The Mantaro Valley
The Mantaro Valley in Peru’s central highlands is one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas, a giant swath of flat land famous for its potatoes, corn, barley, quinoa, artichokes, and many vegetables. The charming adobe villages of this valley are the best places in all of Peru to see a wide range of craftspeople at work (and acquire the highest quality artwork at a fair price that benefits the artist, not the merchant).
Artisans here produce the ceramics, weavings, carved gourds (mates burilados), and silver filigree that is sold, at a considerable markup, in the crafts markets of Cusco and Lima. Many of the artisans are national champions in their disciplines and produce works of staggering beauty that are impossible to find elsewhere in the country. The artisans are glad to work and chat at the same time and gladly invite in visitors who knock on their unmarked, wooden doors.
More so residents in than other more touristy areas of Peru, Mantaro Valley villagers do not behave differently in front of foreigners and go about their lives much as they have for centuries. They are proud and prosperous people. Depending on the time of the year, villagers are out in the fields planting or harvesting, threshing wheat with horses and donkeys, herding cows with colorful tassels tied to their ears, or building rammed-earth homes that are the same chocolate color as the surrounding fields. There is a festival nearly every day somewhere in the valley.
A good way to experience local culture is through one of the walking or mountain bike routes mapped out by the energetic and affable Lucho Hurtado at Incas del Peru in Huancayo, the best source of information on the area (Giráldez 652, tel. 064/22-3303, www.incasdelperu.org). He has good contacts among local craftspeople and leads treks to the Cordillera Huaytapallana, a small but spectacular range 50 kilometers east of Huancayo that includes a number of glaciated peaks, including Mount Lasuntay (5,780 meters).
There are many local ruins from the Xauxa and later Huanca culture, which ran a lively coast–jungle trade from A.D. 900 onwards until being conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. Like the Chachapoyans farther north, the Huanca resented Inca rule and sided with the Spanish, who followed the Inca roads through the Mantaro Valley en route to Cusco in 1533. The following year, Francisco Pizarro returned to the area to found Jauja, Peru’s first, though short-lived, capital, and the land was divided up among the Spaniards (a source of dismay, no doubt, to Huanca elders).
During the independence struggle three centuries later, the Spanish troops based themselves in Huancayo for three years until they were defeated at nearby Junín and Ayacucho in 1824. During the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), several bloody battles were again fought in the Mantaro Valley between Chilean soldiers and the Peruvian army led by General Andrés Cáceres, who was dubbed the Wizard of the Andes for his ability to attack and quickly disappear into the mountains. During the 1980s and 1990s, Mantaro Valley villages were caught in the crossfire between the Shining Path and the Peruvian army. The area is recovering strongly, thanks in part to good farming lands, crafts production, and tourism.
The best base for touring the valley is Huancayo.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition