Inland from Lima to Huancayo

Inland from Lima to Huancayo

This route follows the Carretera Central, which almost perpendicular to the coast away from Lima. It crosses the highest road-and-rail crossing in the world at Ticlio.

The unlovely mining town of La Oroya serves as a hub, from which three main routes develop. One, explored here, passes Junin and Huánuco, and eventually descends to the jungle at Tingo María. The central route goes to Tarma, and then drops into the high jungle in Chanchamayo. We discuss this route here. The current description follows the high, level road into the Huancayo valley.

This is a high quality road, well served by public transport, and afford probably the easiest view of rural Perú from Lima. You must, however, be prepared to travel to high altitudes very quickly, ascending nearly 5000m in a few hours.

The Cordillera Yauyos is surprisingly under-exploited, given its proximity to Lima. Access to it is generally through San Vincente de Cañete and Yauyos, as discussed here.

From Lima to La Oroya

The Carretera Central follows the Rimác River up into the Andes. The entire valley is riddled with mines - to the extent that their tailings were at one time endangering Lima's water supply with heavy metal contamination - but these are long past their peak exploitation and the road now serves as the chief conduit for jungle produce finding its way to Lima. The entire trip takes about six hours by public transport, and much more or somewhat less if you have your own car and stop along the way. It is an easy drive for a conventional car, although it is advisable to park facing downhill if you stop the engine at the pass, as it could need a push. The chief hazards of the trip are driver drowsiness and nausea, brought on by the altitude - soroche - and road blockage during the wet season brought about by landslips, usually referred to as derrumbes if the fill the road and huaycos if they have eaten it away.

The railway roughly parallels the road, and includes the highest strips of rail in the world. It goes through seventy tunnels and crosses sixty bridges. The work began in 1880 and was completed in 1908. It once carried passengers but is now limited to freight, chiefly minerals.

The first hour of the trip is through what used to be slums and are now informal buildings in the process of self-improvement. You need a personal appreciation of rebar and concrete to find this attractive. The sky quickly clears of Lima's oppressive haze, and green begins to show as you break away from urbanisation.

One has plainly broken free by the time that you reach Chosica, which is located at 950m and 33 km from the centre of Lima. It has become a focus for private country clubs to which limeños come in Winter to escape the fog. There are also more public facilities, including many restaurants. The name of the town means "Owl place", and it was settled many thousands of years ago. The nearby ruins of Cajamarquilla are pre-Inca, but assigned to no particular culture, and the petroglyphs in the nearby Yanacoto gully are at least 4000 years old. The centre of Chosica also has a quaint Nineteenth Century railway station.

This section of the road offers a number of side trips and adventures. All of these occur in the province of Huarochirí, which is accessed by a good road that turns of the Carretera Central at 56 km from Lima. However, buses for the province leave from near the Echenique park, taking about four hours on a good road.

The first such attraction is the "stone forest" at Marcahuasi, located at 4000m. A road from Chosica travels North to the picturesque village of Santa Eulalia, and then on to San Pedro de Casta (3350m). This is a charming village that is very typical of the sierra above Lima. It has a - wet! - water festival on October 1st, and is a jumping off point for the stone forest at Marcahuasi (4000m). This is around four hour's walk or two hour's ride from the village, located on a mesa of around 4 square kilometres in extent. The site has 20-30m columnar basalt rocks that have been eroded by the elements into strange shapes, forms that seem to move and crawl when the mist comes down. Various spiritual movements have claimed the site as their own, and it is now something of a centre for international visitors seeking transcendental connections. It is probably best to count on camping if you want to make the best of this trip, although it is cold at night. There are hotels and restaurants in the village. The local people are used to tourists but also shy of them and of the more unusual of their visitors. This said, they do offer guides and other services.

The village of San Bartolomé is located at Km 56 on the carretera central. It is the start point for a seven hour walk to the Zárate woods, at 3100m. Naturally, you will have to camp overnight and must bring everything that you will need. The trail is steep and erratic and this is not for the faint hearted, although it is possible to hire riding as well as pack animals. The way is marked by temporary shepherd settlements and picturesque and more permanent settlements. The woods themselves are densely packed areas of seasonal mist forest, teeming with life. The San Pedro cactus - widely used for shamanic divination and as a sacrament by the Chavin culture - dots the hills with its columns and white flowers. The best months for this trip are between April and June.

A third attraction if the waterfall at Palakala, which makes a focus for many days out from Lima. The village of San Jerónimo de Surco is the start of a two hour walk that follows a small river up the Matala gulch. The Huaquicha homestead is a safe place to camp, and small bands tend to develop here at weekends.

Returning to the main road, the township of Matucana (2400m) appears 70 km from Lima, boxed in by the mountains. This was a mining town that has since put its efforts into growing flowers, and is now Lima's principle source of these. The hillside is covered with terraces supporting stock, gladioli, sunflowers, carnations, lilies and many others. One can also walk a couple of kilometres to the Atankallo waterfall, which is hidden away amongst strange eroded rock formations and narrow passages. Matucana feels like the point where the sierra begins.

Click here to see a series of images

The road begins to ascend in earnest beyond Matucana, plunging into tunnels and passing over a succession of bridges. A very fine area surrounded by a massive gorge occurs about 100 Km from Lima, and it is worth stopping several times to look around if you are unfamiliar with Andean scenery.

Active mines such as Casapalca (4,160m) appear across the river. The soil is banded with rainbow colours - from gray-green to orange and violet. The valley opens up as the road switchbacks the last five hundred metres to Anticona, under the peak of Ticlio, 5480m.

It is worth pausing at the pass if circumstances make this is possible. It is easy to drive a short way off the road where a few food shops have set themselves up. A short walk brings a half-frozen little tarn, from which views down the valley are good. On occasion one can surprise waterfowl, apparently happy in this high, barren place. If you have not been this high before, expect to be immediately exhausted as soon as you begin to make a physical effort. If any of your companions are incoherent, descend immediately.

The road down from Ticlio is perfect for bicycles, if you are altitude hardy and wary of trucks. Travel operators offer a service that busses their clients to Huancayo, and lets them bicycle back as far as La Oroya. The bus picks them up and brings them the 50 uphill kilometres that lead to the pass, and then lets them run down to the outskirts of Lima, where the traffic becomes dangerous.

Continuing past Ticlio, however, one finds a series of large lakes, many offering interesting mountain views. One also finds the Morococha mining complex, which offers insight into industrial heroism and, if you see the miners playing football in an atmosphere where you can only gasp for breath, human adaptability. The landscape rapidly changes to puna, rounded hills covered with ichu grass through which occasional areas of strangely coloured rock appear.

The road descends smoothly to La Oroya, at 3725m. As mentioned above, this is a hub from which three routes part - we are going to go right, to Huancayo. La Oroya itself is the largest metal refinery in the country and also the railway terminus. The fumes which the Nineteenth Century refinery emitted have killed plant life for about ten kilometres around, and the road to Huancayo begins with a lunar landscape of bare limestone. It still boasts the tallest factory chimney in the world, but emissions have been abated. The town reaches up the road towards Ticlio, and has grown vastly in the past two decades. It is, frankly, hideous; and the refinery itself looks like an etching of a Satanic Mill. The town, which you have to enter to get to the Huancayo road, is a busy place, both with some five thousand people working in the refinery and with the regional traffic that comes to it. Nevertheless, it is an oppressive location. The Mantaro river flows through it, usually red with metal oxides and clay.

Passing La Oroya, we follow the Mantaro river in to the valley of the same name. Huancayo is still 125 km distant, but road is now level and the valley enclosed by seemingly low hills. These do, of course reach nearly twice as high as the tallest peak in Europe. The begin utterly lifeless, and then acquire patches of vegetation. Dramatic folded limestone is the chief mineral in the area, and the hills are filled with a maze of caves and sink holes. After some 50 Km, bright red soil supports some cultivation and villages appear. The river has, at times, cut into the mountain flanks, revealing cross sections that have turned geologists of my acquaintance into excited schoolboys: marble on top of basalt on top of schist, all contorted into a marble cake of multicoloured rock.

The town of Canchayllo is located 43 Km from La Oroya, on the West bank of the Mantaro. It is connected to the road by a good bridge, and this is where the route from the Cordillera Yauyos and the Cañete Valley comes in. [See here.] The bridge at Matachico (Km 60) offers a short Eastern side trip, passing through pretty farm land to the semi-abandoned adobe village of Pueblo Viejo with its Seventeenth century church. After this point the valley opens up and long, green views present themselves.

The Mantaro valley has been long cultivated, but the first formal civilisation that it supported were the Wari, who maintained their hold from 200 to 1200 AD. The Wari empire fell apart, leaving regional clusters, the local one of which was called the Chanca or Huanca. These people rebuilt a mini-empire around the valley and the Cordillera Yauyos before being felled by the Inca Pachacútec in the Fifteenth Century. The main Inca highway was run through the valley, on past Junin and Huaraz to Cajamarca, 500 km to the North. Huancayo became a way station (tambo) on it. Holding their grudges close to their chest, the Huancas allied themselves to the Spanish against the Inca and so won all manner of regional privilege. But also the resentment of Quechua people who were not living in the Mantaro valley.

Jauja to Huancayo

Jauja is located at 3400m, 45 km from Huancayo and where the Mantaro valley first opens up into a broad, flat basin. The town was once called Tunanmarca, and it had been the Huanca capital. It was captured and reconstructed by Francisco Pizarro in 1533 and was, for a short while, the first Spanish capital of Peru. It can be reached from Huancayo by either of the two roads that run on either side of the Mantaro river, and is well-served by public transport.

Click here to see a series of images The people of Jauja have the reputation of being unfriendly and cold, something undoubtedly forged in the poor relations between the Huanca and other Quechua peoples after the fall of the Inca. I noted a certain hostility when visiting in 1980, but none at all 24 years later. The town is notable for its agricultural markets, which are colourful and intense. The largest of these occurs on Sunday, but there is usually some activity every morning.

The church of Cristo Pobre is worth a visit, being a miniaturised copy of - or anyway much influenced by - the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It was in fact built in 1920 by a French cleric. The Matriz (womb) church, in the Plaza de Armas, has a bell cast in gold and an altarpiece which is an extraordinary hybrid between the baroque and the native style. It is the focus of the town's patronal on October 12th, celebrating the Virgen del Rosario.

The Paca lake is found 6 km from Jauja. It is an easy walk. The name means "hidden" in Quechua, and the lake is supposed to contain the treasures of Atahualpa, dumped there by his followers after his death at the hands of the Spanish. (Although why they would do this at the very gate of the Spanish capital, in land held by hostile Huanca is not entirely clear.) The lake is a major regional centre for wild fowl, and bird watchers will find a wide diversity of local and migratory birds. It is possible to hire a boat on the lake, and there are restaurants and even a simple hotel near it. The village at Paca is extremely traditional, and has a colonial-period church.

Two kilometres to the North-East of the town is the verdant Yanamarca valley, in which the villages of Acolla, Marco and Tunantamarca which are also seemingly largely untouched by outside events. These villages have a series of festivals and events in February. The archaeological site at Tunanmarca (3800m) are North of Marco, extending for around 2 km up the valley. They are thought to have been the centre of the Huanca culture, and based on a Wari site. They are concentric constructions with a complex system of water management, using canals and underground ducts.

The Molinos district starts 7 km from Jauja and is notable for its fine scenery, dotted with Eucalyptus and pasture, and for the quality of the woodcarving undertaken in its villages. Concepción is further along the road to Huancayo. It, too, was a Huanca site, built over by Pizarro in 1536. It played a role in the battle for independence from Spain by demolishing its bridge across the Mantaro in order to slow the advance of the Royalist troops on the army of de Bolivar (1821). The initiative was taken by two local women, the Toledo sisters, who were subsequently given the rank of Captain. Later, it was also to provide strong resistance to the invading Chilean army during the war of the Pacific (1882). For this reason, it is known as the "twice heroic" town.

Concepción has the neoclassical Matriz church and the Balsas bridge, scene of feminine heroism. It is the centre of dairy industry and has the Mantaro plant, which one can visit and from which one can buy fresh cheeses. However, the jewel of the area is the Convento de Santa Rosa de Ocopa, a Franciscan convent founded in 1725, designed to train missionaries to convert the Quechua people. It has a library with 25,000 books, many dating back as far as the Fifteenth Century, which can be visited in the morning and later afternoon. There is also a natural history museum.

Click here to see a series of images The valley has the largest trout farm in Perú at Ocopa, called El Ingenio. It is surrounded by restaurants that sell its products, and there are plans to stock local rivers for fishing. (I am told that the Mantaro has too much suspended material to be favoured by trout, but I have seen people catching suspiciously trout-like fish in it.) Ocopa is 28 km from Huancayo.

Closer to Huancayo are a number of villages which we discuss below, under "handicrafts". San Jerónimo specialises in silver work, Hualhas in textiles. The Cochas villages produce unusual and rather fine engraved calabashes. In each of these villages, you can visit the houses of the craftspeople and discuss your requirements with them.

Chupaca district is 11 km from Huancayo. It has a lake - the Laguna de Ñahuimpuquio - and archaeological centre at Arwaturo and a pleasing village called Chongos Bajo. The town itself is set on a rock outcrop called Urcco, and its interests are entirely agricultural. There is a major market on Saturday, but the rest of the time tranquility reigns. The lake ("the water's eye") is full of trout, and one can hire a boat and a line in order to catch them.

Arwaturo is located on a hillock close to the lake, offering good views of the Huaytapallana snow peak and across the valley. The site itself is small, and probably Wari, but one visits chiefly for the spectacular vista over the lake.

The Chongos Bajo village is a little further, at 22 km from Huancayo. It is one of the longest settle parts of the valley and it projects and atmosphere of settled continuity and tranquility. The little church is a typical country edifice with a baroque altar and Cusco school paintings on the walls.

Sicaya is 8 km beyond Huancayo, and is the bullfighting centre of the bull-fighting mad valley of the bull-fighting obsessed Peru. The ring has seating for 10,000, and regular and rather formal events. The villages have their own individual bullfights, each of which is much less formalised and often dangerously chaotic. Sicaya has the archaeological centre of Warivilca, a specifically Wari location untouched by subsequent events. There is a site museum that is somewhat closer to Huancayo.

Quilcas is 17 km beyond Huancayo, named after the chilca plant that abounds in the area. The town has a little-visited but well-preserved huanca ruin called Chuctoloma, some 800m from the central square. It is customary for people in the valley to respond to the question of how faraway something is with the phrase "aquicito no mas" - literally, no more than little here - and this can refer to something next door or ten hours walk away. In this case, the town and the ruin are aquicito.

Click here to see a series of images The valley is, of course, ringed with mountains. Huaytapallana (5200m) is a trekkable snow peak only 30 km from Huancayo. It is reached on the road that passes the villages of Palián and Acopalca. There are guides, but you will need to bring all equipment with you. The normal trekking circuit is only 7 km but tiring at this altitude, and gets to a point called Yanaucsha at 4850m. There are archaeological ruins to be seen on the trip, including towers built by a long-vanished group called the apachetas. More extensive walks are of course possible, given camping equipment and related items, which you cannot buy in Huancayo.


Huancayo (3250m) is the largest city in the central Andes, having nearly half a million inhabitants. It makes a good base from which to explore the valley. Much of it is given over to commercial traffic and relatively little of the traditional town remains. However, it has good facilities, hotels of all qualities and excellent restaurants. It was founded in 1572 on yet another Huanca centre, and its name is derived from the Quechua Huanca ayllu, which means "fighting clan". Its central street - the Calle Real - was once a part of the Inca highway that ran from Cusco to Cajamarca.

Click here to see a series of images

One of the attractions of the town is its Sunday market, which covers blocks 2-10 of the Ave. Huancavelica. This occupies the site of the pre-Inca market, once again reinforcing the Andean love of tradition. It was formally given its charter by the Spanish in 1572 and since then, every Sunday has seen the sale of everything from dried bats to live guinea pigs.

This picture series is a long one, covering both Huancayo and its immediate surroundings. Please click here to jump to images of the attractions immediately outside the town.

The cathedral is built in the neoclassical style with wrought iron windows and an interior in the Cusco style. The Plaza Huamanmarca is the oldest square in the city, pre-dating the Spanish. Independence from Spain was proclaimed from here (and quite a few other places!) in 1820. It is surrounded by municipal buildings, including assorted monuments to local and national heroes. A more recent construction is the monument to the Huanca people, which is, for British speakers of English, unhappily named the Parque de Identidad Wanka. It contains a reconstruction of what life must have been like before the Spanish.

There is a small natural lookout point called the Cerrito de la Libertad which can be found at the end of Ave. Giraldes, which gives a good prospect on the surrounding countryside. About a kilometre further, altogether 4 Km to the East of the city, is the eroded pink outcrop called the Torre Torre, which gives a more rustic and wider panorama.

Huancayo is a fine place to settle for a while and explore and interesting and accessible part of the sierra. From here, one can return to Lima but this same route, go to the jungle through Chanchamayo, continue on to Ayacucho, or head north towards Junín. As already mentioned above, there is also the possibility of heading to the coast through the Cordillera Yauyos and the Cañete Valley.

local Food

The valley is now known for its agriculture, and particularly its dairy industry, with Mantaro butter and cheese the staple of any Lima supermarket. It is known for its food, of which the following are some examples:


The entire valley serves Lima with handicrafts and specialised craft industry. The Cochas Grandes and Cochas Chicas villages, 25 km from Huancayo itself, specialise in vessels called "mates burilados", which are in fact dried calabashes on which Andean scenes have been carved and burnt with hot irons. The form is at least 3500 years old, and rather pleasing. Large ones show work in the fields, harvest festivals and the like.

The village of San Jerónimo de Tunán (16 km from Huancayo) specialises in silver-smithing, with a focus on filigree work. Most of the output of this tiny village are small - jewellery, decorative objects - but they also produce much larger objects for the table and for religious use. They will make things to order, if you have the time.

Textiles are focused on the village of Hualhuas, only 12 km from Huancayo. The inhabitants work in alpaca and sheep's' wool, using natural dyes such as walnut, cochineal and so forth. They produce knitted and woven goods, but most find their carpets particularly striking. Once again, these can be commissioned to design and size, although delivery can be slow. These villages are shown in the photograph series given above.


The festival dance of the valley is the energetic, foot-stamping huáylarsh. This is often interspersed by the children's interpretation of the mating dance of the chihuaco, a local bird that is small in size, but impressive in the intensity, agility and " airy gallantry" of its performance.

The chonguinada is supposed to be a parody of a minuet, presumably first and mocked when performed by Spanish settlers. It mixes elegant moves with buffoonery. Dancers wear shining suits elaborately bordered with the flowers and animals of the region. The men wear a mask made from wire mesh and a wild black wig, and the women wear white hats, a breast-piece made from silver coins over a black blouse, and a cloak with its elaborate border and a white petticoat.

Click here to see a series of images The tunantada is danced at the feast of San Sebastián, best seen in the valley at Jauja on January 20th. It is conducted to the music of harps, violins, clarinets and a saxophone. This is, once again, a satire on Spanish vanity and despotism but played out through representations of distinct ethnic groups, from the Huancas themselves to invading Chileans, irritating Argentines and so forth. These figures also take part in the ceremonies that give homage to the local apus (spirits of place), to the accompaniment of the music made by waqrapukus, Andean instruments made from bulls' horns and by drums. The picture series shows the tijeras - scissors - dance at the rural Virgen de los Nieves festival.