Peruvian Travel Consultant Margot Chard tells us about her trip to Ayacucho and how it compared to its better-known Andean neighbour, Cusco.
Where have you been?
As part of my holiday in Peru I spent four days exploring Ayacucho and the surrounding area, including the Valle de Sondondo, which covers 1,500 hectares and is the largest valley of all the Tawantinsuyu (the four regions that comprised the Inca Empire) – it’s even bigger than the Sacred Valley!
The Valle de Sondondo is not a very well-known part of Peru but it is very beautiful and full of history with lovely colonial towns, indigenous bridges and ancient ruins dotting the landscape. The flora and fauna of the region is also extremely impressive: lakes, waterfalls and forests of puyas de Raimondii, the largest specie of bromeliad, growing up to 10 metres at altitudes of between 3 and 4,000m above sea level, are found all around the valley.
One of the main attractions of the Valle de Sondondo is the Mayobamba mirador where you can see more condors than anywhere else in the country – apparently even more than in the Colca Canyon! You’ll also see vicuñas and viscachas (Andean rabbits).
Have you been before?
I haven’t been to this part of Peru before but I grew up in Lima and ever since I was a child hearing stories about the Wari and Chanca cultures that ruled around Ayacucho before the Incas I have always wanted to go and see it for myself. I finally got to go last December with my husband and it was an amazing experience that I will never forget.
How did you get there?
I took a one-hour flight from Lima. The journey overland would take around 8-10 hours.
How long were you there?
I spent two days in the town of Ayacucho and two days in Andamarca in the Valle de Sondondo (pictured below).
Which was your favourite excursion?
We travelled by private vehicle over three days and passed through many villages and saw lots of archaeological sites, which were all very interesting in their own right. The sites that impressed me most though were the ruins of Caniche (located in Andamarca and dating from 1,100 AC – 1,350 AC) and Qincamoqo, which was a main Wari centre from 500 AC – 1,100 AC. This particular ruin is located at Cabana Sur, close to Andamarca, and noted scholar Katherine Schreiber initiated the work on this excavation project.
Any good food, drinks, restaurants or bars recommendations?
I very much enjoyed a traditional dish called Pachamanca: it’s prepared with beef, pork, potatoes, and corn and cooked underground surrounded by hot stones and aromatic herbs. It is a very common dish in rural places and can be enjoyed either at home with friends and family or in typical countryside restaurants.
I must also mention the “seven seeds drink”. A typical drink of the region - it is delicious and nutritious and most popular in carnival season. It is made from corn beans, maca, soya, chickpeas, wheat, kiwicha and quinoa.
What impressed you about Ayacucho?
Ayacucho town itself is very atmospheric: its high-altitude (2,761m) gives it a crisp mountain air and makes it very picturesque – you get the feeling that it is a real, remote working town. It is also a very religious place with 33 beautifully ornate churches in the city (Easter celebrations here are some of the best in Peru and, just like Carnival in Brazil, you have to book well in advance if you don’t want to miss out).
As for the department of Ayacucho, what impressed me most is that you feel you are very much off the beaten track. Travelling overland, you pass through small towns and villages, take in the magnificent scenery and views, and see the indigenous people going about their daily lives. All of this, along with the archaeological sites and very warm and welcoming people, made it a very special place.
What are the highlights of visiting Ayacucho and how does it differ from Cusco?
When you think of Peru you probably only think of the Incas and Machu Picchu, or at least that’s the first thing that comes to mind; but there is so much history that pre-dates the Incas and civilisations such as the Wari, the Chancas and the Pocras all ruled in this part of Peru before the Incas came along.
The reason these cultures are less well-known is that investment in archaeology in this region has been limited: a lack of resources has meant that many of the sites around Ayacucho are still unexcavated. As a result, there are fewer visitors and when you walk around these ruins you feel as though you yourself are discovering them, like a true explorer! On a visit to some Wari ruins next to the small village of Andamarca, broken Wari pottery lay around and there was a burial tomb which still contained human remains and even the funeral shroud.
It’s a completely different experience to visiting Cusco and the Sacred Valley: while Machu Picchu is obviously one of the highlights of visiting Peru and rightly so, there is something magical about exploring untouched archaeological treasures with no-one else around!
Do you have any tips for people visiting Ayacucho?
I am not usually one for buying souvenirs but on our last day we stopped in a small square called Barrio Santa Ana (15-20 minutes’ drive from Ayacucho), where a small community of artisans live and work. I saw many original and interesting pieces that I haven’t seen elsewhere. We bought a few and I would have liked to have bought more but I didn’t have space in my bag. So one tip I would offer is that if you visit Barrio Santa Ana, make sure you have lots of room in your bag!
Ayacucho is also well-known for its weavers: here it is a cottage industry and it’s fascinating to see how they do so much with so little. They produce beautiful rugs and tapestries so you might want to save some space for these too!
You can visit Ayacucho and the central Andes on our Peru: Drive across the Andes holiday or by having our travel specialists arrange a tailor-made itinerary.