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02/12/2013

Ayacucho follows a new path

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A vendor tends to her customers beneath the antique porticos that border the central plaza of Ayacucho in the Peruvian Andes. (Oakland Ross/Toronto Star)

I went to Ayacucho because I wanted to write a story about the legacy, now more than 30 years old, of Sendero Luminoso. In English, that means Shining Path, a terrifying network of Maoist-line zealots who haunted the city and its surrounding lands for more than a dozen years, beginning in 1980.

The conflict soon spread to other parts of Peru and would eventually claim nearly 70,000 lives, between those killed by Shining Path itself and those who fell victim to the army and police. But this remote Andean region bore the brunt of the bloodshed.

The worst year for violence was 1983. In August of that year, I traveled on assignment to Ayacucho itself and to neighbouring towns, while gathering material for a series of articles on the conflict. I got around mostly by hitching rides in the beds of trucks, which was about the only travel option available in those days.

On one occasion, the route took me past a cutoff to a village called Uchuraccay where, several months earlier, a group of villagers had attacked eight visiting journalists – all Peruvian, mostly from Lima – beating them to death and burying them in hidden graves. The villagers’ motives are still unclear. A fellow passenger in the back of the truck obviously remembered the incident well. He waved at me. “Oye, gringo!” he shouted. He gestured toward the village and then drew the palm of one hand across his neck in a cutting motion, before collapsing onto his back, barking with laughter.

Let’s just say it was a sinister time.

But 30 years have rolled past since then, and a lot has changed. While on holiday in Peru this past January, I decided to make a detour and visit Ayacucho again, to see the city in a time of peace.

The flight from Lima lasts about an hour, and it features sensational scenery – deep, cloud-filled valleys, green cathedral mountains, snow-covered peaks, and scattered lakes.

There’s also a Canadian connection.

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The central plaza of Ayacucho by night is dominated by the cathedral, one of more than 30 churches located in the Andean city. (Oakland Ross/Toronto Star)

LCPeru, one of two airlines that fly to Ayacucho from the Peruvian capital, operates Canadian aircraft exclusively – mainly DASH 8-202 twin-props, manufactured by Bombardier.

We landed amid an afternoon rain-shower, and a vivid rainbow soon arched overhead against a backdrop of proud green hills.

Located high in the central Andes, Ayacucho is not well-known outside Peru. Most foreign visitors to the country make a bee-line for the Andean city of Cuzco, on their way to the Inca temples at Machu Picchu. But Ayacucho is well worth the journey, an ancient, beautiful, and storied town, nearly five centuries old, set in a lofty intermontane valley. Most of the people who live in Ayacucho are Quechua-speaking Indians, whose ranks include almost everyone from the mayor himself to the vendor women in jaunty white bowlers who sell their wares from the stone walkways that border the town’s broad central plaza.

The town has an illustrious history. It was near Ayacucho that nationalists fought the decisive battle for South America’s independence from Spain. That was in 1824, and a huge equestrian statue now dominates the town’s square, honouring General Jose Antonio de Sucre, who commanded the nationalist side in that contest.

Famous for its many churches – there are said to be 33 – Ayachucho also boasts a busy cottage industry of artisans fashioning handmade crafts, mainly woven items. Religious processions frequently cram the city’s narrow cobbled streets, and impromptu dancing competitions erupt without warning, typically restricted to men who take each other on in contests that resemble a series of dueling soft-shoe routines. As you might expect, the most popular music here is performed on Andean Pan flutes with accompaniment from drums and strings, and there are frequent free concerts in the plaza.

The best restaurant in town is probably the Via Via – now owned by Belgians, strangely enough – which directly overlooks the park. The tables arrayed along the open-air balcony are best, especially at night, when the cathedral across the square sparkles with electric lights, and the plaza itself operates as a sort of communal living-room, with groups of friends or families strolling along the tiled walkways or lounging on park benches in the cool evening air.

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Museum of Memory in Ayacucho. (Oakland Ross/Toronto Star)

There are several good hotels, including the Santa Rosa, which is located just half a block from the main square and has a lovely courtyard surrounded by porticos on two stories. There’s even free WiFi, although the signal is a bit weak.

 

Outside the city centre, most people get around Ayacucho by riding in quaint, jerry-rigged moto-taxis – three-seater vehicles that totter up and down the dusty lanes in the outlying sections of town. This being Peru, there are bound to be ancient ruins somewhere nearby, and so there are – near Quina, about 40 km. north of the city. They don’t remotely compare with the grandeur of Machu Picchu, of course – not many historical sites in the world do – and that’s one reason Ayacucho will probably never attract anything approaching the legions of tourists that regularly descend upon Cuzco.

That’s bad news for the local economy, but good news for those visitors who do venture to Ayacucho, a beautiful and now peaceful Andean city that deserves a much kinder history than it has had. I’ll definitely be going back.

READ MORE: Peruvian city of Ayacucho remains a Museum of Memory — and sorrow

Oakland Ross is a feature writer for the Toronto Star. During the 1980s, he spent five years as a newspaper correspondent based in Latin America.

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