South America, Peru

Magical Mystery Tour of Tarma with Max Adventures

October 13, 2014

I cannot tell you how good it felt to have a proper night’s sleep in a clean, comfortable, and secure hostel after our rather challenging journey from Huaraz, and subsequent disastrous stay at one one of Lonely Planet’s recommendations, Hospedaje Central (yes I did contact Lonely Planet and ‘suggest’ they remove the listing from their guidebooks).

It also felt good to have booked ourselves on a tour of the Tarma province for the following day.  However, with the exception of Tarmatambo (an archeological site and former capital of the Tarama culture), the itinerary remained a bit of a mystery.

Many of the situations we had found ourselves in and conversations we’d overheard over the last few days had remained very much of a mystery – the staff at our hotel in Huallanca who refused to give us the key to our room, the fight that broke out between 2 collectivo drivers in La Unión, and the argument our driver had with the two construction workers who tried to block our passage to Tarma. The reason: we simply didn’t understand enough of the language to make sense of them.

The same happened when we decided to book a tour in Tarma.  We’d heard that the ruins at Tarmatambo were worth seeing, but quite difficult to find (read: impossible if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker and therefore able to converse with the locals in their native language in order to understand directions), so settled upon the idea of a full-day tour to encompass the site.  However, the practicalities of booking a tour (or at least understanding exactly what we’d booked) was not quite as easy as we’d anticipated.


We stupidly assumed that basic English would be spoken and understood.  Max Adventures was a tour agency after all, and English is very much a universal language across the world.  Whilst I do feel embarrassed about the fact that English is the only fluent language I speak, I do also feel quite lucky that I’ve not had to learn another, just to ‘get by’ when I travel.

The difficult thing about learning a language is that, whilst you may know how to ask for what you want, and you may understand possibly one or two expected responses to your request, you may as well have no knowledge of the language whatsoever if the response given lies outside your expectations and understanding.

“Lo siento pero entiendo solo un poco de español” , I apologised as I stared blankly back at the young gentleman behind the booking desk, although the more he spoke the more I began to question just how much of the language I actually did understand.  After several attempts at altering his phraseology for the rather clueless gringos sat in front of him, he resorted to showing us photographs of the places we’d be visiting on the tour, on his laptop.

He also assured us that the guide spoke some English, so we figured it would all become clear on the day.

Unfortunately he did not, and therefore it did not.  However, we did get the opportunity to witness some of the beautiful vistas surrounding Tarma, including the ruins at Tarmatambo, a vast network of underground caves, and a colourful festival at a local village.

The tour got off to a rather odd start though.  We met our guide (who didn’t actually look old enough to be working), and were subsequently introduced to the only 2 other guests who would be joining us, a Peruvian couple who spoke about 10 words of English between them, and our driver.  That made 6 of us – in a car that seated 5.

The solution?  Our guide opened the boot (for my U.S readers, that’s the trunk), lay down a blanket, threw in a few pillows,  and got in!  As we drove off, he proceeded to impart a mass of information about the local area from the comfort of his makeshift bed behind us.

As I polite Brit, I felt obliged to turn my head to begin with in order to make eye contact, and therefore alert him to the fact that I was paying attention (despite not really understanding more than a few sentences.)  However, considering that there was no break in his speech, other than to pause to catch his breath, I soon got neck ache which forced me to turn back around and simply let him ramble on behind me.

First Stop: El Mirador

I was actually quite glad when our driver parked up at the side of the road and allowed us to disembark in order to snap some photographs of the city down below us, because it afforded us a break from the drone of our guide’s voice.  Had I understood the content, I may have been able to ignore the monotone sound of his voice.  But, as it was his voice had started to grate on me; it was almost like he was reading from an auto-cue, and failed to comprehend the meaning of the words upon it.


Second Stop: The Archeological Ruins of Tarmatambo

There are a number of archaeological ruins near Tarma, but the best known is Tarmatambo, approximately 6 kilometres south of the city.  Most recently a major Inca administrative centre, the fairly extensive remains include storehouses, palaces, and an aqueduct system that is still in use today.



Whilst I didn’t find the ruins alone to be that impressive, I loved the rural landscapes and being able to walk amidst Tarmatambo’s residents going about their daily lives.


Scenes of rural life, Tarmatambo

Third Stop: Lunch Stop at a Local Village

Every time I see the words “lunch at a local village” on a tour itinerary, I always imagine a rustic old building with heaps of charm and character that’s packed with locals savouring some hearty traditional food with their families.

I’m consistently disappointed.

They’re almost always touristy establishments with over-priced, poor quality food, and the restaurant near Santuario del Señor de Muruhuay was no exception.  Whilst our Peruvian companions tucked into an entire Cuy (this is how Guinea Pig is served here in Peru; whole with feet still attached), together with a huge plate of unidentifiable meat, we ordered a Choclo con Queso each (for a 16th of the cost of the Cuy) and a Jarra de Chica (the cheapest drink on the menu at 6 soles).

After our meal we were escorted into the Santuario and invited to cross ourselves and make an offering to Christ.  Being an atheist, I suspected that might be considered rather hypocritical in the eyes of the Lord, which I realise is a hypocritical thought in itself when you don’t believe the Lord exists.  Suffice to say, I did feel a little awkward, and tried to pass the time by observing all the other believers as they knelt down before Christ, and smiling at anyone with whom I made eye contact.

Outside the church, I loved the colourful festivities – music, dancing, and vibrant, elaborate costumes – that were brightening up the streets.  Apparently this is an annual occurrence to celebrate the miraculous appearance of a cross on a nearby rock.  Hell, even the llamas were playing their part in the celebrations.

Colourful Llamas

Fourth Stop: An Impromptu Caving Experience at Gruta

Ok, so I kind of knew we’d be visiting some caves during our tour (as a result of the photographs we’d be shown by the young gentleman at Max Adventures), but I had no idea we’d actually be going caving.


We spent a good couple of hours inside this impressive network of caves.  We climbed and abseiled rock faces with the aid of a rope, we crawled through tunnels and up and down ladders, and we trod carefully along narrow ledges. The huge torches we were supplied with were great for about 20% of the time, and cumbersome and awkward for the rest.  Stu had the right idea bringing a head torch.

That aside, I surprised myself by actually really enjoying the experience. The bat sightings also helped.

Gruta de Huagapo

Fifth Stop: Missed Due to Being Held Up by a Road Block for 90 Minutes

When our driver pulled up in front of the ‘Pare’ (stop) sign, it was around 4:30pm.  From what we could catch of the conversation between our driver and the road workers,  parts of the road ahead were being subjected to explosions, in an attempt to clear a landslide and stabilise the terrain.

At first we sat patiently in the back of the car, assuming that we wouldn’t be stopped long enough to warrant getting out and walking around.

But then we got bored, and got out and walked around.

We were wary about straying too far, because we simply didn’t have a timescale to work to, so I must have paced up and down the same stretch of land nearly a hundred times.

We’d stopped in a lush valley alongside a river, and just the other side of the road block the passageway ahead forked, and the smaller tributary followed a little wooden bridge across the water, beyond which the track disappeared into a dense covering of trees.  We watched as several of the vehicles that approached the blockade were being permitted to drive beyond the barriers and over the bridge, and assumed that the reason we weren’t allowed to follow suit was because that route would have taken us on a massive diversion, far from where we actually wanted to be.

We waited in that same spot for an hour and a half, before the construction workers who were stood in front of us finally moved the barriers to the main thoroughfare, and turned their red ‘Pare’ sign around to read ‘Sige’ – Go.

And you’ll never guess what happened next?

We didn’t take the wide road ahead of us; we turned right, crossed the bridge, and followed the smaller track along the opposite side of the river!

So why couldn’t we have done that over an hour ago, along with all the other vehicles that did exactly the same?

Whilst I would have loved to have been able to have conversed with our driver enough to discover the insane reasoning behind this, I cannot think of a single thing he could have said that would have made the tiniest bit of sense to me.  Sometimes it’s best not to question that which you know you’ll never understand.


So we returned to Tarma in the dark, having missed out on the mysterious “lomo del elefante” viewpoint.  Whilst parts of the tour had been disappointing, confusing, frustrating, and surreal, I loved wandering amidst the extensive ruins at Tarmatambo, and Gruta de Huagapo to been an equally fascinating natural wonder to explore.

Tarma may not be a obvious destination for travellers in Peru, and indeed few make it here, but for those who do it offers a slice of real Peruvian life on the cusp of the central Amazon jungle, as well as the chance to explore some lesser-known archeological ruins and impressive caves.

Does Tarma sound like somewhere YOU’D enjoy?

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  • Reply Laia September 5, 2017 at 9:24 AM

    Wow, what an adventure! I had never heard of Tarma so it’s always cool to read about lesser known destinations. It looks great on the photos. The views from El Mirador are stunning.
    It is a pity that the guide didn’t speak English… though I’m not very surprised. When I did the Uyuni tour (which is a VERY famous touristic activity) the guide we had didn’t speak a word of English either.
    As for the waiting in the road for so long… sometimes there are no reasonable answers haha.
    Laia recently posted…Bariloche: lakes, satellites and ghostsMy Profile

    • Reply Kiara Gallop September 6, 2017 at 10:18 PM

      I’d never heard of it either until I started researching places we could stop between Huaraz and Ayacucho! We didn’t want to head back to the coast and take the well-trodden route, we wanted a bit of an adventure. And I think it’s save to say we definitely found one 😀

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