Inland from Cañete to Huancayo, Satipo

Inland from Cañete to Huancayo, Satipo

This is an extremely demanding route, in the sense that it goes to remote places, that the roads vary from poor to very poor and insoifar as the accommodation is at times scant. This said, it is - and there is no better word - gorgeous. The route goes inland from Cañete [more here] on the coast, only a few hours from Lima. After crossing the Cordillera Yauyos, it arrives in the Mantaro Valley and Huancayo, about which more here. Plainly, you can branch off onto or join form other routes at this point. From Huancayo, the road climbs once again, this time into the remote puna of the Sierra de Concepción, before dropping through extremely rich, untouched ceja de selva forest to the remote town of Satipo. This is reached by two other routes, best considered here.

This route can be considered as two segments, one from the coast to Huancayo; and the other from Huancayo to Satipo. Both absolutely require both a solid 4x4 vehicle and a driver with considerable experience of dfficult roads and life in remote areas. You can be certain that you will need to change at least one tyre, for example.

Up the Río Cañete valley

San Vicente de Cañete is around 140 km from Lima, and is an agricultural centre of no great interest to the traveler. However, it is set on the Cañete river, which is a centre for fresh water sports of all kinds. These are based inland, at Lunahuaná, to which it is necessary to travel up the valley that eventually leads to the high Cordillera of Yauyos. Public transport sets out from the suburb of Imperial, which means a change for anyone using buses or taxis. However, transport is densely available. The whole route to Lunahuaná is tarred. Later, the road almost ceases to exist and you should expect delays and severe conditions. As a minimum, allow seven hours to get to Huancaya, and a further seven or eight to get to Huancayo.

Water sports: The Río Cañete rises high in the Yauyos mountains at the Ticliacocha lake, and then flows 220 km to the sea. Near Lunahuaná, the river is broad and tranquil, but higher up it can attain Grade IV. The lower reaches are an ideal, tranquil area in which to learn these pastimes. There are many travel firms which hire all manner of equipment and offer whatever level of supervision that you require. They also offer travel up into the mountains, either for kayaking or mountaineering, and if you want to take advantage of this, it is advisable to spend some time inspecting their equipment and gaining a sense of their competence before you proceed. There is nothing to stop anyone starting such a firm, and the mountains may well be fatal to anyone without experience who entrusts themselves to incompetent agents.

To the Cordillera Yauyos, Huancaya and Huancayo.

The early stages of this route - to Lunahuana, in fact, are an easy drive. However, the full route to Huancayo is tough, in that the road deteriorates progressively as you climb until the crossing of the final extended pass is on what is, in essence, a llama track. If you are going to follow it, then please do use a strong 4x4 (not an urban vanity van) and take at least two spare tyres, a galonera (jerry can) of fuel and be sure to top up whenever you see fuel on sale.

Let us begin with the easy stages of the trip. After passing the peaje point at Km 13, the road follows a sheer, arid valley fairly gently upwards. A few settlements cultivate pockets of vines where water can be found. The hills are exceptionally arid - not a plant is seen and cactus only appear some hours into the journey. The Río Cañete crashes along as a constant companion.

Socsi (Km 25) is an orchard town in the wilderness, from which many kayak trips set off down river. It still uses Twelfth and Thirteenth century irrigation. The inhabitants did not yield easily to the Inca, and their fortress - a kilometre from the Inca fort, at the neck of the valley - is called Chaqui Manca. There is a small site museum.

Click here to see a series of images The ruins at Inca Huasi are passed at Km 29 on the Lunahuaná road. The Inca Túpac Yupanqui ordered the construction of a "coastal Cusco" at Inca Huasi ("Inca Home"), and although aspiration ran ahead of achievement in this, the ruins are nonetheless impressive and well-preserved. In Inca fashion, the town is divided into precincts that reflect the status and sanctity of the people operating within them. There is a temple district, and area for senior administrators, a commercial district and a rather battered fortress.

Catapalla is a pleasing village that has changed little since the Sixteenth Century when most of it was built. It is close to the Cantagallo pre-Incan ruins, to which one can make a trip on horseback or foot. The area grows vines, distil spirits and collect honey, and one can sample the local produce during the visit.

Click here to see a series of images A cluster of villages and a clutter of commerce precedes Lunahuaná (500m), and the bulk of the tourist traffic in the area goes to the water sports centre. This has hostels and hotels, camping grounds and a wide range of facilities. It is aimed at the Peruvian tourist market, and can become lively (and loud) during its Festival of Water-sports in February. The tarred road ceases shortly after this point and the deterioration thereafter is gradual but continuous.

The road rises through barren landscape to around the 60 Km mark, when vegetation begins to appear, initially in the shape of scattered and battered cactus. The road forks a number of times before the village of Catahuasi (Km 79 and 1350m) and it is important to ask people when you are in doubt as to which is the route for Huancayo. The village has a number of restaurants and is famous for its dish of beans and rice. I was struck by the casual lining of the road by ancient Inca-style walls, about which nobody seemed to care very much.

Catahuasi also offers trekking to the remote villages around Tupe, but as a new road is being built to connect these, the attraction of this may wane. The walk takes about six hours each way, and the main attraction - other than its remoteness - is linguistic. The inhabitants speak an ancient dialect of Quechua, and Tupe is the supposed centre of diffusion for the Quechua language, and the community is extremely traditional in its outlook. (If you make a walk in this area, you will need to bring in all equipment that you need, although guides and pack animals are locally available.)

Canchán (Km 84) is the start point for the annual pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Señor de la Ascensión, made forty days after Easter. The walk is 13 Km and rises to 2800m, which takes most a very long day, or an overnight stay in camp.

The valley closes in and become marginally wetter as it passes the Km 100 mark. The valley becomes a cañón, vegetation cover increases and the river roars. The turn-off to Yauyos is reached at Km 128, at the village of Magdelena (2,300m).Yauyos is 5 Km off the road. The town has limited attractions and few set out to visit it. It can, howe3ver, be used as a jumping-off point for walking tours, However, do not expect anything at all by way of organised trekking, as walkers are currently extremely exceptional.

The Huancayo road, however, moves in truly spectacular terrain, passing tributaries to the river and entering a granite gulch around Km 149. The road clings to the edge of this, skirting the river across which a number of dilapidated bridges reach for long-abandoned copper mines. At times, the road passes into caverns that the river has dug into the cliff face. Rainfall increases and the true yunga - arid highland ecology - makes and appearance. The cactus species multiply and become mixed with pepper trees - molle - and patches of grass. The archaeological site at Huamanmarca has been little explored, but is found on a turn-off at Km 154. A truly dreadful road goes off to the right some kilometres after a hydroelectricity station, eventually leading into the Mantaro valley and Huancayo. Not recommended, but people will agree if you ask if this is the route to Huancayo.

The extent of the yunga and its associated wild-life is brief as it is succeeded by increasingly wet alpine scenery, Eucalyptus and spiny scrub. We went through the valley in March, when the grass is at its greenest and the roadside was dotted with yellow and pink flowers - salvias, lupines and any number of daisies. The road now runs - well, bumps - through Eucalyptus groves and green fields, and could be in a different world from the arid ascent. Two little villages present themselves, with Tinco-Alis as the most important. After the bridge, take the road from the village that goes to the left, passing through a lime quarry, not the heavily signposted road to Alis, which goes to the right. Tinco is the last place that stocks fuel before the pass, although you may be lucky to buy a few gallons from a local co-operative.

An extremely sharp ascent, past a crashing cataract, brings the Pikicocha lagoon with dramatic suddenness. This is found at Km 170 and 3500m. It is both an archaeological site and a nature reserve, and fishing is prohibited. However, its rocky surrounds and reedy borders make a perfect picnic spot, and one can fish higher up if one chooses. There are a lot of birds to be seen in the area.

Beyond the Pikicocha lagoon, the river produces a a long succession of braided reed beds, small lakes and dramatic waterfalls. The riverbed becomes flatter and extensive dairying becomes apparent as the road rises up from the river to Vitis (Km 175 and 3450m), an ancient village set in very beautiful surroundings. The village itself has a few dozen one or two story houses, arranged around a tiny Plaza de Armas. The roads are stone-paved and each has a runnel of fresh water passing through it. There is a lookout which gives extensive views over the river valley.

Click here to see a series of images This village is only a short distance from the charming Huancaya. This is larger than Vitis, and has a larger and more complex central square. The houses are mostly two story buildings in stone and red tiles, with the same fresh water system flowing through the streets as Vitis. The houses are tucked in below the sheer 1500m rock face of Huallahuacrán, and the surrounding scenery is dramatic.

There are several hostels, all with very basic accommodation and shared bathing facilities. You will need to bring lavatory paper, soap and towels if you intend to use these, and the squeamish should make provision for lavatories without seats. There is one restaurant at which it is wise to pre-order. The patronal is San Juan Bautista, celebrated on 24th July.

The chief attraction of Huancaya is, however, the river. This thunders through a series of beautiful lakes and cascades, making this a trout's paradise and a fisherman's heaven. The town has built a charming series of arched bridges across the nearest of an unending series of reedy islands, waterfalls and translucent pools. Rough pastures and scrub support a host of birds and other wild life. There are many walks to be taken, although nothing is organised; and the town breeds very fine ponies, which one can rent. Guides and riding or pack animals are readily available, although the area is remarkably little trekked, given its relatively easy access and proximity to Lima. Nevado Llangote is only 15 Km from the town. The Nevado Pariacaca snow peaks are only 30 Km away, and the highest of these remote peaks, Nevado Carhauchuco, reaches 5520m and is approached across effectively flat terrain. One can easily find guides and pack animals locally, although their Spanish may be limited and camping equipment and foodstuffs nonexistent.

There are extraordinarily beautiful cascades just above Huancaya, and then a series of emerald and indigo lakes. The lakes are full of trout and, if you have a rod, you can just settle down and fish. Some attain a metre in length and 10 kg in weight. The road beyond Huancaya winds through rocky terrain, passing the large, turquoise Huallhuas lagoon at Km 183. This is in fact two lakes, connected by a 30m waterfall, which you can visit by boat if you buy a ticket from the local trout farm.

The road arrives at a reedy lake (Km 197), which is crossed by a bridge to the left, signed to Vilca (3700m). The main route takes the right fork, but for the moment consider a diversion to the ghost town of Vilca. This is worth a visit, although the road to it terminates there. Its lake is dense with geese and other waterfowl, and is full of trout. Unusual high altitude birds such as the torrent duck can be seen dodging amongst the waters and in and out of the reeds.

Vilca itself was settled in 1834, but it was hard-hit during the Sendero period and is now all but abandoned. The little Plaza de Armas has simple church, surrounded by two story traditional adobe buildings, now almost all locked and abandoned. The town is surrounded by open country, and a twenty minute walk brings the Papacocha lagoon. The walk up from the village brings one face to face with the huge Huallhuas waterfall, a 30-40m discharge from the lake. This crashes amidst thickets of queñual and a peculiar shrub known locally as ccarcca. (Double C is pronounced as a Spanish J, a throat-clearing sound.) The lagoon is somewhat higher, and offers a tranquil mirror to the crags above.

Vilca was, however, a short side trip. The road to Huancayo degrades in quality and winds with increasing steepness into puna, high altitude grassland. After a period of steep switchbacks through cascades on what is now a dreadful road, the route moves into a cañón. A sad little settlement of grass houses in this is called Antarón. This marks both the end of even temporary habitation and the beginnings of the trip across seventy or so kilometres of largely deserted puna the Huancayo road. The cañón opens into a wide, deep valley lined with limestone cliffs. These are riddled with cave entrances, surely unexplored even in outline. The valley runs for several kilometres at around 4300m before rising higher into stark folded limestone. Driving on icy, grassy mud is not always easy. An undramatic pass - Abra Jeyenioc, 4500m - brings one winding down into grassland, spotted with sheep and llamas. A second pass, Tirapalo, 4350m is crossed without much to note, although the views down to the valley of the Cochas river are extensive. One can perhaps see 40 square kilometres of rolling grassland laid out ahead. The snow peaks of Nevado Collquepucra lie a few kilometres North, and the peak Pariacaca is home to the area's apu, or spirit of place.

A winding descent brings the settlement of Cochas - full of sheep but with no people visible when we passed - and from here on the road is markedly better. It follows the Río Cochas down to where it flows into the muddy Río Mantaro, in around 2 hours of nonetheless demanding driving. The Lima-Huancayo railway line makes an appearance after about an hour. An area where limestone breaks through the puna makes a pleasing distraction, with the road winding through what look like melted apartment blocks. The road and railway come together just before the township of Canchayllo, which is bypassed to reach the cooperative of Tupac Amaru - formerly the hacienda of the immense landholding of Pachacayo, abolished in the Reforma Agraria of the 1970s. This is one of the few SAIS cooperatives still functioning, producing dairy products, trout and livestock. The influence of the former hacienda can be seen by comparing the deserted state of the lush pastures through which you have just travelled with the dense settlement of equivalent areas around Huancayo. The bridge over the Río Mantaro is a kilometres further, and opens onto the La Oroya-Huancayo road. A right turn Huancayo in around one hour more.

From Huancayo to Satipo

This is, I think, my favourite route in the whole of Perú.The transition from puna to mist forest and jungle is almost instantaneous and the road passes through astounding landscape. However, this route leads you over two 4500m passes before dropping down to Satipo, in the Alta Selva. The road quality is variable, although for the most part much better than the roads in the section above. It is, however, very well worth asking the Policía de la Carretera in Huancayo or Satipo whether the road is open, as rains can block it and there is nowhere to stay along the route save the meager hostal of Comas. Allow a minimum of eight hours for the 225Km trip from Huancayo centre to Satipo. Be sure to take both a full tank of fuel and at least one spare wheel. A picnic is a good idea, as there are no conveniently situated restaurants.

The road starts from the pleasing little village of Concepcíon, which is described here. (As are other villages in the early stages of this route: for example, Santa Rosa.) It winds up from the Plaza de Armas of Concepcíon to Santa Rosa, Km 5, a pretty spot, and then to San Antonio de Ocopa, which is less so. Farm land and Eucalyptus are soon left behind as one rises into the clouds, puna and extensive herds of llamas and alpacas. The Rio Chicche joins the road and keeps with it until the Laguna Pomacocha, (Km27 and 4300m) and around three quarters of an hour from Concepcíon. One has climbed very fast, and this is a good - if bleak - spot for a rest.

The road plunges down after Laguna Pomacocha, passing lesser lakes such as Laguna Habascocha. (The two lakes are therefore Puma lake and Bean Lake.) The road drops sharply through llama-grazed, bleak alpine scenery into equally precipitate grazing land. (The local cattle enjoy the road and will move for nobody. A gentle nudge with the front of the car seems the only remedy. Buses apply less gently bumps.) After half an hour of descent, the landscape suddenly changes into verdure and forest, with 5cm white begonias flowering by the roadside in March. The village of Muchac appear below the road. At Pomamanta (Km 48 and 3500m), a turn at the end of the village gives one a wonderful view of the Río Cochas valley as it heads down down to Chanchamayo, with the town of Comas perched on a ridge ahead, the white church gleaming.

Click here to see a series of images Comas (Km 51 and 3200m) is the last town of any size before Satipo, and it is wise to stock up with fuel and the means for a a picnic before proceeding. (If you are driving a 4x4 camioneta, you will probably also fill up with people, as it is assumed that anyone making the trip will accept passengers. Closed vehicles are not usually approached in the same invasive spirit.) There is a police post which can update you on the state of the road.

Beyond Comas, the road rises to the 4000m contour and follows it for some hours, contouring up and around the forested mountain flank. Turning from this valley, it first follows the Rio Canchapalca to the substantial village of Canchapalca, Km 70, a journey which takes around an hour and a quarter. The countouring continues, amidst startling views, to the village of La Unión, where the road turns and follows the other side of the valley that this river has carved for itself.

The numerous villages of the area are not notably attractive, although one may have to stop if one has acquired passengers. Livestock wanders about and people tend their fields by the roadside. The chief attraction is, however, the view, which is such as to completely take one's eye off the road. This is not wise, as it is typically little wider than the vehicle, with a sheer 200-500m drop on the left. The area is prone to mist in the wet season and the difficulties of picking one's way past phantom cattle and other travellers on such a muddy track makes one very aware of the penalties of failure. However, the everchanging landscape, fields of seasonal flowers and distant patchwork of fields and villages is quite splendid.

The road turns out of the Canchapalca valley, passing into that of the Rio Runatullo. The village of Runatullo can be seen across the valley, embedded in starkly rugged landscape. The views continue to be very remarkable. A settlement at Km 100 - a scattering of houses with no name that we could ascertain, but marked by an abandoned trout farm at the confluence of a number of rivers - turns the road up and to the left. (Do not take the road ahead, which goes to Acobamba.) Getting to this point should take around two and a half hours from Comas.

This road climbs steeply into the puna - how else in the Andes? - parallelling the course of the Rio Toldopampa before turning away into rugged landscape to reach the isolated, silent Laguna Pahuarcocha at around 5000m, Km 112, in about half an hour. Massive limestone outcrops surround the South face and this is a remote, silent place. Wildfowl abound in the marshy edges of this extensive lake, patricularly the dramatic white and black geese of the Andes.

Click here to see a series of images The road begins to descend beyond the lake, dropping into a far wetter and more dramatic puna than you have just left. A cataract falls several hundred metres to the head of a stream which you will follow all the eay to Satipo. This meanders through a long picturesque valley to an area of extensive potato cultivation. It has a village (at Km 120) of limited attraction and no shop.

The land remains relatively level for a five kilometers before the road begins to descend hard in a series of 180° switchbacks. Scrub quickly appears, rapidly becomes filled with ferns and cycads and one is suddenly in a forest. This is the highest 'tropical' forest that I have seen anywhere in Perú. Within 15 minutes, one is in dense, lichen-clad ceja de selva forest with 20m trees, dotted with odd little clouds and very frequently obscured by rain. A further ten minutes bring a series of breathtaking waterfalls into view. By 'breathtaking', please read around 700-1000m in free fall, and by 'series', dozens. This is what a Victorian illustrator would have come up with if asked to think about an Andean jungle. There are no large settlements and the forest is almost completely undisturbed. The Puente San José makes an calibrating appearance at Km 150. The steepest part of the descent, through extremely biodiverse landscape, and entailing the arrival of numerous streams and waterfalls, occurs around Km 140-150.

The waterfalls persist, and a number of major rivers come in to join the Rio Pampa Hermosa, which becomes distinguished by that name at around 2800m. (We had to drive through the heart of one of these falls after a major cloudburst, which brought it crashing onto the road. The back of the camioneta - happily without passengers - filled completely with water.) This is an area of stunning plants and orchids - I counted seven species of orchid on a single small branch - and of animals such as birds, reptiles and amphibians. The pictures show two Sobralia species - one white, one purple - neither of which I have seen in either nature nor a book. Without question, this area is full of new species. A small settlement, Communidad San Antonio, appears an hour and a half into the descent, at Km 166. The ceja de selva gives way to increasing tropical jungle as the decent continues, and species replace species in a regular way. There are stands of almost pure orchids to be seen on the rocks where falls have been covered with organic matter. Fuchsias are pollinated by humming bird communities, and splendid yellow winged birds explode off the little road as you approach.

Permanent settlement begins at Mariposa, Km 175, a collection of wooden huts at 1700m. You are around an hour from Satipo when you reach this point. This and other local communities were terrorised by narcotics producers before the region was pacified and so they are not entirely fond of strangers. It is entirely possible to enter the area which is used by these communities - in order to see wildlife, archaeological remains or how they themselves live - but this must be done under the guidance of a local chaperone. Such people can be engaged in Satipo. Do not, however, feel that these villages are a threat to travellers such as yourself, merely that they do not expect or much welcome attempts to park and enter their lands without permission.

Santa Rosita (Km 182, 1200m) follows shortly, as does Santa Ana (Km 184, 900m); both built in much the same mode as Mariposa. The land opens after Santa Ana to low rolling hills, and intensive cultivation. One can expect to see rice, mangoes, avocados and other fruit crops on both sides of the road . Coffee (and some legal coca) runs up the hillsides. Cocoa trees appear as one gets closer to Satipo. A number of rivers unite with the Rio Pampa Hermosa to create the Rio Satipo, and it is important to cross this to the North in order to get to Satipo itself: essentially, just follow the main track. The road which goes West to Bellavista and Ricardo Palma also leads to Satipo, but at much greater length.

Satipo (Km 197, 825m) is a town first settled in 1965 and built largely from poured concrete. It has a number of hotels, and it is wise to look around before settling on one of these. The San Luis is quiet and efficient. The general facilities in the town are adequate for vehicle repair, basic communications and shopping, although the restaurants appear to have been designed by a US fast food retailer. One should be careful of one's possessions as this was formerly a narcotics centre, and crime is not exactly unheard of.

Satipo is, however, surrounded by interesting things to do if one likes the wild. Because it is relatively high, it does not suffer the paralysing heat of the lower selva, and neither is it plagued with flying bloodsuckers. There is a network of roads around the town which allow one to sample the wilds - but with a guide, see above - and there are a number of small enterprises which will help you set up longer or shorter trips into the forest. You can, for example, visit Asháninka settlements, meet their shamans and see how they live their lives. You can look for birds, butterflies, monkeys or plants such as orchids. The fishing is excellent and, if such is your preference, so is the hunting.

The trip to or from Chanchamayo and Atalaya is described here. The description of Satipo which it offers gives much more detail than is offered here, particularly of the Asháninka.