BREATHLESS IN A COLONIAL PERCH
Ayacucho, 9,000 feet up in the central Andes, is famous for its churches,
Spanish architecture and some of Peru's best artisans
text and photos by Ellen Warner
Last April, at the suggestion of a Peruvian friend, I visited the lovely colonial town of Ayacucho, in the central Andean region of Peru. The area is one of the least traveled parts of the country and Ayacucho especially so. In the 1980's and early 90's it was the center of the guerrilla movement know as the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Not until the terrorist leaders were captured in 1992 did Ayacucho again become a safe place for tourists.
Richard, my traveling companion, and I decided to spend three nights in Ayacucho, then hire a driver and take the two-day trip over dirt roads to Cuzco.
When we walked off the plane from Lima I could feel my heart pounding. At about 9,000 feet, Ayacucho is high enough to cause altitude sickness. Richard, who felt unaffected, headed off with his easel and paints, but I decided to have a quiet day to acclimatize.
I settled into the Plaza Hotel, a simple, friendly place in the center of town. In the ground-floor lounge, I drank many cups of coca tea, the local antidote for altitude sickness. Soon I felt better and decided to go out and explore the town.
The Plaza de Armas, a large square flanked by a 17th-century cathedral on one side and colonial arcaded buildings on the other three, is only a block from the hotel. Although Ayacucho has a population of 100,000, the town feels intimate. Sitting in the plaza gave me an instant introduction to local life. Women wearing full skirts, embroidered blouses and felt hats hustled by. Each carried a manta on her back - a square of brightly colored cloth folded to create a pouch designed to hold anything from a child to a load of vegetables.
I poked my head into the 18th-century colonial mansions on the west side of the square, two buildings that now house the Prefectura de Ayacucho and the Superior Court of Justice. Both have interior courtyards with gardens and covered porticoes on the second floor. On the ground floor of the Prefectura I saw the room where Maria Parado de Bellido, a heroine of the war of independence in the early 1820's, was imprisoned before being executed.
On the way back to the hotel I noticed a sign for a hairdresser and stepped inside. I've found that a visit to a hairdresser in remote parts of the world provides immediate entrée to local culture, and this place was no exception. In Ayacucho the hair salon serves triple duty as a telephone booth and a lawyer's office. While water was heated in a kettle, poured into a bucket and dripped onto my head, those coming in to conduct other business greeted me cheerfully.
The next day I explored some of Ayacucho's 33 churches, most within easy walking distance of the Plaza de Armas. I particularly liked Santo Domingo, across the street from our hotel. Built in 1548, it is a graceful combination of simple classical architecture with a rotunda over the transept and a series of gold-leaf altars along the sides. The Virgin Mary, clothed in splendid garments, is placed high above the main altar.
On the other side of town, across the Rio Alameda, the Convent of Santa Teresa houses 25 nuns, some as young as 15. When I arrived, several were shaking out carpets and sweeping the floors. The 17th-century church has wooden doors with embossed decorations and a carved gold-leaf altar in the elaborate churrigueresque style.
Of three museums I visited, two were in colonial houses. The gallery space of the Banco Wiess, at 210 Dos de Mayo, is on the second floor in rooms surrounding a courtyard. It has a small but impressive permanent collection ranging from prehistoric ceramics of the Huari (who dominated Peru from 600 to 1000 A.D.) to a splendid 17th-century altar with a solid silver base and gold leaf top.
I was leaving, I noticed a small ceramic church flanked by two bulls placed on the summit of the rile roof. I was told that it was an ancient custom to put representative animals on the roof to protect houses, and the conquistadors had furthered this idea by adding a church or a cross. Many houses in Peru still have similar good luck ornaments.
The Museo Arqueologico, a little more than a half-mile from the center of town, has a more extensive collection of pre-Inca artifacts. A black and white pottery drinking vessel in the shape of a Llama fascinated me. The guard explained that Llamas - used for food, wool and transportation - were essential to Peruvian's survival.
The Museo Andres A. Caceres, in a converted 16th-century house on 28 de Julio, is named after a hero of the War of the Pacific, which Peru fought against Chile in the 1880's.
The museum has a sizable collection of religious paintings of the 17th- and 18th-century Cuzco School. After the conquest, native artists of Cuzco copied Spanish painting from books or postage stamps and adapted them to conform to their own culture. In a painting of the Last Supper here, Jesus and the Apostles are eating guinea pig a local delicacy. Upstairs are wonderful leather trunks and Spanish-style furniture from colonial days.
We had lunch - soup and fruit salad - in a tiny restaurant near our hotel. Andean soups are hearty and were to become our staple on this trip - this one, made with cream, spaghetti, and beef with a fried egg on top. Was quite tasty.
In the afternoon we visited the Barrio Santa Ana, a district filled with artisans' workshops and galleries. Ayacucho has traditionally been an artistic center, particularly known for its textiles. During the terrifying era of the Sendero Luminoso, many artists fled to Lima. Now they are returning, and we were told that there are at least 500 people working in carpet design.
We stepped into the Galeria Latina on the Plaza Santa Ana, owned by the fourth generation of a weaving family. A young man took us downstairs to show us his father's carpets, which combined ancient Inca, Huari and other motifs woven into modern design.
Around the corner at Gregorio Sulca's Wari Art Gallery, we were fortunate to have one of the most highly regarded Quechua artists in Peru take the time to show us his wall hangings. Mr. Sulca, an acclaimed poet and musician as well as a master weaver, is strongly influenced by Huari mythology and philosophy. He uses geometric patterns, often abstractions of Quechua figures performing daily rituals such as harvesting.
Fortuitously, we visited the week before Easter. Ayacucho is known for having some of the most elaborate Semana Santa celebrations in the country. Each night a statue of Jesus representing a different stage of the Passion is taken from one of the churches, lifted onto a float surrounded by candles and carried through town. The priest and church officials, many holding candles, walk ahead of the float, which is supported on the backs of 10 men. A band playing sonorous music follows.
Every afternoon during this period church members use flowers petals and sawdust dyed different colors to create elaborate religious motifs on the streets. These creations are destroyed by the procession, and the ritual is repeated the next day with a different church in charge. The streets of the Plaza de Armas are packed nightly for the festival. Makeshift restaurants and street vendors cater to the crowds, and until the solemn procession begins, the mood is festive.
Our last day in Ayacucho we hired a taxi and drove 12 miles north to visit the ruins of a Huari site, one of the first urban walled centers in the Andes. We saw foundations of a temple, houses and subterranean canals surrounded by cactus and wildflowers. We bought some prickly pears from a woman; I peeled the skin to find a delicious fruit that tasted a little like a pear.
About 10 miles into the mountains we came to the little town of Quinua, known for its ceramics, particularly the model churches that decorate Peruvian roofs. Mud-brick houses with tile roofs line the cobblestone streets and there are many shops selling pottery.
On the outskirts of town, with a commanding view of the valley, an obelisk marks the spot of the 1824 Battle of Ayacucho, where against all odds, 5,800 Peruvians defeated 8,200 Spanish to finally end colonial rule.
In the adjacent field, vendors were selling ceramics and cooking food over campfires. I had a picnic lunch of choclo y queso, a combination of ears of cooked corn and fresh cheese. Richard tried the legendary cooked guinea pig, which he pronounced "delicious!"
The next day we woke up at 5:30 to begin our 200-mile drive over the mountains to Cuzco. The dirt road hugged the hills, and cultivated fields alternated with areas of rocky, arid soil. Luckily there hadn't been much rain; at one point where a bridge had collapsed, we were able to use the streambed as our road. We drove through mud-brick villages in what our driver Abelardo said had been the worst of Sendero Luminoso country. During the reign of terror, he said, women were routinely raped by both guerrillas and the military.
The road climbed until we reached fertile hills covered with broom, corn and wheat. Rising farther into the clouds, the landscape changed again and became barren.
Throughout the day we ascended and descended the mountains. In fertile areas every inch of space was used. Crops are cultivated on slopes that look too steep to walk on, never mind harvest.
We passed chozas, igloo-shaped huts of coarse grass that are used as temporary shelters for farmers. People hunched over in the fields harvesting potatoes reminded me of 19th-century paintings. We were told that potatoes originated in the Andes where there are more than 100 varieties.
In the late afternoon we passed through Andahuaylas, a town of 26,000 people, most of whom speak only Quechua. From here, the drive was spectacular. We crossed verdant rolling farm country covered with flowering blue lupine and yellow broom. The one-lane road, traveled by only an occasional car, snaked along green mountains with precipitous 1,500- to 2,000-foot drops.
A few hours later we offered a ride to two teenage boys who attended school in Andahuaylas. They were going home for the weekend and had already walked five hours; it was another 45 minutes in the car with us before they reached their village. Abelardo told us that such a commute was not unusual.
In Abancay, we spent a pleasant night as the only guests in a large, modestly furnished hotel (it was hard to imagine that this remote hotel could ever be crowded).
The road leaving Abancay toward Cuzco was under construction, and cars weren't allowed until noon the following day. Abelardo insisted on leaving the hotel early and announced that we were fourth in line when we got to the starting point. I was a little unclear why that was so important until we got the signal that we overtake the three cars in front of us. After a few hair-raising moments on the winding mountain road we were first, and it became clear that laggards risked choking in dust.
Within a half-hour, we reached paved road. Richard noticed Inca ruins below us and we found a dirt road leading to them. The site, Intihuatana in Saihuite, was used by the Incas for weddings and religious ceremonies. The outlines of the building overlooking the valley remained, but the most impressive artifact was a sacrificial altar with images of frogs, octopus, crabs and a puno meticulously carved into the large block of stone.
We crossed the Apurimac River and drove through the gorge in which Thorton Wilder's "Bridge of San Luis Rey" was set. Following the river we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called La Florida in Limatambo. I had a delicious soup and Richard and Abelardo had trout, freshly caught in the river. For dessert, arroz con leche, rice pudding came with mazamorra, a sweet purple sauce made from blue corn.
Later in the afternoon I stopped to photograph a mother and daughter wearing the white top hats that are typical of that area. We gave them a lift to their village several miles down the road, and when we let them out we picked up another woman who asked if we could take her and her baby to Cuzco.
As the sun was setting we rounded a corner and saw what looked like millions of lights; slowly, we wended our way down to Cuzco in the valley below.
Reprinted with permission from the New York Times