Robert Louis Stevenson, that great traveler of the romantic era, makes the principal character in one of his stories say "I do not ask for riches, nor hope, nor love, nor a friend who understands me; all I ask is the sky above and the road beneath my feet". And the brighter the sky and the more different the road from that of our daily grind the better will be the sense of freedom during our journey. A trip to the Department of Huancavelica, which we describe here in an attempt to prolong the experience, was a search for a part of Peru where the sun and the road are impossible to forget.
The best way to get to Huancavelica is from Huancayo on the Macho Train. Few things compare with the experience of journeying across mountains and through tunnels on a train regarded with the affection reserved for living beings. The trip starts at Huancayo Central Station, when you first make contact with the locals in the ticket queue. They will be your fellow travelers on the four-hour journey - together with their sheep, sacks of potatoes, boxes of vegetables and huge bundles lashed with cord. And amid all this hurly burly babies sleep in coloured shawls on their mothers' backs. The railway from Huancayo to Huancavelica is varied: always parallel to the river Mantaro among green and relatively gentle mountains it climbs up to the capital of the Department situated at just over 12,000 feet.
At Telleria you can get off the train for a short while to inspect the old headquarters of the railway, the food stalls and the people, who are always ready for a conversation. That's where we learned of the theft of an image of San Francisco caused by a dispute between the descendants of the Chanka people and local landowners. It was only when the original owner of the image dreamed of the saint's whereabouts that peace finally returned to the area. Near the station is a small chapel dedicated to the same San Francisco. It is dry and the cold penetrates right to the marrow.
Thirty eight miles out of Huancayo is a place called Aguas Calientes, after the warm springs by the side of the railway. If you want, there is a rustic hostel where you can spend a day and a night surrounded by the smell of eucalyptus and walk in the mountains among the beautiful and welcoming scenery (there's an interesting excursion to nearby ruins).
The first part of lzcuchaca you see from the train is its colonial-era bridge. The train arrives on time (maybe, if everything's going well, but cross your fingers just in case) - at about eleven in the morning, when the sun reflects off the ochre stones (called kankayas) of the bridge with its weathervaned tower and sixty foot span: a surviving example of the noble architecture of Peru's colonial past.
Izcuchaca (from izcu, chalk and chaca, bridge) is an old district of Huancavelica, which has seen key moments in the history of the country. In the early intermediate period the small but powerful Sachamarca culture flourished here, a society both theocratic and militaristic. During the expansion of the Inca Empire a bridge called Anguyaku was built around 1400 on the site of the later Spanish structure. A decisive battle took place on this bridge in 1520, between local followers of Huascar and Atahualpa. Here also, Captain Garcilazo de la Vega defeated the Inca forces and destroyed their stores. Once the Incas were under control the Spanish settled in Izcuchaca and busied themselves transporting the minerals and other riches brought mainly from Huancavelica, but also from Cusco and Huamanga. To facilitate the passage of these valuable shipments, the Spanish Crown ordered a stronger bridge to be built and it is this we can see from the Macho Train. The same bridge was used by Alvaro de Arenales, San Martin's lieutenant on his way to Lima, and the so-called Battle of lzcuchaca, between the forces of Castilla and Echenique was fought on it. lzcuchaca also boasts a hero of the war with Chile: Silvestre Landea, whose corpse was placed upright on the bridge as if trying to halt the invading troops.