Ayacucho City Tour
A walking tour of Ayacucho begins with an early-morning visit to churches—most of which open for mass at 6:30 a.m. and close an hour or two later. Get up at dawn and start two blocks from the Plaza de Armas at Santo Domingo (corner of Bellido and 9 de Diciembre, 6:30–7 a.m. daily), which has a simple Renaissance facade covered with a bizarre column-and-balcony addition.
According to local legend, Spanish Inquisition judges held public trials and hung their victims from this balcony. Inside are several examples of Andean-Catholic syncretism: Profiles of Inca with headdresses abound on the altars and, on the main altar, the eagle of San Juan is replaced with a local hummingbird.
Next stop is San Francisco de Paula (corner of Garcilaso de la Vega and Callao, 6:15 a.m.–7:30 a.m. and 6:15–7:30 p.m. daily), which competes with San Blas in Cusco for Peru’s finest carved pulpit. The altar is brimming with angels and is one of the few in the city that is not covered with gold plating—but the Nicaraguan cedar is just as pretty.
La Merced (corner of 2 de Mayo and San Martin, 6:15–7:30 a.m. daily) was constructed in 1542 and is the second oldest church in town. A mark of its antiquity is its simple Renaissance facade—as opposed to the later, more effusive baroque style.
Santa Clara (corner of Grau and Nazareño, 6:30–8 a.m. daily) holds the revered Jesus of Nazareth image that is the center of Ayacucho’s most important procession during Easter week. The ceiling above the altar is an intricate wood filigree of Mudejar, or Spanish-Arabic, design.
On the way to the next church, cross Grau and head into the market, which is clean, relaxed, and full of local foods. Pan chapla, a local favorite, is a round bread with a hollow center, and from August to October there is also wawa (“baby” in Quechua), an infant-shaped bread that is meant to be consolation for women who became pregnant during Carnaval in February and also used as a gift for godparents. There are also large rocks of mineral salt, a variety of chichas made from corn and grains, and huge pots of puca picante.
Emerge on the other side to a huge, rust-colored arch next to San Francisco de Asís (corner of 28 de Julio and Vivanco, 6:30 a.m.–8:30 a.m. Mon.–Sat., 6:30–10:30 a.m. Sun.), a Renaissance church built in 1552. Next door is the related convent, open to visitors only via prior arrangement, which contains one of the country’s finest collections of colonial paintings.
The final stop is the Compañía de Jesús (28 de Julio between Lima and San Martin, 9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.), the Jesuit church built in 1605 with a facade of sculpted flowers. Next door was the Jesuit College, now the Seminario San Cristobal, where Indian children were taught music, Latin, painting, and wood carving until the Jesuits were kicked out of Latin America in 1767. A large international grant, interestingly, once again trained local kids to restore the building. Stop here to have breakfast at one of the cafés and shop at the stores, which are slowly paying back the costs of the restoration.
After breakfast, head down 28 de Julio to the colonial home and museum of Andres Cáceres (28 de Julio 508, tel. 066/83-6166, 9 a.m.–1 p.m. and 3–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., US$0.75), Peru’s top general during the War of the Pacific, who moved troops so quickly through the mountains that he was known as the Wizard of the Andes.
The home, part of which is now a museum, contains his letters, photos, travel desk, weapons, etc., and has an excellent (and unrelated) collection of baroque paintings, alabaster stone carvings, and petacas, the elaborate burro satchels used by missionaries.
Go one block down from the Andres Cáceres home to Santa Teresa (28 de Julio, 6:30–7:30 a.m. daily), the church and Carmelite monastery where nuns remain cloistered today. The nuns make mazapan, turrones, and agua de agráas (a chicha made from local flowers), sold in the convent’s foyer. By knocking on the door, visitors often gain admission here during the day to see the baroque altar and a painting of the Last Supper where Jesus is seated before a roasted guinea pig. If admitted after hours, visitors should leave a small donation as a courtesy.
Farther down the street is San Cristóbal (1540), the city’s oldest chapel, which is rarely open, and the pleasant promenade known as Alameda Bolognesi. From here, walk uphill on steep streets to Barrio Santa Ana, a neighborhood with a small-town feel, and the Iglesia Santa Ana, referred to commonly as the Iglesia de los Indios because of the various ethnicities the Spanish brought here in the 16th century to serve as a buffer against the attacking Inca. Working in the streets around the plaza are some of Peru’s most famous weavers, who have exhibited their work all over the world.
Ayacucho’s elegant Plaza de Armas is bordered by the cathedral and university on one side and continuous stone arcades on the others. The best time to visit the cathedral, which was completed in 1672, is in the evening 5:30–7 p.m., when its huge interior is illuminated. There are two interesting examples of Andean-Spanish fusion: San Juan’s eagle is replaced by a condor on top of the dome’s columns, and the sacred half moon of Andean cosmology is at the foot of the Virgin Mary.
Next to the cathedral is La Universidad San Cristóbal de Huamanga, which was founded in 1677 but went bankrupt and closed two centuries later during the War of the Pacific with Chile. The university was reopened in 1959.
Around 1969 the Velasco government expropriated many of the colonial mansions around the main square, forcing their families to vacate, and resold them to banks. Casa Boza y Solís (Portal Constitución, Plaza de Armas, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free) today houses government offices and stands out for its massive stone arcade and Italian tiles decorating an original stone fountain, staircase, and second floor.
The Banco de Crédito occupies the Casona del Canonigo Frías (Plaza de Armas, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat.). The rooms of this colonial mansion have been converted into the highly worthwhile Museo de Arte Popular (10:15 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 9:45 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Sat., free), a showcase for the extraordinary range of art produced locally. The Banco de la Nación occupies the Casona Olano (28 de Julio, a half block from Plaza de Armas, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.).
The Museo Arqueológico Hipólito Unanue (Independencia, 1 km outside town, 8:30 a.m.–1 p.m. and 3–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) has a range of objects from the Warpa, Huari, and Chanca pre-Inca cultures: ceramics, weavings, turquoise jewelry, and seven priest monoliths carved out of volcanic stone. Plus, there is a botanical garden next door with more than 120 kinds of regional cacti.
Similarly on the outskirts of town is El Museo de la Memoria (Prolongación Libertad 1229, tel. 066/31-7170, 9 a.m.–1 p.m. and 3–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), which, although small and in Spanish, does a good job of showing the multisided issues of the terrorism era.
A beautiful view of Ayachucho can be had from the top of Cerro Acuchimay, which can be reached by taxi (US$2) and then descended via a long staircase that ends at the Plaza San Juan Bautista, near Londres Street. Do this walk during the day only.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition