It is worth stopping at Izcuchaca market, like all Andean markets it is a joyous affair, in contrast to the hard life led by the locals. Izcuchaca Handicrafts School was founded twenty years ago and its young graduates are taught ceramic techniques that blend traditional pottery with modern designs brought by teachers from different parts of the world.
Just before reaching Huancavelica is the petrified forest of Sachapite: a natural formation of enormous rocks one on top of the other forming a curious landscape in the midday light. Near here and clearly signposted is a track leading to the ruins of Ushkus Inkañan. We are now more than 12,750 feet above sea level in the district of Yauli, near the monumental ruins of Tokumisa, Chukana and Ccoromina. The name Inkañan refers to the existence of a pre-Colombian road used by the Incas (ñan) Toklimisa has a trapezoidal doorway nearly ten feet high. It is believed that Chunkana was a place where votive offerings were made and the Incas entertained themselves. Ccorcomina, on the other hand, was a centre for a water cult and is surrounded by springs.
Around Huancavelica you can visit places that are full of history in the middle of beautiful, undefiled scenery quite different from the complexities and contamination of the great cities. Lircay is 50 miles to the south east of Huancavelica and 10,750 feet above sea level. It is a town that has always been linked to mining; it is close to the old mercury deposits and to the modern mines at Julcani. Here the old and new parts of the town are clearly defined. The old town has the typical winding streets of an Andean village flanked by two story houses with narrow wooden balconies, all blending with the old stone bridge of Rumichaka, which leads to the village of Mejorada. It is noteworthy that the modern part of town has been built to harmonize with the traditional architecture: There is a beautiful promenade leading to the river, lined with trees and very well kept.
Near Lircay is the village of Huallay Grande, famous for the cult of Our Lord of Huallay. The remains of original Spanish buildings can be seen, inexplicably replaced others not half as good, including traces of the colonnades that once surrounded the Main Square, stone houses up to three stories high and a fine 19th Century church (now unfortunately looted) where the sacred image of Our Lord of Huallay is venerated on his feast day the 14th of September.
On the way to Mejorada we keep seeing large groups of young men and women on their way to and from some place which is clearly very popular. All are carrying small cases or bundles of clothes. Suddenly we arrive at some open-air thermal baths, large, well built and beautifully maintained: the thermal springs of Huappa. Hundreds of young people bathe in the warm water in a great stone pool. A visit to the baths at Huappa is an excellent way to recharge the batteries before continuing on your way.
Between Huappa and Huancavelica is a curious rocky outcrop at the side of the road, known as the "Monks' Steps". It is a rock formation resembling a line of gigantic hooded figures and, especially at sunset when the sun slips behind clouds coloured orange, lilac and blue, it provides a magical experience. Up to now we have discussed Huancavehca's natural resources, scenery and history, but what about its people; the living part of its culture? We find them at the Saturday market in Yauli, the main town in the district of the same name. People from the remotest highland villages congregate there from the early morning.
Yauli's Main Square (remodelled in a luridly "modern" style) and surrounding streets soon fill up with hundreds of men and women busily buying and selling their produce. This is a good place to see the traditional costumes of the country folk of Huancavelica. The men have woollen tassels hanging from their hats; the colour and position of which indicate whether they are married or single. The flowers and other ornaments on the women's headgear give the same in formation. Brightly coloured woollen ornaments decorate their arms and are on sale alongside jumpers, skirts and shawls, also in wool, not as tourist attractions but for the day-to-day use of the local people. It is worth seeking out the workshop of weaver Leon Teipe, maker of fine clothes that are still used in the traditional festivities of the region. At the thriving market in Yauli one can buy - and how could it be otherwise - fruit and food, and the aroma of tripe soup seasoned with mint drifts among the vendors.
The so-called "Road of mirrors" near Huancavelica is another obligatory destination. It is on the road to Pisco via Castrovirreyna and we recommend including it in the return journey to Lima if you decide not to go to Huaytara. Its name comes from a series of spectacular lakes visible from the road, whose steel blue or turquoise waters reflect the mountains, highland birds and other creatures. The most striking of these lakes is Choclococha, as big as an inland sea, on one side of which are the ghostly remains of an ancient village of the same name, now abandoned. The tombstones in its old cemetery are carved from red stone in the form of twin-towered chapels. Here, at the edge of the lake, where the honk of the Andean geese is the only sound in the silence, where the hawk eagles perch on rocky minarets and all sorts of highland birds, some black with yellow bills, others grey and others white fly off at our approach, you realize that all you need is, indeed, the bright sky over your head and the road beneath your feet.