To Abancay, Andahuaylas & Andamarca

To Abancay, Andahuaylas & Andamarca

This is a little-travelled part of Perú, crossing areas of considerable historical interest. The main Inca highways travelled out through this regions, and here the Conquistadores fought major battles on their way to Cuzco. This is one of the most remoter regions in the Andes, and deeply steeped in traditions which have been lost or diluted elsewhere. Travel is not always comfortable and standards of accommodation are basic, but this region repays those with a strong interest in the shadow of history over society, in archaeology and in an area with a sere but almost pristine environment. This is the place to travel if you wish to see the delicate vicuña in its natural environment.

It is possible to travel across this region, or "dip into" it from either Cuzco or Nazca. It is also possible to fly into Andahuaylas.

from cusco to Abancay

Abancay is around 200 km from Cusco on a well-surfaced road, crossing a high pass at Huillque. The Apurimac valley, which the road follows once it drops down from the pass to Limatambo, is one of the most striking in Perú. The snow peaks of Salcantay (6270m) and the Cordillera Vilcabamba form the West face of the Apurimac valley, and the road offers many places to stop and admire the scene. There are rope suspension bridges across the cañones which differ little from pre-Incan times.

The river thunders through the valley, dropping from around 5000m at its head to close to 500m above sea level as it issues into the jungle. The cañon itself is around 350 km long, and almost all of it is violent. The headwaters are alpine, but the valley becomes wetter and more tropical as the river moves East. The lower reaches are used for coffee, cocoa (and coca cultivation.) The name “Apurimac” means “the Gods (apus) are here”. Although not for beginners, this is a remarkable place for kayakers, with rapids that range from Grade II to V.

The road, however, reaches the hot springs of Cconc, where well-known medicinal bathes lie right on the edge of the river, surrounded by cactus and rough woodland. The location has been regarded as a cure for rheumatism for millennia, and there is accommodation set up to deal with this. The road climbs away from this location, rising away from the river.

Click here to see a series of images Curahuasi is a village which is reached 120 km from Cuzco. It styles itself the “world capital of Anís”, which is a drink which one either loves or one does not. This fact makes Curahuasi an attraction to the passing traffic, and it offers restaurants and adequate, rustic accommodation. Many make a night stop here on their way to the coast. However, the town itself is spread out along the main road, which can make the hotels noisy. The large Plaze de Armas has a single light bulb in it, and this is not a place to look for sophistication.

There is an archaeological site at Saywite, around 30 km from the town. This is not very easy to visit if you are relying on public transport. However, relatively frequent buses to and from Abancay pass the dropping-off spot on the road. One then has to walk for ten minutes to the site. There is a pretty village community located on the site, and they charge USD 3 for entry. The backdrop is spectacular, with many folding hills covered with cultivation.

The site is around 60 hectares in size, located at 2400m. The main monolith has been worked into an ovoid around 2.5m high, on which figures in relief show animals – pumas, monkeys, crayfish - and physical features of the landscape, such as canals, terraces and mountains. It also illustrates examples of Inca architecture. There is also an altar of the solar cult – called an Ushno - and several Intihuatanas, or monoliths apparently used for astronomical purposes, perhaps for setting the calendar.

Another little trip from Curahuasi is a short walk towards the San Francisco bridge, which quickly gives excellent views over the valley and the rough mountain-scape beyond. Snow peaks are at times visible in the Cordillera Vilcabamba. The bridge itself crossed the Apurimac and goes on to Cachora, the jumping-off point for the trek to Choquequirao, the “other” Machu Picchu.

Choquequirao

Start out through the anís fields of the Lucmus farm. This leads to a trail which is extremely striking - although not always open, particularly in the wet season. When accessible, it drops down the wall of the cañon, surrounded on one side by a sheer cliff and on the other by a precipice.

Cachora can, however, also be reached by road at kilometre 154 from Cusco. The village offers guides, mules and other necessities for hire, but you absolutely must bring in food and your own equipment. There are, however, local shops which sell the basics and hotels to use during preparation. (3080m) is set on a rocky table in a wet area which can only be reached by foot.

The ruin is set in pure ceja de selva, the belt of mist forest that runs above the drier alta selva or high jungle. The 30km trip takes about 15 hours of walking, which most cover in four days. The trail is extremely “up and down” and not one for beginners. There is only one small village on the trail.

The Apurímac is crossed by a bridge, at around 1500m and most will want to camp at the river on the first day. The next day is a hard slog to 3000m, chiefly on poor paths, but ultimately bringing the traveler to the ruins. Although it rains torrentially in season on the path into the site, the ruin itself is not blessed with all-the-year round water and it is advisable to carry what you need in. It is, therefore, important to ensure that you have the pack animals and equipment that you need for this before you set out. The trail offers fine views and the forested leg of the trip is extraordinarily beautiful for those interested in wild life.

The ruins themselves cover 1800 hectares, to some easily surpassing Machu Picchu in their quality and number. The name of the site in Quechua “Chuqui K’irao” means “golden crib”, but what its function was for the Inca is unknown. Only a third of the ruin has been excavated, and the rest remains locked in untouched jungle growth.

There are nine general districts arranged around a central square, with rather formal divisions by means of roads, canals and other linear forms. These probably corresponded to social divisions if the Inca used here the styles that they used elsewhere. The site was almost certainly an Inca refuge after the Spanish conquest. It was briefly noted as being deserted by the incurious Spanish in 1768, visited 1834 and 1847 by French explorers, and “discovered” by the famous Hiram Bingham in 1911.

A new and major site has been uncovered in 2002, called Cota Coca. This is also located across the Apurímac, beyond Choquequirao. The rough trail drops 1200m into the Río Blanco valley, up onto the opposite cliff face at nearly 3000m and then down into the Yanama valley. The ruins are at 1850m close to where the Yanama and Blanco rivers join, in an area of humid jungle. (The Blanco lies in a near-vertical valley along which it is impossible to travel by foot.)

The site was abandoned around 1572, when Tupac Amaru fell. Explorers who were seeking out Choquequirao tended to come from the highlands, and the area around Cota Coca is exceptionally impenetrable. The ruin is still being cleared from this vegetation. However, it has around three dozen stone-built structures set around a central square. One of the buildings is over 20m long, and some of the walls stand to 3m in height.

The constructions are typical Inca in form, being less elaborate than the buildings closer to Cusco. This may reflect the rather brittle material of which they are built. Many may have been plastered, and perhaps given relief decoration, although this has been lost to the rains. The overall effect is of a place used for administration and the cultivation of coca rather than as a ceremonial centre. The terraced and walled fileds that extend upriver from the site were used to support the local population, but were not extensive enough to have supported substantial exports.

The site has, however, at least two large stock pens, or canchas. Cota Coca was linked to the Royal highroad that ran down the spine of the Andes, and its purpose was probably that of a way-station for llama trains. The road, up to 4.5m wide and surfaced with slabs of rock, can be seen near the Choquetecarpo pass. It was a major feat of construction, with some of the infill and retaining walls exceeding 6m.

Abancay

The 4000m Socllaccasa pass, fairly near the Saywite ruins, takes the road on to Abancay, which lies at 2390m. This takes an hour and involves much twisting and turning, albeit in spectacular scenery. Abancay was founded in 1574 by Ruiz de Estrada as Santiago de Habancay. The town never found prosperity once the local mines were exhausted and its buildings are all on a small scale. Nevertheless, they offer perfectly-preserved colonial-period streets and squares. The architecture draws less on Spanish than on local tradition, using adobe and tile roofing. The atmosphere goes beyond the merely tranquil and the Plaza de Armas is usually almost silent and deserted, something rare in a provincial capital in Latin America.

Click here to see a series of images There is a reasonable range of hotels in Abancay, as well as the usual facilities such as Internet access and medical care. There are many restaurants, all serving regional cuisine. Abancay is reached by bus from Lima, Arequipa and Cuzco. Many of the local destinations are reached by truck, rather than by bus of collectivo. The chief local festival is on November 3rd, celebrating the town's anniversary and patronal.

The town has a running feud with its neighbour, Andahuaylas. On the surface, the rivalry revolves around which should be the capital, with Abancay being seen as overly-ambitious and Andahuaylas disparaged as “not really serranos”, mountain people. Both need each other – for example, Andahuaylas is a major farm producer, whilst Abancay is the marketplace through which they sell it – but the rivalry is tenacious and of long-standing.

This would be of scant interest to the visitor if it were not for the historical roots from which this springs. Memories last long in the sierra, and events of the Fifteenth century still influence attitudes and behaviour. The origins of this friction go back to the residual Wari empire – the chancas - and its rivalry with the insurgent Incas. Andahuaylas was the Chanca capital, and its ruler Anco Huallo fought his way to Cusco and nearly unseated the then rather local Inca rule. The man who became Inca Pachacútec was, however, able to beat the chancas back, and he went on to take the Incan empire into its expansionary phase. If this battle had been lost, however, Perúvian history would have been quite different.

A somewhat ambiguous mural in Abancay, showing the judgement of kings and partisans, soldiers and ordinary people. (The image is a reconstruction from several images and therefore not a precise representation.)

The Abancay region was later the heart of the Eighteenth century Túpac Amaru revolt against Spanish rule. This was put down with brutality, and the regional population fell sharply. A later revolt under Pumacahua (1814) was also brutally repressed. Near-by Ayacucho was the centre of the Sendero Luminoso movement, which was also extremely active in these parts. When viewing these towns, therefore, one needs to keep an awareness alive of the spirit of independence and cultural individuality which they cherish. It is also worth considering how much the local people have suffered from invaders and counter-revolutionaries. The recent guerilla war and its suppression involved the forced movement of many and the death of not a few innocents.

Another mural, depicting life before and after the arrival of the Sendero Luminoso movement, the army and violent repressiont.

Ampay reserves

A major local attraction is the snow-capped Ampay sanctuary, the edge of which is is only 6 km from the town. This is an area that lies between 2900m and 5235m, capped by permanent snow. The chief single interest of the sanctuary is the intimpa forest (Podocarpus glomeratus.) It is the only conifer native to Perú, and is found plastered with orchids, bromeliads and ferns in this cloud forest location. Animals such as spectacled bears and the Andean fox live in the woods, and the birds are – as elsewhere in the country – extremely diverse. A focal point in the area is the Uspaq’ocha lake, 3840m, high above the forest. This is an emerald lake, with views of the snows above and of the surrounding countryside.

Guides are hard to find in Abancay, although there are some nascent travel companies. The site is under the guardianship of INRENA, which has an office in the centre of Abancay. They can usually provide a guide. A taxi will take you to the main entrance path, which reaches the rather barren Angasq’ocha lake at 3200m in 40 minutes of climbing. Here the forest begins. One can camp in the area, and many stay the night in the forest and make a two-day trip of this excursion. This allows one to ascend to the snow line, the domain of the resident apu, who had great influence in pre-Hispanic times.

A second point of entry is called the Jacaterra, which is reached from the little community of Kanja, 40 km from Abancay. The trail is rough, but the countryside less initally barren than the primary route. The trail leads directly to the high lake in around 7 km. The third way in is called Qorwani, which starts from the village of the same name, 40 minutes by road from Abancay. It heads up to the snow, reaching it in about 6 km. Trails are all quite hard going, although there is no need for any equipment other than a coverall, good shoes and whatever you need for camping if you ae going to stay overnight.

Andahuaylas

The road between these rival towns is not tarred, and the 140km can be slow and at times tough going. Conditions are abysmal after heavy rain. There is only one significant stopping place, around half way between the two towns. Buses take around four hours to complete the trip. This is a very remote town, both in geography and in social terms. You may hear about an incident in 2004, when a retired major incited a group to try to make the region independent from Perú. Unhappily, a few people were killed in the ensuing riot - but the point remains that this area was hostile to the Wari, tot he Inca, to the Spanish and now to central government. It is far from anywhere that you can get in the Andes and still find a working society. .

Click here to see a series of images Andahuaylas is set at 3020m, close to the Chumbao river. It makes its living from support to the local farming industry, which specialises in root crops and maize, as well as livestock. A source of great local pride is the regional airport, located 17 km from the town but serviced with regular flights from other locations in the South as well as from Lima.

The town has very basic accommodation, and offers simple services. Most of the population speak only Quechua. The town is a quiet place and the people of it are for the most part gentle and polite. One can wander the little alleys and between its tiled, adobe houses without much concern for security. There is a pretty market which develops on Sunday morning which is as good a measure of how life was lived here for the past centuries as any in Perú. The town has a simple but charming church of San Pedro (with a unique spiral staircase up its bell tower) and a pleasant Plaza de Armas. A monumental cross stands 3.5m tall, carved from a single block of volcanic stone.

Andahuaylas is close to the Pacucha lake (3100m). This is around 20 km from the town and is famous for its fiercely blue waters, which turn reddish in the afternoon. (The cause is an alga which floats to the surface.) The reed-beds and marshes around it are populated by many water birds, notable ducks, and this is a fine place for undisturbed bird watching.

The archaeological complex at Sóndor covers around 20 hectares and is located close to the lake, on raised ground called the Muyu Muyu cerro or outcrop. People who visit seem to be struck by the silence of the place, and by the endless horizons of the puna and its distant snow peaks. The view from a ledge above the site takes in a huge expanse, including the lake itself.

The site is marked externally by walls with viewing points and open precincts, that can perhaps be seen as mustering areas. Internally, it consists of pyramidal constructions surrounded by walls and terraces, leading up to open and spacious platforms. The construction has not been dated and relatively little is known about it. One mound - huaca - has, however, been excavated and it proved to contain human remains, speculatively those of sacrifice. The authors of the site may have been the Chanca group that descended from the Wari, the Wari themselves or another culture. The town celebrates Sóndor Raymi on June 24th, their own extremely indigenous version on Cusco’s slickly-presented Inti Raymi. There is one basic hostel-like hotel in the immediate area.

This is a deeply traditional area in which the political forces that drive the rest of Perú do not impinge. Villages are for the most part co-operatives, allocating land amongst their families on perceived merit. Their main celebration is Mamacha Carmen, a thinly disguised act of celebration of Pacha Mama, the Earth Goddess. It is celebrated on July 16th. The town’s patronal is June 24th, the fiesta of San Pedro y Pablo.

Andamarca

Andamarca is usually approached from Puquio. The road is not tarred, is narrow, winding and precipitous. This takes a combi-bus four hours to negotiate, and these set off on no fixed schedule, essentially leaving as soon as they are full with passengers. Andamarca lacks any tourist facilities, and the hotels are little more than sleeping places. There are virtually no facilities aimed at the tourist, such as guides, although there is an office grandly titled Corporación de Desarrollo Turístico located next to the church. They are able to identify guides.

Click here to see a series of images Despite this ominous introduction, this area is worth visiting. The chief attraction are the celebrations, which are outstandingly colourful and which synthesise Catholicism with pre-Incan cosmology. The local people are descendants of a warlike people called the Rucanas. They make offerings to the Earth spirit Pacha Mama and venerate the apus; but at the same time are assiduous in their practice of Christian worship, in forming processions and accompanying the priest in his blessing on the waters. This is a lengthy series of picture. Please click here to jump to the bullfighting.

Andamarca is surrounded by picturesque Andean scenery and by massive terraces, said to date back thousands of years. Associated with these is Caniche, an archaeological site of potentially great importance which has yet to be excavated. The site is notable for the sophistication of its stonework, and was evidently a city of some importance. It lies close to Andamarca, as does the 200m waterfall at Puzapaccha. The latter can be reached in a pretty three hour walk from the town, also passing the fine mirror of Yarpuccocha lake. The lake itself is only 30 minutes from Andamarca by foot, and is the object of various rustic ceremonies.

One strange consequence of the Spanish conquest was the outbreak of Taki Onqoy, a dancing mania that killed thousands in the 1540s. Andamarca was the centre of this, and the feverish enthusiasm with which the local people cling to their traditions retains a hint of this hysteria. The dance now called the tijeras (“scissors”) is thought to be a direct descendent of the Taki Onqoy. Local people, now calling themselves “Lucanas”, fervently believe that the old times will return. The locals believe, for example, that much of their water supply comes from the gift of the Inca, a phenomenon called Pedro Sasahue Orqo. The story is that the Inca Huiracocha, when in love with the sister of a local figure called Sasahue, proved his devotion by creating a very long underground canal, bringing water to them from a distant 4000m peak. Local people make a pilgrimage to this source to perform offering ceremonies.

Click here to see a series of images The great festival of Andamarca is related to this, the fiesta del agua or water festival that runs from August 20th to 26th. This is also called Yaku Raymi, and gives thanks for water to the Pacha Mama and San Isidro Labrador (meaning ‘farm worker’, rather than gun dog!), who is patron of the town. The priest tayta cura blesses the water, and a procession with the figure of San Isidro goes around the town. Meanwhile, a figure elected as “water mayor”, the yaku alcalde, offers the Earth coca leaves, maize beer and tobacco. Black-faced dancers, competing bands and mummers begin days of regional dance schools and general thanksgiving. The rather sinister high point is the atipanakuy of competition between dancers of the tijeras form, discussed above but here taken to extremes. These dancers perform self-mutilation and other proofs of valour, operating in the corners of the Plaza de Armas.

As mentioned earlier, the road from Andamarca towards the coast is exceptionally challenging, notable in the wet season. Its destination is Puquio (3210m), which is the capital of its province. This sits squarely on the road to Nazca and the coast, as well as that up to Ayacucho and other important locations. It takes around 6 hours by bus, on what eventually becomes a good road but which begins in extremely rough conditions.

Near Puquio

Pampas Galeras

The Reserva Nacional de Pampa Galeras (3900m) is an area set aside for the vicuña in 1965. It can be found on the Nazca road, about 45 km from Puquio. Vicuñas are, of course, the gracile, delicate cousin of the common llama and alpaca, and few are not delighted by them.

They were hunted for their wool, which grows long only on what in humans would be their chests, and so each animal yields a tiny quantity of this. However, the quality is such that international prices for the fabric had already reached hundreds of dollars per square metre when the reserve was introduced. The animals are now corralled and shaven, rather than killed, and modern textile technology has been able to reproduce many of the valuable characteristics of vicuña in conventional wool. The result has been a rebound in the population right across the Andes of Perú, but particularly in Pampas Galeras. The reserve is only 6500 hectares, but one can be certain of sight of a herd if one visits.

Click here to see a series of images A major regional festival associated with the reserve is Chaccu de la Vicuña, (June 24th). This is held in the Pampa Galeras itself. The festival consists of shearing the fleece of a few hundred vicuñas, all amidst music, dancing and celebration of the Pacha Mama. The animals are caught by hundreds of people forming a human chain so as to enclose a flock and drive it into a pen. This is not without danger – the vicuña can weigh 70 kg and reacts to danger by charging in a group, kicking forward with their extremely sharp little feet. The archaeological site of Cahuachi is relatively close to Pampas Galeras.

Closer to Puquio, the village of Santa Isabel has the Wari (pre-Inca) ruins of Ñaupa Llacta. The Baños de Geronta are volcanic hot springs (complete with two small volcanic cones) at 3900m, 20 km along the road from Puquio to Valle de Sondondo. The waters emerge at 40°C, and are said to be curative.

Regional Food

The region cannot compare to Cusco for the sophistication of its cooking, but you can nevertheless eat well. The following are widely available:

Huatia: meat and potatoes dry-cooked together in a bundle of herbs under hot rocks. The rocks are heated in a blazing camp fire and then tossed in a hole in the ground, with the ingredients sandwiched between them. More earth is put over the top and the “oven” left to cook for an hour. It is a traditional meal for the times of harvest and sowing.

Kapchi: a stew made with beans, mushrooms, potatoes, milk eggs and white cheese.

Papas con Uchullachua: parboiled potatoes with herbs and chilli.

Chicharrón de cuy: guinea pig in a maize batter, deep fried and served with fried potatoes and vegetables such as lettuce or green beans. This is very much the dish of celebration, served at weddings and corte de pelo de los niños a hair-cutting ceremony that serves the same role as baptism.

El Tallarín de la casa: are noodles made from home-made pasta, serves with stuffed capsicums, chicken or guinea pig.

Some of the food on offer at Andamarca's water festival.

Regional Festivals

In addition to the various events mentioned in connection with specific locations, the following are of interest.