Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Travelog: Huancayo

As far as Andean cities go, Huancayo is not the most attractive nor most historic one in Peru. A bustling commercial center for the Mantaro River Valley, about six hours by road southeast of Lima, Huancayo has grown haphazardly in the last few years to become a city of over 400 thousand people.

Yet, Huancayo attracts visitors who come to its Sunday fair and to visit the many small villages that are located in the agricultural valley where it is located. The villages in the Mantaro River Valley are known for their folklore and handicrafts. It is said that every day, somewhere in the valley, there is a village fair going on. Many villages in the valley specialize in one type of handicraft; for example, San Jeronimo de Tunán is known for its delicate silver filigree, Cochas Chica is the center of the handcarved gourds known as mates burilados, and Hualhuas is famous for its textiles.

Another draw to Huancayo is the spectacular road that heads east from Lima following the Rimac River Valley, to the pass at Ticlio which is located at a breathtaking 15,807 feet, or 4,818 meters, above sea level. There used to be a daily train to Huancayo, famous for being the highest railroad in the world; however, it currently only operates during certain Peruvian holidays a few times a year. The Rimac River begins at those heights and flows east toward the Pacific Ocean, while the Mantaro River also begins there and flows south and west, eventually joining the Eñe River, one of the many tributaries that eventually feed the mighty Amazon.

Sadly, at the onset of this journey, the road passes some of Lima's precariously perched shantytowns built on the barren desert hillsides of the coast, so if this sight is disturbing, it is best to focus on the videos the bus company shows.

Soon enough, the desert gives way to the beginning of the Andean region, and the road passes small villages and towns, some focused on agriculture, and as the road ascends, others which rely on mining. As the road traverses Ticlio, the landscape becomes barren and eerie, with multicolored lagoons and only the small ichu grass growing amidst the snow-capped mountains. Despite the harshness, there is a certain surreal beauty to the landscape. Finally, the road descends, passing one of Peru's most important mining centers at La Oroya, before finally entering the fertile Mantaro River Valley.

One of the most interesting parts of the journey is watching how the Rimac River eventually turns into a trickle at the highest point of the journey, and then observing how the trickle of water heading west eventually becomes the roaring and powerful Mantaro River.

We headed to Huancayo to attend to some family business on a double decker bus operated by Cruz del Sur, one of Peru's best bus lines (lunch is served on board, there are constant videos, and at the end of the journey, there is even a game of bingo). Sitting on the upper deck of the bus, each time we turned one of the hairpin curves, we felt as if we were on a boat veering from side to side.

Some people on the bus felt the effects of the altitude, and had to breathe small alcohol-soaked pads. One well-prepared couple even had their own thermos of mate de coca, coca leaf tea, which is also a good antidote to the effects of going from sea-level to such heights.

At 9,842, or 3,271 meters above sea level, it is also best to take it easy the first day in Huancayo. We stayed in the grande dame of Huancayo hotels, the
Hotel de Turismo, located in the center of town, where we received excellent service. The hotel was an excellent base to take care of our business in Huancayo, and the staff was friendly and extremely helpful.

And now for the food.

Although we were not in town to research food for this blog, we still had some good meals in Huancayo. The food at the Hotel de Turismo's restaurant was not fancy but well made. At this altitude it is best to eat lightly the first days, and their grilled chicken breast with steamed vegetables and rice was just the right type of fare to have upon arrival. On our last day in Huancayo, we had a decent filet mignon in a mushroom sauce, and sirloin brochettes, all accompanied by steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes, made with the wonderfully flavored yellow potatoes that only grow high in the Andes.

We were told by more than one source that the best restaurant in Huancayo is called Leopardo, located in the center of town at Jirón Huánuco 716, but unfortunately we never made it there.

One day, we hired a taxi by the hour (at 10 soles per hour, about USD 3) and went to visit the trout farms at Ingenio, passing through the village of Concepción. Outside of the trout farms there are numerous small establishments offering fresh broiled trout, and pachamanca, the traditional Andean meal cooked in the ground and consisting of different types of tubers, pork, beef, and cuy; we did eat at one such place, but I would not recommend it, as one person in our party became ill, possibly due to consuming too much hot sauce made with unpurified water. A better option may be the Hotel Huaychulo, and old 1940s hotel on the outskirts of Ingenio, which was opened by a Swiss couple who moved to the Mantaro River Valley, and built a hotel modeled on a Swiss chalet.

The one other restaurant we tried in Huancayo used to be the city's finest, El Olímpico, located overlooking the main square, but almost everyone told us it is not what it used to be. Nonetheless, we had a couple of decent meals there. One standout was a hearty Andean wheat soup we sampled there. We were also fortunate to be invited to private home for lunch where we also sampled some typical Andean fare: olluquito con charquí (a stewy dish made with the tuber known as ollucos and a type of beef jerky), and caiguas rellenas, which is made with the fruit of a vine (in Latin, Cyclanthera pedata) which is stuffed and cooked with a mix of ground meat, peanuts, and raisins.

There are many traditional dishes in the Mantaro River Valley, mostly hearty soups and stews, but for our brief stay, we preferred to stick to relatively simple fare.

As I said at the onset of this post, while Huancayo may not be the most attractive city in the Andes, it is worth a visit now made easier by the fact that there are currently daily flights between neighboring Jauja (the first capital of colonial Peru, about 40 minutes from Huancayo) and Lima. We flew back to Lima in a small 18-seat plane and had a spectacular view of the Andes, with its myriad lagoons and snow-capped peaks. Before we knew it, about 30 minutes later, we were flying over Lima, arriving just in time for lunch. But, that's another post on another day.


Click here for the Peru Food main page.

TAGS: Peru, Peruvian, food, cooking, cuisine, cocina, comida, gastronomía, peruana


eduardo said...

I was in Huancayo 7 years ago, and visited Cochas Chico to buy some of those engraved gourds.

I also had the trout, and it was one of the tastiest grilled trout that I have ever tasted.

Hope all is well in Peru,


MEC said...

Veo que estás disfrutando de tu viaje, querido Alejandro. Tienes que visitar también mi tierra, Arequipa, para que comas esos espectaculares camarones, únicos en el mundo. Sorry por el chauvinismo pero a veces no lo puedo controlar.

Bel said...

Did you actually try the trout at Ingenio? I lived in Huancayo for 6 months, and they enver stopped telling me how good the Trucha was, they even made it into ceviche! Unfortunately I absolutely cannot stand fish in any form...

The Pachamanca dish is more of a celebration food, my adopted family in Huancayo did a huge one to feed about 20 of their extended family. Cooked over hot rocks in a large hole in the ground, for about hours. Amazing.

Huancayo is also the home of the best cuy asado, which I agree is pretty fine. And picarones! There is a wonderful lady called Florinda who has a Picaroneria at the end of Jr Huamanmarca, near the post office, and hers are unbeatable. (I ate A LOT of picarones in my time there...)

And I can't believe you didn't mention Papa a la Huancaina. cheesey-chilli-potatoes to you and I, but very good all the same.

bien viaje!

::Alejandro:: said...

Thank you for stopping by, gracias por la visita (and yes, we did try the traditional papa a la huancaina...)

::Alejandro:: said...

bel, also, thanks for the tip about the cuy and picarones. And, the trout is quite good at Ingenio...