Having completed three days of training in Andahuaylas, I returned to Ayacucho, this time via private car that stopped at my direction. We negotiated a couple inches of wet snow over a high pass, as my aggressive Peruvian driver was suddenly overcome with caution. The good news was no motion sickness. The previous night the trainers and I had celebrated our successful program launch at a local bar, drinking hot cinnamon/clove tea with shots of pisco to mix in. I quit the pisco after three rounds and just sipped tea, but the decano bought a fourth round and then the waiter appeared with a fifth, on the house recognition of our patronage. It was an effective vehicle for bonding.
So, Ayacucho, a moderate size historic city in the south central mountains that seems to have improved greatly since my last visit 8 years ago. It’s the capital of one of Peru’s poorest and most rural states with greater than average newborn and maternal mortality. Some say an infusion of narco-traffic money has been a major contributor to the improvements. People have lived in this valley for at least 15,000 years, the Wari culture, followed by the Chanka, Nazca, and Inca, and finally Pizarro and the Spanish with their European diseases, violence, and oppression that decimated the indigenous population. The Spanish have been working off their guilt ever since.
The Plaza de Armas has the obligatory old cathedral on one side and the rest are lovely two story, classic tile roof colonial buildings with covered portales style sidewalks, all stone columns and arches and second floor verandas above, surrounding a wonderfully bustling public space. My hotel was on the Plaza with two foot thick stone walls throughout, a great place to ride out an earthquake but not so good for cell phone reception. There’s a delightful restaurant upstairs where I enjoyed decent coffee and breakfast in the morning sun on the veranda and a great view of the Plaza and mountains beyond.
In the center of the Plaza is a large statue memorializing General Antonio José de Sucre, on horseback, brandishing his sword. Sucre was born in Venezuela and joined Simón Bolívar’s army of liberation early on. In 1824 he lead Peruvian independence fighters in defeating the Spanish in a field beyond the pueblo of Quinoa, within sight of Ayacucho, in what would be the last significant conflict in the quest for independence through all of South America. Full circle for the Spanish as Perú was also their first colony on the continent. The city’s ancient name was Huamanga, rechristened by Bolívar in the Quechua language, Ayacucho. Some optimists claim Aya Kuchu should be translated “spirit corner,” in recognition of the city’s 33 colonial churches, one for each year of Jesus’ life. Others, perhaps pessimists, would translate to “death corner,” commemorating the Battle of Quinoa.
More recently, Ayacucho was the epicenter of Perú’s internal war of the 1980’s, catalyzed by academics at Ayacucho’s 341 year old Universidad Nacional San Cristóbal de Huamanga, and lead by Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy professor turned Maoist leader of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that the decade long war resulted in over 70,000 deaths, mostly poor indigenous rural people caught between the violence of the guerrillas and that of the police and military. The violence also greatly accelerated the growth of Peruvian cities as desperate people sought refuge and protection. It was a dark time in Perú. Guzmán, an Arequipan, now resides in a maximum security prison in Callao, Lima.
I really enjoyed unassuming Ayacucho and have moved it into third place among my favorite Peruvian cities, behind only Arequipa and Cusco. More ramblings from the road to follow soon.
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