Getting Off Peru's Gringo Trail for Semana Santa!
Religious festivals in Peru are a big deal. And in a country where Christianity dominates, Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Peru is one of the biggest holidays of the year.
Unlike most of the year, many of the best cultural festivities are outside of Cusco and Lima. If you want to get to the good stuff, it requires leaving the Gringo Trail (over 90% of foreign travelers to Peru never leave this circuit of Lima, Puno, Arequipa, and Cusco)! Many small towns and cities throughout Peru are transformed during Semana Santa into impressive, colorful, and sometimes chaotic scenes of celebration and religious expression.
Some of the most famous celebrations in Peru for Semana Santa are in Ayacucho, Huaraz, and Tarma. We decided to bypass the famous ornate processions of Ayacucho this year, and got far off the beaten trail to Tarma.
Only two hours from our travel agency’s offices in Huancayo, Tarma was a surprise for all of the Dargui staff that experienced ‘The Pearl of the Andes’ during Semana Santa. It’s far off the radar of most foreign travelers to Peru still, but the Junin Region is loaded with unsuspecting goodies for the intrepid traveler.
Welcome to the Jungle!
Travel by land in Peru is notoriously brutal. If you have the budget to fly between one of the many airports of Peru, it almost always pays off compared to bus travel.
The Pan-American Highway, and other highways, bottleneck on holiday weekends in truly soul-crushing fashion. We left Lima one day early (on Wednesday) and returned one day earlier than most travelers (on Saturday). The result was getting out of Lima and onto the Carretera Central (Highway east to Huancayo) much quicker than we would have a day later.
There’s no easy way to describe the Carretera Central, but the road winds and cuts through the foothills of the Andes in a series of switchbacks that would make even the most bulletproof stomach a bit nauseated. After five hours on the highway, we finally passed the switchbacks and rewarded ourselves with a delicious bowl of patasca.
The drive to Tarma is truly breathtaking from the east. There couldn’t be a more picturesque city nestled in an Andean setting. Pulling into the city, you bypass endless fields of flowers. We pulled into the main plaza to take photos of the bright sunny, Sierra day and the ornate architecture of the main cathedral before jumping back on the road.
The road east then plunges through a series of tunnels and switchbacks before popping out in the thick greenery of the jungle. One of the best things about the Junin Region is the landscape diversity. Cities like Huancayo, Tarma, and Junin will literally take your breath away for being so high up in the Andes, but cities like San Ramon, La Merced, and Satipo are true jungle cities.
After having been perched up high in the Andes, 45 minutes later we were staring at jungle waterfalls and passing fruit stands through San Ramon and La Merced. These twin cities are loaded with informal street vendors, buzzing mototaxis, and of course beautiful, dense rainforest.
We were fortunate to have been able to pull off a last minute reservation at the Peruvian eco-lodge of Fundo San Jose, a well-maintained Lodge away from the noise of La Merced. This could be the best lodging option in the valley just for the well-appointed common areas and private ecological hike with truly amazing views down on the city. Though rooms and included breakfast service are somewhat basic, one doesn’t come to the jungle for 5-star service.
Coffee Country & Caffeine Love in Peru
On Thursday, we still were one day ahead of the rush of travelers leaving Lima. We took this day to enjoy some waterfalls near La Merced and take a Peru coffee tour. There’s nothing more important the region than the growing and maturing coffee industry, and our private tour to nearby Villa Rica emphasized this.
After morning visits to the majestic El Tirol Waterfall and the Boca Tigre Waterfall, we headed towards Villa Rica to indulge our caffeine obsession. Though not marketed as well as Colombia, Peru’s coffee industry is maturing. Junin is loaded with tours and visits to see the sources of some delicious Peruvian coffee in areas like Satipo, Chanchamayo, Villa Rica, and more.
A tasting tour of French pressed Peruvian coffee, Peruvian espresso, and other preparation styles at a coffee fair in Villa Rica was a great intro to the regions coffee varietals. However, the visit to the nearby Finca Santa Rosa coffee farm was the true treat of the day to see the source of some of the best coffee in the region.
We were treated with an interpreted tour of the serene coffee plantation by the owner, a coffee tasting, and an explanation of the processes of the cultivating the crop. Seeing the passion of those engaged in the process, even after three generations, makes one think the enjoyment of coffee will only continue to explode in Peru as more than just a periodic novelty (Peru exports about 95% of its coffee now).
After a return to La Merced and another night in the Fundo San Jose, we were relieved to have one more peaceful night before the masses arrived for the Semana Santa festivities.
Carpets of Flowers and Celebration in Tarma
We sadly said goodbye to the Fundo San Jose the following morning, knowing there would be heavy crowds now in La Merced and Tarma. Before ascending the steep highway outside of San Ramon, we enjoyed some coconut water and plantains at a restaurant and exited the jungle.
Stopping near the outskirts of Tarma this time, we joined a true religion procession to the church of Senor de Muruhuay. Of course, like any good Peruvian, this religious visit started with something equally as divine – a large plate of Pachamanca (a delicious, must-try plate for travelers to any part of the Highlands of Peru).
We paid our respects to the Senor de Muruhuay in the church surrounded by many religious observers. Legend has it here that an image of Christ dramatically appeared on the rocks of near the present day church over 100 years ago and observes continue to search for a miraculous sign, healing, or divine inspiration here ever since.
Back on the road, we finally arrived to Tarma at 4pm. Staying near the city square - though not at our preferred hotel ‘Los Balcones’ that overlooks the main plaza - we arrived with festival goers already laying flowers on the closed-off streets in ornate patterns and designs.
The famed ‘Alfombras de Flores’ or carpets of flowers are meticulously imagined and created each year before every evening of Semana Santa. Organizations, individuals, and schools are invited to create an ornate image on the roadway around the plaza and the results are simply a spectacular explosion of colors!
Visitors are treated for only a few hours each night to colorful displays of Alformbras de Flores in Tarma before a religious procession exits the cathedral and marches over them. It’s the ultimate work of ephemeral art and an impressive expression of religion in Peru.
After partaking in a midnight toast on Friday, our time for Semana Santa had run out and we woke up the next day for a quick visit to our Peru travel agency’s offices in Huancayo to greet and celebrate with our staff before returning to Lima Saturday night. Despite traveling for only a few days, festivities in the lesser known destinations of Peru leave you with a feeling of being in authentic Peru.
Before arriving in Lima on Saturday, we were already planning an adventure next year over Semana Santa to Ayacucho. But next year, we’ll definitely be flying!
Dargui Tours specializes in Peru travel in Huancayo and the Junin Region, with offices on the Plaza de Constitucion in Huancayo. To learn more about traveling to other lesser-known destinations throughout Peru, like Huancayo, Tarma, La Merced, and Ayacucho, visit us our customized travel page here.
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