Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Charms of Ayacucho

Walking around the city of Ayacucho, or Humanga as it is traditionally known by its inhabitants, you would hardly imagine it as the centre of the region that originated, and most suffered from, the terrorism of the Sendero Luminoso and the brutal military response in the 1980s and 1990s.

First impressions are of people going busily about their daily affairs, while cheeky, smiling children are everywhere. The city and its surroundings are picturesque -- it has a typical Spanish colonial layout, flower-fringed plazoletas, and cobblestone streets. At face value at least, Catholicism is a dominant presence. As everyone will tell you, there are no less than 33 churches in Ayacucho, in a city with a population of at most 200,000. The Semana Santa (Easter) celebrations are renowned as being the most impressive in Latin America.

With its proximity to the jungle and its cosy location nestled in a shallow valley, the climate is warmer than Cuzco or Arequipa, the air softer and less bone dry The countryside is greener; although it is now starting to dry up, I understand the rains return in December with more regularity and plentitude than further south. The tap water is clean and sweet.

Ayacucho also seems to be overflowing with educational instutions -- schools, technical institutes, academies and universities. This means that the place is still full of young people, and thus doesn't have the abandoned feel of some smaller towns in Peru.

On the downside, issues of transit are even more fraught than elsewhere, even if you just want to walk around the few central city blocks near the plaza. The pavements are extremely narrow, and in the tight and bumpy streets, traffic drives extremely close to the kerb (Hiluxes and Corrollas mix with numerous battered moto-taxis; there are few of the little yellow 'Tico' taxis that dominate in Arequipa).

People seem to have little problem with any of the following: walking very slowlyy two abreast and blocking the footpath; weaving from side to side while talking on a cellphone, making overtaking difficult; walking two abreast and not making space for someone coming the other way; or simply standing still in a group and blocking the entire path.

This means that to make any progress, you often have to step off the sidewalk into the street. At the same time, there is no safe zone in the street, as the moto-taxis -- wth zero suspension and ancient steering -- often brush the gutter. You therefore have to make rapid tactical decisions about stepping on and off the pavement, calculating the proximity and likely speed of traffic and obstacles. With the jammed intersections, crumbling kerbs, and unpredictable human and vehicular traffic, almost every street crossing is a mini-adventure.

I've asked several people what the basis of the economy is here. Given that Ayacucho is in the bottom half of Peruvian departments with respect to poverty, there seems to be a suprising amount of apparent wealth. I've noticed an inordinate number of 4WD Toyota Hiluxes in the streets, on a per capita basis, many more than in much wealthier Arequipa. To be fair, a number of these seem to belong to various government agencies that maintain a notable presence. However, while the first couple of my interlocutors posited "just agriculture really" or "mainly goverment services" in response to my question, others later confirmed my suspicions.

What gives Ayachucho its sheen of dollar wealth is its connection with the coca economy. The lowland regions of the department, known as the VRAE (Valle de los Rios Apurimac y Ene, pronounced like the first syllable of "Bryan") are among the most fertile and productive in the world for growing coca, and according to United Nations reports, production is increasing more rapidly there than anywhere else. It goes without saying that the majority of the coca is not grown for traditional medicinal and cermonial uses. The VRAE is a remote, lawless zone where the presence of the Peruvian state remains shaky and the remnants of the Sendero Luminoso mix with ruthless drug traffickers. Yet it provides an injection of cash into the capital that shows up in the disproportionate number of banks, cars, and well-groomed women in expensive jackets.

Around Ayacucho

On Monday I took a little tour of one of the 'northern circuits' offered by local travel agencies. It was a very pleasant trip in a private vehicle, a middle-aged US-Peruvian couple my only company apart from Leo the guide.

From the city, we wound further downhill into a narrow valley with cactus lining the quebradas, spaghetti-western style. Natural irrigation from the river supported a fertile zone of fruit and vegetable production. We headed back uphill to our first stop, the archeological complex of Wari. The Wari were a 'horizon culture' that dominated the area from the 6th to the 11th century. In their two periods of expansion, they dominated as far north as Trujillo and south to Moquegua (basically three quarters of Peru, excluding the Amazon).

The Wari capital was the first walled city in South America, and their empire prefigured the Incas in important respects, notably in architecture and administration. They also seemed to have an impressive system of stone ducts that formed a subterranean water supply in a similar manner to the Nazca culture.

We walked through the military quarters, public amphitheatre, sacrificial platform (animals and occasionally people), and the royal tomb. The latter (pictured below) was perhaps the most impressive of the sites. It is divided into four sections, in which

Only 10 percent of the archeological complex has been excavated. Work began in the 1960s, and was of course completely abandonded during the 1980s and 90s and only got underway again around 2000. The Insituto Nacional de Cultura oversees archological investigations, but is predictably lacking funds, and any support from international institutes or universities or the private sector would reportedly be very welcome.

Later we continued on to the Pampa de Ayachucho, where the final battle for Peruvian independence was fought on 9 December 1824 and the outnumbered, outgunned 'patriotic' army of Jose Antonio Sucre defeated Royalist forces. The broad, flat windy plain at nearly 3,000 metres above sea level almost seems designed for an old-style cavalry battle -- you can imagine Braveheart being filmed there.

Dominating the landscape was the 44-metre obelisk depicted below. Its construction was commissioned in 1974 to commemorate 150 years of independence (designed, ironically, by a Spanish sculptor). The various levels in the scultpure are supposed to stand for the different geographical zones of Peru.

The final stop of the day was in La Quinua, a strikingly pretty and clean village of tiled roofs and cobblestone streets where almost every family is dedicated to the production of ceramics made from local clay. Most are model churches, campesinos working, or children playing muscial instruments. The photo below shows some of the typical designs. I couldn't resist, and bought a couple of ceramic pieces and a retablo, which, if they survive the journey back to New Zealand, will become presents for some lucky people.

On Wednesday, I caught a kombi to the town of Huanta, just over an hour from Ayacucho. It's another attractive town, nestled in a green valley, with exceptionally well laid out plazas incorporating botanical displays. I think I was a bit over tired by the time I got there, and perhaps coming down with something, so only stayed a few hours before heading back to the capital, without learning too much about the place. But as I learnt later, La Quinua and Huanta probably give a distorted impression of rural Ayacucho.

The above pictures and descriptions should provide a prima facie case for why Ayacucho is overlooked and should probably receive a lot more international tourism. However, it's not all sunshine and flowers, and in a further post I'll try and do a rather more image-light summary of the other things I learned while in the region.

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