Vida Huancaína

Our adventure in the Andes

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Introducing Chris’ website!

We’re excited to announce that Chris has a new website–Erratic Authorities–up and running!  He describes it as “a space to think through the role of political authority and legitimacy in our lives, particularly as they concern the areas of state-making and development. There will probably be much else besides, with posts on Peru, policy, and development filling these webpages.” His latest post, “Trains – Almost as Good as Cats on the Internet!,” really shows that the site will cover all sorts of material!  Go check it out. :)


Quinoa beer!


Cusqueña, one of Peru’s most ubiquitous national beers, has come out with a special edition made with quinoa!  Quinoa is a grain native to the Andes that is now known and eaten worldwide.  While not the first beer to incorporate quinoa here in Peru (artisanal beer company, Cumbres, also has one), this is the first one that’s been widely distributed and was available at our local Plaza Vea here in Huancayo. For s./ 12 ($4.25), the 750 ml special edition beer comes in a beautifully decorated box and bottle that feature details from Machu Picchu, the icon of the beer company’s hometown.

The beverage itself tastes like…beer. :)  That is to say, it doesn’t taste like quinoa-juice, which is actually a common breakfast drink here.  The flavor is decidedly more complex than the other Cusqueña beers, with orange and peach notes, and has less carbonation.  While not mind-blowing, this special edition beer itself is definitely more delicious than the other national beers on the market.  It’ll have to do until we can find ourselves some of the Peruvian micro-brews here in Huancayo!

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El Tren Macho to Huancavelica

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We’ve been dying to take El Tren Macho from Huancayo to Huancavelica since we arrived here.  El Tren Macho literally translates as “the male train.”  I’m not sure exactly how the train came by its name, but around here they explain it’s because it leaves when it wants and arrives if it can (sale cuando quiere y llega cuando puede).  Unfortunately for us, our arrival in Peru coincided with the rainy season and there was a huge landslide that knocked the train out of commission for some 4+ months.  Now that the train is finally back up and running, we just had to take advantage of a quick overnight trip to ride the train and get to know Huancavelica before the rainy season is in full swing and threatens to ruin the tracks again!

Mural of the train route painted inside the station

Mural of the train route painted inside the station

More mural inside the station

More mural inside the station

El Tren Macho leaves from the Chilca neighborhood of Huancayo at 6:30 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and returns from Huancavelica on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  The train station in Huancayo is little more than a small building that opens at 5:30 am to sell tickets.  The tickets range from s./ 9 ($3.20) for primera (first) class to s./ 13 ($4.63) for buffet (buffet car).  We sprung for the buffet class tickets, which guarantees you a reserved seat with some padding for the 6-hour long journey.  The buffet class ticket doesn’t include any food or beverage, but you can purchase something to eat.  There is a small kitchen on the train that makes plates starting as soon as the train departs, including chicken and rice, fried trout and lomo saltado (a typical Peruvian beef stir fry dish).  Wafts of frying oil would occasionally move through the car as a man emerged carrying 6 or 8 (!) china plates in his arms.  We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat any of those heavy dishes so early in the morning, so we stuck to the trail mix and other snacks that we had brought with us.  Along the way, different vendors also hopped onto the train at station stops with traditional Peruvian snacks like chicarrones (fried pork rinds), boiled yucca or potatoes with cheese, breads, chicha morada (a traditional beverage made from purple corn), etc.

Huancayo train station

Huancayo train station

Buffet car

Buffet car

The buffet car is definitely on the older side with peeling turquoise paint and rickety wooden tables.  The windows don’t close all the way and cold, morning air flows into the cars.  Despite its lack of glamor on the inside, the train ride itself is spectacular.  The tracks follow a river gorge for the majority of the trip with breathtakingly tall mountains rising up on either side.  At times there are flats alongside the river that have been cultivated with crops, other times there are terraced farm plots extending nearly all the way up the mountainside (how someone farms all the way up there boggles the mind!).  The ride is very peaceful and the landscape makes you feel really small amongst the tall, tall mountains.  The train stops a few times to pick up or drop off passengers along the way.  Some of the stops are nothing more than a hut alongside the tracks, others are more developed and an additional train car full of passengers is added to the train.

First, a couple videos:

And, now, more photos that you probably needed to see.  :)



Chilly Chris all bundled up

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One of the stops along the route


What train ride would be complete without a little knitting?!

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Entering Huancavelica


Huancavelica’s train station (altitude: 3,680 m/12,073 ft)

Arriving in Huancavelica around lunchtime, we immediately headed to a small restaurant that we’d read about online from other travelers.  The tiny, hole-in-the-wall place is called La Olla de Barro (The Ceramic Pot) and sells itself as having comida turistíca (tourist cuisine), which I think just means they put some traditional decorations on the wall.  The restaurant is only open for lunch and serves a three-course menú (set menu) for s./ 7 ($2.50).  The first course was a minestrone soup, which was basically a large bowl of broth with green herbs mixed in, some noodles, and a piece of meat (note: soup like this is served at nearly every lunch in Peru).  There were three choices for the main course and we both choose the churrasco (usually a thin slice of grilled beef). The churrasco was like none we’d ever had before, thick and fatty.  It was served with the typical rice and potatoes (because a single starch at lunch is never enough), as well as a cheese sauce with muña (a local Peruvian herb that tastes almost like mint).  The sauce was a little bit mind-blowing… minty cheese sauce, who knew?  For dessert they served mazamorra de maicena, which is somewhere between a gelatin and a pudding.  It had a pineapple flavor to it, not too far from the taste of those clear-ish colored gummy bears.  In summary, if you find yourself in Huancavelica for lunch, definitely go here!  (Note to other travelers looking for good food in Huancavelica: Restaurant Joy, which is highly recommended in TripAdvisor, is no longer there.)


First course: minestrone soup


Second course: churrasco


Dessert: mazamorra de maicena

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Huancavelica on foot.  There are many churches and plazas throughout the city, which is relatively small and easy to walk around in an afternoon.  The main plaza boasts a lovely, old church, a fountain in the center, a few evergreen trees, and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.  We sat and enjoyed an ice cream from one of the vendors located around the plaza and watched the locals walking by for awhile.


Plaza de Armas


More Plaza de Armas 

Church on the Plaza de Armas

Church on the Plaza de Armas


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Quite a few women were knitting, either while seated on benches or the steps of the church or while walking through the town (I’m still amazed at how they can walk and knit at the same time!).  The primary craft sold in the center of town is hand knit items, all in very bright colors.  I, of course, could not resist and purchased some very traditional escarpines (leg warmers), as well as a hat with ear flaps.  The women wear the leg warmers with their skirts to keep warm on chilly mornings and evenings.


Knitting in a church doorway

Escarpines (leg warmers)!!

Escarpines (leg warmers)!!

Huancavelica is also known for its thermal baths, some of which are located in the city itself and others just outside the city.  We walked up to the thermal baths in the city just to see what they were like (we didn’t go inside).  There were locals washing clothes in the runoff from the bats and enjoying the afternoon.


We stayed the night at a little hostal, a block off the main plaza called La Portada.  It’s not the fanciest of lodgings, but it had warm water (we’re talking hot water from a tank, not a little electric shower head to heat up the water), cable TV and lots of warm blankets on the bed.  For s./ 60 ($21.40) a night, you can’t really beat it.

We awoke to a very chilly morning on Saturday and layered up the train ride home.  On the walk back to the train station, there were beautiful pink clouds hovering over the mountains and a few drops of snow falling lightly from the sky.  What a send off from such a beautiful location.  If you’re ever in the area and have the time, we highly recommend taking El Tren Macho to Huancavelica for at least an overnight, if not longer!

Keeping warm on the ride home in our hand knit Peruvian hats!

Keeping warm on the ride home in our hand knit Peruvian hats!


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Cloud gazing

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Light dusting of snow on the mountaintops

Rainy season officially greeted us last night with a six-hour long rainstorm.  The kind with bright flashes of lightning followed by nearly immediate booms of thunder that rattle the windows.  The storm left a dusting of snow on the top of the mountains that surround the Mantaro Valley and also some amazing cloud formations.  The clouds differ significantly from one side of the valley to the other–bright blue skies framing one side, and dark, menacing fog obscuring the other.  They say the rainy season will continue from now until March (ugh).  Even with my water-repellent, Seattelite skin, I’m not sure I’m going to make it.

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More rain on the way

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Why is there an olive and a hard-boiled egg in here?

You have to be careful when you take a bite of a tamale here.  Inside the unsuspecting corn-flour dough exterior, there invariably lies an olive mixed in with the shredded chicken–with the pit still inside.  One careless bite and you could chip a tooth.  For whatever reason, they are really into putting olives, and also hard-boiled eggs, inside of foods here in Peru.  Our host mom makes delicious stuffed peppers and papas rellenas (meat inside of a mashed potato covering that’s shaped like a football and then fried to hold it all together).  Both of these are filled with ground beef, along with a small olive and a quarter of a hard-boiled egg.  I have to admit, it was a bit strange to get used to having these things mixed in with ground beef, but the tastes do all seem to work together somehow.  Moral of the story, watch out for the olive pits.

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Hiking Huaytapallana

We climbed to 5,100 meters/16,70 feet and touched a glacier in the Andes this weekend!  We have been wanting to visit Huaytapallana–taller than any mountain in the continental US at 5,557 meters/18,232 feet and home to a huge glacier–since we arrived here in Huancayo.  Now, almost seven months after arriving and adjusting to the altitude, we went with a tour to check it out!

We departed from the center of Huancayo at 8:30 am in a tour van with our guide and 12 other tourists, and we arrived at our starting point at 4,000 meters/13,100 feet above sea level around 11 am. We bundled up, took happy “before” photos with the trailhead sign, and started off along what was going to be the hardest hike either of us has ever done.

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Almost as soon as we set off, it started to snow lightly and continued to precipitate (either snow or hail) the rest of the day.  The “trail” was a mix of dirt paths, scrambling over rocks, and scooting carefully along the side of a mountain face.  Our guide was cheerful and agilely sped down the path, all the time telling us to hurry up while we were falling behind and sucking wind because of the altitude.

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After climbing up two steep inclines, we finally arrived at an overlook called Mirador Yanaucsha where we made our ofrenda (offering) to Huallallo Carhuancho, the apu (god) of Huaytapallana.  To give thanks to the apu and ensure a safe journey, you leave three coca leaves, a lit cigarette, and fruits or sweets (our host mom insisted we take five different kinds of fruits with us to make sure that the apu was sufficiently pleased!).  You also share a bit of caña (kind of like a moonshine made from sugar cane) with the apu, pouring a little from your cup to the earth while saying, “Gracias a Taita Huamaní, gracias a pachamama y gracias a mama pacha” (thanks to Taita Huamaní (the father of the mountains), thanks to the earth mother and thanks to mother earth), and then drinking the rest of the liquid left in the cup. (P.S. it burns going down!).


View from Mirador Yanaucsha

Chris making our offering

Chris making our offering


There were tons of cairns all along the path, especially at the places where offerings were made

We sat and took in the view for a few minutes, then continued on the journey, climbing up even higher while clouds and fog rolled past us in between the peaks and sometimes obscuring the view entirely.  One minute all you could see was the path for a few feet in front of you, and the next a beautiful vista would open up, and then just as quickly it would be gone again.

Finally, we reached the highlight of the journey–the glacier at 5,100 meters/16,700 feet above sea level!  (For those of you who are counting, by this point in the trail we’d already gained at least 3,000 feet in elevation! Legs and lungs burning!)  The sight of the glacier was impressive.  It reached way up above us and into the clouds, making it size seem even more immense.  The glacier provides all the water for Huancayo and unfortunately has decreased in size by nearly half over the past 20 years.

Snowy vista during one of the heaviest downpours

Snowy vista during one of the heaviest downpours

First glimpse at the glacier from the trail

First glimpse at the glacier from the trail


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So excited to touch the glacier!

So excited to touch the glacier!

We made it!

We made it!



After tossing a few snowballs, the tour group turned around and headed back down via a different trail that took us past a series of glacial lakes.  You could see the rivers from the glacier running between the lakes as we descended, sometimes forming waterfalls as the water tumbled down the mountains.  Some of the lakes were a deep turquoise and our guide told us that rainbow trout thrived there.  The trail down was much easier than the one coming up, much smoother and better marked with fewer rocks to scramble over.  From the path we saw a few birds and also a herd of alpacas!  From a distance they just looked like sheep, but upon closer inspection when they stood up you could see their long necks!

Camouflage birdie!

Camouflage birdie!

Laguna Cochasgrande

Laguna Cochasgrande




Pathway along the mountain face

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Six hours of hiking later, we finally reached the end of the trail!  We all climbed into the tour van, trying to get warmed up as we started the descent back down to Huancayo.  We arrived home finally at 8 pm, completely exhausted and even more in awe of the Andes and their mystical beauty than ever. Hiking Huaytapallana was an amazing experience that we’ll never forget.

Exhausted, but still smiling!

Exhausted, but still smiling!

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Adventures in High Altitude Baking: Strawberry Shortcake!

Since it’s strawberry season here, I just had to try making strawberry shortcake!  And, since this is Huancayo, we had to make more than a few adjustments to the traditional recipe.

Instead of a true shortcake, I made a few adjustments to the quick drop biscuit recipe I had developed to make them a little sweeter, almost like a scone. I added a tablespoon of white sugar to the dough and then sprinkled some “brown” sugar (which is almost like sugar in the raw here) on top of each biscuit.

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We cut up the strawberries into quarters (the berries were huge!) and sprinkled just a teaspoon of white sugar over them to sweeten them a bit and bring out the juice.

The whipped cream proved to the biggest adjustment.  We looked in the big grocery store downtown and couldn’t find any heavy whipping cream.  After wandering down the baking aisle, however, I did lay my eyes upon a package of instant crema chantilly!  You basically pour the dried contents of the package into a bowl, add a cup of cold milk and whip it until it comes out to the right consistency.  The instructions call for you to use an electric mixer for that part, but we weren’t thinking far enough ahead and I forgot to ask my host mom to borrow hers, so we used good old fashioned elbow grease to whip it into oblivion.  While the consistency came out more or less correct, the taste was a little more like frosting.

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The end product was delicious!  We were both transported back to our childhoods and thoroughly enjoyed every bite!  We will definitely be making this again before the strawberry season is over!

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