If there’s a rough, off-the-beaten road to follow, I’m always keen to take it. But even I was apprehensive about getting from Huancavelica to Cusco through Peru’s central highlands. The guidebooks warn of tough, unpaved roads along a route rarely used except by hardcore travellers. The good news is that the roads are now mostly all paved, but there are still hardly any other tourists to be seen en route. Even better, the scenery is absolutely phenomenal.
We decided against travelling via Rumichaca which is one option, but entails getting up for a very early bus. Instead, we took a colectivo, or shared car, to Lircay along a spectacular road which led us up over a high pass where we lucky enough to see not only alpacas, but also the rarer vicuñas. But it was when we arrived in Lircay that the problems started. We were only about a third of the way to Ayacucho and no driver seemed willing to take us there.
After an hour of wandering around, we finally found someone who was prepared to drive to a place called Julcamarca. He deposited us in an empty, dusty square which was like something out of a spaghetti western. By now time was ticking on and the only transport coming down from the market town above us was full. Luckily, a minivan came along soon, which seemed to be quite an exciting event for the town, and in a few hours we were in Ayacucho.
For much of the 80s and 90s Ayacucho was off limits as it was one of the centres of activity for the Shining Path movement. Nowadays, it is an attractive, prosperous city with a really impressive main square. It’s also quite cosmopolitan, with enticing restaurants, but it isn’t yet overwhelmed by tourists.
Outside the city you can visit some fascinating ruins of the Huari people who came before the Incas. In fact, the Incas took many ideas from the Huari, including architecture, although the Incas famously improved on this by not using any kind of cement or mortar. Blocks of stones are cut and pieced together in intricate patterns and have stood the test of time for centuries. Inca buildings truly are strong and stable.
We also visited the little village of Quinua, famous for making ceramic figures and buildings which are placed on the roofs of houses. In the market I also tried pacay, a weird furry fruit in elongated pods.
Roads south to Cusco have also recently been improved and we were able to make it as far as Abancay in one day. Again we drove over high passes which afforded magnificent views for miles around. From Abancay to Cusco it’s only four hours, so we hired a private colectivo so we could stop off at a few sites along the way. First we visited an interesting carved boulder, the Saihuite stone, and then continued to Limatambo, where we had our first real taste of Inca architecture.
We arrived in Cusco feeling not a little smug that we’d travelled for days along such awe-inspiring roads. You can fly from Lima in less than an hour, but you’d be missing so much. The other advantage is that we were already acclimatised to the altitude which is quite important since Cusco stands at 3326m above sea level. But the most difficult thing for me was getting used to so many tourists and so much hassle. After the remote places we’d been to, it was quite a shock. But luckily we’d arrived in time for yet another festival …