Dry valleys on the route to Ayachucho.

Dry valleys on the route to Ayachucho.

This is a brief excerpt from the interesting route that connects the ancient city of Ayacucho to the sea at Pisco. It has been a means of access to the Southern sierra for millennia, and the route is lined with ruins and agriculture that dates back well before the Incas, to the Chocorbo and Chancas cultures. These groups, acting as allies, nearly brought down the Incas in the early stages of their expansion. Eventual Inca conquest involved the eradication of these influences, and the Inca name for Huancayo meant something along the lines of "Heap of dead bodies".

A typical farmstead, near to Pisco on the coast of Peru

The road leaves the coastal Panamericana just North of Pisco, a town very badly damaged in a recent earthquake. It travels through irrigated valleys filled with vines and surrounded by arid hills on which nothing grows and where no rain falls. As the road climbs, so the valley closes in and the agriculture becomes more restricted.

Cactus appears at around 1000m, in the zone known to the Incas as the yunga. (The example shown below does not occur on the main road, but gives an idea of what to expect.)

Cactus line a typical Peruvian seasonal watercourse.

Peru is a paradise for lovers of cactus and aloes. Environments such as the one shown below are also rich in insect and arthropod life, and support a surprisingly broad bird population.

A natural cactus garden in the sierra of Peru

The road climbs steeply into areas of rain-fed agriculture, as shown below. Huaytará is a pretty town in a fine location, set at 2500m and around 100 km from the coast. It is the provincial capital, and a good place to take a break as Huancayo is still four hours drive away, on a road that travels at extreme altitudes.

As is typical of the Peruvian Andes, the arid lowlands give way to rain fed agriculture at about 2000m

Huaytará has the church of San Juan Baustista, which is shown below. This was built on the foundations of an Inca structure, probably dating from about AD1420. The original purpose of this was not clear, but it was probably a fortified way station on the road. The Inca at the time of its construction characterised the local people as 'warlike and obstinate', so it may have been needed.

The church at Huaytará, in the Andes between Pisco and Ayacucho

The Inca stonework is well-preserved, and typically in much better condition than the adobe structure which has been placed on top of it. The finely worked masonry is typical of Inca construction, as are the trapezoidal forms that this follows. (No culture in South America developed the arch.) The purpose of the central blind niche is not known, but most scholars assume that either lamps or decorative objects were placed in these. The windows are at a height, disposition and proportion to make the easily defensible with something in the order of pikes. The faint numbers on the blocks are due to archeologists, and the paint over the windows is certainly not original!

The Inca foundations of the Huaytará church

The interior of the church consists of a plain barrel vault, with the Inca stonework exposed. The window niches can be seen on the left of the image. Blind niches - of which there is are several examples on the right - are filled with images of the saints.

The interior of the Huaytará church, showing Inca stonework

A group celebrate a saint's day after church on a Sunday. The dance may continue for some hours, usually well-fuelled with chicha - maize beer - or stronger spirits. The lady in the red pullover on the left is carrying an effigy of the relevant saint, and the head of his horse and his helmet plume can be seen nestling in her arm. Clothing is now firmly set in the style of the sierra, and the everyday language is Quechua.

Dancing on a saint's day or patronal in central Peru

The road climbs steeply into altiplano, passing further Inca ruins at Incahuasi. After contouring through jagged volcanic landscape, it crosses a 4853m pass. This is now called Los Libertadores because - astonishingly, given the altitude - it was the route followed by Simon de Bolivar's volunteer army during the liberation of Peru from Spain.

Alpacas in the altplano above Ayacucho in Peru

The photograph is dominated by the basalt plug of an extinct volcano, one of many in the region. Sulphurous fumes still escape from the ground, and the soil is sterile and stained vivid colours. What was once the world's largest mercury mine is not far off, at Huancavelica, and the area is both heavily mineralised and mined.

Mercury was once used to extract gold from its ore. Finding a deposit at Huancavelica was immensely important to the Spanish, as the metal had previously to be shipped from Almaden in Spain, carried across the Panama isthmus and then up into the Andes. The mine was such a toxic environment, however, that a worker was expected to survive for six months at the most. Families were forced to provide a son, who was taken into an entirely self-contained underground complex, complete with a Cathedral, mess halls and the like. The same family would be expected to collect their crippled or dying child half a year later. Tens or hundreds of thousands died in this way.

Extinxt volcanos dominate the Andean scenery

The road rises once again to a high pass, at 4750m, before dropping to the city of Ayacucho, at 2750m. This city was the ideological centre of the Sendero Luminoso guerilla movement, and the local population suffered cruelly as a result of this. Today it is, however, a reasonably prosperous city dotted with colonial period churches and ringed with archeological sites. It is also close to Pampa la Quinua, where Bolivar's army under by Antonio José de Sucre defeated the last Spanish Viceroy José de la Serna 9 December 1824, and so completed the decolonisation of South America by Spain. The event is celebrated by the Peruvian military every year on its anniversary.

Festivities mark a saint's day or patronal in central Peru