7 Ways to Explore Peru's Central Sierra

You’ll find plenty of local traditions but not many tourists in this secluded region of the Andes. Our insider Zdenka gives you the scoop.

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The main sites of the Central Sierra are linked up by the Incan Andean Road and divided by contrasts of vividness and modesty, city bustle and mountain serenity, rich vegetation and austere plains.

Ayacucho

This city is the best starting point for exploring the Central Sierra. A wide choice of bus companies operate between Lima and Ayacucho, so decide which comfort level suits you for an eight-hour journey, climbing from sea level to 2700 m, or you can pick one of four flights.

Despite its gloomy name – it was dubbed “corner of the dead” after a bloody battle in 1825 – Ayachuco is a very lively city with an engaging blend of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.

It’s most famous for its 33 churches, starting with Catedral Basilica de Santa María at the Plaza de Armas. Be sure to stop at this square on Sunday to try the delicious local ice cream known as muyuchi.

Also highly recommended is Museo de la Memoria (S/. 2 or US $.60 for the guided tour), which vividly illustrates the atrocity of the Shining Path guerrillas.

Don’t miss the Santa Ana artisan district, where traditional retablos (devotional story boxes) are made. For great views over the whole city, hike up to Cerro Acuchimay or Cerro Picota.

Ayacucho. Photo credit: iStock

Festivals in Ayacucho: Carnaval and Semana Santa

Ayacuchan locals love to celebrate. Many fiestas are celebrated during the year, beginning with Carnaval Ayacuchano in February/March, when the whole city dances and shows its ceremonial face.

But few Peruvian festivities can compare with Ayacuchan Semana Santa (Holy Week). Every visitor can take part in observing the creation of floral carpets, weeping over Christ's coffin, ducking for cover during the bull chase, or celebrating the Easter Sunday vigil.

Quinua

To escape the bustle of the city, take a colectivo (shared van or taxi) from Óvalo de Magdalena and head to the Pampa de Quinua, where the history of Peru was written. Above the Quinua village rises a mighty obelisk commemorating the victorious battle of independence in 1824. The place itself offers stunning views and invites you to hike or ride horses (S/. 10-20 or US $3-6) towards various waterfalls.

View from Quinua village. Image credit: Zdenka Pickova

Wari

Half-way between Quinua and Ayacucho lies this extensive pre-Incan cultural site, accompanied by a small museum. Every year on the summer solstice Familia Ancestral Kunturkanki holds the ceremony of Inti Raymi at this site. The scent of palo santo, the music, and the ceremony itself make you feel truly connected to the earth.

Wari ruins. Photo credit: iStock

Huancavelica

Even higher into the mountains, you’ll find this picturesque colonial town. With the rising elevation, temperatures can be chilly, so the local thermal baths come in handy.

A tip for adventurers wanting an authentic local experience: take a colectivo from Huancavelica and give traditional living a try in Chopca village. Visitors can pitch in with the potato harvests, help prepare traditional dishes, and take part in festivities. Basic but comfortable lodging is available at Tambo. Warm clothes recommended.

Chopca Nation session. Image credit: Zdenka Pickova

Huancayo and Beyond

Taking the local train Macho (S/. 13 or US $4) is a unique way to travel from Huancavelica to Huancayo and get to know inaccessible places. However, the train operates only from May to October.

Huancayo itself is a very pleasing town with an abundance of thematic parks like Parque de los Sombreros, where trees are replaced by hats, or Cerrito de Libertad with an enchanting view of the city.

The quirky rock towers known as Torre Torre are only a few steps out of the town, and a trek to the Huaytapallana glacier begins just 17mi (28 km) away.

Torre Torre formations. Photo credit: iStock

Natural Wonders at Tarma

Nature enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the surroundings of Tarma village (alias La Perla de los Andes), which hide countless caves, the deepest being Gruta de Huagapo. To view a variety of wild orchids, take one of the tours to Valle de Chanchamayo.

The nearby Reserva Nacional de Junín, located within the vast Bombón plateau, features endless plains and Chinchaycocha, the largest lake within Peru and home to an abundance of birds.

Mysterious Kotosh Temple

The so-called gateway city to the Amazon, Huánuco is inseparably connected with the symbol of crossed hands, which was discovered within the religious pre-Incan site Kotosh. Although the original artifact was moved to Lima, Templo de las Manos Cruzadas and the whole site is worth exploring before you leave the mountains and plunge into the jungle.

Want to know more about Peru? Check out our podcast. We chat about alternative treks to Machu Picchu, how Peru is the original home of surfing, and look at what vaccinations do you need when traveling to South America.

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