Semana Santa in Ayacucho (March 19th-23rd)

March 23, 2008 - Ayacucho, Peru

Wednesday night we took a cab to Miraflores where our tour bus to Ayacucho was waiting for us. We left at 9:30 pm and slept most of the way to Ayacucho but we had to pass through very high mountains and I do remember waking up shivering and looking out the window to see snow all around us. We had gone from summer in the coastal desert of Lima to winter in only a few hours time. We got our first taste of Ayacucho from walking around the city streets lined with old buildings, beautiful colonial churches, and the Plaza Mayor (or Plaza de Armas) which had beautiful flowering trees facing buildings with arched walkways, and always with mountains in the background. In the Plaza Mayor there were costumed performers on stilts and a band walking around the plaza advertising some sort of show. It seemed like such a magical place, so alive and buzzing with activities nestled between rolling green mountains. We took as city tour with our group from the bus and walked around to get to know the city better, stopping at the 7 most important churches. We also visited el Museo Cáceres an art/history museum and an old jail where some famous heroine was kept. That evening we went back to this cute courtyard which was some sort of tourism center that had many restaurants with outdoor seating. Us five girls relaxed and ate a scrumptious Italian dinner while enjoying live music in the plaza. It was a perfect evening aside from the fact that native Peruvian singers’ voices resemble Hindi singers in that they have a strange high-pitched quality, except that Hindi singers are far more tolerable…

That night there was a big event in which all of the churches in town opened their doors for anyone to come inside. The tradition is to visit all 7, collecting holy water from each in order to make a wish. We only managed to make it to 4 churches but they were quite memorable. The insides were spacious with vaulted ceilings and lots of ornate gold decoration, candles and sometimes draperies bathed in light. There were also statues of Jesus with a crown of thorns in each church whose feet and robes the devoted pressed their hands to. The churches were packed shoulder to shoulder with people trying to make their way in and out and most of the pews were full. It was really touching to see so many people so deeply moved by their religion gather together. Outside of the churches there were vendors everywhere in the streets selling anything you might want – hand-crafted gifts, Jala Toro (Bull Running) t-shirts, toys and food. From the solemn religious atmosphere of the churches, one stepped out into the carnivalesque mood of the streets: cotton candy, candied apples, glow in the dark toys, popcorn, etc… There were mimes acting out Don Quixote for a sol and even a flame thrower in the plaza. Finally we retired to our hotel ‘El Mesón’ which was an absolutely adorable family-run hostel with clean beds and very nice employees.

The next morning we got up early to go on a tour. It was at this point that it became clear that the director of the tour seemed to have a vendetta against our group of 5 because she was quite unpleasant to all of us throughout the entire trip, starting with her yelling at us for being late, despite the fact that we were paying customers and were only following the schedule given to us by Dimensions Peru. We deemed her “la Bruja” (the Witch) and referred to her as such throughout the rest of our voyage. First stop was Pikimachay, a cave which is the site of remains that are considered some of the oldest in South America. It was up a ways on the mountain and took some trek to get to it from the road, especially in the high altitude our hearts were racing and breath was not easy to catch. We climbed for what honestly seemed like a really freakin long time, and this coming for a girl that spent part of last summer hiking in the jungle. It was hilarious to see the Peruvian children carrying buckets full of bottled water and scampering past us up the mountain, totally unphased by the steep ascent while we struggled and sweated. Finally we reached the cave, which wasn’t much to look at itself (more of a rock shelter if you ask me) but two local children named Javier and Ruth showed us around telling us facts about the cave and pointed out a fish painted on one of the walls. Apparently lots of different animal bones had been found there, even exotic ones like tiger, since people used to come to that spot to make sacrifices. They also led us back down the mountain on a less steep path, pointing out the different plants and their medicinal properties as we went and even speaking a little Quechua to satisfy my curiosity. After the cave we bought some fresh tuna fruit and choclo con queso (big-kernel corn with salty cheese) from the native ladies selling food by the roadside. Then, back on the bus with the Bruja!

Next we visited the city of Huanta, considered the Emerald of the Andes, possibly because many of the homes and buildings were painted green. We stopped in at the main church for the “Sermon of 7 Words”. The altar of the church was really interestingly decorated with lots of big leaves in the background which looked like a jungle and the crucified figures of Christ and the two thieves central. It looked smoky because of the incense, very surreal and was not something I had ever seen in a church before. For lunch we were shipped off to this large outdoor tourist rest stop surrounded by nothing by sky and mountains. Over lunch we got to talking with two very nice ladies on the tour who were from Lima and actually knew one of the professors who would be teaching at the language institute of Católica. Also apparently, Católica is considered for most subjects, the best university in Peru, so people always get really impressed when we say we study there. Who knew?

That night we went out and got matching running of the bulls t-shirts in preparation for the morning and walked around the plaza where there were pictures made in flowers and colored sawdust on the street. People were milling around looking at the skillful renderings of angels, flowers, faces, designs, etc… Afterward, in a store, Julia noticed her bag had a rip in it. It was no ordinary rip though, it appeared a thief had cut her bag in an attempt to reach in and steal from the contents. Luckily she must have moved away before his hand could reach in for anything and she still had all of her stuff: money, camera, phone, everything, she just has the cut in her bag to prove her close encounter. We also saw a procession where people clothed in black carrying candles supported this golden and glass coffin containing a statute of Christ around the streets. In the plaza, we ran into Lisette and Kevin, two friends of Melissa. Lisette was Peruvian and had just studied in Oklahoma where she met Kevin, who’s American, and convinced him to study abroad in Lima. They were there with about 8 of Lisette’s friends. They invited us to go with them to a fogata (bonfire) so Melissa and I went. First we met some hippie-European backpacker types on the steps around the plaza then hopped in a cab and went to the fogata which was in the city at this beautiful old house that still had courtyards with grass and flowers even in the middle of the city. There was a band and lots of little fires where people where hanging out and dancing a little. Carlos, Kaimer and Fernando, three guys from Católica we had met before also came to meet us at the fogata so we all got to talk about music and get to know one another. The atmosphere was so chill at it felt really good to be meeting Peruvians.

The next day we skipped our tour to Wari and Quinua and donned our matching t’s to watch the running of the bulls. We were told it started between 8 and 9 but we forgot that we were on Peruvian time, which means it actually started at some point after 10. We had been waiting from a safe vantage point watching excited groups of youngsters in matching Pascua Toro (Easter bull) shirts go proudly by waving flags and these long inflated balloons and shouting to music played by marching bands. There were also men an women in caballero uniforms trotting by on horses, all going down the street away from the center of town. We got really impatient finally and followed behind the parade to see were everyone was going. It seemed like they were all going down to watch the bulls be released and we wanted to get some snapshots of the action, but definitely did not plan on running with bulls. As we explained to the Peruvians: No queremos morir (we don’t want to die).

As we were walking down to where a lot of people were gathering, all of a sudden people started screaming “toros!” and running back up the street so of course we all ran as well, back up toward a small plaza and church. When we realized no bulls were actually coming we laughed it off and started walking back down the street, but as we were walking everyone started running for real and so did we again. I ran up onto a sidewalk near the church only to turn around and see one lone black bull cautiously stepping up onto the sidewalk as well. Uh oh, I didn’t know the bulls would get into the sidewalk…for some reason I assumed the sidewalk as safe territory. Wrong assumption. People were crowding in the doorway around the corner of the church and the old women were screaming “close the doors!” (all in Spanish of course), others were jumping into the fenced in parts of the plaza as the bull circled around to the front of the church. I kept my distance snapping photos and it really was kind of terrifying because if the bull had charged the church all of those people would have been trapped in the entryway and in its path. The bull was joined by other bulls milling around between the plaza and the church as everyone just sort of kept away seeing what they’d do. They seemed more interested in getting it on, however, than charging at any people. Finally some of the people in charge of “herding” the bulls started whipping them with a rope to get them back in the street going toward the center of town. All five of us got back together and sort of grinned at each other, agreeing “Let’s do it again”. (sorry Mom and Dad)

We waited down on that street and ran a few more times from the bulls. What I realized is it’s not the bulls that are scary. A bull is just an animal. It’s the frenzy of a hundred people around you screaming and running as one mob as fast as they can away from something. That’s what gets your heart pumping; so many people acting in fear. It makes you feel like you should be very afraid too, and the bull is sort of secondary to it all. There definitely were different levels of aggression in the bulls, the first ones were not as large and not very aggressive compared to some we saw. Julia and I moved closer down to were lots of people were waiting to see the bulls let out initially. They had the caballeros on horses guide the bulls on ropes but they obviously didn’t have much control over the animals. One bull started coming towards where Julia and I were standing. Everyone ran back up onto this weird bridge thing behind us as the bull started up on the sidewalk right at me! I was too engrossed in getting a good shot to run away. Luckily, as it got within reach it was herded to the right down the street and I was spared a goring.  Soon after, I accidentally ran out ridiculously in front of a horse, much to my embarrassment.

Another bull we saw was enormous and really pissed off, bucking around and running hard down the street. I think people freaked out and ran into the people who were standing up on a fountain because a man fell on me and Julia saw some old woman totally wipe out on the cobblestone. Later I decided that I needed to touch a bull since that’s the point of the Jala Toro (sorry again parents). So as we were standing on the sidewalks watching the bulls run by I jumped out and reached for the closest one. It was apparently more scared of me because it tried to veer away but I touched it! Triumph was mine! In general the streets were packed with people and cold cans of Cusqueña (a beer) were being sold everywhere with little girls running around screaming “dos por cinco!” (2 beers for 5 soles) in your ear. People had been milling around packing into the plaza, drinking all morning and into the day (kind of reminded me of a pre-game before a noon football game).

We did not stick around for a beer, however, but took a taxi to a combi stop that would take us to a nearby town in the highlands called Quinua. It is considered the handicraft capital of all Peru so we decided it couldn’t be missed even though we skipped our tour. The ride cost 3 soles (so cheap!) and was well worth it just for the amazing views. I cannot even begin to describe how absolutely breathtaking the scenery of the Peruvian highlands are. Mountain upon mountain, some green and fertile, some rocky with strange awe-inspiring rock formations, fields full of cacti where cows roam gingerly grazing between the spines, and the sky – so clear and blue with puffy white clouds. It was just postcard after postcard of exotic new backdrops – our eyes were glued to the windows of the van. Quinua was the most charming place we’ve yet to visit. It’s a pristine little Andean town surrounded by a panoramic of green mountains and lush fields with many little workshops where people produce local crafts for cheap. And since it was Semana Santa, there were no other tourists there; we had the place all to ourselves. We found one shop in particular where many of us bought unique hand-crafted vases for very inexpensive.

When we got back to the central plaza, it was getting dark and people were out in the streets enjoying the festivities – drinking and dancing to the live bands stationed around the plaza. Julia met a group of Peruvians after one of them just handed her a beer and we hung out with them in the plaza and danced for a bit. The girl we met was a law student named (Fiorana or something like that) who was from Lima with her boyfriend and two of his friends. She was so glad to meet up with girls after spending a long trip with a bunch of guys, so she was very friendly and happy to meet us. Julia stayed in the plaza with that group and the rest of us dropped off our stuff at the hotel (it wasn’t a safe night to be carrying a purse with all the crowds). At the hotel we ran into a couple people from our bus tour with whom we talked and came with us to the plaza. One of them was an older Limeño guy who was recommending the best discotecas in Lima to me and one was an Argentinean who was in Lima on work. After we met up with Julia in the plaza we girls went our separate way to get empanadas for dinner and Alexandro, one of the friends from Lima Julia had been talking to, came with us.  As we ate there were costumed dances put on by youngsters in the courtyard and Alexandro explained that they were Huayno (pronounced Wine-o, which we all thought was funny) the traditional dance of the highlands and Marinera the native dance of coastal peoples.

After dinner we went back to the plaza and ran into Alexandro’s friend Gonzalo? who was really nice and they took us to a hotel bar area to sit and talk in quiet and Alexandro got Julia a quality pisco sour which we all tried. We started hearing fireworks though, so we hurried back out into the chaos of the night toward the plaza. The fireworks display was really impressive actually and they seemed so close, not really high in the sky like the ones we’re used to. They also set up these bamboo castillos (castles) from which fireworks of different colors would go off, some would light up with different shapes like hearts and certain parts would spin making spiraling lights. Somehow they are lit from one point at the bottom and each level ignites the next until it gets to the top and shoots one into the air. Very odd, but very cool, and these were set up all around the plaza. We ran into the tres amigos from Católica around this time, along with Lisette and Kevin and we all started dancing in the street again in a circle. This gave me a great idea, as I put a bottle in the center, introducing the fine tradition of bottle dancing to the country of Peru (that one is for you James). I had to demonstrate a bunch of times to the group how to dance carefully around the bottle without knocking it over while the people on the outside of the circle watch and dance as well.

A bit later we also met some more people from the tour who were friends with the two guys from the hotel and danced with these two girls, Vanessa and another one, who kept insisting we five come down to their beach house in Punta Hermosa this weekend to hang out. It was kind of disconcerting at first how friendly Peruvians are – they will just grab your hand and dance with you and start asking you about yourself and the next thing you know you’ve agreed to go over to their house for dinner but you’ve only known them 10 minutes. At first it seemed kind of creepy because people just aren’t that forward with strangers in the US, but I think it’s just how Peruvians are, which is kind of nice. We all joined hands and danced in circles and made trains running through the crowd and even through the band that was playing the music. It was utterly crazy joyful fun and merrymaking all night. The point was to stay up all night partying in the street until sunrise when they have the final procession of the resurrection of Christ. Julia and Rubie went back to the hotel, but Abi, Melissa and I followed the tres amigos and brought Lisette and all her friends along with us. The three Católica guys kept insisting there was a great “secret” party – a fogata, hidden right outside of the plaza. We had doubts but they totally came through and we picked a spot at the fogata, where they played a strange mix of popular Peruvian, electronic, and American songs (the most memorable being “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy come on baby let me know…”). Weird, right?

The fogata was so much fun though, possibly the highlight of the night. We just danced and danced all night together, switching partners, going in the middle to show off our moves, learning to dance salsa, showing the Peruvians how Americans dance (they didn’t know what to do when electronic came on). I even whipped out the bottle dancing again, which Lisette totally got into. Everyone was in such a fun, silly mood and we had an absolute blast for hours. The popular Latin music I keep hearing here in Peru isn’t bad either, it’s really catchy and has a good beat so I want to download some and start a collection of Peruvian music. At 4:30am we finally left to meet up with all the girls in the plaza and waited in the cold for like an hour (Peruvian time again, everything starts an hour later than people say it does). Finally they procession started with fireworks and exploding castillos (different from the previous ones, much louder and more annoying/dangerous). This enormous shining pyramid made of wax with candles all over it and lit up on all sides was carried from the main church out around the plaza. It must have weighed tons, and townspeople got under it – hundreds of them sweating and toiling to carry it through the streets. It was so heavy it could only be carried a block at a time before everyone was switched out and the pyramid would dangerously tilt around before restabilizing and moving forward. We talked to a man who had carried it for a block and he confirmed what a heavy load it was while panting and sweating profusely even though it was in the 40’s outside. I was quite a magical vision though, seeing the shining silver pyramid adorned with a cross on top, floating through the dark sea of the crowd. We were exhausted and had fulfilled our touristy obligation to stay up all night through the festivities so we decided it was high time for bed. As we walked back to our hotel, the sky was brightening; we had made it until dawn.

Later that morning, we shopped a little more before getting on the bus back to Lima. The scenery to Lima was also beautiful, the kind of sights that make your spirit soar (cheesy, but totally true). Julia tried to point out the numerous herds llamas nearby walking in lines with babies and everything. Unfortunately, by that time I was too drugged up on the Peruvian version on Dramamine to do much of anything but grumble and turn back over to sleep and I only saw a few llamas on the ride back. All in all though, we agreed it was the weekend trip of a lifetime. That Saturday to Sunday morning (the bulls, Quinua, partying in the streets to the procession) is no doubt one of the best days of my life. Now I understand the t-shirts that read “Te Amo, Ayacucho” and “Siempre en Tu Corazón” because there will always be a piece of Ayacucho in my heart.


Plaza de Armas
Plaza during the day
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