The name of this mesmerizing colonial city, originating from the Quechua aya (death, or soul) and cuchu (outback), offers a telling insight into its past. Ayacucho’s status as isolated capital of a traditionally poor department provided the perfect breeding ground for Professor Abimael Guzmán to nurture the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist revolutionary movement bent on overthrowing the government and causing thousands of deaths in the region during the 1980s and ‘90s. Yet the city’s historically poor links with the outside world have also helped foster a fiercely proud, independent spirit evident in everything from the unique festivals to the booming cultural self-sufficiency.
The shadow of Ayacucho’s dark past has long been lifted but travelers are only just rediscovering its treasures. Richly decorated churches dominate the vivid cityscape alongside peach- and pastel-colored colonial buildings hung with wooden balconies. Among numerous city festivities, Ayacucho boasts Peru’s premier Semana Santa celebrations, while in the surrounding mountains lie some of the country’s most significant archaeological attractions.
Perhaps Ayacucho’s greatest allure is the authenticity with which it pulls off its charms. Its development has been tasteful, its commercialization blissfully limited and, if you take to the pedestrianized, cobbled city central streets early enough, it is easy to imagine yourself transported back several centuries to its colonial heyday. That said, these days designer-clad students and businesspeople are increasingly in evidence and behind many colonial facades are plenty of sumptuous accommodations and suave restaurants. What is clear is that Peru’s most enticing Andean city after Cuzco is experiencing a resurgence − one that is well worth witnessing.