Monday, January 14, 2013

Rainbows, ceramic Churches, retablos and prickly pears in Ayacucho and beyond.

We landed in Ayacucho just after a short sun shower, and we were welcomed to the gem of Peru’s central highlands with a beautiful rainbow as we deplaned. Within 15 minutes, we had been transported into another century. Our cab dropped us off at the front gate of Hostal Marquez de Valdelirios, a beautiful Colonial home converted into a hostal (hotels are called all sorts of names here and Hostal usually is a basic hotel with single, double and matrimonial rooms, with or without private bath). We were greeted by our host and taken through a hallway into a beautiful square courtyard of rooms. We chose our matrimonial (sounds so honeymoon like!) room, settled in, and got ready to walk the six blocks to the Plaza des Armas.

 I must mention, we were the only guests. You see, Ayacucho is off the beaten tourist track, although it kept us occupied and amazed for four full days.

It is rare to be somewhere that is almost untouched by globalization. Sure there is Internet, and electricity, even hot water most of the time. You can get a pizza (not a good one) and there are bank machines. But the people, outside of the main square, still live very simply. Since they are not used to tourists, and most do not earn their living from tourism, we walked among them as if invisible. Even though we, of course, look very different than they do, they had no particular use for us. On one hand, it made it hard for us to really connect with them, but on the other hand, it allowed us a chance to peek into their lives for a few days and explore this geographically, politically, archeologically and artistically incredible place.

Lets get a few facts out of the way to give you a bit of perspective.

Politically: This city and District of Huamanga were hijacked in the 1980s by Shining Path terrorists who claimed the city as their base and cut it off from Peru and the rest of the world for much of the past 2 decades. This horrible blemish on their history is over now and they have returned to a normal political framework.

Religion: Ayacucho is famous for its 33 Roman Catholic churches, which represent one for each year of Jesus’ life.

History/ Archeological relevance: Archeological sites documenting human settlements more than 15,000 years old have been found in this region. From 500 to 900 CE, the region became occupied by the Huari Culture (Wari), which became known as the first expansionist empire based in the Andes before the Incas.

Architecture: Ayacucho has more of its colonial architecture intact than almost any other city in Peru.

Artistically: The city claims to be the largest producer of Peruvian popular art (artesanĂ­a), including the renowned retablos (a beautifully painted wooden box that opens up to a intricate three dimensional scene carved from wood and painted in minute detail), archeological ceramic churches (absolutely amazingly cute), and whimsical red-clay figurines one sees all over Peru, and at this point, all over the world.

I could go on, but I will bore you and you can Google the rest. But really, can you believe all of this? And hardly anyone has been here. And I didn’t even mention that the surrounding countryside is gorgeous. A 12 hour day of touring through it to visit archeological digs, waterfalls, and churches was scenic every single minute. Not one stretch of blandness as we climbed from 10,000 ft to 15,750 ft . Which by the way was the altitude more or less that we reached when climbing to the Annapurna Sanctuary a year ago. Luckily, this time, we were driving! But not without the help of mouthfuls of coca leaves to help us through the pounding in our chests.

I intimated in my last post that arriving in Ayacucho was like entering a beautifully carved retablo. The centre of town is so charming, you have to pinch yourself to be sure you are not in a dream. Every tree is pruned, every pot is filled with flowering plants, everywhere you look there is a beautiful stone church. While the city people are dressed in western clothes, everyone else is dressed in indigenous attire. The women are dressed in wide puffy skirts (usually simply patterned) to just under the knee with tights (or something like tights) underneath. They all wear long sleeved buttoned jackets and wide brimmed leather hats. Heavy boots complete the outfit. Most have a large woven colourful blanket full of goods or a baby wrapped on their back. The men too, wear a wide brimmed leather hat and dark jacket and pants. Their skin is dark and weathered and their smiles are warm but missing a tooth or two.

Life’s pace is slow out of necessity. It is hard to do anything fast at 10,000 feet! And anyway, what is the rush? Our walk back and forth from our hostal to the Plaza des Armas, had us puffing each time. But it did not stop us from exploring the town and the surroundings.

On our first night in town, there happened to be a festival of some sort, and we were able to see and watch costumed dancers in the square, and listen to local music. We spent the next day visiting churches and planning our excursions.

Our first day trip outside of Ayacucho took us to the tiny pueblo of Quinua where most of the ceramic churches and retablos are made by local artisans. We hopped on a combi (local mini bus) and we were let off at the outskirts of town. With the aid of our guidebook we were able to visit several artists’ studios and even peek into their workshops. Surprisingly, we found the town almost deserted, and many of the shops closed. We met another tourist who was on the search for retablos and ceramic churches. He complained that the local artists had no idea how to market themselves and he was very frustrated at the lack of access. We learned later that many artists had relocated to Lima or even Ayacucho where a new artisan market had opened. Progress and modernization is a complex concept. On one hand, it was a very special experience for us to see even the few studios still open, and explore the primitive surroundings. But the writing is on the wall. The possibility of this experience is almost over.

We walked back to the spot where we had been dropped off and took another combi to the Wari archaeological complex. We spent the next two hours walking through one of the oldest urban walled centres in the Americas, dating to around 600 A.D. We were without a guide or anyone to explain anything to us in English (the norm for our trip so far!), so we simply wandered through the site trying to imagine what each area represented.

We were alone among the ruins with only the wild prickly pair cacti and grasshoppers chirping to keep us company. The fruit in all states of ripeness from green to yellow to pink to ruby red filled the archeological complex with sweetness as we huffed and puffed our way through, stopping often to catch our breath and snap a photo or two.

As we exited the complex we stopped at the side of the road where a local farmer was selling fruit. After a few words and a few hand gestures, he graciously pealed prickly pear after prickly pear for us with his bare hands, motioning to us how to grab each end of the pealed fruit so as not to get any of the nasty tiny thorns in our fingers. As we popped the pealed prickly pear after prickly pear into our mouths, we had to admit this was the perfect end to a wonderful day. We hopped onto the next combi, which delivered us back to Ayacucho exhausted and exhilarated!

The next day we had a full 12 hours planned, so we needed our sleep. Our mini bus was to pick us up at 5:30 am for what proved to be another very exciting day in the District of Huamanga.

1 comment:

  1. Your post and photos left me breathless (and I'm at sea level while you're at altitude!). Aren't days like this WHY we travel? After all the hassles and risks and uncertainties, there's a rainbow! Here's a flower-filled empty archeological site! Here's help with eating prickly pears! And all while art abounds... Can't wait for your next installment.