Huancayo: a town with a population of 400,000, and located at an altitude of 3244m above sea level. A place described by Lonely Planet as giving the traveller “the impression of arriving in some Wild West frontier town. Tumbledown outer suburbs, dusty, chaotic streets, people wandering seemingly at random and all around the mountains rise and surround”. Nine hours on a bus along a windingly steep and narrow road from Lima. Eleven hours on what is basically a dirt track (especially in the rainy season) to Ayacucho, which is another twenty-odd hours on from Cusco. What, indeed, am I doing here?
This is a question that I began to ask myself shortly after boarding a Lima-bound bus in Cusco. To be precise, it was around the time that the hairpin bends began, and the three children squashed into the two seats opposite me stopped smacking one another around the head with their rodent-faced hats and started vomiting. Was this really such a good idea? I was leaving a beautiful Incan city, all cute cobbled streets and plazas with fountains and mind-blowing ruins, travelling for the best part of two days to what the guidebook suggested was a bit of a shithole.
When I did eventually arrive, Huancayo was facing a bit of an uphill struggle to win me over. I hadn’t eaten anything other than bread, biscuits and crackers in rather too long, hadn’t showered in even longer and my bus had broken down in some mysterious place on the altiplano, nearly provoking a riot amongst the middle-aged women who made up 90% of its passengers. Oh, and my window had been covered up with black sticky-backed plastic, so I hadn’t even had a view of the mountains we were scrambling up. I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing out loud as a fellow passenger turned to me as we clambered out of the bus at our final (finally!) destination (and I smacked my head on the television for the umpteenth time: I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d actually been able to watch the thing without dislocating my neck) and said “Bienvenida a Huancayo”. And then the heavens opened.
So, this was Huancayo. Ensconced in my hostel room that evening, showered and changed and fed on pizza, I pondered my situation. It is not a pretty town, and even less so in the rain. A poster advertising the infamous breakdown-bus company shows a photograph of a colonial-style church standing imposingly on a large, tree-filled plaza, various couples, families, children etc wandering by. And while it’s true that this square does exist (at least, in the right light it does), it’s not exactly what I’d call representative of the town. The place is dusty, dirty and messy, the roads full of angry drivers and the pavements (when they’re there at all) clogged with aimlessly wandering pedestrians.
It is a town with no bus terminal, but an infinite number of buses doing eternal loops, their conductors keeping up a steady stream of incomprehensible shouts in an attempt to entice an additional passenger onto a vehicle that is inching along in the nightmarish traffic of a 24 hour rush hour. The kind of place where even the main road feels a little dodgy, and more of the shops seem boarded up than actually open for serving customers. A town where the print shops are united by the ubiquitous presence of a blonde woman in skimpy underwear on their signs, even if all they sell is black and white photocopies. The sort of place where you only realise how conspicuous you feel as a foreigner when you walk past ‘Gringo’s’ fried chicken restaurant and are relieved to hear some badly accented Spanish from the grumpy man in the baseball cap scooping chips out of a deep fat fryer. Off the beaten track somehow doesn’t really cover it.
On my first morning here, waiting on the street for my first craft class, I see a collision between a car and a cyclist. No-one is hurt, not the cyclist or the girlfriend perched on his handlebars, and there is no sign of obvious damage to the car. Until the cyclist swings a punch at the driver, and the girlfriend starts kicking his tyre, that is. The accompanying shrieking and carrying on might, somewhere else, attract a great deal of attention. Here, I am perhaps the only person interested enough to watch. This, it seems, is life in Huancayo.
And yet, somehow, I have found myself here, and what’s more, I’ve discovered that I’m happy here. There is something wonderfully refreshing about a town that isn’t trying to be something it’s not, a place where even the street ice cream vendors look thoroughly bored (and are usually to be found eating their own wares). The odd touch of ‘class’, as you might (rather snobbishly) call it, usually comes with a large dollop of anti-climax, somehow refreshing when you arrive from a city so cosmopolitan and outwards-looking and tourist orientated that there’s a Starbucks, KFC or McDonalds on every corner and an English menu in every café. Walk into a coffee shop in Huancayo and you’ll probably have to track down the waiter (most likely lurking in a corner watching the television) before you can even begin to think about ordering. Should you make the mistake of opting for one of the fancy coffees listed on the menu, its service will probably be preceded by a frantic phone call to someone who (hopefully) knows exactly how one goes about making a triple-frothy-caramel-mocha-cappuccino, and whether the biscuit goes on the top of the cup or on the saucer. Even an old-fashioned milky coffee is served, rather oddly, as a mug of warm milk with an espresso on the side, and a request for the ‘Selva Negra’ cake (yes, that is a literal translation of ‘Black Forest’) is greeted by a look of confusion and query as to whether that’s the chocolate or the lemon one. Such innocence hasn’t been seen since the arrival of the café latte to my home town of Bury.
This, I suspect, is the reason I like Huancayo so much: I have spent most of my life to date in a Northern Town. Warnings about keeping a tight hold of your handbag (“there’s delinquents everywhere”), horrendously bad parking and an inordinate fondness for fried chicken shops are, I suspect, as much a part of my heritage as the cotton industry about which I enthusiastically talk to my weaving teacher. So is all of the tat for sale on the streets (the tacky mobile phone cases probably fell off the back of the same lorry as the ones back at home) and the sulky attitude of the shopkeepers (“What do you mean you’ve not got change? You’d better bloody go and get some then, hadn’t you?”). Huancayo even has, like Bury, a railway so inefficient that it’s geared purely to tourists, although I suspect they don’t have the problem of people turning up to the war weekend in Nazi costumes, and Santa might get a bit chilly on his Special going over a pass that reaches an altitude of over 4000m above sea level. The Peruvian station car park might be cheaper too.
When, on my first day in Huancayo, I was taken plunging into the labyrinthine depths of the local market, there were many aspects that might have overwhelmed me. There was the way the stalls were set up in the middle of the road, with no thought to the passing traffic, drivers angrily beeping their horns. There was the frog soup and accompanying tanks of live amphibians awaiting their fate, whilst salesmen proclaimed the restorative properties of the foul looking brew (I wonder if men are chosen for the job in order to avoid unfavourable comparisons with the opening scene of a certain Scottish Play). There was the way you could buy everything from boiled quails’ eggs to entire alpaca pelts, and there was the fact that people were openly urinating in the streets, right alongside the women cutting up bread, avocados and mysterious-looking meat for sandwiches. There were the open manholes and the litter-filled gutters, the surgically-masked women selling fruit juices and the bits of dead animal piled in cardboard boxes. Many a comparison could be drawn, from North African souks to … It was a travel experience, certainly, but perhaps not an entirely pleasant one, my main consolation being that I didn’t have my handbag with me and therefore nothing for pickpockets or petty thieves to steal.
Yet what struck me most of all was the utter normality of the scene: this isn’t a market for tourists, visitors or foreigners. There are no women waving baby llamas around in the hope of earning money from photographs, no calls to “Buy Miss, very good price”. To return to the Lonely Planet, this is “a glimpse of Peru at its most normal… the heartland of Andean Peru – its soul.”
Talk of souls tends to lead to sentimental, romantic or religious interpretations. But surely if our soul is the truest part of ourselves, then it is in fact this ugly, unadorned and undisguised face that we tend not to show to the world. If Machu Picchu is how this country wants to be seen, then the Darkest Peru from which Paddington Bear hails is probably somewhere around here. Life on the altiplano is hard, things aren’t pretty, the mountains are just a pain to get over and the food, whilst cheap, isn’t always the most exciting, being heavily based on potatoes, bread and rice. Half of the shops in the art and craft market are permanently closed, and the woman manning the tourist police desk seems so bored that she optimistically looks up every time I walk past, presumably hoping that I (apparently the only tourist in this place) have had some terrible misfortune befall me, just to give her something to do. Even getting out of here is difficult, since the many bus offices scattered around town have no sign of timetables, staff or even vehicles.
A traveller once told me that he measured the isolation of a town by the number of stray dogs it has: get beyond more than a couple per street and you know you’re really in the back of beyond. As I set off walking for the rock formations of Torre Torre, 3km from the centre of town, following “a sign and an obvious path”, I began to notice just how many four-legged creatures were wandering the streets. Canines, yes, generally either large and asleep or small and angry, but also sheep, pigs, and some strangely woolly things that, whilst definitely not picturesque to be llamas, could have been just about anything else, from a kangaroo to a koala bear. Wandering through the increasingly rural-feeling outskirts of town, I was aware of the open stares of small boys, elderly women and delivery truck drivers, all watching and quite clearly wondering what on earth I was doing in their neighbourhood. There was not, by any means, what I would call a clear path to anywhere. The prevalence of cow manure in the streets put paid to that. If this wasn’t the back of beyond, I don’t know what is.
I found my rocks, eventually, took my photographs and squeezed onto a local bus back into town, no doubt causing yet more astonishment. And then it hit me that this was entirely the wrong way to go about getting to know Huancayo. There are no famous sights here, nothing to be missed out on, no ‘must-sees’ or unforgettable experiences. Attempting to seek such things out is a rather fruitless effort: slog to the top of a hill and someone will have constructed a concrete monstrosity perfectly positioned to block your view. Frustrating, some might say, but also strangely liberating. Because without these tourist sites, without all of the pressure that they entail, you are free to aimlessly wander the dusty, chaotic streets.
So, mug of coffee, jug of milk? Maybe not…