The central highlands are where the massive Andes crash into the impenetrable South American rain forests, and winding, cloud-covered mountain roads dip down into stark desert terrain. Defying the land’s complexity, its people continue to eke out a hardscrabble life that time has left unchanged.
Most people still depend on the crops they grow and the animals they breed—including guinea pigs and alpaca. Local festivals coincide with the rhythms of the harvest, and traditional recipes and artisanship predate the Inca Empire by hundreds of years. The scenery is stunning, with thundering rivers, blooming potato fields, and hidden waterfalls tucked into the mountainous terrain. Lago de Junín, the country's second-largest lake, sits miles above sea level and crowns the region.
Despite how little daily life seems to have changed, the area has served as the backdrop for some of the most explosive events in Peruvian history: fierce wars between the Inca and the Wanka, the most important battles for independence, and the birth of Peru's devastating terrorist movement. The region gave birth to Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and the Tupac Amarú Revolutionary Movement, revolutionary groups that violently shook Peru’s political landscape for more than two decades. In the wake of Peru’s massive 1969 land reform, the Shining Path’s charismatic leader, Abimaél Guzmán Reynoso, promised an agrarian paradise to Ayacucho’s long disenfranchised campesinos (peasants). The central highlands descended into civil war, and nearly 70,000 people died at the hands of the Shining Path and government-sponsored paramilitaries before Alberto Fujimori’s government captured Guzmán in a Lima suburb in 1992 and Oscar Alberto Ramírez Durand, the leader of the Sendero Rojo offshoot, in 1999. The Shining Path is now a small shadow of its former self, controlling narcotrafficking in the VRAE (the Apurímac and Ene river valleys), which abuts the central highlands, and occasionally skirmishing with the Peruvian military. Fujimori now resides in the same prison as his foe Guzmán, having been convicted of human rights abuses committed during the 1992 auto-golpe (self-coup) that gave him unlimited power. Now, apart from narcotrafficking and the occasional protest from coca growers and unions, the region is relatively calm.
This beautiful region is gaining prominence, and greater integration with the rest of Peru along with improved security and transportation options have opened up this remote region to adventurers and cultural travelers alike. Still, it’s one of the most authentic places in the entire country.
No one knows when the first cultures settled on the puna (highland plains), or how long they stayed. Archaeologists found what they believe to be the oldest village in Peru at Lauricocha, near Huánuco, and one of the oldest temples in the Americas, at Kotosh. Other nearby archaeological sites at Tantamayo and Garu also show that indigenous cultures thrived here long before the Inca or Spanish conquistadors ever reached the area.
When the Inca arrived in the late 1400s, they incorporated the already stable northern settlement of Huánuco into their empire. It eventually became an important stop along their route between the capital at Cusco and the northern hub of Cajamarca, and today Inca ruins are scattered along the pampas. The Spanish built a colonial city at Huánuco in 1539, and the area quickly gained the attention of Spanish explorers, who turned Cerro de Pasco's buried gold, silver, copper, and coal into the center of the mining industry north of the Amazon basin. They ruled the region—and the country—until 1824, when Simón Bolívar's troops claimed Peru's autonomy by defeating the Spanish on the Pampas de Quinua near Ayacucho.