After spending a week in Santiago and the surrounding area, I was ready to head back to my beloved Peru. In an effort to save money, I ended up taking an 32 hour bus ride up the Chilean coast back to Arica. I thought about stopping in La Serena, a pretty beachside city en route, but at this point in my trip, I was convinced I would be moving to Chile in the future and would have another opportunity. As it turns out, I was right; I will actually be living near La Serena in 2015!
Peru awaited me: I spent a night in Arica before crossing the border to Tacna, Peru for another long bus ride to Lima. I spent a few days in Lima recharging my batteries, planning my route through the sierra central (central highlands), and cleaning the dust out of my camera! My first stop on my tour of central Peru was Ayacucho.
As it turns out, the city of Ayacucho is known as Huamanga by its residents. Huamanga is the capital of Huamanga province and the Ayacucho department. Its name was changed to Ayacucho by Simón Bolívar to honor the lives lost during the Battle of Ayacucho at the Pampa de la Quinua, where Peru won its independence from Spain. In Quechua, ayacucho means purple heart, or purple soul, or even the corner of the dead. Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) used the mostly rural region as its base during the 1980s and 1990s, which led to large scale violence and massacres of the mainly indigenous population in the department of Ayacucho. For this reason, the name has a particularly poignant meaning for the people of Ayacucho, whose lives have been greatly affected by these recent events.
Today, Ayacucho is a quiet city surrounded by gorgeous hills. It is known for the 33 colonial churches located throughout the city and its well-preserved colonial buildings. Huamanga also hosts one of the most famous celebrations of Semana Santa, when its streets are flooded with Peruvian and international tourists participating in the Easter festivities and hotels are booked to capacity. The rest of the year, Huamanga has a laid-back, unassuming vibe. I was particularly interested in visiting Ayacucho because of its impressive artesanía, which I’d seen in the artisan markets in Lima.
I’d arrived in Huamanga early in the morning after an overnight bus ride that twisted and turned through the Andes, rendering sleep impossible. I easily found my hostel, Hostal Tres Máscaras, located a few blocks from the main plaza. After resting for a few hours, I ventured out to take in the traditional main plaza, a great place to enjoy the sunshine. Although my photos hide the fact, most of the plaza was actually under construction, which made for interesting navigation around the center of town. I managed to find one of Huamanga’s vegetarian restaurants, where I had a very traditional Peruvian meal, with chicha morada, choclo con queso, a soup with quinoa and veggies, and a main dish featuring potatoes, of course!
I navigated aimlessly through the colorful streets of Huamanga, taking in the decidedly different architecture of this region. I also stopped by iPeru to get some suggestions on what I should do in the area. I decided to book a city tour that afternoon with A&R Tours, as it was an easy, inexpensive way to get the more distant parts of the city.
My wanderings took me to some of the most beautiful churches in the area, and also to the distinctive Arco de Triunfo which marks the entrance into the central business district of the city.
We started the city tour by admiring some of the colonial casonas (big houses) which have been preserved and/or restored for their historical importance. There was an interesting exhibition of traditional art located near the main plaza in the Casona Centro Cultural San Cristóbal. As you see above, Ayacucho’s artists are famous for their skilled weavings and religious art, particularly these crosses as well as retablos. Retablos are constructed in the shape of a doorway, with two doors which open outward to reveal an intricately crafted scene inside. Originally, they were religious in nature, but now they record traditional lifestyles, celebrations, and humorous situations.
After exploring a few colonial buildings, we piled in the van to the Museo Histórico Regional Hipólito Unanue, Ayacucho’s archeological museum. While I generally prefer exploring museums independently, our guide competently explained the history of the Wari (or Huari) in the area. The Wari were a pre-Incan culture whose empire once encompassed much of central and coastal Peru; the majority of their ruins are located around Ayacucho and are still being studied. The Wari are known for these giant ceramic urns painted with distinctive patterns and colors. I was surprised to learn that the Wari culture also created massive stone sculptures, reminiscent of those on Easter Island.
After visiting the museum on the outskirts of the central district, we headed to Barrio Santa Ana, located on the other side of town and perched on a hill. Barrio Santa Ana is famous for its talented artisans, many of whom have become nationally and internationally famous. On the day we visited, Barrio Santa Ana was celebrating its fiestas, which meant the streets were particularly active and there was some form of bull-running on the main plaza!
Our first stop took us into one of the talleres (or workshops) of a talented artisan who specializes in alabaster carvings. Ayacucho’s artisans carve traditional Andean scenes into the “piedra de Huamanga.” While this particular artisan was not available to show us his work, I could imagine the hours he spent with these tiny files creating these beautiful sculptures.
Afterwards, we visited another taller specializing in weavings. Although much of Ayacucho’s popular art utilizes embroidery, Santa Ana’s skilled artisans create true works of art on traditional looms. The central weaving above appears to be a 3-D staircase, while the weaving on the right is inspired by designs from the Wari culture.
Suprisingly, we did not actually see any retablos, as many talleres were closed for the fiestas. iPeru indicated that it is best to visit Barrio Santa Ana in the morning when most of the talleres are open; you can take a taxi to the neighborhood, but make sure to ask him to wait, as taxis are not that common in this part of town.
From Santa Ana, we headed to Monasterio de Santa Teresa de las Carmelitas Descalzas, located adjacent to one of the most beautiful churches in the city, the Templo de Santa Teresa. As with many groups of nuns or monks in South America, the nuns of Santa Teresa make local sweets for sale to the public. I couldn’t resist some treats.
Located next to the Templo de Santa Teresa is the first church in Ayacucho, Templo de San Cristobal. This building is tiny and its stone facade echoes its sibling next door. When we visited, the entire interior was under construction; it looked like the building had been gutted!
As the afternoon grew longer, we headed to the Mirador de Acuchimay, located in the Carmen Alto, a neighborhood located at the highest point in the city. Although it is not that far from the main plaza, iPeru suggests taking a tour or a taxi to get there as it is located in a rougher neighborhood.
While the mirador must have been quite lovely when it was first constructed, it desperately needs a new coat of paint to cover over the graffiti that coats its surfaces. However, the views from up here were beautiful, showing just how large this city actually is, considering its compact downtown.
The hills of the central Andes spread out all around us. Ayacucho appears so peaceful from above; it is really important to reflect on how much this region has suffered in the last few decades.
After enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and a stroll around the mirador, we headed back into town.
At this point, we had to pick up the pace of our tour, as there were a few more casonas to visit before sunset. The one pictured above had been restored to its original glory, with beautiful wooden balconies.
Inside one of the colonial courtyards, we visited the ancient grape vine supposedly brought by the Spanish hundreds of years ago and still alive today. In theory, this plant was the original source of the grapes used for pisco, Peru’s traditional brandy. I’m not convinced. 🙂
Our last stop was Ayacucho’s cathedral. Interestingly, due to budget issues, the cathedral can only be visited during daytime hours as they cannot afford the electricity for its interior lighting. You can see the darkness inside as the sun disappeared from the sky.
As the sun sank behind the hills around Huamanga, I appreciated how the sun reflected pretty colors in the clouds that had begun to roll in around the city.
For our last stop, our guide took us into some of the other art galleries that circled the plaza. This also gave me a chance to appreciate the plaza at dusk. That night, I ate a simple self-catered dinner at my hostel, but on the following two nights, I had excellent meals at Via Via Cafe, where they have several vegetarian options, including an Asian-inspired stir-fry, a salad with tempura vegetables, and deconstructed papa a la huacaína.
As you can see, Ayacucho is a beautiful colonial city which celebrates its traditional art. After my tour the next day, I headed to the extensive Mercado Artesanal Shosaku Nagase to see and buy popular art, especially the colorful flower embroidery that Ayacucho is known for. In addition, any visit to Ayacucho should be informed by an exploration of its often tragic history. I regret not visiting the Museo de la Memoria, which illustrates and commemorates the massive loss of life during the conflict with Sendero Luminoso.
After getting to know the city of Huamanga, I was looking forward to seeing the history contained in the ruins of Wari and the Pampa de la Quinua on my tour the next day.
Recommendations for Ayacucho, Peru:
- I cannot stress enough how helpful and friendly the staff at iPeru was during my stay in Ayacucho. They patiently answered all of my questions, suggested the best ways to get around the Ayacucho region independently on local transportation, and provided a list of hostals in Vilcashuamán and nearby Vischongo, two towns that are decidedly off the main tourist grid. I would definitely not have visited Vilcashuamán if it weren’t for their encouragement, and they also helped me figure out the safest route onward to Huancavelica. Visit iPeru at Jr. 2 de Mayo N° 212 (in front of the Templo de la Merced). Seriously, they’re the best.
- I was happy with the tours offered by A&R Tours. In particular, our guide to Wari and Quinua was eloquent and especially knowledgeable about the history of Ayacucho, and most of the historical information I mention above comes from what I learned from him. In 2013, a city tour cost S/.25 and the tour to Wari and Quinua cost S/.35.
- Visit the Museo Histórico Regional Hipólito Unanue at Av. Independencia 502 in the Complejo Simón Bolívar. This gives you an extensive background into the history of the Wari culture which used to inhabit this area. The museum is open Monday through Sunday from 9AM-1PM and 3PM-5PM, and entry is free.
- Visit the Museo de la Memoria at Prolongación Libertad 1229, which remembers the lives lost during the conflict with Sendero Luminoso in the 1980s and 1990s. An extensive Spanish language description of this museum can be found here. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9AM-1PM and 3PM-5PM. Entry costs S/.2.
- I stayed at Hostal Tres Máscaras, which was a decent place to stay. It has a lovely plant-covered patio, but while I was there, there were no other guests and they were still remodeling their newer guest rooms. They have free wi-fi but shut it off when no one was around, which meant I always had to find someone to turn it on when I got back to the hostal after my tours. A private room with shared bathroom cost S/.26 per night in August 2013. There are lots of options in Ayacucho during the off-season, so I suggest arriving early in the morning and looking for the best option for you.
- I highly suggest eating lunch or dinner at Via Via Cafe. I would have loved to stay there as well but they were a little pricey for my budget.
- Vegetarians should look for the vegetarian restaurants around Ayacucho’s main plaza; there are a few. I ate at one on 2 de Mayo, and it was delicious.
- Make sure you stop by the Mercado Artesanal Shosaku Nagase, located where Avenidas 9 de Diciembre and Garcialaso de la Vega meet Avenida Quinua near the university, about five blocks from the plaza. Here you can buy souvenirs, including small retablos and wall hangings, purses, and belts decorated with the super pretty flower embroidery representative of Ayacucho’s folk art tradition.
- If you read Spanish, this Wikipedia article contains great information on Ayacucho.
- Although Ayacucho is safe today, it is generally advised that tourists avoid traveling by bus at night, particularly on the highway that leads to Huancayo. Due to Ayacucho’s location between the jungle and the coast, the highways throughout the area are used for transporting illicit drugs. Follow the advice of locals, including iPeru, as they know best whether there is anything to be concerned about!