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A Trip to Quinua, Handicrafts Capital of Peru

Although Ayacucho is well known throughout the country as the popular arts capital of Peru, most of the famous artesanía originate from Quinua, a lovely and gentle sierra town located 37km (23 miles) northeast of Ayacucho. If you'd prefer to buy at the source, preferably from the artisan who crafted the work rather than from a mere salesperson, Quinua is tops in Peru. The red-tile roof of nearly every house in town is topped with a ceramic church of the kind foreigners are more likely to buy and display on a table or bookshelf. The churches serve as roof-bound protectors against evil spirits.

A beautiful stone passageway leads up to the main cobblestone plaza, populated by whitewashed buildings and the village church. Even though local artisans export their ceramic churches and figures of musicians around the world, Quinua is still the kind of place where little girls whisper and point at visiting gringos.

Local Quechua artisans have become very adept at commercializing and marketing their artisanship. Traditionally, all the ceramic pieces were unpainted or in earth tones. Increasingly, artisans have introduced pastels and bright colors, and the two traditional church towers have gradually begun to bend outward fancifully. But classic pieces are still produced. A few of the best-known local ceramists, including Mamerto Sánchez, have now moved their studios to more profitable environs such as Lima, cutting out the middle man. There are touristy stalls near the main road and a couple of shops, but for the best shopping, you'll need to venture up the stairs to the heart of the village. The peaceful back streets behind the Plazuela de Armas, especially Jirón Sucre and Jirón San Martín, are where to find the best popular art galleries, and it's not unusual to find pottery firing and hand painting taking place.

Galería Familia Sánchez, Jr. San Martín 151 (tel. 066/810-212), is the studio and gallery of Mamerto Sánchez's son. Walter follows in his father's footsteps, and his studio produces some of the best ceramic pieces and churches in Quinua. Across the street is Galería Ayllu, which also has a little outdoor bar. A number of galleries, including Artesanía Anclla and Artesanía El Quinuino, are clustered on Jirón San Martín. A medium-size church costs between S/40 and S/75. Antique retablos and churches are difficult to find; your best bet is with antiques dealers in Lima or Cusco.

A few restaurants and hostales can accommodate you if you want to linger or spend the night in peaceful Quinua. You won't have much to do besides visit artesanía galleries, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a simpler, prettier, and more authentic sierra town. The small Hostal Las Américas, Jr. San Martín s/n, above Artesanía Anclla (tel. 066/965-7721; S/30 double), has comfortable rooms in the house of one of the best-known local artisans.

To get to Quinua, take a colectivo at the corner of Jirón Salvador Cavero and Jirón Ciro Alegría in the east part of Ayacucho (Urbanización Santa Bertha). The trip (S/3) takes about an hour, and vans return hourly.

On the way to Quinua, 22km (14 miles) north of Ayacucho, is the Huari (also spelled Wari) archaeological complex, one of the oldest urban walled centers in the Americas, dating to around A.D. 600. The Huari culture, perhaps the first centrally governed "nation" in the Andes, was one of the most important in early Peru; its empire stretched north to Cajamarca and south to Cusco. The massive (300-hectare/750-acre) ruins, though badly deteriorated, are of thick, 10m-high (33-ft.) stone walls, houses, tunnels, and flat ceremonial areas, and well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in pre-Inca archaeology. Archaeologists have theorized that Huari urban planning and their system of religious, political, and military organization served as a model for the Incas. The city, which contained three levels of underground burial chambers, once had as many as 50,000 inhabitants; it was abandoned around A.D. 800. On-site are a visitor center and small museum (Museo de Sitio Wari) exhibiting photographs, dioramas, and artifacts discovered at the complex. The ruins are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm; admission is S/3.

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.