Overland through the Central Sierra – Part 2 – Huancavelica to Ayacucho and Cusco

En route to Cusco from Abancay

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.

Alpaca seen from the road to Lircay

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. 

Street in Ayacucho

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.

Street in Quinua

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.

Huari ruins

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.

Pacay – how do you eat this?

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.

Limatambo

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.

Limatambo

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 …

Fiesta in Cusco
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From Zumba to Chachapoyas – the exciting route into Peru and the land of the People of the Clouds

Llamas at Kuélap

Of the three border crossings from Ecuador to Peru, I was embarking on the least travelled and most dramatic route. I spent my last night in Ecuador in the small attractive town of Zumba. My destination the next day was Chachapoyas, once home to the Chachapoya, or People of the Clouds. They are aptly named, for the bumpy unpaved roads lead high into mountain passes and cloud forests, while mist swirls atmospherically in the valleys below. 

A ranchera

It was an all day journey involving at least 6 different modes of transport. The most charming was the local ranchera, an open sided bus with bench seats, which left Zumba at 8am. It trundled down to the frontier village of La Balsa, which is really just a few huts. After an easy exit from Ecuador and an equally easy queue-free entry into Peru, I was then in a shared taxi to the nearest town of San Ignacio. From there I had to take a sequence of three more minivans via Jaen and Bagua Grande, but thankfully they all linked together perfectly with very little waiting.

En route to Chachapoyas

One of the great pleasures of travelling in South America is the chance to visit old archaeological sites and learn about cultures which had often disappeared well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. With no writing or historical records, we only have the remains of their towns and cities to give us some insight into their civilisation. It’s amazing to consider how many great cultures were flourishing here in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

Main square in Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas is capital of the Amazonas region which occupies the eastern slopes of the Andes and stretches down to the great river. The Chachapoya were a warrior like race and inhabited this area for about a thousand years until the late 15th century when they were conquered by the Incas. Of course, it was only another 30 years or so, before the Incas were themselves overthrown by the Spanish. 

Cable car to Kuélap

Kuélap is a huge Chachapoya site and is now relatively easy to visit with a tour company, especially since a new cable car was opened just a few months ago. It’s not as dramatic as Machu Picchu, but it’s still a fascinating day out. The setting is superb and the llamas, as always, are photogenic.

En route to Cajamarca

My next destination was Cajamarca, south-west across the Andes. Most buses travel at night, which I hate, particularly since you miss the scenery. However, I found one company, Rojas, which runs a minibus leaving at 5.30am. The road was one of the most spectacular so far, with incredible views. The route clings to the side of mountains and climbs up and down valleys. If you saw these hairpin bends first, there’s no way you’d want to do this journey at night!
Cajamarca

Cajamarca has a sad and tragic history. It was here that Francisco Pizarro arrived in the highlands and where he met the last Inca King, Atahualpa, in 1532. The latter came peacefully to meet the Spanish invaders, but Pizarro and his men turned on them, captured Atahualpa and brutally murdered 7000 local people in the name of Christianity, the King of Spain and imperialism. Yes, 7000! And that was just one day of the Conquest. 

Cajamarca

The story continues with Atahualpa promising to fill a room with gold and silver in return for his release. Over the next few months wealth arrived from all over the Inca empire, but the perfidious Spaniards still executed Atahualpa. You can visit an Incan building which may be where Atahualpa was imprisoned or where he deposited the treasures. The next day I took a tour to Cumbemayo, a site of pre-Incan water channels which were carved out in this rocky, dramatic landscape over 2000 years ago. 

Cumbemayo

So far in Peru I’ve noticed far more people in traditional dress, in particular the women who wear the most extraordinary high hats. Sadly, I’ve also noticed more poverty and all the beggars on the streets are indigenous people. The Spanish conquered this continent through force, but also a lot of luck, since their arrival coincided with a civil war between the Incas. It’s fascinating to think how different things might look if the Spanish had lost and never colonised South America. There could be an Inca Kingdom still in place today. 

Local woman, Cajamarca