalls, along the way to Pucallpa, jumping-off point for expeditions deep into the seemingly limitless wilderness of tropical jungle.
Once known as the “Garden City”, because of the ease with which gardens, tropical fruit, vegetables and wild flora grow in such abundance, the ramshackle settlement of TINGO MARÍA, 130km north of Huánuco, lies at the foot of the Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty) mountain. According to legend, this is the place where the lovesick Princess Nunash awaits the waking kiss of Kunyaq, the sorcerer. These days the town welcomes more travellers than ever due to the decreased activity in the region’s cocaine trade. However, that said, even the road on to Pucallpa from Tingo still sees the occasional armed robbery of buses travelling by night.
Despite Tingo María’s striking setting, it is a tatty, ugly town, on which the ravages of Western civilization have left their mark. Dominated by sawmills and plywood factories financed by multinational corporations, with its forest of TV aerials sticking out from the rooftops, the town displays symbols of relative affluence, but the tin roofs and crumbling walls across the township betray the poverty of the majority of its inhabitants. There’s little for visitors to see, other than the Cueva de las Lechuzas (Owls’ Cave), the vast, picturesque home to a flock of rare nocturnal parrots (you’ll need a torch), 14km out of town. Tingo María’s major fiesta period is the last week of July – a lively and fun time to be in town, but on no account leave your baggage unattended.