Spread out high in the Andes, colonial Huancavelica was founded by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, and they promptly discovered rich veins of silver and mercury threaded through the rocky hillsides. The abundant mercury was vital in the extraction of silver from mines in Peru and Bolivia, including Potosí. Although mining was difficult at 3,680 meters (12,979 feet), the Spanish succeeded in making the city an important profit center that today has grown to a population of around 40,000.
The Río Huancavelica slices through the city, dividing the commercial district on the south from the residential area in the north. The road between Huancayo and Huancavelica has been completely revamped in recent years, though it still winds through highland villages and vast pastures, and can be closed during the rainy season because of landslides. If you have a good map (or a good grasp of Spanish) and your own equipment, excellent hiking opportunities are in the surrounding mountains.
With improved transportation links, Huancavelica’s traditional culture and relaxed atmosphere are more accessible to the adventurous traveler. You'll still see traditional costumes worn by women in the markets and shops, and the narrow, cobbled streets are still lined with elegant, colonial-style mansions and 16th-century churches. Residents from all over the region crowd the sprawling Sunday market as well as the daily food market at the corner of Muñoz and Barranca.
Most crafts and clothing are made in the villages on the outskirts of Huancavelica, and you're welcome to visit the artisans' shops. Other neighboring explorations include the viewpoints from Potaqchiz, a short stroll up the hill from San Cristóbal. Thermal baths are on the hillside across from town.