The slightly bitter taste of coca leaves lingers in my mouth as I stand looking at the snow covered ridges of Mount Huaytapallana. We\‘ve been hiking for at least two kilometers and because of the thin air at this altitude, it\‘s been a laborious trek, but the view of the lagoons and glaciers laid out in front of me make it all worth it.
After another two kilometers—and some sightings of the Northern Viscacha, a member of the chinchilla family—we reach the base of a glacier. Our guides ready the rope they have brought and begin leading us up the side of the large slab of ice and snow. After we are some hundreds of feet up, people start pulling out sheets of plastic.
I decided to go on this hike because the pictures at the tour agency showed alpacas, mountains, and beautiful glaciers. Also it was 45 soles for what looked like beautiful views. Good enough for me. I did not quite understand what was happening now. Were they ponchos? It wasn\‘t raining.
A friend along the way
It turns out we were getting ready to sled down a portion of the glaciers on these thin sheets of plastic. My first thought is of slight terror, but then I realize we have plenty of room on the wide slopes of the mountain. Someone offers me a sheet and I quickly make my way up another 100 or so feet before positioning myself on the plastic. The guide shows me how to wrap the sheet under my knees and instructs me to keep my legs lifted.
My legs lifted and plastic held in my hands I begin my decent. A huge smile quickly forms across my face as I barrel down the glacier. This is truly exhilarating. As I reach some of the other members of my tour group the glacier levels out and I lose my balance and flop off the plastic into the snow. I\‘m all laughs.
This is one of the many tours offered around the city of Huancayo, located about eight hours into the mountains from Lima. It\‘s located in a valley high up in the Andes. The town is not a major tourist destination, but I highly recommend the area. The people are nice, the tours are cheap, and the alcohol is warm and delicious.
The tour of Huaytapallana is long and I suggest giving yourself time in Huancayo to get used to the altitude—around 3271 meters around the city. The mountain is even higher, at upwards of 5000 meters. One person in my group could not handle it—having come from Lima the day before—and had to turn back at the halfway point. There are many other tours offered of the area which could be very entertaining and much less stressful on the body.
After the long hike and glacier sledding, when I am back in town, I head to Antojitos with a friend who lives in town. The bar and restaurant is packed and a live band plays Peruvian music, exciting a small crowd which dances at the base of the stage. This is a great place to get calientitos, a pitcher of hot rum, pisco, or wine. These can be bought many places in Huancayo and are drunk often during the bitterly cold nights up here in the mountain. It is a very pleasant way to warm up.
A viscacha among the rocks
Huancayo caters more to the Peruvian tourist, which is no problem but I suggest knowing some Spanish for a visit here. You can get by without because most everyone is friendly enough.
In the mornings, I almost always find a corner with someone selling warm maca drinks and egg sandwiches. These carts usually also have warm soya or apple juice with quinoa. No matter which of these you try they\‘re bound to warm you up and offer a great start to your day for pretty cheap—about two soles for an egg sandwich and a drink.
My knowledge of Huancayo was centered around the Plaza de la Constitucion. The plaza has many beautiful fountains, a really neat archway, and, of course, tons of friendly people enjoying the area. You\‘ll see many women with children wrapped onto their backs with brightly colored fabrics here. Near the plaza is a large church, tour agencies, restaurants, and the casa del artesano. There you can find many crafts, including great knitted caps, scarves and sweaters.
Huancayo is also a great place to try pachamanca, or so I hear. Unfortunately I waited until my last day here to try it and it turns out it\‘s more of a lunch food, not served during dinner often. Pachamanca is a traditional Peruvian dish made by cooking meats, spices, and other produce in the ground surrounded by hot stones. They use lamb, mutton, pork, chicken or guinea pig. I really wanted to try it, and hope somewhere in Cusco offers it or that I can find some before I leave.
Huancayo is also a great entry point to the jungles of this region, which offer some of the best coffee growing areas in Peru. One tour is offered though the many agencies in town that brings you into the jungle and to some of the coffee plantations of the area for around 90 soles. In my experience is has actually been pretty hard to find good coffee around Peru—they export most of the good stuff—so this might be a worthwhile tour if you are interested in that.