Ayacucho is in the Andes at 9,000 feet elevation. Not so long ago this was normal altitude for Richard and I since we lived in Denver. Now that we are sea level folks we find that the altitude slows us down some. In any case, Ayacucho has a very long history and plenty of ancient ruins, colonial architecture and current culture and handicrafts. Its claim to fame however is largely due to its connection with the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) Maoist revolutionary / terrorist group that pretty much controlled this area in the 70's and 80's. A little history on their role explains the lack of tourist infrastructure in much of the central Andean region. The following is an excerpt from the Lonely Planet guide:
"The Sendero Luminoso's activities in the 1980s focused on deadly political, economic and social upheaval. In remote towns and villages, mayors were murdered, community leaders assassinated, uncooperative villagers massacred, police stations and power plants bombed, and government and church sponsored aid projects destroyed. The government responded by sending in the armed forces, who were often equally brutal, and in the ensuing civil war between 40,--- and 60,000 people died or disappeared, most of them in the central Andes. Ayacucho was almost completely off-limits to travelers during most of the 1980s. Things finally changed when the Sendero Luminoso's founder, Abimael Guzman, was captured and imprisoned for life in 1992, followed quickly by his top lieutenants, leading to a halt in activities."
Today, the area is considerably safer but the Senderos are still present in drug trafficking and side trips must be considered with some care. The draw in Ayacucho is the clean mountain air, the blue skies, the colonial architecture and a pretty cool handicrafts business. So let me share.....
The town :
The center of the town is the Plaza Mayor which, like many central Mexican squares, is surrounded on 4 sides by 2 story colonial buildings. This was clearly the center of activities as we discovered during our stay.
We were told that we must visit Santa Theresa church and did attempt to do so. One of the challenges in Ayacucho however is finding a church that is open. There are 33 churches in this city of 150,000 people and it is not financially viable to have them all open for other than worship services. As a result we were only able to get inside the cathedral but did not arrive early enough for the 6:30-7:15 am opening of this church. For anyone planning to visit Ayacucho, your first stop should be to the PromPeru office on the Plaza to obtain a schedule of open times for churches and museums. Unfortunately we did not discover this until our last day.
Over looking the city is the Mirador which is pretty nicely developed with a tower, restaurant and some great views.
Some of the great views - the best one of course being of my beloved Richard:
And the local scenery:
For our Lima friends - note the greenery in this Andean area.
Just a few blocks from the city center is the local market where Richard made friends with one of the vendors and an opportunity to sample the potatoes and grains in her stand.
We were fortunate in running into the caretaker of the government offices, or Prefectura, who allowed us in even though it was not the official access time. The offices are located in an old mansion that was built in the 18th century and has fabulous tile work and a lovely court yard.
The parades :
Our hotel (Ayacucho Hotel Plaza)faced the Plaza and so we were treated to the various events going on in town (but also enjoyed the balcony for reading and relaxing.....)
Saturday morning brought a parade of children and balloons from one of the local schools which preceded what would be a day of sports competition.
Complete with their mascots:
On a sadder note we saw a local funeral. The striking element of this apparently public event was the music - we were both struck by the similarity of music and display to the opening scene of Godfather II.
And finally, we were treated to a two hour event for the raising of the national and departmental flags in the central Plaza. This was really a production involving hundreds of people - local school children, military, various government and quasi-governmental agencies, and nurses from the local hospital. We assumed it must be a labor day event but were told that this was a regular Sunday event.
And of course the local ruins - in this case of the Wari, or Huari, culture. Five hundred years before the Incan empire reigned in the Andes, the Wari empire dominated the Peruvian highlands. Their capital is about 20 miles outside of Ayacucho and a "must see" for tourists to the area. Honestly, we have now seen so many that we were not up for another guided tour so instead took the opportunity to wander on our own and enjoy the blue skies and great outdoors. So I cannot provide commentary on the history or significance of the ruins but can say that it was a very pleasant site.
There is a small museum at the site with information on the history and culture of the Wari people.
Extensive cactus forests abound at this site:
Local tourist enjoying the sun and the Wari architecture:
And more ruins that are still being excavated:
And finally the handicrafts. Frankly this is the real reason I was eager to come to Ayacucho. So much of the crafts we see here in Lima in the Inca market come from Ayacucho so I was looking forward to seeing craftspeople at work and perhaps finding some bargains in high quality craft. The two primary handicrafts that I came to see were the ceramic churches and the retablos. The latter is the topic of another blog entry since it is my favorite art form in Peru. We were unable to get into a ceramics workshop to see the making of the churches but did see many in shops and on roof tops. We didn't get a really good answer as to why the homes have churches placed on top but enjoyed the look.
But, as I said, my favorite art form is the Retablo. I will do some more research and have a separate blog entry for them.
I love flying to the mountain towns in Peru and one day hope to do so in an airplane with un-pocked windows as the view in the Andes is great.