Huancayo is a buzzing little Andean town, full of colour, people and life. Certainly not the cold, sad picture that I had imagined after Paul Theroux‘s descriptions:
“There was something about the damp walls of every room in this town, and the muddy roads leading out of it that made the isolation palpable; it’s chill conveyed a physical feeling of remoteness.”
No longer so isolated from the rest of Peru, with good connecting roads, the town has blossomed into a thriving Andean centre, famous for its Sunday markets and even boasting a modern shopping centre.
The square was a veritable social club, always full of chatting families and street sellers. I had arrived on the weekend of Halloween and the pavements were mobbed with miniature vampires and ghosts, while a Christian concert took place on a makeshift stage. It all felt a little surreal as I watched little children dressed as devils sing Halleluiahs with their parents.
But I could not linger long, I was going to take a train that even Theroux himself had not managed to get on; he had returned to Lima from Huancayo and flown to Cuzco, as in the seventies, when he took his trip, there was no passable road or railway through the mountains to the east. Now it is possible to take the train to Huancavelica then a bus to Ayacucho and then two more mountain buses across the Andes to Cuzco.
This was in fact the same route which Michael Jacobs took in his book Andes, so I started mentally preparing myself for the bus rides, which sounded a little rough. Although I should have perhaps focused on the train ride which was also a little less than comfortable. Even the queue for tickets was an experience in itself: I was serenaded by a man in a wheelchair and his son, sold bread, offered sweets, moisturiser, tiger balm and flowers. So distracted by these offerings I failed to notice a man push in front of me, which caused quite a stir when the security guard picked him out of the queue giving me a disparaging look and a telling-off as he did so. The ‘queue’ was a colourful melee of shouting, pushing and a distinct lack of personal space, so taking a deep breath I stuck my elbows out and pushed forward in an attempt to get a ticket while wondering why on earth I hadn’t thought about booking in advance.
I was still wondering this when I found myself sharing my bag, which was now being used as a seat, with a small family of three, off to visit their relatives in Huancavelica.
The mother, dressed in the usual Andean outfit of smart hat, brightly coloured flared skirt and belongings tied in a shawl on her back asked me:
“What is the traditional dress in England?”
That’s a good question I thought to myself and ashamedly I could not give her a very satisfactory answer.
“What kind of food do you eat in your country?” was the next question, crikey I thought, this is going from bad to worse, I tried explaining fish and chips, the lady looked less than impressed.
The scenery was beautiful, craggy peaks and tiny villages passed by as we climbed to a height of 3676 metres. A “classic” Andean train journey as described by The South American Handbook. We clung precariously to the side of the mountains whilst negotiating numerous tunnels (38 to be precise) and bridges.
From my perch on the floor I marvelled at the goings on in the train: families squabbled, children cried, strange looking foods were consumed and the jostling continued. I peered jealously into the buffet class car. This car had been full when I reached the ticket office, it boasted numbered seats and no one was allowed in the aisles or doorways. It’s attendant was tasked with serving food to the entire train. He tottered up and down carrying plates piled high with food, his skill in this task was impressive as he never seemed to spill anything despite the numerous obstacles in his path – including myself.
At each village people poured off the train and even more climbed on. At one point I was nearly hit in the face by a lamb bleating in a bag. After a while an English teacher from Huancayo took pity on me and offered her seat for half an hour, I gladly accepted as the man now sitting next to me had fallen asleep and his breath was less than fragrant. As I prised his head off my shoulder and relinquished the space on my bag-turned-seat the teacher explained:
“Sorry, that’s my brother.” She added apologetically. “He drinks.”
I took her seat in the carriage to be faced with what felt like hundreds of people staring at me, as we bobbed along I enjoyed the views which were unlike anything I had seen on a train ride before, the towering mountains took my breath away and the peering locals made the experience all the more unusual.
The peering did not stop once I had disembarked from the train in Huancavelica, a charming little town nestled in the craggy mountains. Sitting in the square after a stroll I watched a little boy try and teach his brother how to ride a bicycle, the little boys inability to balance was not the only problem in the venture, a stray dog, of which there are many in Peru, was nibbling at their ankles as they circumnavigated the square. I was happy to have something to watch, it took my attention away from the local inhabitants who were mostly staring at me, this was somewhat unnerving as it appeared I was the only tourist in town.