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Vilcashuamán, Peru: Where Incan Ruins, Spanish Colonization, and Modern Peru Collide in the Heart of Ayacucho

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Templo del Sol and Iglesia San Juan Bautista, Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru

While Ayacucho is well-known for the presence of the pre-Incan Wari culture, most travelers do not realize that there is a major Incan site just a few hours from Huamanga.  I first learned about the former Incan administrative center of Vilcashuamán from a brief mention in one of my travel guides, which said that it is an long, arduous journey on terrible roads to see these impressive ruins.

The trouble is that all of Ayacucho’s travel agencies require larger groups to make the trek out to Vilcashuamán.  Outside of Semana Santa, there are not enough tourists in Ayacucho to fill these tours.  After consulting with several agencies, I realized that the only way I was going to visit Vilcashuamán was if I went independently, like the locals do.  As always, iPeru provided me with plenty of useful information about visiting Vilcashuamán and nearby Vischongo and assured me that the route was very safe for a solo female traveler such as myself.

En Route to Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Views En Route to Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru

They were completely right.  With their encouragement, I decided to experience Vilcashuamán on my own, and it was one of the best decisions of my trip because it empowered me to take local combis and buses to many other less-visited towns, villages, and ruins that are easily accessible on public transportation.

Getting to Vilcashuamán is straightforward.  There are combis which leave early in the morning from the Paradero de Buses al Sur (the bus stop leaving for the southern region).  I called a taxi at 5:30AM to take me from my hostel to the paradero, as it is still dark at this hour.  As my taxi arrived to the paradero, my driver shouted “Vilcas!!!” and the drivers of colectivos (shared taxis) and the cobrador (money taker) for the waiting combi approached me.  I decided to stick with the combi as it was a little cheaper (S/.15) and is usually the safer option.  There were already a few passengers waiting for the bus to fill up, including a mother and daughter, so I knew this was the right decision.  Around 6:30, the bus had enough passengers, and we started on the journey to Vilcashuamán.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Hummingbird in Vilcashuamán

As it turned out, the roads to Vilcashuamán were not as terrible as I’d read.  The route passes along the paved highway for nearly an hour, and the rest is on well-leveled gravel.  I imagine that the roads may have even been paved in the past year.  In any case, we arrived in Vilcas (as it is known by locals) in just three hours after a relaxing ride with some stops along the way to pick up and drop off other passengers.  The views of the farmlands and fields around Ayacucho were lovely, as you see above.

On the way to Vilcas, the combi passed by the entrance to the path that leads to Intihuatana, more Incan ruins which seem to have been a quiet retreat for the Inca due to their proximity to Lago Pomacocha and the thermal baths on site.  As we approached, the cobrador and some of the passengers pointed out Intihuatana, as they know this is where many tourists go!  They even offered to drop me off and pick me up on their way back through, but as I wasn’t sure how often buses pass this way, I decided to stick with my original plan.  If I hadn’t been on my own, I probably would have gotten off the bus and hiked up to the ruins.  Next time!

Before arriving in Vilcashuaman, the combi also stopped in the very small town of Vischongo, which is closer to Intihuatana and is sometimes used as a base by visitors.  Although Vischongo does not have as many services as Vilcashuaman, the Municipio (Municipality) has a list of local hospedajes in case you need to spend the night; there is also one restaurant.  As we passed through the area around Vischongo, we picked up a musician on his way to one of the other small villages located in the area, which was celebrating its fiestas during this particular week.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Spanish Colonial Church Built on Top of Incan Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), Vilcashuamán

As we drove into Vilcashuamán, I felt that it looked a lot like many of the other Peruvian towns near Lima that I’d visited over the past year, such as San Pedro de Casta.  After being dropped off by the combi, I wandered a couple of blocks to the Plaza de Armas, where I was struck by what I saw in front of me: an Incan Temple of the Sun topped by a Spanish colonial church and surrounded on all sides by the town literally living on top of and within the ruins.  This was the old meeting the new, the perfect embodiment of the sincretismo (or syncretism or coexistence) so evident in Peruvian culture.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Incan Stone Masonry, Vilcashuamán, Peru

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Main Plaza of Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru

Vilcashuamán (also written as Vilcas Huamán) means “sacred falcon” in Quechua.  Vilcas may have been built in the shape of a falcon’s head, although the changes in the past five hundred centuries make this hard to determine.  Vilcashuamán was an important Incan administrative center, as it was perfectly situated along the route between the major Incan cities near Cusco in southern Peru and the northern region.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Carved Stones at the Templo del Sol, Incan Stonework, Statue of Túpac Yupanqui

The Incas conquered this region from the Chancas and built an extensive ceremonial complex on the site, including a Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), and an ushnu, or ceremonial pyramid.  The Templo del Sol was an important place of worship; the main plaza could hold over 20,000 people during important ceremonies.

When the Spanish arrived in 1533, they destroyed much of the Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun) and built a church on top of the Incan stonework, just as they did at Coricancha in Cusco.  The Iglesia San Juan Bautista continues to stand on top of the ruins, reminding visitors of the tragic influence of the Spanish in this region.  The Templo de la Luna appears to have been destroyed, although I read that remnants have been found below the Municipio (Municipality).  In the center of the Plaza de Armas, there is a recently constructed statue of Inca Túpac Yupanqui.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Nature Coexisting with Incan Stonework, Vilcashuamán

As with many Incan ruins located in small towns, you can freely wander around, admiring the masonry.  Scattered in front of the Templo del Sol are rocks bearing shapes of animals such as a llama and a monkey.  There is also a square rock with a hollow interior which is called the Piedra del Sacrificio, or the sacrifice stone, which was used during Incan religious ceremonies.  There are also many ancient aqueductos, or aqueducts, which used to carry water to the living spaces of the priests who lived in Vilcashuamán.  These artifacts appear to rest where they were left, surrounded by the encroaching town.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Streets of Vilcashuamán, Map of Vilcashuamán for Tourists

After exploring the Templo del Sol and the Plaza de Armas, I wandered through the streets of Vilcas, trying to get a feel for this town.  In many ways, it is just a small agricultural town built from adobe bricks.  Its residents barely notice the ruins they live among, similar to my impressions on Easter Island.  That said, the ruins are still a point of pride among locals!

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Incan Doorway Leading to Fields Next to the Ushnu, Vilcashuamán

Located just a short distance from the main plaza, Vilcashuaman’s ushnu, or ceremonial pyramid, seems quite out of place among the houses that line the streets nearby.  This ushnu provided the best vantage point for the Inca to watch over his people during religious and military ceremonies.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Stone Forts Located Behind the Ushnu in Vilcashuamán, Peru

Beyond the Incan doorway to the left of the ushnu lies an open field with several stone structures nearby.  The long, rectangular structure with five trapezoidal doorways was Tupac Yupanqui’s palace, called kallanca.  The above photos show two views of these ruins.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Stone Structures Behind the Ushnu in Vilcashuamán, Peru

To the left of the palace lies another trapezoidal doorway leading to two covered stone structures, which may have been living quarters, or may just be more recent buildings.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Entryway to the Ushnu, Vilcashuamán

After walking around the Inca’s palace behind the ushnu, I decided to climb its stairs.  Entry to the ushnu costs S/.5 for foreigners and and is well worth the price of admission.  The staircase is incredibly steep and the stairs are tiny, forcing you to carefully climb sideways.  The Incas must have had smaller feet and certainly did not wear clunky hiking boots!

At the top of the ushnu, I started talking to a group of Peruvians when I offered to take a photo of them.  As it turned out, they were a family visiting Vilcashuamán for the celebration in the nearby village, where their family was originally from; most of them had left during the years Sendero Luminoso took over the area.  Some of them had lived in Lima and were familiar with Huaycán, and others had lived abroad, so they were not at all phased by a foreigner in this remote place!  They were, however, very impressed that I was traveling alone.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Posing on Top of the Ushnu and Looking Out over Vilcashuamán

They took some nice shots of me posing in front of the various views of Vilcashuamán as seen from the ushnu, which I greatly appreciated.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Townspeople Walking Across the Field Behind the Ushnu, Vilcashuamán

As you can see, the Inca had amazing views from the top of the ushnu.  I watched people crossing the well-worn path through the field behind it and tried to imagine this place a few centuries ago.  According to my research, these two square structures behind the ushnu were actually forts build during the years that Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) occupied Vilcashuamán.  Apparently, Sendero Luminoso had a strong presence in this agricultural area and attacked the town on several occasions. 🙁

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Views of Modern Vilcashuamán from the Ushnu

From the ushnu, you can see how the ruins have been absorbed by more recent constructions.  While some archeologists may lament this fact, I find Vilcashuamán to be a perfect example of how the ancient and modern coexist throughout Peru.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Incan Throne on Top of the Ushnu; Ushnu As Seen From the Street

This stone is supposedly the Inca’s throne, where he sat with his wife at his side.  In the photo on the right, you can see another visitor sitting in the Inca’s seat, admiring the view.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Doorway and Steep Stairs of the Ushnu, Vilcashuamán

I was impressed by my visit to the ushnu, which has been thoroughly restored to preserve it for future generations.  This is one of the best examples of an ushnu in all of Peru, and the only reason it is not visited more by tourists is that it is located in this isolated location among farming villages.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Cows Grazing in Vilcashuamán, Peru

After vising the ushnu, I continued my walk through Vilcashuamán, taking in the beautiful countryside.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Piedra del Vaticinio, Vilcashuamán, Peru

I managed to find my way up the hill to the Piedra de Vaticinio, which some people call the sacrificial stone.  According to the tourist brochure from the Municipio, this stone was used for divining the future of the Incan empire, predicting the agricultural season, and determining the future of a couple!  This site has been protected by a stone wall, but as you see, it is located amidst residences, no big deal, without even a sign pointing you in the right direction.

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Looking Out Over Vilcashuamán from Above; Laundry in the Incan Puytuq, or Pool of Water

Views from Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Puya Raimondi in Vilcashuamán

Nearby, you find the Puytuq, one of the small fountains created in the time of the Inca.  Amusingly for me, someone was washing clothes in this ancient aqueduct.  If this doesn’t demonstrate how the modern exists right on top of the ancient, nothing else does!

I also appreciated some of the puya raimondi growing in Vilcashuamán.  These plants look like they are from another world.  From Vischongo, you can visit the Bosque de Puya Raymondi Titankayoq, a forest of around 400,000 of these strange-looking trees, which can grow to be up to six meters tall!

At this point, it was around noon, and I had managed to visit all of the main sites of Vilcashuamán.  I actually wished that I had stopped at nearby Intihuatana, as I had learned that there were many combi buses passing through the area, and there was still plenty of time in the day!

Lunchtime in Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru Sopa de Quinua, Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru
Lunchtime in Vilcashuamán; Sopa de Quinoa

Instead, I got to talking to the animated, amusing combi driver who would take me back to Huamanga, and I ended up eating at this roadside cafe with all the locals.  As I was sitting there enjoying my lunch of sopa de quinoa (quinoa soup), another combi drove by, and the driver tried to convince me, “la gringa,” to come back with their group, much to my embarrassment and the amusement of the young girl serving lunch. 🙂  I also chatted with a local woman who could not imagine traveling on her own, something that seems so normal to me but so foreign to many Peruvian women.

Views from Vilcashuamán to Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Vilcashuamán to Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Views En Route Back to Huamanga from Vilcashuamán, Peru

After a long wait (I *should* have gotten on that other combi!), we started on our route back to Huamanga.  This was not as direct or as quick a trip as the last one, as our driver had agreed to take a family of musicians and their goats back to the city.  As I watched in surprise, they hoisted the goats onto the roof of the van, and their bleating could be heard whenever we slowed down along the route!  Finally, we continued on our way, taking on more passengers until the van was pretty packed.  Luckily, we stopped a few times for local snacks, which made the long ride a lot better; I bought jugo de níspero in Vischongo and my favorite choclo con queso at another rest stop along the way.

Views from Vilcashuamán to Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Views En Route Back to Huamanga from Vilcashuamán, Peru

All things considered, the views from the combi made the long route worth it.  After all, I had developed a high tolerance to long bus rides over my year volunteering in Peru.  After traveling to and from Vilcas, I really understood how secure traveling with the locals was; trouble could be found in the cities of Peru, but rarely among the rural villages.  I really enjoyed visiting Vilcashuamán and seeing the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern; I was also pretty proud of myself for making it there on my own.

Upon arriving in Huamanga, I took a city bus to another “bus station,” or rather, an area where a number of bus companies were located next to the Grifo Ayacucho (a gas station).  To get to Huancavelica on bus, it is safest to take an early morning combi to Rumichaca, where you can catch a direct daytime bus to Huancavelica; iPeru advised that I buy my ticket in advance.  After my trip to Vilcashuamán, I knew I could trust taking another early morning combi because it would be filled with locals; in fact, I was looking forward to the experience.

Recommendations for Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru:

  • First of all, go!  It is really easy to take public transportation to Vischongo and Vilcashuaman.  Combis (van buses) leave from the Paradero al Sur (the bus station to the south) starting around 4AM.  I suggest taking a taxi here as it will likely still be dark and the bus station is located outside of the center of town (a taxi should costs S/.4-6).  I arrived just before 6AM as this is when the buses are likely to fill quickly; the combis only leave when all the seats are full.  The ride costs S/.15 and takes about three hours.  The combi will stop to pick up and drop off passengers and their loads along the way.
  • Nearby Vischongo has well-marked hiking routes to Intihuatana and the Bosque de Puya Raymondi Titankayoq.  If you leave early enough, you should be able to visit Intihuatana and then catch a later bus to Vilcashuamán.  It is about a 30 minute bus ride or a 2 hour walk to Vilcashuamán from Vischongo.  Keep in mind that these are rural areas and public transportation does not run on a fixed schedule.
  • There are basic hospedajes in Vischongo; iPeru suggested I ask the Municipio (Municipality) for recommendations.  Vilcashuamán has several basic hostals and hospedajes, as most visitors stay there.  Check with iPeru for an updated list of accommodations, or just ask someone in Vilcashuamán to point you in the right direction.  There are at least two visible from the Plaza de Armas.  That said, if you are only planning to visit Vilcashuamán, you can easily visit all of the major sites in the town in a few hours and catch a combi back in the early afternoon.  The last combi leaves at 5PM; there are no buses after this time.
  • If you read Spanish, this is an excellent summary of the history of Vilcashuamán.  La Brújula del Azar has a great detailed post on Vischongo, Intihuatana, and Vilcashuamán as well as the Bosque de Puya Raymondi Titankayoq.  El Comercio (a Peruvian newspaper) also has a nice video of the Inti Raymi celebration at Vilcashuamán.  Finally, this site has succinct descriptions of Vilcashuamán and its surroundings.
  • Here is a good description of Vilcashuamán in English.
[Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, Peru: August 18, 2013]

Ayacucho, Peru: Visiting the Pre-Incan Wari (Huari) Ruins, the Site of Peruvian Independence, and Quinua's Ceramic Workshops

Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru
The Ruins of the Wari (Huari) Culture, Ayacucho, Peru

Located just 20 kilometers outside of Huamanga (the capital city of Ayacucho), the ancient city of Wari (otherwise spelled Huari, which has the same pronunciation) is the most popular day trip in the region.  While combis run frequently between Huamanga and Quinua, stopping at Wari on the way, I opted to take another tour with A&R Tours.  This was an excellent idea; our guide was one of the most knowledgeable I met on my entire trip, and he spoke intelligently and passionately about the troubled history of the region.

En Route to Wari, Ayacucho, Peru
Views of the Mountains Surrounding Wari, Ayacucho, Peru

The first thing you notice as you climb into the mountains of Ayacucho is how amazingly gorgeous the scenery is.  Peru’s sierra central (central Andes) is not like the high mountains I visited in nearby Chile and Argentina.  Ayacucho’s climate is different, meaning that the lower hills are dotted with green trees, cacti, low shrubs, and brown brush.  I’m no plant expert, but this makes for an attractive contrast.  I couldn’t stop gazing out the window of our tour van.

En Route to Wari, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru

View from the Highway, Desert Spider, Flowering Cacti at Wari

The first thing you notice about Wari are the cacti that cover the area surrounding the ruins.  Some of the cacti are flowering, whereas others bear tuna, or prickly pear, one of my favorite fruits in Peru.  There are also tons of desert climate insects, which our group admired in fascination.

Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru
Ruins of Wari, Ayacucho, Peru

Although the ruins of Wari are extensive and expand all around the highway, most of them have not been excavated or studied.  The reasons for this is two-fold: the cacti that sprung up throughout these ruins hid them from view for many years, and require great care during removal so that the ruins can be studied.  Further, during the conflict with Sendero Luminoso, studies of these ruins were completely halted.  This is another cultural tragedy, because roads continue to be paved through the ruins.  As the Wari culture is not a household name like the Incas, it is hard for archeologists and anthropologists to secure funding to excavate and study the Wari ruins.

Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru
Ruins of Wari, Ayacucho, Peru

For these reasons, much of this extensive site is off-limits to visitors, but scholars continue to dig deeper (literally) to uncover the history of the practices of the Wari.  Remember, the Wari’s empire once stretched up and down modern Peru’s coast as well as the sierra central.  This was a powerful people who conquered many other populations, just like the Incas.

Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru
Views from the Wari Ruins, Ayacucho, Peru

When you see the stone walls coexisting with the desert plants that threaten to take the land over again, you can’t help but appreciate the diligent work of the archeologists and anthropologists who are studying and preserving these ties to Peru’s ancient history.

Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru
Protecting the Wari Ruins, Ayacucho, Peru

Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru

Burial Chambers in the Wari Ruins, Ayacucho, Peru

Like many of Peru’s ancient cultures, the Wari had impressive burial rituals.  According to our guide, these small chambers were built to bury the Wari elite with their families, attendants, and possessions.  Archeologists continue to uncover new galleries located beneath each level!

Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Wari/Huari, Ayacucho, Peru
Building Blocks and Cacti at the Wari Ruins

After appreciating the ruins still in the process of study, we saw these stone building blocks, either abandoned or moved over the past few centuries.  Although the stonework is distinct from that of the Incas, it is equally impressive to imagine the work that went into carving and shaping these stones.

Although much of the Wari ruins are not accessible to casual visitors, I got a clear sense of the extensiveness of the site, but most importantly, how important it is to respect and honor the Wari culture and its role in Peru’s heritage.

Views from Pampa de la Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Obelisco, Pampa de Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

From Wari, the logical next stop is Quinua, located along the same route, just 34 kilometers from Huamanga.  Our tour took us directly to the Pampa de Quinua (also known as the Pampa de Ayacucho).  Pampa means field, and that is exactly what you see when you arrive: a large, empty field.  The Pampa de Quinua is the place where the decisive Battle of Ayacucho took place against Spain in 1824; this bloody encounter won Peru its independence.  Ayacucho was named to honor the massive loss of life that occurred in this place.

Views from Pampa de la Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Thanking the Nations that Supported Peru at the Base of the Obelisk

Although the landscape is picturesque, you can’t help but remember what happened in this place two centuries ago.  The giant Obelisco (Obelisk) honors those who fought in the battles for Peru’s independence.  At the the base of the Obelisco, there are plaques naming the nations that supported this fight, including the United States.

Views from Pampa de la Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Views Surrounding Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

Behind the Obelisco, there is a steep path that leads down to the village of Quinua, below.  The views from this area are beautiful.

Views from Pampa de la Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
View of Quinua from the Obelisco, Ayacucho, Peru

Quinua’s houses all have the same type of brown roof, which leads to a picture of uniformity from up above.

Views from Pampa de la Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Posing at the Pampa de Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

As usual, I couldn’t resist posing and commemorating my visit to this historic place.

Yuyo Picante con Mote, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru Mazamorra de Níspero, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Yuyo Picante con Mote and Mazamorra de Níspero, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

Despite its past, the Pampa de Quinua is a pleasant place for families to visit on the weekends and while on vacation.  For this reason, there are many stalls set up along the parking lot with lots of local food and artisan goods for tourists and locals alike to browse and buy.  Happily, I managed to find vegetarian food!  I actually love local street food and will try anything after doing my best to verify there’s no meat in it. 😉

This delicious dish is called yuyo picanteYuyo is a local green similar to spinach, and it is cooked down with a mixture of potatoes, onions, spicy pepper, and another local herb, huacatay (known as black mint in English).  This was absolutely delicious, and as I ate I chatted with the cook’s adorable son and a Spanish woman on my tour.  My yuyo was served with mote, or cooked corn kernels, another favorite of mine.  Of course, I had to have dessert.  Mazamorra is a super common Peruvian dessert, basically a thick fruit pudding made with any of a number of local fruits.  In Ayacucho, níspero (or loquat) is readily available, and it makes for a delicious dessert.

Famous Ceramics, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru Famous Ceramics, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru Famous Ceramics, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Colorful Ceramics in Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

After our lunch break, we headed down to the village of Quinua, which is known for its traditional ceramics, most often in the shape of churches.  I thought our first stop, documented above, had the most attractive ceramics. I wish I could have brought one of these beautiful pieces of art home with me, but ceramics and backpacking do not mix.  (I actually broke the small ceramic mototaxi I did buy in Quinua just a few days later. 🙁 )

Famous Ceramics, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Traditionally Colored Churches in a Shop in Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

This shop shows the more conventionally colored churches, painted in a variety of tan, brown, and grey shades.  These churches are traditionally used to decorate the roof of a house to indicate that it is inhabited.  According to our guide, if you do not see a church on the roof of the house, it means that the dwelling has been abandoned.

Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

Quinua is a traditional Andean village in many ways, including its tranquil character.  Today, it lives from its artesanía, which brings tourists in large numbers to this otherwise quiet town.  Almost everyone in town is involved in the family business of producing ceramics in large quantities.  If you visit, make sure to stop in at a number of workshops, as each taller has its own style, level of quality, and unique story.

Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Flowers in the Plaza of Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Quinua’s Church

Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

Visiting Quinua is about appreciating the pleasant uniformity of a town steeped in tradition.

Views from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru
Traditional Churches on the Top of a Residence, Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

After visiting Quinua, it was time to return to Huamanga.  As we drove along the highway, I paid special attention to the roofs of the houses we passed.  While most houses did have a church or three perched on top, there were houses that had clearly been abandoned, since they did not have this traditional decoration.  It fascinates me that this tradition is specific to the small towns in this region of Ayacucho only.

Driving Back to Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Driving Back to Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
iews En Route Back to Huamanga from Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru

The views on the road back to Huamanga were equally as impressive in the afternoon light.  I tried to capture them out of the window of our tour van, as you can see here.

Overall, I loved this day trip to the ruins of Wari, the Pampa de Quinua, and the ceramics workshops of Quinua.  Although it is easy to do this trip independently, I learned a lot from our guide and enjoyed the company of the others on my tour.

However, back in Ayacucho, I also learned the limitations of depending on a tour company to get you to the destinations you’d like to visit.  Although there were four of us hoping to visit Vilcashuamán the next day, the tour needed six passengers for the tour to leave due to transportation costs.  I really wanted to visit these impressive Incan ruins, so I went back to my friends at iPeru and they convinced me that it was indeed possible and completely safe to visit on my own.  This little push set off a series of adventures off the beaten track on public transportation that I will document in future posts!

Recommendations for Wari and Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru:

  • You should absolutely visit Wari and Quinua for their historical and cultural significance.  If you’d like to take a tour (in Spanish), I highly recommend A&R Tours, which cost S/.35 in August 2013.  All of my explanations above come from what our guide told us, so the tour was thoroughly educational.
  • Otherwise, there are frequent combis (van buses) that run between Huamanga (Ayacucho) and Quinua.  The combis leave from Paradero Magdalena near Avenida Cáceres.  You can ask the driver to be let off at the ruins of Wari.  iPeru recommended visiting Wari early in the day to ensure you could catch another bus to Quinua and then back to Huamanga.  As with many local buses in Peru, you just need to flag down the combi as it passes by.  This is how all the people in the small villages along the highway get around, and the buses can get packed.  All the locals call the city of Ayacucho Huamanga, as I’ve already mentioned.  Apparently, it is much harder to catch a combi after 5PM, so I suggest going earlier.  The bus between Huamanga and Quinua costs S/.3.50-4, and between Wari and Quinua it should be about S./1-2.
  • Entry to the Wari complex costs S/.5, but may be included in your tour, as it was for me.  The ruins are open from 8AM-6PM, but verify with iPeru before visiting.
  • If you do take the bus to Quinua, make sure you climb up to the Pampa de la Quinua to visit the Obelisco and visit this significant site in Peru’s history.
  • I highly suggest eating lunch from one of the many stands and supporting the women of Quinua who cook these inexpensive, nourishing meals and haul them up the hill from the village below.
  • Don’t forget to visit the ceramics workshops (talleres) in Quinua, as the people of Quinua are well-known for their skill.
  • If you read Spanish, read this blog post about Wari and this one about Quinua.
  • If you love photography and want to see Wari and Quinua from another photographer’s point of view, check out this post on Wari and this post on Quinua.  The moody clouds really bring out the colors of the mountains.  Seriously beautiful photos from someone who clearly loves Peru as much as me. 🙂
[Wari and Quinua, Ayacucho, Peru: August 17, 2013]

Ayacucho, Peru: Exploring the Colonial City of Huamanga and Ayacucho's Artesanía

Views from Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Main Plaza of Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Views from Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Cathedral on the Main Plaza, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Views of the Main Plaza of Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Views from Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Looking Towards the Mirador de Acuchimay from Ayacucho’s Cathedral

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.

Vegetarian Lunch in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Vegetarian Meal, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Vegetarian Lunch in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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!

Views from Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Streets of Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Churches in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Churches of Ayacucho and its Distinctive Arch

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.

DSC_0047 Impressive Folk Art in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Impressive Folk Art in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Inside One of Ayacucho’s Casonas; Exhibition of the Tradional Art from Today’s Artisans

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.

Typical Ceramics of the Huari/Wari Culture in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru View from Museo de Antropologia y Arqueología Hipólito Unanue, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Statues of the Wari/Huari Culture, Ayacucho, Peru
Wari Ceramics; View from the Museo Hipólito Unanue; Wari Stone Sculptures

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.

Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Main Plaza of Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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!

Impressive Folk Art in Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Impressive Folk Art in Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Alabaster Carvings in Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Impressive Folk Art in Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Impressive Folk Art in Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Impressive Folk Art in Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Alabaster Carvings and Weavings in Barrio Santa Ana, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Churches in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Templo de Santa Teresa

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.

Churches in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Churches in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Templo de San Cristobal; Colonial Door on Templo de Santa Teresa

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!

Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

After enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and a stroll around the mirador, we headed back into town.

Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Pretty Tree at the Mirador de Acuchimay, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

Views from the Mirador de Acuchimay, Carmen Alto, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Colonial Buildings, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Traditionally Dressed Women at the Mirador de Acuchimay; Restored Casona in downtown Huamanga; Colorful Hills in the Setting Sun

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.

Colonial Buildings, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Colonial Buildings, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Colonial Buildings in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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. 🙂

Views from the Cathedral, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Views from the Cathedral, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Views from Ayacucho’s Cathedral

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.

Main Plaza, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru Sunset, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Sunset in Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru

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.

Cathedral, Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru
Ayacucho’s Cathedral at Sunset

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.
  • Hostal Tres Máscaras, Huamanga, Ayacucho, PeruI 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!
[Ayacucho, Peru: August 16-18, 2013]