The Plaza Mayor de Huamanga is surrounded on four sides by two story colonial buildings much like the plazas in Arequipa and Cuzco. Plaza Mayor has much more wide open however, and has a less cluttered, more peaceful feel to it. The City Cathedral (La Catedral – Mon-Sat 5-7 pm, Sun 9-10am; 5-7 pm) on the south side of the plaza, built in 1612 (although not completed until 1672) has an impressive display of gold leafed altarpieces and religious colonial art and paintings. The Municipalidad, the Palacio de Gobierno, and the Universidad Nacional de Huamanga also face onto the square.
Taking a walk in just the few blocks surrounding the plaza in any direction, you will inevitably run into numerous colonial churches, mainly Spanish Baroque with hints of Andean influences. In fact, Ayacucho claims to have 33 colonial churches, one for each year of Christ’s life. Many of them, unfortunately, are rarely open to the public. Templo de Santo Domingo, 9 de Septiembre block 2, remains perhaps the most architecturally creative of the churches with three Roman arches and two Byzantine style towers. The façade is oddly made of reddish colored bricks, but the result is striking. This church plays a large role in the Semana Santa celebrations. Templo San Cristobal, at 28 de Julio Block 6, is one of the oldest churches on the continent and construction dates back to the founding of the city (completed in 1548). Not much remains of San Cristobal except for one bell tower. Templo and Convento de San Francisco de Asis, 28 de Julio block 3, (Daily 5:30-6:30pm) is in the Greco-Roman style and has three naves. The gold leaf altar is carved in the Churrigueresque style. The temple was built in 1552 and restored in the early 80’s. Templo de La Merced, at 2 de Mayo block 2, has the fundamentals of Renaissance design. For die-hard enthusiasts also try: Templo de la Compania de Jesus (28 de Julio block 1, daily 8am-noon), Templo and Monasterio de Santa Clara de Asis (Grau block 3), and the Templo de Santa Teresa and Monasterio de las Carmelitas Descalzas (28 de Julio block 6).
Ayacucho’s often-overlooked colonial Mansions rival the grace and beauty of the churches. On the plaza itself there are several that you can steal a peak from in no time at all. For instance, the office of the Prefecture (Portal Constitucion 15), built in the middle of the 18th century has a fine courtyard. It is also known as Casa Boza and Solis (daily 8am-6pm). Casa Velarde Alvarez, at Portal Union 47, is one of the oldest mansions in Ayacucho and belonged to the Marquee of Mozobamba. Note the elaborate Andean carvings of snakes, pumas, and alligators. Casa Vivanco (28 de Julio 508, Daily 8am-noon; 2-6pm) holds the Museo Caceres. Inside you will find a large collection of Cusqueñan style paintings, as well as colonial furniture, and as well a s military artifacts from the original owner, Miguel Caceres, a hero of the War of the Pacific with Chile. Casa Chacon (Portal Union 28, Tues-Fri, 10:15am-5:30pm and Sat. 9:45am-12:15pm, free admission) holds the Museo de Arte Popular Joaquin Lopez Antay. The museum is named after one of the regions most famous carvers of retablo boxes. Much of Lopez Antay’s work is on display, as well as textiles, ceramics, and silver work. The Barrio Santa Ana is a landmark of Quechua art and culture. In a quick stroll through this neighborhood you will encounter numerous artesenias and their galleries. Head for the Templo and Plazoleta of Santa Ana and its vicinity to reach the epicenter.
Day Trips from Ayacucho
- Quinua is the home of some of the best crafts in all of Peru. Of particular interests are the retablo boxes that are one of more than 40 of Ayacucho’s unique crafts. The boxes come in many different sizes and generally feature one to three levels of figurines depicting often-religious scenes and occasionally daily Andean life. The doors are intricately painted in bright flowers. The retablos once served as portable altars that missionaries used to convert the native people to Catholicism. Also, the slightly whimsical ceramic churches, made in nearly every shop, are quite impressive. To get to the center from the road where the buses stop, you must walk up the stone steps, past all of the food vendors and small restaurants (serving many cheap and hearty regional dishes) and you will run into a small stone plaza with a church. There is a small museum (2 soles) on the plaza, mainly info and artifacts about the battle of Ayacucho. There isn’t a whole lot there, so unless you are a history buff, skip it. There are a few good souvenir shops right there such as Taller de Arte y Escultura El Sol, Artesenia Quinuino, and Taller Venta Virgen Cocharca. Elsewhere, mainly along on San Martin, which leads away from the church, there are several more galleries. Two of the best are Galeria Sanchez, which is perhaps the best in town and has one of the largest displays, and Galeria Ayllu. There are three small basic hostals in Quinua, all within a block from the main plaza. $ To get there you must catch a collective van from just north of the traffic circle at the east end of Caceres. Vans depart frequently and leave when full. They take about an hour to go the 37 kms from Ayacucho (2 soles). Alternatively, you can go with a tour from Ayacucho that will also go to the Wari Ruins and Pampa de Ayacucho.
- Santuario Historico de la Pampa de Ayacucho (Site of the Battle of Ayacucho) – A large 44-meter high obelisk commemorates one of the more famous battle sites on the continent. This is the site of the Battle of Ayacucho, which emancipated Peru and all of South America from Spanish reign on December 9th, 1824. At the battle, Simon Bolivar declared the name of the city is changed from Huamanga to Ayacucho, or “City of Blood.” The 44 meters represent the 44 years between the battle and the first revolution of the Inca Tupac Amaru. You can walk there from the plaza in Quinua in about 30 minutes or go with a tour from Ayacucho.
- Wari (Huari) Ruins – This walled center is thought to be one of the first to be constructed in the Andes. It was occupied from approximately 600-800 AD and it is believed that at one time more than 50,000 people lived there. Before being conquered by the Incas, the Wari culture spread throughout the Peruvian Andes from Cuzco to Cajamarca. There are five sites spread out over 2200 hectares comprising of tunnels, stone houses and high walls that are completely surrounded by thick Opuntia cacti forests. There is also a small visitor center and the Museo de Sitio Wari (2 soles) has photos, scale models, and artifacts from the site. The ruins are open to visitors Tues-Sun. 10am-5pm. Much of the ruins can be seen out the bus window on the way to Quinua. If you want you can just ask the driver to stop and let you out and hop on the next bus.
- Vilcashuaman – This is the spot where the road from Cuzco to the coast and the road that ran through the Andes met, making it the geographical center of the Inca Empire. Vilcashuaman, or Sacred Falcon, was the gathering point of two major highways and became a provincial capital. The earlier grandeur of the city has mostly disappeared thanks to looters and the modern Christian church that sits on the Temple of the Sun. Really! Some of the highlights that you can still make out from historical writings include the temple of the Moon, three levels of stone terracing, and the five tiered pyramid of el Ushno. The throne at the top of el Ushno was where the Inca sat and watched over military and religious ceremonies in the plaza below. There are a few basic hospedajes near the site if you prefer to spend more time there. The complex rests 118km from Ayacucho, which is about a three-hour ride. It is best reached by tour from Ayacucho, which generally cost not much more than a roundtrip bus ride.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.