The small, muddy town of La Union, an unlikely travel destination, is where we began our lengthy adventure through Peru's central highlands. From the number of astounded local expressions that followed our everyday movements, it was obvious that finally we'd well and truly escaped the gringo trail.
La Union is a friendly town however and everyone was interested to know what we were doing there. Before long the lady selling fruit-bread in the market was greeting me like an old friend and children were asking the name of my father. Where was he?!
This is the ramshackle view from our hostel (Hostal Picaflor)...
One not-so-sunny morning, Dan and I decided to climb the steep path to the next hamlet and nearby Inca ruins. Surprisingly, the two hour walk was just as enjoyable as visiting Huanuco Viejo itself and allowed us a chance to see what life is like away from modernisation. With tiny ladies in indigenous dress, their grazing pigs tied up outside of disintegrating adobe houses, walking through the hamlet felt like stepping back in time. There were no cars so the wide, grassy central road was also a feeding ground for horses, sheep and chickens, while their owners calmly observed from tiny doorways. Although the people here are very helpful and happy to give directions if you're lost, it is advisable to carry a stick for the less welcoming dogs.*
By no means Peru's most extensive ruins, Huanuco Viejo is one site where you can still feel some sense of discovery. We had the place to ourselves and could marvel at the massive, tessellating Inca stone and disintegrating carved animals quietly in our own time. At 3700m, with 360 degree views and little for hundreds of miles around, it's easy to see how, guarded by the strong leader Illa Tupac, this settlement resisted long after many others had fallen to the Spanish.
As the weather set in for the worst, we didn't stay too long and I wished on the two hour journey back that my raincoat had cost more than £3 all those months ago.
To reach the city Huanuco from La Union, it is currently only possible to take a shared car. Looking at the map, it seemed impossible that a 100km journey could take five hours, but as soon as we began I understood- the sometimes single-track, often unpaved road hurtled around the curves of the mountains with a terrifying drop on one side. I often had to shut my eyes and we stopped twice to help people who'd crashed. Our lack of wing-mirror and tire-tread wasn't encouraging, but I was glad our driver seemed to know the road well.
We arrived relieved and exhausted to find Huanuco bursting with election fever- packed streets, megaphones and the giant leery faced posters of opponents decorating every wall. It wasn't exactly
what I was looking for in the mountains and, after buying a little flask for coffee in the market, we were happy to be on our way the next day...
*A note on vicious dogs...
Most dogs in Peru are kept solely to protect property and livestock. This means they can become very aggressive at the sight of strange looking foreigners like us. If they're trying to attack you and you're frightened it's best to shout at them, "NO!" or "VAMOS!" (just in case they speak Spanish...), back away and whip your stick sharply towards them. If you're lacking a sturdy stick it can also be effective to throw rocks, although obviously best not to actually hit them. Under no circumstances run away- that is a sure-fire way to get your ankles bitten.
Finding the Inca ruins
The best way to find the path up to the Inca ruins is to ask people in the village. Anybody will understand "los ruinas?" if you look like a tourist. The path up through the mountains starts behind the market and is fairly obvious until you reach the small hamlet. From here walk along the main grassy road until the houses finish where there is a sign telling you to turn right. Follow this path until you can see the ruins. It costs S4 (less than £1) to get in.
For other interesting and unusual places that you might never have heard of try...