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The best spot in town to shop for the famous retablos, ceramic churches, and other typical artesanía of the Ayacucho region is the Mercado Artesanal Shosaku Nagase, Plazoleta María Parado de Bellido (5 blocks north of the Plaza Mayor). At this sprawling facility, the government operates training programs for those wanting to work in the production of handicrafts, and there are two buildings full of stalls selling local works. Its selection is good, though perhaps similar to what you might find in Lima.

Barrio Santa Ana, some 10 blocks southwest of the Plaza Mayor, is the heart of Quechua culture and artesanía. Around the main square, Plazuela de Santa Ana, are several family-run galleries. At several, you can watch textiles and rugs being created. Some rugs are highly valued and have been exhibited internationally. Visit Alejandro Gallardo's Galería Latina, Plazuela de Santa Ana 105 (tel. 066/528-315); Alfonso Sulca Chávez, Plazuela de Santa Ana 83 (tel. 066/312-990); and Galería Arte Popular de Fortunato Fernández, Plazuela de Santa Ana 63-64 (tel. 066/313-192). Galería Wari, Mariscal Cáceres 302 (tel. 066/312-529), is the studio and home of Gregorio Sulca, a highly celebrated textile and plastic artist who has exhibited his sophisticated rugs, paintings, and other pieces based on deep research into the Quechua culture in Germany and the U.S. If he's around and you speak Spanish, it's worth engaging him in conversation for an explanation of some fundamental Quechua philosophy and the historical and theoretical underpinnings of his (very expensive) work.

The finest handicrafts shopping, however, is found at the source of most of the typical regional artesanía. The tiny pueblo Quinua is where most of the ceramic churches and retablos are made by local artisans, and it is a fascinating Quechua village. Prices are cheaper than in Ayacucho and much cheaper than in Lima or Cusco; the selection also is much better.

Ayacucho's Renowned Retablos

Ayacucho has a long tradition of finely crafted artesanía, and the city and environs are said to produce 40 different specialized crafts. Perhaps most famous and emblematic of Ayacucho are the retablos, wooden boxes that open to show off two or three levels of busy scenes populated by dozens of laboriously hand-carved and -painted figures. A tradition brought by Spaniards and first produced in Peru during early colonial times in the 16th century, they were then known as Cajones de San Marcos or San Antonio, and they served as portable altars that devotees of St. Mark or St. Anthony carried with them on their travels through the Andes. The retablos were often used in efforts to convert indigenous peoples to Catholicism. Although the scenes depicted were once strictly religious, today they represent quotidian scenes of life in the sierra, from weddings to harvest scenes and popular festivals (although nativity scenes remain very popular).

The doors and exterior usually feature brightly painted flowers, and the retablos range from miniature versions with tiny figurines to others that are 1.8m (6 ft.) tall and hold 100 or more figures inside. Retablos are so identifiable with Ayacucho that enormous ones are displayed in the airport (more than 3m/10 ft. tall) at the luggage turnstile, and newspaper kiosks around the Plaza Mayor are decorated like oversize retablos.

Other handicrafts that are indigenous to the region are red-clay ceramics, including humorous depictions of groups of musicians and small bulls, and model churches; tightly woven and brightly colored tejidos, or textiles; carved alabaster, or piedra de Huamanga; figures of saints; crucifixes; chess sets; and art naïf tablas de Sarhua.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.