Lying several bumpy hours on a bus from Lima (as is the case with most of Peru) is Ayacucho. A city famed for its 33 churches (one for each year of Jesus’ life) and role as base camp for the Sendero Luminoso’s terror campaign of the 1980s, its name, derived from the native Quechua, can be understood as “death corner” or “spirit corner” – interpretations which refer to its setting as the final great battle for South America’s independence, and to the devotion of the ayacuchana people. In short, this bustling town in Peru’s mountain belt is chockers with history – and offers visitors a lot to see and do.
Arty, crafty people
The region is home to craftmen and women up to their elbows in textiles, retablos, leather goods, ceramics and alpaca and vicuña wool products. I especially loved the ceramic churches you seen atop so many homes and other buildings with their jaunty, unreal proportions and soft terracotta, cream and earthy greens.
The village of Quinua, almost an hour’s drive from Ayacucho, is a better choice for those wishing to buy. Many artisans live and work there and strolling between stores on the lookout for ceramics makes for a pleasant afternoon.
While in Quinua, the market is a top spot for lunch. With roast meats including guinea pig on offer, carnivores will be happy. But if that doesn’t make your tummy smile, have a go at yuyu con chuno (sauteed spinach-like veggies with tiny dehydrated potatoes) or pucapicante (fresh potatoes in a peanut and chilli sauce).
The last stronghold
A short walk from Quinua’s main plaza is the Pampa de Ayacucho, the location of the continent’s final battle for independence against the Spanish.
On this peaceful field below gentle hills, a spire-like memorial was built…
…which is sometimes crawling with children on school excursions, creatively using historical figures as footholds…
Back in town
Ayachucho was built in a colonial style, with a grid of easy to navigate streets branching off from its main plaza lined by old mansions now functioning as museums and art galleries. Inside humble galleries you’ll find delicate works such as these retablos, featuring scenes taken from the Bible and from life in the countryside…
In these retablos, just like in Ayacucho’s busy marketplaces, the “tuna” fruit is abundantly present. Grown on what to the untrained eye is a common-looking cactus, when harvest season comes around, the juicy red fruit takes over the province.
Many streets of markets branch off behind the main plaza. Flowers, goats, live chickens, plastic ware, veggies, bags of squeaking guinea pigs, wrapping paper, plastics, clothing, shoes and furniture live together in a colourful chaos.
When it gets too loud for you, head to the town’s lookout for some perspective…
A touch of archeology
If your soul is roused by tales of yore, you’ll find a morning’s entertainment soaking up information on the Wari people, one of Peru’s many pre-Incan cultures. A local bus will take you to the Wari Archeological Complex (Complejo Arqueológico Wari). Here, again surrounded by hills and tuna-sprouting cacti, you’ll be introduced to the Wari people (sometimes written huari), how they worked the land and understood their world.
(School groups are, again, optional. We essentially experienced the same educational day as these primary school kids on excursion!).
Worth the ride
As Ayacucho was once synonymous with fear, many Peruvians will shakily remind you of the horrors which lurked there all too recently. Now, however, visitors to Ayacucho are greeted with a busy little town and its shyly sociable local people, more than happy to show you around.