Peru tourism revival extends reach

AYACUCHO, Peru -- U.S. travel to Peru, which almost disappeared in the late 1980s when the Shining Path terrorists made violent headlines, is once again booming.

Cusco and Machu Picchu are in the forefront of tourism resurgence, but tourists are even returning to the birthplace of the Shining Path -- Ayacucho, a colonial city tucked high in the Andes. The city is a 45-minute flight from Lima aboard AeroContinente.

On landing, visitors immediately are introduced to one of the chief reasons to visit Ayacucho: examples of the region's rich heritage of folk art -- produced by perhaps Peru's best pottery workers, weavers and sculptors -- that decorate the new city airport.

Other reasons not to shy away from at least a three-day visit to Ayacucho include its 33 colonial churches, breathtaking mountain views, nearby pre-Inca ruins and sunshine nearly year-round.

The battle of Ayacucho broke the power of Spain in the New World, but the strong religious legacy of the conquistadors is still visible everywhere, and this so-called City of Churches is distinguished by its religious sanctuaries with ornate exteriors and art-filled interiors.

The 17th century Cathedral fronts Plaza de Armas, where the statue of Liberator Sucre astride his horse crowns the square. Good times to visit are early evenings and on Sundays, when families turn out to socialize and treat their children to towering pink spires of cotton candy.

Other churches of particular note are San Cristobal, built in 1534, possibly the oldest in South America; San Francisco de Paula with its finely carved pulpit and Flemish paintings; the baroque La Compania de Jesus, and the wonderful gold and silver altars of Santo Domingo.

Not all churches have reopened since the heyday of the Shining Path terrorists, but many of their fine paintings are being restored under a program called Adopt a Painting. Chief adopters are the Banco de Credito and the quasi-governmental office of PromPeru, which promotes tourism to the country and is a leading force in re-establishing tourism as an economically vital industry in the region.

To enjoy Ayacucho's full piety and religious splendor, the time to be here (book far ahead) is during Holy Week when fabulous religious treasures are paraded in candlelit processionals. Festivities include agricultural and craft fairs and folk-dancing competitions.

Ayacucho also is noted for its colonial houses, most of which have been converted to government offices or museums.

Of particular note is the Popular Art Museum, housed in the 18th century Casa Chacon, and the Museo Andres Avelino Caceres, occupying the 16th century Casona Vivanco and displaying pre-Hispanic, colonial and republican art.

The Museo Arqueologico Hipolito Unanue (also called Museu INC) is in the university outside of town. Its collection of Wari culture artifacts -- mostly ceramics -- is outstanding.

Some 15 miles north of the city are the Wari ruins, the vast remains of a 10th century city of stone built on volcanic ash.

The Wari civilization ruled nearly all of what is present-day Peru before the rise of the Incas.

Another 10 miles brings visitors to the village of Quinua, a quiet Andean community whose beautifully worked pottery is made and sold in rustic workshops.

Clients should bring lots of bubble wrap for the purchases they will make in Ayacucho and Quinua.

The famed Ayacucho clay churches, painted in muted browns and beiges, with tiny figures peering out of windows and spilling out of balconies, are on sale at prices one should be ashamed to haggle over. Traditionally and today, the churches are set on roofs of newly occupied houses to ward off evil spirits.

Other creations are carved retablos, boxed miniature altars with tiny figures depicting Christian scenes or everyday life in bold colors.

Weavers are settled in the Barrio Santa Ana just above Ayacucho, where clients will find the workshops of many fine artisans, including master weaver Gregorio Sulca.

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TIP SHEET: Where to stay

By far the best hotel in town is the Ayacucho Plaza Hotel, a half block from the Plaza de Armas.

Housed in a colonial building, the public rooms and flowering courtyards are large and welcoming. The rooms are plain but come with a bath and television, and inside rooms are definitely quieter. The hotel staff is pleasant and helpful, and the dining room serves up a good breakfast and terrific chicken soup.
Phone: (011) 51-64 812-202
Fax: (011) 51-64 812-314
E-mail: [email protected].

Recommended restaurants for regional food include La Casona (Bellido 463) and Uripicha (Londres 272)

Specialities include puca picante, a spicy stew of pork, potatoes and toasted peanuts. Craft shopping here is truly tantalizing, and clients would do well to bring along an empty soft bag to carry purchases home. One of the best buys in town is freshly squeezed orange juice, sold on street corners -- five oranges to the glass for 10 cents.

There are a couple of travel agencies in town that handle incoming visitors, usually booked through ground operators in Lima.

However, the level of English-speaking guides needs improving in Ayacucho.

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