Huancavelica, at 3,680 meters, was a rich and world-famous mining town during colonial times. It withered into a ghost town during the last few centuries and was badly battered by the war against Sendero Luminoso. Though the town is trying to make a comeback, the chief reason for coming here these days is to wander around colonial churches and homes and get away from tourists.
The city was founded shortly after the nearby Santa Barbara mercury mine was opened in 1563. Mercury was invaluable for extracting purer grades of silver from the ore extracted at Potosí, Bolivia. As a result, Huancavelica and Ayacucho —where the owners of the Santa Barbara mine lived—exploded into the viceroyalty’s richest mining towns. From here, caravans of mules and llamas carried the mercury in leather pouches to the Peruvian coast, where it was shipped to Arica, Chile, and transported into Bolivia.
There are eight colonial churches in tiny Huancavelica. The Plaza de Armas, bordered by the cathedral, town hall, and some colonial homes, features a granite fountain installed in the mid-19th century. The cathedral itself has a good collection of colonial paintings and a magnificent baroque altar and pulpit.
The churches of San Sebastían (1662) and San Francisco (1774), in Plaza Bolognesi, are worth seeing for their collections of baroque art. The best time to find these churches open is during early-morning mass or on Sundays, when there is an excellent market along Torre Tagle that draws villagers from all over the surrounding countryside.
The San Cristóbal Mineral Springs (5 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, US$0.50), 10 minutes northwest of the city, have a great reputation for curing skin diseases, although they are more on the lukewarm side than hot. Ask at hotels for directions.
There are also good walks in the surrounding area, including the area around the Santa Barbara mine, which closed in the early 19th century.
uancavelica]’s best hotel is Hotel Presidente (Plaza de Armas s/n, tel. 067/45-2760, hotel www.hoteles-del-centro.com , US$42 s, US$56 d with breakfast), in a historic building on the Plaza de Armas. Prices quoted are for the executive rooms, which have been recently updated and have lots of hot water and cable TV. The hotel also has one of the city’s better restaurants.
Cheaper options include Hotel Camacho (Carabaya 481, tel. 067/45-3298, US$9 s, US$16 d), the town’s best budget choice with clean rooms, decent mattresses, and lots of blankets. There is hot water in the morning only, and a few cheaper rooms with shared bathes.
Another budget option is right on the Plaza de Armas: Hotel Ascención (Manco Cápac 481, tel. 067/45-3103, US$11 s, US$18 d). Check on hot water before paying for the room.
Good restaurants are hard to find in Huancavelica. The best is probably in the Hotel Presidente (Plaza de Armas, tel. 067/45-2760, 7 a.m.–3 p.m. and 6–10 p.m. daily, US$4–6), which serves up chifa, trout, and a few chicken and beef dishes.
The best regional food is served at Los Portales (Virrey Toledo 158) and Paquirri (Arequipa 137).
Cargo trains travel daily between Huancavelica and Huancayo at 6:30 a.m. and sometimes at 12:30 p.m. as well. The five-hour ride is only US$4 and offers breathtaking views. Most locals travel the rough road to Huancayo  via colectivos (US$6, 3.5 hours), which leave from the Plaza de Armas throughout the day. The best bus company for the route is Empresa Ticllas (US$4, 4.5 hours).