Probably the largest, most isolated city in Peru, Ayacucho is 14-16 hours (on bad country roads) from Cusco in one direction, and 10 hours to the nearest big city in the other. There is an airport here, but if you want to get to or from Cusco, you have to fly via Lima (in the opposite direction) so flights are incredibly expensive.
Ayacucho’s remote location means that it’s not an easy destination to incorporate into your travel itinerary, especially if you’re short on time.
BUT don’t let that discourage you.
Ayacucho is a destination with a long (remains of human settlements more than 15,000 years old have been found in nearby Pikimachay) and colourful history, delightfully un-commercialised streets, and beautiful, well-preserved colonial buildings and churches. Its Plaza de Armas is one of the most attractive in Peru, and one which – if you arrive early enough – you can have almost completely to yourself.
Founded in 1540 by Francisco Pizarro, Ayacucho flourished throughout the seventeenth century. It became a hub for commerce and culture, many fine colonial houses were constructed, as well as a great number of churches (33 to be exact; one for each year of Jesus’s life).
However the city is most famous historically for two reasons:
- The battle that finally sealed Peru’s independence was fought on the Pampa of Ayacucho near the small present-day town of Quinua in December 1824. In February 1825, Simón Bolívar (whose lieutenant led the Independentist forces) gave the city its present-day name. “Aya” is the quechua word for “death” and “kuchu” means “corner”, referring to the number of lives that had been lost as a result of the battle.
- The Maoist revolutionary group, The Shining Path have their origins in Ayacucho: their founder Abimael Guzmán was a professor at the city’s University of San Cristóbel de Huamanga. The Shining Path, founded in the 1960’s and are classified as a terrorist organisation by the Peruvian government. Although their activity has now declined substantially since the capture of Guzmán in 1992, their violent and intimidating methods of gaining control of poor rural and urban districts in central and southern Peru resulted in thousands of deaths over the years.
It is partly as a result of the city’s dark past that Ayacucho remained (as still remains to a certain extent) isolated from the rest of the country for so long. A paved road to Lima was only constructed as recently as 1999.
Although the city is now completely safe to visit, its commercial development has been slow and limited, and much of its appeal now can be credited to that. Wandering through its historic streets feels like I imagine Cusco or Arequipa felt – 100 years ago.
So let me take you on a quick photographic tour….
Of its wonderfully tranquil pedestrianised streets
Ok, so I am actually a very patient photographer – to the point that it really irks my boyfriend, who could probably order and eat a 3-course meal in the time it takes me to get that perfect shot (slight exaggeration, but you catch my drift!). However, I didn’t have to wait at all for this shot; there really are that few a people on Ayacucho’s streets.
Of its many decorative churches
As I’ve previously mentioned Ayacucho has a total of 33 churches, one for every year of Jesus’s life, and you can easily spend a whole day here touring them all. Opening times of the churches are available from the tourist information office, or alternatively if you visit Ayacucho during Semana Santa, they remain open for most of the day.
The city is famous for its Semana Santa celebrations, which are the most lavish and long-lasting (festivities begin on the Friday before Palm Sunday and run for 10 days until Easter Sunday) in the whole of Peru.
As well as vivid re-enactments of religious scenes and colourful processions, there are art shows, markets, folk dancing, live music, craft and agricultural fairs, and the preparation, cooking, and eating of traditional food. All of these festivities culminate in an all-night party with fireworks, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
Of one of Peru’s most beautiful plazas
Whether you’re soaking up some sunshine and people watching from one of the many benches in the centre of Ayacucho’s main square, or sipping coffee in one of the plaza-facing cafes, or marvelling at the decorative cathedral, any time that is whiled away here in the city’s Plaza de Armas is always well-spent.
Of the city’s best restaurant (in my opinion)
Via Via is definitely not one of the cheapest options in Ayacucho, but its upstairs plaza-facing balcony affords some killer views of the city, and the food is worth every penny. Try the Quinota con Trucha (which was so good I ordered it twice) or the Alpaca steak (which Stu insists was one of the nicest he ate in Peru).
Of the views from the many miradors around the city
Mirador de Carmen Alto (where the top photo is taken from) is the easiest viewpoint to reach, and offers spectacular views across the city. Squeezing into a shared taxi will cost you 5 soles, or alternatively it takes approximately 1 hour to walk, with the aid of a good map.
The second photo was taken on our return journey to central Ayacucho, following a fantastic paragliding adventure high above the city. I’d love to recommend the experience, but ours resulted from a chance meeting with a paraglider who normally bases himself in Lima.
Of the ruins of the ancient Wari civilisation, just outside the city
Located 22 kilometres north-east of Ayacucho, on the road to Quinua, these ruins cover some 16 square kilometres in an isolated, elevated location in the middle of the biggest cactus forest I’ve ever seen.
There are local buses out to the site, but don’t leave it too late in the day to return or you could find yourself hitching a ride back to Ayacucho.
And of the annual Volkswagen convention
The timing of our visit to Ayacucho was impeccable: not only did we meet an experienced paraglider (which led to our amazing flight over the city) but we were also lucky enough to be here on the day of the city’s annual Volkswagen convention. For someone who is a little bit obsessed by the classic Volkswagen Beetle, this made me giddy with excitement.
Hundreds of brightly coloured, customised Beetles and Camper Vans were paraded around the city, and subsequently parked up in Ayacucho’s Plaza de Armas. Their proud owners would either be sat in the driver’s seat, or alternatively they’d happily pose for you by the side of their pride and joy.
Where we stayed
Hostal Tres Mascaras, Tres Mascaras 194
Features: Attractive walled garden, spacious rooms with hot water showers (although typically not before 9am), central location.
Prices: 60 soles (£12.66) for a double room with private bathroom. No breakfast included.
Book: Through booking.com
So what do you think? Do you agree that Ayacucho – despite its isolated location – may just be somewhere worthy of a diversion away from Peru’s Gringo Trail?