Some of Peru’s first signs of human habitation were purportedly discovered in the Pikimachay caves, near Ayacucho (though today there is nothing of interest to be seen there).

Five hundred years before the rise of the Incas, the Wari dominated the Peruvian highlands and established their capital 22km northeast of Ayacucho. The city’s original name was San Juan de la Frontera de Huamanga (locals still call it Huamanga) and it grew rapidly after its founding in 1540 as the Spanish sought to defend it against attack from Manco Inca. Ayacucho played a major part in the battles for Peruvian independence, commemorated by an impressive nearby monument.

After the dark days during the 1980s and '90s when the city was terrorized by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist revolutionary movement (and became the group's chief base), Ayacucho’s first paved road connection with the outside world came only in 1999, to Lima.

Ayacucho has long since turned to face the 21st century, and welcomes travelers with good cheer.

The Wari

Before the Incas ruled the roost in the Peruvian highlands, the Wari were top dogs. Their empire extended north beyond Chiclayo and south as far Lake Titicaca, with its capital on the high grasslands above Ayacucho. The heyday was from AD 600 to AD 1100, during which time the Wari took control of many settlements previously occupied by the Moche people in northern Peru, had dealings with the Tiwanaku culture to the south and established a power base in Cuzco.

The Wari rose to dominance through developing a series of key administrative centers in topographically contrasting regions: Moquegua on Peru’s southern coast, Piquillacta near Cuzco and Viracochapampa in the Northern Highlands. This maximized trade in resources including coca, cotton and corn. At its zenith, the empire enjoyed then-unprecedented wealth in Peruvian civilizations.

The capital, now a swathe of ruins 22km northeast of Ayacucho, once housed some 50,000 people and was well-organized into sectors for agriculture, workshops and a grandiose area reserved for burial of dignitaries (the Cheqowasi sector of the site shows this). The Wari certainly had grand plans. Their architectural style placed an emphasis on a display of power with public spaces, possibly for nobles to interact in, and platforms to promote rank seniority. They also excelled in producing weaving, as well as distinctive ceramics which indicate sophisticated trade interaction with neighboring cultures such as the Tiwanaku.

However, by AD 1000, for unknown reasons, the empire entered a period of decline. It has been speculated that because defense had never been a priority, Wari buildings were vulnerable to attack. Significantly, however, the civilization left behind a legacy of roads and settlements so important that they were still in use by the Inca empire almost 500 years later.