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 150,000 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.

The Spanish came and conquered the reigning Inca, and Francisco Pizarro founded Ayacucho in 1540. First named Huamanga for the local huamanga (alabaster) used in handicrafts, Ayacucho grew from a small village into a broad city known for its many colonial-style churches. Nearly 300 years later it was the center of Peru's rebellion for independence from the Spanish, when the Peruvian army led by Antonio José de Sucre defeated the last Spanish at nearby Quinua on December 9, 1824. Iglesia Santo Domingo in Ayacucho sounded the first bells of Peru's independence, punctuating the city’s role in bringing it about.

It took a century more before the city built its first road links west to the coast, and the road to Lima went unpaved through the 1960s. Ayacucho might have opened to tourism then but for the influence of Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy teacher at the University of Huamanga. His charismatic preaching encouraged a Maoist-style revolution as a panacea to the age-old problems of rural poverty among the country’s indigenous peoples. He founded Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in the late 1960s, and spurred it to militant action in March of 1982, when bombs and gunfire first shook the cobbled streets. The fighting between the Shining Path and the government killed thousands of Ayacuchanos, and by the 1990s the city was cut off from the rest of Peru. Alberto Fujimori’s government arrested Guzmán in a posh Lima suburb in 1992, and the Shining Path fell apart thereafter. Although the city is now peaceful, tourism has been slow to establish itself outside of Semana Santa, and the city receives only about a thousand visitors a month. Those who do come consequently enjoy the benefits of hassle-free strolls down the cities well-built pedestrian promenades.

Ayacucho's resulting isolation from the modern world means that to visit is to step back into colonial days. Elegant white huamanga buildings glow in the sunlight, bright flowers spilling out of boxes lining high, narrow, wooden balconies. Beyond the slim, straight roads and terra-cotta roofs, cultivated fields climb the Andes foothills up to the snow. Electricity, running water, and phones are occasionally unreliable, but infrastructure has improved significantly in the last 10 years. Banks and businesses hide in 16th-century casonas (colonial mansions). Women in traditional Quechua shawls draped over white blouses, their black hair braided neatly, stroll through markets packed with small fruit, vegetable, and crafts stalls.

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