One senses that this relaxed, colonial Andean center of 150 000 is a place all its own, culturally independent from either Lima or Cusco. The city is visited by relatively few foreigners, in part because of its isolated location, and also because the region’s economy is structured around coca production, among other things, rather than tourism. Strolling along its ample pedestrian boulevards or ducking into a spacious, sunny courtyard full of cafes and craft vendors, it’s hard to imagine that Ayacucho birthed the notorious Shining Path, the insurgent Maoist group whose clashes with the government left roughly 70 000 people dead before the capture of leader Abimael Guzman (nom de guerre Presidente Gonzalo) in 1992.
We received our much-appreciated Peruvian history lesson from Gustavo, our Couch Surfing host, over some superlative seafood shortly after our arrival in town. Lucie and I threw budgetary concerns out the window, spending about $5 each (5 times our average expenditure for a Peruvian meal) on an unforgettable lunch. My Tiradito en Salsa de Rocoto was one of the most sublime and delectable dishes I’ve ever tasted. Saturday is when all the fresh fish arrives from the coast, over 200 kilometers (a 5-hour drive) away. Between a bite of his Ceviche and a nibble from Lucie’s Chicharon Mixto (a fried seafood platter that simply defies description), Gustavo explained that the Inca had a tradition of carting the catch of the day to Ayacucho using a network of trails and an army of messengers, a custom to which the mountain city owes its seemingly incongruous bounty of high-quality seafood.
We’ve been staying at Gustavo’s communications company’s 3rd floor office, which overlooks the colonial heart of Ayacucho. The office’s Wi-Fi access (extremely uncommon in Peru) and Gustavo’s hospitality prompted us to stay an extra couple of days to back up photos, upload videos, research the route ahead and catch up on e-mails. We’ve also been catching up on our sugar intake. There’s a place next door that makes dangerously delicious picarones, a fresh donut boiled in grease and served hot in a pool of sweet brown syrup. Take that, Krispy Kreme! Luckily, the place next door also sells decent red wine at under $3 a liter, which, along with the world-class locally-produced dark chocolate we’ve discovered (also next door!) is helping to keep our cholesterol just below “instant-death” levels.
Now that we’ve fried Picasa’s and Youtube’s servers, Skyped the crap out of people all over the world and Google Map’d the remainder of South America, it’s about time we get back on our bikes and pedal on to Cusco. The elevation chart between here and there looks like a cardiogram reading from a ferret on crack, with spikes peaking well above 4000 meters and valleys diving down to 1700 meters, over and over (and over, and over) again. Oh yeah–on gravel roads! But don’t you worry: after almost 2 months of Peru, we’re no longer the soft, sheltered, pavement-coddled asphalt addicts we once were. Perhaps it’s possible to be in a hurry when cycling for days on end on Andean goat paths at nosebleed altitude; however, we’ve found it’s best to just gear down, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.
Thanks for reading. Take care.