585km (364 miles) SE of Lima; 337km (209 miles) NE of Pisco; 590km (367 miles) W of Cusco

Located high in the Central Andes -- and hijacked in the 1980s by Shining Path terrorists who claimed the city as their base and cut it off from Peru and the rest of the world for much of the past 2 decades -- dignified Ayacucho has at last escaped bloody conflict and is begging to be discovered. A colonial gem, with more of its Spanish architecture intact than almost any other city in Peru, the city claims the crown as the epicenter of Peruvian artesanĂ­a (popular art). The renowned retablos, ceramic churches, and whimsical red-clay figurines one sees all over Peru (and in Latin American shops from Austin to Amsterdam) are all produced locally.

Locals are fond of saying that the critical developments in Peruvian history are tied to Ayacucho. As the site of the earliest-known human presence in Peru, in nearby Pikimachay, and the one-time capital of the powerful Huari culture (200-100 B.C.), Ayacucho -- originally called Huamanga, a name many locals insist on still using today -- is best known as a place where crucial battles for the soul of Peru have taken place. The Chanca people bravely resisted the aggressively expanding Inca Empire, and the bloody Battle of Ayacucho against Spanish forces in 1824 launched the country's independence.

Given its history, it's not surprising that Ayacucho means "City of Blood" or "City of the Dead." Yet Ayacucho has much more to offer than its notoriety: Visitors will find it a welcoming and spectacularly serene city seemingly cleansed of its violent legacy. It's so easygoing and unassuming that it's almost inconceivable that it could have been held hostage for so long by terrorists intent on rending Peruvian society.

Still, this graceful colonial town can't escape its tumultuous past, and that's one of the best reasons to pay a visit before it becomes better known. As it continues to distance itself from the guerrilla violence of the 1980s and early 1990s, Ayacucho is keen to attract travelers on a large scale. Nestled into the Andes Mountains, the city boasts nearly 3 dozen colonial churches within blocks of the Plaza Mayor -- and a spectacular Easter week festival and carnival celebrations for which it has become famous.