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Tucked into the folds of the Andes, 2,740 meters (8,987 feet) up on the slopes, Ayacucho is a colorful, colonial-style town. Though its looks are Spanish—all glowing white-alabaster mansions with elegant columns and arches—it's primarily an indigenous town inhabited by people who still speak Quechua as a first language and don traditional costume for their daily routine. Locals greet
visitors with warmth and amazement, and the city's 140,000 people revere artists with an energy matched only during religious celebrations like Carnaval and Semana Santa. Religion is a serious pursuit, too, in this city of churches, where more than 50 sanctuaries beckon worshippers at all hours.Civilization in Peru began in the valleys around Ayacucho about 20,000 years ago. Dating back this far are the oldest human remains in the country—and perhaps in the Americas—found in a cave network at Piquimachay, 24 km (15 miles) west of the city. Over the centuries, the region was home to many pre-Hispanic cultures, including the Huari (Wari), who set up their capital of Huari 22 km (14 miles) from Ayacucho some 1,300 years ago. When the Inca arrived in the 15th century, they ruled the lands from their provincial capital at Vilcashuamán.
Spread out high in the Andes, colonial Huancavelica was founded by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, and they promptly discovered rich...