It's not hard to see how the modern city of Huancayo, which has close to 260,000 residents, was once the capital of pre-Inca Huanca (Wanka) culture. In the midst of the Andes and straddling the verdant Río Mantaro valley, the city has been a source of artistic inspiration from the days of the earliest settlers, and has thrived as the region's center for culture and wheat farming. A major agricultural hub, Huancayo was linked by rail with the capital in 1908, making it an endpoint to what was once the world's highest train line (but is now in second place). Although it's a large town, its little shops, small restaurants, blossoming plazas, and broad colonial buildings give it a comfortable, compact feel.

Huancayo was also a stronghold for the toughest Peruvian indigenous peoples, including the Huanca, who outfought both the Inca and the Spanish. Little wonder that Peru finally gained independence in this region, near Quinua, in 1824. Still, the Spanish left their mark with the town's collection of hacienda-style homes and businesses, most with arching windows and fronted by brick courtyards with carefully groomed gardens. For an overview of the city, head northeast 4 km (2½ miles) on Giráldez, 2 km (1 mile) past Cerro de la Libertad Park, to the eroded sandstone towers in the hillsides at Torre-Torre.

The drive from Lima to Huancayo is breathtaking, with the road rising to more than 4,700 meters (15,416 feet) before sliding down to the valley's 3,272-meter (10,731-foot) elevation. As you enter the city, four-lane Calle Real is jammed with traffic and crammed with storefronts—but look more closely and you'll see the elegant churches and colorful markets tucked into its side streets, hallmarks of local life that make the city so charming. Women with long black braids beneath black-felt hats still dress in multitiered skirts and blouses with mantas (bright, square, striped cloths) draped over their shoulders. Note the intricate weavings—particularly the belts with the famous train worked into the pattern.

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