The central highlands are where the massive Andes crash into the impenetrable South American rain forests, and winding, cloud-covered mountain roads dip down into stark desert terrain. Defying the land’s complexity, its people continue to eke out a hardscrabble life that time has left unchanged.
Most people still depend on the crops they grow and the animals they breed— including guinea pigs and alpaca. Local festivals coincide with the rhythms of the harvest, and traditional recipes and artisanship predate the Inca Empire by hundreds of years. The scenery is stunning, with thundering rivers, blooming potato fields, and hidden waterfalls tucked into the mountainous terrain. Lago de Junín, the country’s second-largest lake, sits miles above sea level and crowns the region.
This beautiful region is gaining prominence and greater integration with the rest of Peru along with improved security and transportation options have opened up this remote region to adventurers and cultural travelers alike.
POINTS OF INTEREST
At first glance, Huánuco looks like any other Spanish settlement: a picturesque collection of colonial buildings and churches surrounded by rocky, forested mountains and cut through by the Huallaga River. History, however, runs far deeper here. Evidence of some of Peru’s earliest human settlements, and some of the oldest ruins in the country, were found nearby at Lauricocha and Kotosh. Pre-Inca ruins have turned up throughout these mountains, notably at Tantamayo and Garu. Huánuco was an Inca stronghold and a convenient stopover on their route from Cusco north to Cajamarca. Thousands of Inca relics litter the surrounding pampas.
Huánuco’s cool, 6,212-foot elevation makes for pleasant winter days and crisp nights, but in the rainy summer a thick mountain fog blankets the town. The Spanish-style architecture reflects the town’s 1539 founding, and later buildings tell the story of Huánuco’s importance as a cultural hub. Still, the original Peruvian traditions run deep, particularly during the annual Huánuco anniversary celebrations. Mountain hikes, swims in natural pools, and dips in nearby hot springs add to the area’s natural appeal.
IGLESIA LA MERCED
The Romanesque Iglesia La Merced was built in 1566 by Royal Ensign Don Pedro Rodriguez. Colonial treasures include a silver tabernacle, paintings of the Cusco School, and the images of the Virgen Purisima and the Corazon de Jesus that were gifts from King Phillip II.
Considered to be South America’s oldest temple, Kotosh, a 4,000-year-old archaeological site, is famous for the Templo de las Manos Cruzadas (Temple of the Crossed Hands). Some of the oldest Peruvian pottery relics were discovered below one of the niches surrounding the main room of the temple, and the partially restored ruins are thought to have been constructed by the Kotosh, one of the country’s earliest cultures. Inside the temple, you’ll see re-created images of the crossed hands. The original mud set is dated 2000 BC and is on display in Lima’s Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología, e Historia del Perú.
PAMPA DE HUÁNUCO
Also known as Huánuco Viejo, this was formerly the ancient capital city of Chinchaysuyu, the northern portion of the Inca Kingdom. These highland pampas contain Incan ruins and are near the town of La Unión, a taxi ride from Huánuco.
The fields around Tantamayo are rich with pre-Inca ruins, some from the oldest cultures to settle in Peru. Most notable are the thick, seven-story stone skyscrapers of the Yarowilca, who flourished from AD 1200 to 1450. Finds at Susupio, Hapayán, Piruro, and Selmín Granero are the best preserved. The ruins are within easy walking distance of Tantamayo village, which has a hostel and basic restaurants; or catch a bus to Tantamayo and visit the ruins without a guide.
One of the longest surviving stretches of Inca road, the Qhapaq Nan, passes through the massive rocky outcrops and deep meadows of the Valle Yanahuanca. Forested hills threaded by shallow, pebbled rivers lead 2½ miles from the village of Yanahuanca to the village of Huarautambo, where pre-Inca ruins dot the rugged terrain. Continue along the 93-mile Inca track and you’ll pass La Union, San Marcos, Huari, Llamellin, and San Luis.
RESERVA NACIONAL DE JUNÍN
This reserve is at the center of the Peruvian puna, the high-altitude cross-section of the Andes, which, at 12,792 to 14,760 feet, is one of the highest regions in which humans live. Its boundaries begin about 6 miles north of town along the shores of Lago de Junín, which, at 9 miles wide and 19 miles long, is Peru’s second-largest lake after Titicaca. Most visitors arrive via day tours from Tarma, but anyone traveling overland from Huánuco via Cerro de Pasco will pass through the reserve.
Flat, rolling fields cut by clear, shallow streams characterize this cold, wet region between the highest Andes peaks and the eastern rain forest. Only heavy grasses, hearty alpine flowers, and tough, tangled berry bushes survive in this harsh climate, although farmers have cultivated the warmer, lower valleys into an agricultural stretch of orchards and plantations. The mountains are threaded with cave networks long used as natural shelters by humans, who hunted the llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas that graze on the plains. The dry season is June through September, with the rains pouring in between December and March.
The reserve is also the site of the Santuario Histórico Chacamarca (Chacamarca Historical Sanctuary), an important battle site where local residents triumphed over the Spanish conquistadors in August 1824. A monument marks the victory spot. The sanctuary is within walking distance of Junín, and several trails lead around the lake and across the pampas.
The hidden mountain town known as “The Pearl of the Andes” has grown into a city of 55,000 whose traditions and sights illuminate its Peruvian roots. Long before the Spanish arrived, indigenous peoples built homes and temples in the hills that framed the town, the ruins of which local farmers continue to turn up as they turn the rich soil into flower and potato fields, coffee plantations, and orchards. The town’s look is Spanish though, with a small Plaza de Armas and several colonial-style churches and mansions. At an elevation of 10,004 feet, Tarma has a cool and breezy climate, with crisp nights all year.
Tarma is a stone’s throw from the ceja de selva (high jungle), where many of Peru’s citrus plantations lie. For around $20, you can organize a day trip from Tarma to visit Chanchamayo’s magnificent waterfalls, butterfly-filled forests, and local tribal groups. These tours take guests to the major waterfalls in the area, including a refreshing dip in the 30-meter Tirol Falls, a jungle lunch of cecina (cured pork) or doncella (river fish), a visit to the local Ashaninka tribe at Pampa Michi, and a tasting of local coffees and other artisanal products. For those who won’t get to the Amazon during their time in Peru, this is an inexpensive way to experience the pleasures of jungle living. It is also a warm escape from the cool highland air. Peru Latino Tarma offers daily tours.
GRUTA DE GUAGAPO
Head northwest of Tarma 17 miles to Palcamayo, then continue 2½ miles west to explore the Gruta de Guagapo limestone cave system, a National Speleological Area. Guides live in the village near the entrance and can give you a basic short tour, but you’ll need full spelunking equipment for deep cavern trips. Numerous tour operators in Tarma offer day trips of the caves and the surrounding villages. It is also possible to arrive at the caves independently by taking a collectivo at the corner of Jr. 2 de Mayo and Jr. Puno.
SAN PEDRO DE CAJAS
About 9 miles northwest of Tarma is the town of San Pedro de Cajas, well known for its exquisite weaving and as an excellent place to buy good-quality, locally made wall hangings and rugs. The Cachi saline wells are about 1.25 miles west of the town.
SAN PEDRO DE CASTA
This compact Andean village is a collection of mud-brick and clapboard homes and shops where you can watch craftspeople and farmers at work on the highland plains. For many visitors, the town is a starting point for the three-hour, uphill hike to the unusual rock formations at Marcahuasi, 2 miles from San Pedro, where winds have worn the earth into a menagerie of animal shapes. Other hiking trails weave through the grasslands around San Pedro, but you’ll need to spend at least one night to get used to the high altitude. Carry a water filtration kit to drink from the lakes. San Pedro is about 25 miles north of Chosica, on the main highway between Lima and La Oroya. Most visit from Lima, but the trip can be made as a day trip from Tarma.
Jauja has the distinction of having been Peru’s original capital, as declared by Francisco Pizarro when he swept through the region; he changed his mind in 1535 and transferred the title to Lima. Jauja still has many of the ornate 16th-century homes and churches that mark its place in the country’s history. The Wednesday and Sunday markets display Andean traditions at their most colorful, showing the other side of life in this mountain town. Although there are several moderately priced hotels, many travelers come here on a day trip from Huancayo. Those who stay usually head to the lakeside Laguna de Paca resort area 2½ miles from town.
CONVENTO DE SANTA ROSA DE OCOPA
Originally a Franciscan foundation whose role was to bring Christianity to the Amazon peoples, the 1725 building now has a reconstructed 1905 church and a massive library with more than 25,000 books—some from the 15th century. The natural-history museum displays a selection of regional archaeological finds, including traditional costumes and local crafts picked up by the priests during their travels. A restaurant serves excellent, if simple, Andean food, and several spare but comfortable accommodations are in the former monks’ quarters.
It’s not hard to see how the modern city of Huancayo, which has close to 260,000 residents, was once the capital of pre-Inca Huanca (Wanka) culture. In the midst of the Andes and straddling the verdant Río Mantaro valley, the city the middle of the Andes and straddling the verdant Río Mantaro valley, the city has been a source of artistic inspiration from the days of the earliest settlers and has thrived as the region’s center for culture and wheat farming. A major agricultural hub, Huancayo was linked by rail with the capital in 1908, making it an endpoint to what was once the world’s highest train line (but is now in second place). Although it’s a large town, its little shops, small restaurants, blossoming plazas, and broad colonial buildings give it a comfortable, compact feel.
CAPILLA DE LA MERCED
In front of the Río Shulcas, the Capilla de la Merced is a national monument marking where Peru’s Constitutional Congress met in 1830 and the Constitution was signed in 1839. In addition to information about this historic gathering, the Chapel of Mercy also exhibits Cusqueño paintings.
FERROCARRIL CENTRAL ANDINO
The Central Highlands’ Ferrocarril Central Andino once laid claim to being the world’s highest rail route. With the 2006 opening of China’s Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the Peru route was knocked down to second place. No matter, though: this is one of the country’s most scenic areas, and tracks cut through the mountains and plains all the way from Lima to Huancayo.
The 207-mile route twists through the Andes at an elevation of 15,685 feet. The engine chugs its way up a slim thread of rails that hugs the slopes, speeding over 59 bridges, around endless hairpin curves, and through 66 tunnels—including the 3,854-foot-long Galera Tunnel, which, at an altitude of 15,606 feet is its highest point.
Look for the well-preserved rain-forest creatures and butterflies from the northern jungles among the museum’s more than 10,000 objects. Local fossils and archaeological relics are also on display.
When the Spanish founded Huancayo in 1572, the Plaza Huamanmarca was the city center and the site of the weekly Feria Dominical (Sunday market). Today Huamanmarca Square is fronted by the post office, the telephone agency, and the Municipal Hall, and the Feria Dominical now takes place on Avenida Huancavelica.
Spread out high in the Andes, colonial Huancavelica was founded by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, and they promptly discovered rich veins of silver and mercury threaded through the rocky hillsides. The abundant mercury was vital in the extraction of silver from mines in Peru and Bolivia, including Potosí. Although mining was difficult at 12,979 feet, the Spanish succeeded in making the city an important profit center that today has grown to a population of around 40,000.
PLAZA DE ARMAS HUANCAVELICA
Huancavelica’s Plaza de Armas is the main gathering place and a wonderful example of colonial architecture. Across from the plaza is the restored 17thcentury cathedral, which contains a silver-plated altar.
BAÑOS TERMALES DE SAN CRISTÓBAL
Locals believe that these hot-spring mineral baths, found in the tree-covered slopes north of town, have healing powers. Hundreds of pilgrims come from the surrounding villages during holy days.
The Battle of Ayacucho, the decisive battle against Spain in the Peruvian War of Independence, took place on the Pampas de Quinua grasslands 23 miles northeast of the city, near the village of Quinua, on December 9, 1824. Today a white obelisk rises 144 feet above the pampas to commemorate Peru’s independence from Spain and cement the role of locals in bringing it about.
You can follow the surrounding events through exhibits in the compact Quinua museum. Come the first week in December to celebrate the town’s role in Peru’s democracy, when you’ll see extravagant local performances, parties, parades, and crafts fairs. There’s a little local market on Sunday.
Tucked into the folds of the Andes, 8,987 feet up on the slopes, Ayacucho is a colorful, colonial-style town. Though its looks are Spanish—all glowing white-alabaster mansions with elegant columns and arches—it’s primarily an indigenous town inhabited by people who still speak Quechua as a first language and don traditional costume for their daily routine. Locals greet visitors with warmth and amazement, and the city’s 140,000 people revere artists with an energy matched only during religious celebrations like Carnaval and Semana Santa. Religion is a serious pursuit, too, in this city of churches, where more than 50 sanctuaries beckon worshippers at all hours.
The wide plains that make up the 740-acre Santuario Histórico Pampas de Ayacucho are scattered with relics of the Huari culture, which evolved 500 years before that of the Inca. Huari was its capital, thought to have once been home to 60,000 or more residents, and its surrounding fields contain a maze of tumbled stone temples, homes, and 39-foot walls. This is believed to have been the first urban walled settlement in the Andes, created by a civilization whose livelihood was based on such metalworking feats as bronze weapons and gold and silver jewelry. A small museum displays skeleton bits and samples of ceramics and textiles; opening times are at the whim of the workers. You can get here cheaply from Barrio Magdalena in Ayacucho via irregular buses, which continue to Quinua and Huanta.
IGLESIA SANTO DOMINGO
The 1548 Iglesia Santo Domingo is now a national monument. The first bells ringing out Peru’s independence from the Spanish after the Battle of Ayacucho were sounded from here. The church’s facade features Churrigueresque architectural elements, a style of baroque Spanish architecture popular in the 16th century, while the interior is coated in pan de oro (gold leaf).
In Casona Vivanco on the Plaza de Armas, the 17th-century Museo Cáceres honors Andrés Cáceres, an Ayacucho resident and former Peruvian president best known for his successful guerrilla leadership during the 1879–83 War of the Pacific against Chile. His Cáceres Museum is one of the city’s best-preserved historic mansions, which today protects a mix of military memorabilia and ancient local artifacts, including stone carvings and ceramics. Note the gallery of colonial-style paintings. The Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial can also be found within these storied walls and exhibits antique objects from the city’s early days.
MUSEO DE ARQUEOLOGÍA Y ANTROPOLOGÍA HIPÓLITO UNÁNUE
Regional finds from the Moche, Nazca, Ica, Inca, Canka, Chavín, Chimu, and Huari cultures are on display at here, at the Centro Cultural Simón Bolívar. Highlights of the archaeology and anthropology museum include ceremonial costumes, textiles, everyday implements, and even artwork from some of the area’s oldest inhabitants. The museum is locally referred to as Museo INC.
VILCASHUAMÁN AND INTIHUATANA
Four long hours south of Ayacucho on winding, unpaved roads is the former Inca provincial capital of Vilcashuamán, set where the north-south Inca highway crossed the east-west trade road from Cusco to the Pacific. You can still see the Templo del Sol y la Luna and a five-tiered platform, known as the Ushno, crowned by an Inca throne and surrounded by stepped fields once farmed by Inca. An hour’s walk from Vilcashuamán (or a half-hour’s walk south past the main road from Ayacucho) is Intihuatana, where Inca ruins include a palace and tower beside a lagoon. Former Inca baths, a sun temple, and a sacrificial altar are also on the grounds. Check out the unusual 13-angled boulder, one of the odd building rocks that are an Inca hallmark.