Where the hell is Ayacucho? I, too asked myself this question less than one day before I arrived there. After two days in the Ica region of Peru, I headed to the bus station to buy a ticket to Cusco, a 20 hour ride I was not really looking forward to. At the bus station, a familiar face pulled me aside as I was forking over the cash to go to Cusco.
Max, my French sandboarding partner and his girlfriend Anaís told me that they were heading to Ayacucho. Knowing I would have a good time traveling with them, I asked if they minded if I tagged along. So there you have it, now I was heading to Ayacucho, a short 5 hour drive from Ica and en route to Cusco. A great place to stop to break up the long trip!
Taking a taxi to explore some beaches in Paracas before our late night bus to Ayacucho, we told the driver our plans to visit Ayacucho and our excitement about visiting the giant canyon that my friends had seen on the map. I knew right away that the driver’s chuckle predicated an imminent ‘oh shit’ moment. “That canyon is not in Ayacucho. There’s not a lot in Ayacucho.” My first thought? “Oh shit.” But seeing the slightly horrified look on my friends’ faces, I tried not to show my slight annoyance and instead said we’d figure something out.
It is hard for me to really recommend stopping in Ayacucho on your way to Cusco, because there truly is not a whole lot there. We were greeted with stone cold stares that seemed to wonder what our plans were for visiting the town. And within the main city, that was the trend for the two days we were there. So why did we have such a good time? A little bit of luck and a lot of openness to exploration.
Walking around the city our first day there, we quickly started thinking that there was not a whole lot for us to do. Eventually, Anaís pointed out a church at the top of one of the huge mountainous hills overlooking the city and we decided to brave the exhausting walk and see if we could take a look inside.
Reaching the top of the hill, not without my French friends’ fair share of admitting that maybe it was time to quit smoking, we found ourselves in the middle of a patron saint festival in a small pueblo called Quinuapata. Walking into the church, we were overwhelmed with the scent of the flowers that adorned a larger-than-life altar of the patron saint of Quinuapata. The people on their knees in prayer could not help but look back in awe at the gringos that had just entered their iglesia.
On the side of the church, a small shack was lit up with at least 100 candles burning in honor of the patron saint. We followed suit, buying candles and placing them next to their quickly melting kin. I couldn’t help but laugh audibly, wondering what the spirits of the church were trying to say of my lack of religion as I put out two different candles in attempt to light my own.
After the church visit, we were beckoned further up the hill towards a large set of rickety bleachers, made entirely from 2x4s, holding hundreds of people packed in like sardines. Carefully watching my footing as each step caused a very significant flex in the obviously haphazardly built structure, I heard a common word being chanted throughout the dense crowd: toro! toro!
We had gone from not having the slightest idea of what to do that day, to stumbling into a running of the bulls festival! At least 50 teenaged boys were waiting in the sand below the bleachers for the entrance of the Oquesta, a common festival brass band in Peru. With the sound of tubas overpowering the other brass instruments, the festivities could begin. The first of many toros (bulls) was yanked by rope to center stage, and the excited boys teased it with their colorful hats and flags, hoping for a moment in the spotlight to dodge the powerful animal in its fearful defense.
This provided good entertainment for about an hour, but after that we were ready to get out. Climbing around the crowd on the sketchy bleacher and down the ladder was scary enough, but our thankful return to the ground quickly turned to fear as we were swallowed by a screaming crowd. There was a bull on the loose! We hid under the bleachers for a few minutes before we were given the cue to head to the street. We got the hell out of there!
Seeing the running of the bulls was quite an experience, one that I would not take back. However being the boyfriend of a zoologist, I cannot say that I did not feel bad for the animal. Although portrayed as an angry beast, it doesn’t take a zoologist to see the fear in the eyes of the beasts. They do not charge the people until being provoked, and even after that, the apparent rage only lasts about minute until the bull finds its way out of the crowd, at which point another one is pulled in.
Okay enough ranting! So yes, we got lucky and had a really cool day in a small pueblo outside of Ayacucho. But what is there to do on the average, non-festival day?
Our second and last day was spent in the town of Huanta, 45 minutes out by colectivo, a cheap way to travel medium-sized distances in Peru. They are large vans that do not leave until each seat is taken. In this case, we waited about ten minutes and paid S./ 5, less than $2. But I’ve also had times where I’ve waited hours for a colectivo to leave. It sucks, but when you’re stuck in a small town, you don’t have another choice!
From Huanta, we hiked uphill to a gigantic Jesus statue the overlooks the town. From there, we hiked to a small but beautiful waterfall, passing by huts made of a mix of mud and pebbles, Andean farmers, lots of sheep, and immense cacti and what I believe were giant aloe vera plants. The 30 minute hike to the waterfall was probably better than the falls themselves, and well worth it!
So what does Ayacucho have to offer? Well I guess my recommendation is that it is a great place to sleep and eat cheap (stay away from the city center for cheap!), and after you wake up and eat, head to one of the neighboring pueblos! Authenticity is what you will discover. I had lots of great conversations with the people of those pueblos. Oh, and not to mention that the small-town folk actually smiled when we passed by!
Following the typical gringo trail in Peru, true authenticity does not come to you if you do not seek it out. A stop in Ayacucho and outside exploration from there is a great way to get away from typical destinations tainted by tourism. Heading to a town you’ve never heard of just as I did is definitely not a bad idea!