It is easy to understand why Peruvians are so fond of Ayacucho. This hidden jewel of Peru’s southern Andes has Renaissance and baroque churches around every corner (33 in all!), its elaborate Easter week  celebration is second only to that of Seville, and the one-of-a-kind Huari and Inca ruins are in the surrounding countryside.
Ayacucho is colonial enough to seem like a time warp. At dawn, townsfolk stream into churches to listen to mass. In the nearby market, campesinas in big straw hats and colorful hand-knit skirts serve up lunch: puca picante (a spicy red stew of chili, pork cracklings, crushed peanuts, and potatoes), sheep’s head soup, and about 10 varieties of chicha. Quechua is spoken everywhere in the soft, swishing sounds of the local dialect.
Ayacucho is known as one of Peru’s most artistic towns. Some of the country’s best huayno singers come from here, along with world-famous harp player Florencio Coronado and the guitarist Raúl García Zárate. Nearly every man knows how to play guitar—an essential skill for evening serenades—and artisans around the city produce ceramics, weavings, miniature altars, and stone carvings in alabaster, the local stone known as piedra de huamanga.
At 2,761 meters above sea level, the city has one of the best climates in all of the country—the dry landscape, scattered with cactus and agave, receives only short, if hard, storms in the rainy season December–March. There are sunny skies and warm temperatures the rest of the year.
Ayacucho was a dangerous place to visit in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso, was founded here by Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy professor from Arequipa  who came to work at the local university.
His movement, based on Maoist philosophy, fought an 11-year civil war that claimed the lives of 70,000 people across the country. The fighting was most intense around Ayacucho, where both guerillas and army soldiers terrorized local villages and caused a widespread migration to cities.
Ayacucho has been a safe place to visit since Guzmán’s arrest in 1992 and the subsequent disintegration of the Shining Path. The U.S. Embassy has taken Ayacucho off its travel advisory. But, apart from April and Semana Santa , only 500 foreign travelers arrive in Ayacucho each month—as opposed to 45,000 per month in Cusco —mostly because Ayacucho is isolated by rough highways and lack of a plane connection to Cusco.
Flights back and forth to Lima  are available through LC BUSRE (tel. 066/31-6012, www.lcbusre.com.pe ) or Aerocondor (Lima tel. 01/614-6014, www.aerocondor.com.pe ). The airport is four kilometers outside of town or a US$2.50 taxi ride.
With paved highway connecting Ayacucho to Pisco on the coast, bus times to Lima have shortened to as little as nine hours. The bus route from the coast crosses a 4,480-meter pass along the Ruta de los Libertadores. The best companies on this route are Cruz del Sur (Mariscal Cáceres 1264, tel. 066/31-2813, www.cruzdelsur.com.pe ), the only company with direct buses; Ormeño (Libertad 257, tel. 066/31-2495, www.grupo-ormeno.com.pe ); and Expreso Union Molina (9 de Diciembre 458, tel. 066/31-9989). There are both day and night buses to and from Lima with reclining seats that cost approximately US$18.
Before the terrorism of the 1980s, many travelers went from Lima  to Huancayo  and then on to Ayacucho  and Cusco . This route is once again becoming popular. The best Huancayo–Ayacucho company is Molina, with both day and night buses for US$8 (US$10). As usual, we recommend traveling during the day. The views are incredible. There are actually two routes: The faster one goes low through the towns of Huacrapuquio, Imperial, Acostambo, Izcuchaca, and Mayocc, where it meets up with the high route before continuing to Huanta and Ayacucho . The higher route is 12 hours of dusty, bumpy driving, and unfortunately, it is used more frequently because it goes through more populated areas.
The best company for traveling south to Andahuaylas  (10 hours), Abancay  (15 hours), and Cusco  (22 hours) is Los Chancas (Pasaje Mariscal Cáceres 150, tel. 066/31-2391). A private car and driver from Ayacucho to Andahuaylas can be rented for US$115, or US$330 for the one-way trip to Cusco.