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.