There were two surprises in store for me when I arrived in the highland town of Huancavelica in Peru. The first was how cold it was, although as it sits in a valley 3700m above sea level, it wasn’t that surprising. The second was much more pleasant. My visit coincided with the first day of a vibrant Andean festival, the Fiesta de las Cruces. Pretty much everyone was dressed up in colourful costumes and ready to have a good time. It was one of those wonderful serendipitous moments when you stumble on something spectacular, and, best of all, there were hardly any other tourists.
I spent a few days in Lima which didn’t really appeal to me. There are a few attractive buildings in the centre, but it’s quite rundown in places. I stayed in the southern neighbourhood of Barranco which was quiet and relaxing, but the climate was what really got to me. This part of the country is notorious at this time of year for the garúa, a grey blanket of cloud that covers the coastal strip and blocks out the sun for days on end.
When two friends from the USA joined me in Lima, I was ready to escape up into the mountains. I knew it would be colder, but at least there’d be sun. It was a nine hour bus ride up to Huancayo where we stayed for a couple of nights. The city itself is pleasant but not full of attractions. However, it lies in the fertile Mantaro valley and we took a day trip through some local villages and lakes.
The standout attraction was the convent of Santa Rosa de Ocopa, a beautifully preserved colonial building from where missionaries would set off down into the jungle. We were the only three tourists there on a guided tour. The small village of Cochas Chico was also interesting for its handicrafts of gourd carving. We were invited to watch part of the process by a man who explained his father and grandfather taught him the techniques and he also has children and grandchildren continuing the family tradition.
The highlight of this part of the trip, though, was the train journey to Huancavelica on the world’s second highest passenger railway. The train departed at 6.30am and took about 6 hours to reach Huancavelica, winding up the river valley, crossing bridges and plunging through pitch black tunnels.
It was a service used by locals as well as tourists. We were in buffet class which entitled us to food, although breakfast catered for local tastes, with fried trout or huge steaming bowls of chicken soup, which the waiters miraculously managed to deliver on the lurching carriage without spilling a drop. In the class behind us were the locals who got on and off at various stops. The women wore striking hats and carried huge bundles on their backs of produce or sometimes children.
We checked into a hotel right on the Plaza de Armas where a stage was being set up. Back near the station we went to watch brass bands playing near the tracks, then saw people dancing outside a church in traditional costume. It was a fascinating mix of indigenous culture and a Catholic festival.
As night fell the temperature plummeted, yet this didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the locals who seemed determined to party through the night. The huge amount of alcohol being consumed probably helped. We, however, had a long day ahead of us travelling to Ayacucho the next day and the guidebooks indicated that it was a long and complicated journey. So, we had an early night to prepare ourselves for what turned out to be a challenging but magnificent trip through stunning mountain scenery.