Located in a valley that is as deep as it is beautiful, the city of Huancavelica is a destination often overlooked by tourists in Peru. Its traditional architecture, gorgeous landscapes, and the hospitality of the local residents make this corner of the Andes one of the most interesting spots for a weekend trip.
It is a while yet before the sun will emerge from behind the rugged mountain peaks but Faustino and his family have already been up from more than an hour. In the pre-dawn darkness and bitter cold, the sound of light footsteps on the hard ground heralds the arrival of another day in the village of Taraco.
Faustino is getting ready very early this morning in preparation for his customary trip to the neighbouring community further down the valley. The llamas can be
heard bleating as they approach the house and, with pieces of ice clinging stubbornly to their thick wool coats, assemble outside the front of the family’s simple mud and stone dwelling to be loaded up for the trip.
Although I am wearing just about every item of clothing I have with me, a blast of freezing mountain air still makes me shiver. Luzmila, Faustino's wife, smiles and hands me a thick woollen poncho to provide added protection against the icy wind coming off Lake Choclococha, which looks even bluer than usual by the half light of the early morning.
Sunlight shafts into the patio and highlights sacks of dried llama meat or charqui, piles of leather strips, and the smoke coming from Luzmila's kitchen fire. Around fourteen llamas patiently wait their turn to be packed with goods. With amazing patience, Faustino and his son, Julián, distribute the loads evenly into thick flannel sacks. "There must be nine kilos on either side or the animal refuses to walk," Faustino says, as he tugs on the ropes around the belly of a large, midnight-black llama. One by one, the animals are readied for the trip. Little Julián ties some metal bells around the neck of the llama that will lead the pack. "That's so the others don't get lost or stop to graze on the way," he says with a smile.
The large black llama with the metal bell in the lead, the long caravan starts down a narrow gorge on its three-day journey along the valley below.
Faustino says goodbye to Luzmila and little Julián. "Next time you can come with me," he promises, giving his son a light pat on the head. With his knapsack filled with just-cooked potatoes, some corn and jerky, the llama herder sets off on yet another trip to trade with peasants in the lowlands. He plans to exchange jerky for corn, lima beans, some pasta, and maybe some sweets for Julián. Faustino takes the same route used by his father and grandfather before him, both of whom were llama herders. The llamas he uses today are descendants of the pack built up by his grandfather.
It is as if time has passed by this face of ancient Peru in this little corner of the Huancavelica highlands. The story I have just described took place only metres from the road to Huancavelica, the city of the stone idol, in the upper reaches of the central Andes.
Heading for the Land of the Llama Herders
Getting to Huancavelica is not complicated. All you need to do is follow the Pan-American Highway South as far as Pisco and then turn up the paved road highway heading east that passes through the towns of Independencia, Humay and Huancano. The landscape undergoes a visible transformation as you move inland and soon you are surrounded by enormous hills packed close together, their deep green shades in beautiful contrast to the bright blue highland sky.
We arrived in Huaytará, a picturesque town, whose main attraction is its church. The church is not only interesting for the beauty of its architecture and cheerful colours, but also because it is built on top of an important archaeological site. The stone foundations originally belonged to an Inca palace that once housed the Inca noble who governed the valley.
From Huaytará the road continues upwards towards the mountains before reaching the town of Rumichaca, where it divides: the right-hand (paved) fork leading to Ayacucho, and to the left (packed earth) Huancavelica. We took the left fork and began climbing towards the beautiful Choclococha, Azulcocha, and Pacococha lakes at the foot of Mount Chonta’s perennially snow-laden peak. From here the road begins to descend gradually as it crosses broad Pampas de Lachoq, the breeding grounds of herds of llama and alpaca, the cornerstone of the region's livestock activity.
A few hours later we reach Huancavelica. The city, located in a fertile Andean valley 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) above sea level, has an austere charm, with several church spires standing out at intervals above the rooftops.
City of the stone idol
According to the Spanish chroniclers who came over with the conquistadors, the city's name comes from the Quechua words huanca and huillka, meaning ‘stone idol’. For centuries Huancavelica was known as the land of the llama herders. Enormous caravans of llamas, ferrying goods between Quito, the capital of modern-day Ecuador, and Cusco, would make their way over the narrow mountain passes.
The city was founded in August 1571 by Francisco de Angulo as base from which to supervise the workings at the huge Santa Barbara mercury mines nearby, where the local indigenous population was forced to toil in unspeakable conditions. The city was originally called La Villa Rica de Oropesa, in honour of Count Oropesa, the incumbent Viceroy of Peru. Tradition has it that the mines were discovered by Amador Cabrera, a Spanish official, who learned of their existence from a native called Nahuincopa. Apparently the native man was grateful to Cabrera for not punishing his son, who had lost the Spaniard's hat during the local Corpus Christi celebrations.
The city’s strategic geographic position made it a centre for inter-Andean trade. This fact, added to the immense wealth generated by the mercury mines, enabled vast fortunes to be amassed during the colonial era. The mansions that still line the city's main streets stand in testimony to this past opulence. However, the bonanza was short-lived. The mercury ore reserves began to dry up in the 17th century and Huancavelica started its slow decline.
Later, in the 19th century, the city was the scene of a number of important indigenous uprisings, like the one led by Mateo Pumacahua (1814), a local figurehead who led several revolts against the colonial yoke. When the independence struggle got under way the local population mobilised to enter the fray on the side of the freedom-fighters.
In the 20th century, Huancavelica and the other two departments that make up the so-called Andean Triangle, Apurímac and Ayacucho, have been blighted by profound socio-economic recession aggravated by a progression of natural disasters (long periods of drought interspersed by floods). In the 1980s, terrorist violence shook the region, leading it deeper into misery and forcing the mass migration of residents towards the coast.
Today, now that peace has returned, this city of peasants and miners is struggling to regain a semblance of its past prosperity.
Monuments and attractions
Huancavelica flourished architecturally during its mercury-mining heyday. Proof of this are its beautiful churches and mansions. The cathedral, for example, is the city's most outstanding building, the most prominent features being its two white spires and red stone entrance. The interior is lined with a wonderful collection of paintings attributed to indigenous artists and the altar is made of ornately carved cedar dressed with gold leaf.
Close to the cathedral is the Church of San Sebastián, built in 1662. The church is home to the popular image of the Niño de Lachoq, who, according to legend, appeared to the Peruvian troops warning them of the imminent arrival of the Chileans, their foes during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).
The countryside surrounding the city is also rich in beautiful landscapes. One of the most popular sites are the San Cristóbal hot springs, located only a few minutes away from the city. Huancavelica also has geological features worth seeing. Stone ‘forests’, peculiar rock formations sculpted by wind and rain erosion are a common sight. This unique landscape is perfect for hiking and photography. There is a stone forest 12 miles (20 km) along the road north to Huancayo and another near Toccyac 18 miles (29 km) east of the city. Other stone forests near Huancavelica can be seen at Sachapite, Huayanay and Paucará.
Huancavelica is one of the most attractive Andean cities in Peru and perfect for a week-end break. So why not just jump in the car ... Huancavelica awaits you.
By Walter H. Wust
Volume /Issue 15, Page 32
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