From Huancayo to Ayacucho

From Huancayo to Ayacucho

The central sierra is dominated by the city of Huancayo, which offers road links to a wide range of destinations. One of these is the road that passes due South, passing Huancavelica to reach Ayacucho. From Ayacucho, one can reach the Southern coast, the dramatic valley of the Río Apurimac as it flows down from Cuzco, and the towns of the Southern midlands. The road between the two cities is partly surfaced, but usually maintained in good condition.

From Huancayo to Huancavelica

This route is covered by regular public transport, and it is in fact possible to fly in to Huancavelica from Lima. If you are driving, ensure that you have a full supply of fuel before you set out and leave early in the day. Buses set out daily from Calle Angaraes, around ten blocks from the Plaza de Armas. One can also travel by train on this leg of the rail route, and this is what we have illustrated. However, the terrain and general sights are much what one would see from a car. There are two road routes - one well-surfaced and direct, the other mountainous and of much lower quality. The latter passes through Pucará, Pampas and Churcampa. However, we are going to follow the main route, which goes through Izcuchaca. The shortest route is around 275 kilometres of very variable roads.

This follows the valley South past Huayucachi (Km 10, 3100m), a village noted for its fiestas, colourful clothing and dancing school. The name means "salt seep", and people used ot extract the salt for local use and sale. The village is not a centre for textile production, particularly the brightly coloured mantas in which local people are accustomed to carry their belongings on their backs. The road then rises out of the valley into arid conditions. Limestone rock peeks through the intensely red soil, and the area is patched with yellow Oxalis, purple Echium and little fields of intensely green barley in the spring months. The village of Pampa Cruz (20 Km) calls itself Villa Colorado - red town - because of this. Scattered cultivation and rolling limestone hills continue to Colcabamba (Km 30), which is where the two routes that were mentioned above separate. The high road heads East.

Continuing South-West, Imperial appears within a few kilometres. This is a pretty village made from adobe and red tiled roofs. You will note a perceptible change in the style of women's clothing from the Huancayo norm, with white paja hats with black bands being replaced with increasing numbers of darker colours. An expert on this can place the wearer's origin to within a few tens of kilometres, from the light, broad-brimmed "panama" paja of the North through the dense white hats of the midlands to the bowler hats worn in the South.

Click here to see a series of images This area is called Sapallanga, and is noted both for its devotion to the Virgen de Cocharcas and for its tradition of magic. The name means something like 'the land of the magical green powder gathers', of which the reader can make what they will! The Virgen is maintained in a modern church some kilometres off the road, but it is worth enquiring if there are any festivities in train when passing through the area as these can be spectacular. The village is close to the Ulla Coto ruins at 3290m, which date from AD 1440. There is a trout lake at Miraflores. All of this is, of course, within easy reach of Huancayo.

The road drops from Imperial to San José de Ñahuimpuquio (nyah-whim-pook-yo) at Km 35. This has a large Plaza de Armas surrounded by arcaded buildings. The Sunday market sets up in these, with people for miles around bringing produce to sell. This is worth seeing, but demands an early start as it is all over by 09.30. The town has a church which is said to be Sixteenth century.

The road continues through bare rolling limestone hills. This is an area in which livestock - and particularly sheep and alpacas - are raised, and the next point of significance, Acostambo Km 42, has a major stock market on Fridays. Once again, this starts early.

The next 20 Km see a gradual descent into more fertile land. The village of Vista Alegre has a road that connects to Pampas, mentioned earlier. The happy view to which the name refers is an excellent prospect of the Mantaro valley. The village marks the beginning of the drop to Izcucacha Km 68, 2825m.

This old town is located on the Río Mantaro and surrounded by cultivation. It is connected by freight rail to Huancavelica and Huancayo. This makes it an important market for local producers, something reflected in the pace of the town. Indeed, the railway cuts right through central square. Much of the town is of white painted adobe structures with red tiled roofs. The church is a simple affair with an odd square tower on which a further smaller tower has been grafted.

Its name means "stone bridge" in Quechua, and there is a fine bridge that has served as the entrance to the town for centuries. This has been washed away or destroyed in war many times. The current bridge was built in the Eighteenth century, as was the church of the Virgen de Cocharcas. Izcucacha has two important regional festivals, beginning with the patronal of the Señor de Ccecchamarca (not a misprint, but a local cult, pronounced k-chech-k-cha-mar-ka.) This occurs on 3rd May, followed by that of the Virgen de Cocharcas on 5-15th of October. The latter is a major regional event. It is not easy to stay in the town, and most who want to see the event will commute from Huancayo or Huancavelica.

Please note that the principle road to Ayacucho leaves from here, not from Huancavelica, and that it will be necessary to return if you visit that fine old town.

The now-surfaced road now follows the rail track in a gentle climb to Huando and then drops to Challhuapuquio (Km 97). This is a pretty village tucked into its valley. The road climbs away from this into more arid limestone and passes a number of settlements dedicated to animal-raising, reaching Sachapite at Km 128. Here, one can visit a stone forest of volcanic ash-stone, where often very large and fantastic forms have been eroded by the elements. There is an archaeological site at Uchkus Inkañan around 8 Km from the town. This is an unexcavated Inca site based on Huari or Wari structures. The subsequent descent is sharp and winding, passing several communities and then leads into the Huancavelica valley, with its city settled on the river of the same name. The trip from Huancayo has covered 154 Km and has probably taken 4-5 hours if you did not stop. Public transport takes much longer.


The city is located 3600m above sea level, and appears to have been settled thousands of years into prehistory. It was an important part of the Wari empire between the seventh and twelfth centuries AD, and when this fell apart, by the Anccara and Huanca people. It was captured by the Inca under Pachacútec in 1410 AD and by the Spanish in 1571. It has good hotels and restaurants as well as full communications facilities and car repair services.

The remoteness of the valley made this of little interest to the Spanish until 1563, when the local encomendero - owner of the lands and its peoples, under the Spanish crown - was advised of mineral deposits. These turned out to be a major source of Mercury, itself used in the extraction of gold and silver. The mine, initially called La Descubridora and finally Santa Bárbara, became an enormous source of wealth. Three centuries of quicksilver production supported the exploitation of the "mountain of silver" at Potosí, in Bolivia and of the many Peruvian gold mines. The mines ceased production in the Eighteenth century, and the fortunes of the town plummeted. Economic misery caused the local population to support the Pumacahua revolt, and the area was much affected by the Sendero Luminoso movement in the late Twentieth century.

Click here to see a series of images The town has around half a million inhabitants, with an illiteracy rate of around 33% and a birth rate of six children per woman. Educational levels are low. The tradition of name changes extended to the city, first called Pueblo Rico de Oropesa ("Rich town of heavy gold".) This is a mouthful, and the reuse of the former Huancavelica gradually developed over the centuries.

The wealth extracted from the mines expressed itself in the construction of no less than six churches. The colonial town centre is richly elaborated with balconies and porticos. Building uses the local white volcanic stone, known as kanccaña (can-k-can-ya). The Plaza de Armas is a wide space filled with palm trees and gardens. The Cathedral is surrounded by old houses painted bright colours - chiefly yellow - with their balconies picked out in red and green. It was built between 1673 and 1733, and has a relatively simple white façade surrounded by two pretty towers. Inside, the huge altar piece extends from one wall to the other, richly carved.

The Plaza de Armas also has the San Francisco church, which has even more complex carvings, coated with gold. One of these, the Niño de Lachoc, is said to be miraculous. It appeared to the Mariscal de Cáceres in a dream, giving crucial advice during the war of the Pacific. The figure also appears in fields around the town, playing with a little black boy. A syncretic event occurs on December 25th, mixing Christmas with the veneration of this apu, or spirit.

The white stone building has a tower with exposed double bells - reminiscent of a Western movie - and a fine decorative portico around the door. A second San Francisco church was completed in 1774, and has more carvings, paintings and other votive objects. The Santa Anna church was finished in 1590, making it the oldest in the city. Its altarpiece uses floral themes, and the interior is full of baroque elements.

Other attractions include a triumphal arch, erected to celebrate the arrival of the Mariscal de Cáceres after his victory, influenced by the dream referred to above. There are at least four other churches of significance. The hot springs at San Cristóbal are widely noted for their healing powers.


Huancavelica has a range of festivals over and above the normal events of Holy Week, national holidays and the like.

La Adoración de los Reyes Magos - the adoration of the Magi - occurs on 6th January. The scene is acted out in the Cathedral and then a procession follows.

La Fiesta del Niño Perdido occurs on January 15th. The image of the infant Jesus is processed to the Plaza de Santo Domingo, with a band, dancers performing la negrita and much merrymaking.

The Fiesta de las Cruces takes the whole of May. Crosses are stationed on nearby hillsides around the town and its surrounding villages. These are brought down for a blessing, are redressed and then returned to their vigil. The largest of these, at Potocchi, is eight metres tall, so this involved considerable planning. Any one fiesta will normally take three days - one to bring the crosses down and hold a night's vigil, one to dress and bless it - an event followed by an all-night party - and the third to return it to its stand in the countryside.

La Fiesta se Santiago is a popular event in which the inhabitants fill the streets, dancing the huayno and pasacalle to traditional bands. Each house is expected to offer the dancers a drink (or two), and the arrival of morning is greeted with a meal of mondongo. (See below.)

The city's anniversary occurs on 4th August, celebrated with an explosion of fireworks and then a series of subsidiary parties around the streets of the different barrios.

December 25th is the Fiesta del Niño de Lachoc, mentioned above.

Local foods

The traditional Southern sierra cuisine asserts itself. Two items need explanation, the pachamanca - eaten at grand occasions and family celebrations such as weddings and christenings - and mondongo. This is usually prepared they day before a fiesta.

A proper pachamanca is cooked over hot stones in a hole in the ground, where the food is gently finished for several hours underground. It uses several meats, many often pre-roast or boiled, and the parcel is wrapped in leaves before being interred. Typical ingredients are softer meats such as veal, kid, and guinea pig; and the result is served with sweet corn, potatoes, beans and white cheese.

A mondongo is a stew of beef, both fresh and dried, the head and paunch of a calf, lard or other dripping and finely ground dried maize. The result tastes fine, but the more anatomical parts can be a shock on the plate to the uninitiated.

Around Huancavelica

The Cordillera Chonta offers a very wild and little visited range of snow peaks, and the area around is networked with lagoons thick with birds. The fifteen square kilometre Choclococha lagoon is situated at 4600m and is close enough to the Cordillera to reflect its pink alpenglow in the morning. Orcococha lies at 4700m, and is stocked with trout. You will need a guide to visit these areas, and organising a walking trek from Huancavelica will take some determination.

Click here to see a series of images

There are extensive ruins at Huaytará, with around 20,000 separate constructions grouped into around 20 centres. Some of these are Inca, other Wari and from earlier times, including hints of (2000 BC) Chavin influence. The better buildings have well-fitted masonry, and walls with polished lintels and trapezoidal windows, niches and other forms. We also illustrate the natural formation known as the Sachalpite stone forest, found close to Huancavelica.

There are additional ruins at Huayllay, Izcuchaca, Acoria, Lircay, Huanca-Huanca, Congalla, Caja, Acobamba and Andabamba. These stem from similar periods.

To Ayacucho

It is possible to travel to Ayacucho across a network of roads. However, as mentioned above, the principal route sets out from Izcucacha, which makes it necessary to retrace one's steps. A tarred road leaves for Mariscal Cáceres, 10 Km up the Mantaro river through fertile land and light forest. The entrance to the town has an old steam engine in good condition.

A less good road bumps off from here towards Ayacucho, weaving through tunnels and passing the impressive Tablachaca hydroelectricity dam on the Mantaro. The village of Quichuas marks the end of the wide valley, and cliffs close around the river and the road. (This is often blocked by land slips in the wet season - it is advisable ask before you set out whether the road is clear.) Patches of cultivation are fitted where possible, and the river casts great beaches of sand in the dry season.

After La Esmeralda (Km 85), a rather better road passes through steep, dry country to the Mayocc bridge (Km 124.) This crosses the Mantaro and enters the Ayacucho administrative department. The "high route" enters from the East at Km 138 as a road from Yauli and Pucara. Do not attempt this during the rains, or without 4x4 traction, or without an ample supply of fuel.

It is now necessary to leave the river and climb initially to the North and then down and around to Ayacucho, passing through more of the arid rounded limestone environment that characterises the region. The Río Cachimayo is crossed at Km 135, and tarred road appears soon after, leading to Huanta (2630m, Km 155.)

Click here to see a series of images This is a moderate sized town of deeply traditional construction, surrounded by irrigated farmland - perhaps explaining why it calls itself the 'emerald of the Andes'. Not much happens here, which is a part of its charm. Its patronal the fiesta del Señor de Maynay occurs on September 18th. A side trip from here cn include the Pikimachay caves, 20 minutes walk off the main road. These appear to have ben inhabited 12-15,000 years ago, and the bones of extinct animals have been excavated from the floors of them.

A further 50 Km of tarred road through arid, cactus-spotted landscape brings a junction with the Ayacucho-San Francisco road just north of the city, a few kilometres to the South. The full distance is 205 Km from Izcucacha.


Ayacucho has around half a million inhabitants and is located at 2760m above sea level. It is another ancient site of settlement, with indications of the so-called Pikimachay peoples who are said to have settle here 6-7000 years ago. The Warpa culture - about which we know next to nothing, but which lasted from 500 to 250 BC - had a centre here, but later absorbed by the Wari empire. This warlike group was probably centred on Ayacucho, and fell apart after 800 AD. It was replaced by the Chanka people, who were the chief enemies of the subsequent rise and expansion of the Inca. Indeed, it was the Chanka who organised a consortium of midland towns to attack Cuzco, and the Inca were only just able to survive this. It proved the stimulus that they needed to change their style of leadership, however, and the Chanka town fell to the Inca under Pachacútec, in 1438. The Inca gave it the name which it now holds, which means "pile of dead people" in Quechua. Inca humour was written in blood.

The Inca capital was Vilcashuaman, described elsewhere. This makes a substantial side trip.

Click here to see a series of images It is interesting, if a slight diversion, to think about the origins of the name of the city. Locals prefer to call its Huamanga, everyone else in Perú prefers Ayacucho. Given its meaning and origin, above, this is hardly surprising. The God Wiracocha was always shown with a falcon sitting on his wrist and, referring to this, Huamanga means "hold the falcon" in Quechua. The Spanish seem to agree, and when they founded their city in 1539 they gave it the high flown name of San Juan de la Frontera de Huamanga.

To further complicate the issue, the whole town was moved 12 Km Southeast shortly after its foundation; and changed its name again, to San Juan de la Victoria de Huamanga. Huamanga is now the formal name of the capital of the department of Ayacucho, but - perhaps in view of all of the comings and goings - it is invariably described as "Ayacucho" by Peruvians. It has good hotels and restaurants and full facilities.

The city has no less than 38 churches and convents, which we will not try to describe individually. Some have plain exteriors and wild baroque explosions within, other are more elaborate externally and simple inside. Most date from the Seventeenth century. The earliest is San Cristóbal, completed in 1540. Santo Domingo and Santa Clara are also very early constructions. The Cathedral has a pair of domed towers flanking a broad, flat-topped façade that is capped with peculiar little finials. This motif is repeated elsewhere. Municipal and other buildings around the pretty Plaza de Armas have stone colonnades, within which cafes and market stall are set up. Fiestas see musicians and dancers performing all across this area.

The inhabitants trade agricultural produce and handle regional administration, but are also known as amongst the most accomplished craft workers in the country. The town also has a university, and this was the intellectual seedbed for the Sendero Luminoso, the guerrilla group that fought a war with the government between 1985-95. The impact on the town and the surrounding region cannot be overstated, and the city is still in recovery from this disaster.

The Plaza de Armas is centred around an equestrian statue of de Bolivar, referring to his crushing victory over the Spanish royalists in 1824 at the battle of Pampa la Quinua. The momentous capitulation of Ayacucho followed, in which the Viceroy handed over the sovereignty of Perú and its other Spanish colonies in Latin America. It was de Bolivar who initiated the change of name discussed above.

Much of Ayacucho is built from whitewashed or raw adobe, capped with red tiled roofs. The centre of the city has many more formal houses dating to colonial times, many of which can be visited. Examples of these - although the list is much longer - are the casonas coloniales of Castilla y Zamora, Chacón, Velarde Alvarez and Olano. Some of these are over 450 years old, and they are all constructed around the classical patio-centred form, often tiled and frequently retaining the original fittings and furniture.

Click here to see a series of images Ayacucho is home to excellent craftspeople. The Santa Anna barrio is famous for its potters and weavers, and that of San Juan and Tenería for leatherwork. Knitted goods are also extremely well-produced locally. Carpets and scatter rugs woven from alpaca dyed in natural colours are very pleasing, and can be made to size and design to order. There are three grades - street quality, which may even use synthetic fabrics and certainly will use synthetic dyes. The intermediate quality is obtained from the weavers themselves, and use authentic materials and colorants. The highest quality is created by master weavers, who are elected by their guild, and who sign the work that they create: for example, families like the Sulcas have been working in textiles for generations.

One aspect of the pottery is unusual. Houses in the treeless South of Perú are exposed to lightning, and so people place charms on this roof to avert this risk. These usually represent small churches, or sometimes family groups or nativity scenes, all made in polychrome pottery. The churches are often made to a false perspective, swelling outwards like tree branches, so that they look "normal" when viewed from below.

Events and festivities.

The Bajada de los Reyes - the visit of the three wise men - is celebrated in the Belén barrio on January 2nd-6th. This is a child-focused set of days of processions and dances, music and amateur theatrical events to which huge numbers of people from the outlying districts tend to come.

The whole of the South of Perú tends to celebrate the Virgen de Candelaria, based on Puno. There is a similar but lower key event in Ayacucho that lasts from February 2nd-15th. This may run into Carnaval Huarmanguino, which occurs on a date which depends on Easter, but usually somewhere between the middle of February and early March. This is a major event, for which people prepare for months. There are several dancing schools in the city, which prepare their troops for the event.

The end of February also marks the Cochineal Festival. (Cochinilla is the red dye extracted from an insect that eats the local Opuntia cactus.) It is was the red that coloured the coats of British soldiers until the end of the Nineteenth century and is now used extensively in the food and local weaving industry.)

Easter - Semana Santa - is also a protracted affair, spreading over two weeks. There are additional cultural events, such as caballo de paso, dance competitions and so forth.

The founding day of the city occurs on April 25th, with bands, fireworks and much drinking. May has the religious fiesta de las cruces, chiefly in the outlying districts, as described earlier.

The fiesta of the Virgen de Carmen occurs on July 16th, and a major agricultural fair on July 26th. On August 31st, the Santa Anna barrio gives a great show with its on patronal, called the Fiesta de la Abuelita Santa Ana y Reyna Chiquita.

September is a busy month. The Virgen de Cocharcas is celebrated on September 8th, the Señor de Quinapata on the 14th. A major festival called the yarq'a aspiy follows on September 19th-24th, celebrating the arrival of the rains and all things to do with water. A great deal of it gets thrown around.

The fiesta of San Francisco occurs on October 4th and Todos Santos on November 1st, celebrated with special bread baked in the form of a baby doll, in honour of the Niño Nacaq ("Christ child of a Good Death".)

The date of the battle of Ayacucho is remembered in a military and civil parade on December 9th. There are displays of horsemanship around the memorial to the battle North of the city.

Towns around Ayacucho have their own festivals. June 23 is the patronal of San Antonio in Vilcashaumán, which would make for a striking double attraction for a visit. The Virgen de Carmen is also celebrated there on the 16th July. This is followed by the major commemoration of all things Inca and serrano on July 29th and 30th, called Vilcas Raymi. Parinacochas celebrates the Virgen de las Nieves on August 5th.


The Andean classics of pachamanca and mondongo - discussed above - are much in evidence. In addition, there are dishes such as adobe ayacuchano and puca picante. These are best tried than described.

Around Ayacucho.

Conchopata is an archaeological complex close to the airport. It was probably begun by the Warpa culture around 200 BC and abandoned several hundred years AD. Its use seems to have been as a centre for pottery manufacture, and the site is littered with fragments. It has been professionally excavated by the local university, which retains the finer finds

Warí is a major archaeological site at 2850m, 25 Km Northeast of Ayacucho. It was settled from 500BC to 1100 AD, and was amongst other things a major Warí city. It extends of 2000 hectares, comprising chiefly stone-and-earth buildings which were plastered and painted white or red. It also has some structures made from megaliths. Some of the walls extend to 12m, having 3m thick bases. These tend to enclose areas, most obviously to keep something - slaves? - in, rather than as defensive or decorative structures.

As already mentioned, the Pikimachay caves are about 200m off the Ayacucho-Huanta road, at Km 24. Excavations and carbon dating suggest that these caves were inhabited very early, with dates comparable to any in South or North America. Stone tools and other fragments of habitation have been found, but there are unfortunately no cave paintings.

Click here to see a series of images The Pampa de la Quinua battlefield is located 37 Km North of Ayacucho, at 3300m. It was here that the last battle in the Latin American war of independence was fought. The battle took place on 9 December 1824, a date commemorated both locally and across Perú. The army of the Spanish Viceroy lost 1800 out of a complement of 9310, whilst those under de Sucre lost 370 from a smaller force of 5780.

Fighting of this intensity is described in Spanish as 'una lucha (fight) intestina' and so it proved. The Viceroy La Serna surrendered - in effect, gave up half a continent on behalf of the Spanish Royal family - and a new epoch in Southern Hemisphere history began. The site is marked with a 44m monument to the fallen, and has fine views in all directions. The village of La Quinua has fine craftpeople who sell their goods on the street.

The major Inca sites of Vischongo and Vilcashaumán, and the Titankayo'q lake are described here. There is a separate photoseries available here which covers the wild countryon the coastal approach.

A tarred road was built North of the city during the period of the Sendero Luminoso, as a military measure. However, it runs over the 3800m Abra Tapuna into greenery, and down to San Francisco on the Apurimac river. This has flowed down from Cuzco, and is shortly to change its name to the Río Ene, merge with the Mantaro and become a major tributary to the Urubamba. The country around San Francisco is abruptly low-lying and wet, and one accesses the cloud forests of the ceja de selva. This was and is a major area for the cultivation of the coca plant from which cocaine can be extracted. As a result for this and the Sendero problem, this area is virtually unexplored by tourism, yet offers idea river rafting and kayaking conditions.

Directly across the river is the Zona Reservada de Apurimac, an area which is essentially unvisited by foreigners. It covers 1.7 million hectares, ranging from 1500m to around 300m above sea level. It is said to be one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and it has a large number of endemic species. It is worth noting that a US$2.2 billion natural gas project has to bring this from Camisea, on the far side of the Andes, through this reserve, past Ayacucho and then down to yet another nature reserve, at Paracas on the coast. All of the majors pulled out of this, chiefly because of its environmental impact, and it is now being done by a South American consortium which includes the state oil company, PetroPerú.