A Festival Helps Heal War Wounds...While A Cactus Tickles Taste Buds

Behind a straw-matting screen stretching up a narrow street in Ayacucho, trainee bricklayer Luz Maria Prado is curing the adobe walls of the old San Cristobal seminary that have been covered by cement and plaster for decades. Prado is one of 50 young restoration workers coaxing the building back to the stark 17th century grandeur that graced the Andean city when it was a favorite resting spot for Spanish nobles.

"Ayacucho is making a comeback," says Enrique Martinelli, head of the Inter-American Development Bank-funded restoration, part of a wider project to revive tourism after a decade of dirty war. The project will convert the seminary into a tourist center and offer training to hoteliers, restaurateurs, guides, and cabbies.

REFUGEE FLOOD. Ayacucho used to be known principally for its Holy Week celebrations. Even today, hundreds of peasant men, accompanied by women wearing brightly colored skirts and by donkeys and llamas, converge in religious processions over streets carpeted with flowers. At dawn on Easter Sunday, fireworks boom as more than 200 men carry out of the cathedral a huge bier and statue of Christ.

But in the 1980s, Ayacucho became notorious as the birthplace of the Shining Path. Under the leadership of Abimael Guzman, a professor at the city's university, the Maoist group's insurgency unleashed violence that convulsed Peru. The military moved in, setting strict curfews. Better-off families left for Lima, tourism virtually halted, and farming slumped as people fled from the countryside. In Ayacucho Department alone, more than 7,000 people died and 2,000 disappeared from the population of about half a million. Guzman's capture in 1992 marked a turning point, and peace has now returned.

Still, reviving Ayacucho's economy is a slow process. There has never been much industry here in one of Peru's poorest departments. Unemployment has worsened, with refugees having doubled the city's population.

Caterer Augusto Tello Paredes says he believes that "tourism is our salvation." He is not alone. Despite spotty air service, the number of hotels and hostels has increased from 15 in 1990 to 52 today. Last year's upgrading of the 500-kilometer road from Lima has cut the journey from 14 hours to 8 and brought almost all the record 38,000 Holy Week visitors this year.

In the artisans' barrio, craftsmen weave patterned rugs and sculpt in stone and clay. From the city, you can see the obelisk at Quinua cradled by hills, marking the 1824 battlefield where the Spanish were driven from Peru. Off the road to Quinua, archaeologists are excavating a town built by a pre-Inca civilization, the Wari, while the Inca pyramid of Vilcashuaman is five hours away.

Despite the layers of history, not all Ayacuchanos believe that tourism can stretch beyond Holy Week. "People here don't care what service they give because they think the tourists will never be back," says one guide. Fatalism, and a wariness of strangers, are a legacy of the war to be overcome.

Prickly pear cacti, known locally as tuna, grow wild all over the arid countryside around Ayacucho. Since Inca times, campesinos have known about cochineal: parasitic insects that infest the tuna and are the basic ingredient of a bright red dye. From 1990, spurred by rising export prices, Peru's cochineal production took off from just 150 tons to a current 700 tons a year, of which about 70% is produced around Ayacucho.

A Festival Helps Heal War Wounds...While a Cactus Tickles Taste Buds (int'l edition)

Cochineal exports earned a bountiful $33 million in 1997, though prices have since fallen by more than half. Salomon Diaz of Pexport, a company trading cochineal and prickly pear, says campesinos used to do "absolutely nothing" to care for the cacti. Technical help encouraging fertilization and pruning has boosted yields to 25 to 35 kilos of cochineal per hectare from 15.

At local markets, quickly spoiled tuna only fetched around 7 cents a kilo. Last year, Pexport began selling top-quality fruit to Lima supermarkets, packaged ready-to-eat with its spiny skin peeled off. With better harvesting techniques, the fruit now lasts longer, earning 42 cents a kilo. Plans for jelly making and exports to markets such as Italy are under way. Profits so far are small, but for poor farmers, the neglected tuna may prove to be the countryside's Cinderella.

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