Ayacucho is one of Peru’s largest and most exciting cities. Tucked away in the mountains of central Peru, almost halfway between Lima and Cusco, it is a wonder that is almost overlooked entirely by travelers. Boasting a rich history, stunning architecture, and a gateway to natural wonders abound, Ayacucho is a hidden gem for those that are willing to venture off the beaten path. However, Ayacucho does lack the tourism infrastructure that other cities like Cusco and Arequipa have in abundance. Backpacker hostels are few and far between and despite the plethora of tour agencies in the city, most will only operate tours if there are enough interested travelers.
Because of this, I would recommend traveling to Ayacucho with a group. As a solo backpacker, I had a lonely three days in Ayacucho as there were few international travelers and even fewer hostels to meet them at. When it came to booking tours, I was at the mercy of the draw. I would need a minimum of four people to go on the tours that were further away from the city. I would basically have to hop in and out of various tour agencies every other day just to check if they’d be offering a certain tour the next morning.
Despite that, Ayacucho proved to be a fantastic city to take it slow in. While the city looks just as good as a city like Cusco or Arequipa, Ayacucho still maintains an extremely local feel. The bustling markets, hectic streets, and affordable prices are all trademark of a smaller Peruvian mountain town. But Ayacucho is far from a small town. It boasts the nightlife, restaurants, and other trendy establishments of a bigger city.
What Is There To See in Ayacucho?
Ayacucho is home to a plethora of colonial architecture. One of the biggest draws of Ayacucho are the dozens and dozens of beautiful churches that are scattered throughout the city. Of course, you’ll find them in and around the scenic Plaza de Armas but you will also stumble into them in random places that you won’t be expecting.
The Plaza de Armas is where I spent most of my time in Ayacucho, mostly because I knew that there would always be something happening. There would be parades or dancing or just a couple of hours spent on people watching. The Plaza is one of the most beautiful in all of Peru, up there with Cusco’s or Arequipa’s or Trujillo’s Plaza de Armas. The gorgeous panoramic view of the mountains that surround Ayacucho made me feel like I was still in Cusco.
One can also take a walk through some of Ayacucho’s walking streets to do some shopping or sightseeing. These streets will always be bustling and give off a vibrant energy as the Ayacuchenos carry on about their day. You’ll find some of Ayacucho’s best restaurants along these streets, so treat yourself to the Peruvian gastronomy to your heart’s desire. If you walk along one of these walking streets a few blocks to the south, you will find yourself at Ayacucho’s Mercado Central and the beautiful red arch that serves as the gateway to the colonial city center.
The Best Day Trips from Ayacucho
My first reaction upon walking into a tour agency was similar to when I first walked into one in Cajamarca. Overwhelming. I had known about the Aguas Turquesas of Millpu, but not much else. There is a lot to do in Ayacucho, from stunning natural wonders to ancient ruins. I’m not just talking about Inca ruins, either. You can see artifacts of civilization dating thousands and thousands of years before the Inca came to power.
The most popular one of course is a visit to the Aguas Turquesas of Millpu. These cascading layers of pools are one of the most stunning natural sights that you will see in Peru. Hike a little further on and you’ll stumble into half a dozen waterfalls that stream into the pools of Millpu. Flanked by canyons on both sides, this is truly a destination to reward off-the-beaten-path travelers.
Another offering by tour agencies is a tour that will take you to see some of central Peru’s most stunning waterfalls. The cataratas de Cangallo tour will typically bring you to at least three of the waterfalls near the city of Ayacucho.
For those looking for something more historic, the city of Viscayhuaman is the most popular day trip. It includes a visit to a former Inca stronghold where one can still see many ruins of the empire from centuries past. This tour usually combines a number of different attractions, including a visit to a beautiful laguna and a spot where you can see one of Peru’s most impressive plants, the Queen of the Andes.
For something even more historic, a Wari tour is the way to go. This is where you can see the remnants of a civilization from long before the Inca. You can visit the archaeological sites of the Wari yourself by heading to Quinua.
Since Ayacucho is the largest city for hours and hours, it usually serves as the gateway to many of the adventures in central Peru. Because of this, you might end up spending hours and hours on a bus for some of the more distant tours. It might be advisable to look into accommodation in those smaller towns if you were interested in spending a bit more time in those distant attractions.
So Final Verdict: Is Ayacucho Worth Visiting?
I’ve spent months and months in Peru. I thought I would have seen it all by now, but Ayacucho proved me wrong yet again. The drive from Cusco to Ayacucho was absolutely stunning. The mountains and canyons were jaw-dropping, even from the confines of the bus. Ayacucho as a city is beautiful and provides a much different experience than one would get from Cusco. Although I didn’t like it quite as much as I did Cajamarca, Ayacucho felt very similar in terms of being a large but local and beautiful city.
Outside of the city, the natural wonders and historic significance of the area cannot be understated. Internationally, Ayacucho is as much of a hidden gem as it gets in Peru. The majority of the tour offerings couldn’t even be found online during my quick research stint of Ayacucho. There are some things that I couldn’t even write about because I can’t remember their names and can’t figure out what to Google to remember them. Seriously, there was this crazy mountain thing and some crystal clear blue lagoons that I would have loved to visit but couldn’t gather a group for.
Ayacucho is absolutely worth the visit, but I would recommend a few things. Go with a group so that the tours will be cheaper and more readily available. It is hard as a solo traveler to meet people, and that is coming from one of the most social solo travelers out there. Also, go during the dry season if possible. Ayacucho will be busier but it’ll make tours easier to book as a solo traveler. Rainy season also muddies some of the attractions, including the Aguas Turquesas de Millpu. They lose their turquoise color altogether during the rainy season.
Ayacucho serves as a more than adequate stop between Lima and Cusco or vice versa. I highly recommend visiting this hidden gem in the heart of Peru.