HUAMANGA, PERU — The grand, sweeping central plaza of Huamanga, a quintessentially Spanish colonial town, can easily give the impression the conquistadors never left this historic city nestled high in the Andes.
But the faded, red terrorist graffiti that still clings to a few of these old, colonial walls is a subtle reminder that nearly two decades ago this capital city of the Ayacucho region was the scene of a real-life drama.
It was ground zero for a civil war in Peru that took 30,000 lives. The Shining Path guerrilla movement began here in 1980. For Peruvians, Ayacucho was off-limits.
"We had friends, family, and classmates who were killed. Everyone walked around the streets talking in hushed voices," says Theresa Carrasco, who once sat in the college classroom of professor - and Shining Path leader - Abimael Guzman.
"We feared both sides of the conflict," Ms. Carrasco adds.
But a new drama has replaced the war. Ayacucho was the scene last month for the gathering of more than 20 theater groups from three continents.
Mimes, men in giant masks, dancers on stilts, and marching bands streamed through the streets. People waited in endless lines to see theater performances.
The festival symbolized the town's renaissance. In the past two years, money from tourism has been pouring into Ayacucho.
PromPeru, a government organization that promotes tourism, launched the Ayacucho Project in 1997, convinced that the city's 30-plus churches, rich tradition of folk art, local ruins, and breathtaking vistas could make it an attractive destination. In the first year, PromPeru invested $100,000, followed by $300,000 in 1998 - not including the theater festival.
PromPeru expects the 1998 budget for Ayacucho to more than double as soon as they launch an upcoming Ayacucho publicity campaign.
PromPeru isn't the only organization investing in Ayacucho's burgeoning tourism industry; the International Development Bank recently approved a $1.6 million loan to develop tourism in the area and restore historic sites.
According to PromPeru, in 1992 - the year prior to the virtual defeat of the Shining Path guerrillas - only 251 foreign and just over 20,000 Peruvian tourists set foot in this war-torn region, even though it lies just 300 miles from Lima, the capital. In 1997, 2,500 foreigners and 63,000 Peruvians visited.
Ms. Carrasco, who has lived in Ayacucho nearly all her life, was one of the people involved in initially bringing the Theater Festival to Ayacucho in 1978. The festival was suspended during the war, but Carrasco stuck it out in Ayacucho and now, 20 years later, she is once again working as a festival organizer.
"In the last 20 years, the world forgot about us. Having the festival here is doing justice for Ayacucho, a little late, but better late than never," she says.
The prospect of Ayacucho as a tourist destination is nearly unbelievable for Marcos Rivera, who had never known his home town as a place anyone wanted to visit.
On the closing day of the festival, he was one of more than a thousand people gathered on an extensive plain above the city. Artisans sold their goods and children took part in art projects, while the theater groups took a circus-like parade across the vast green field.
Despite the fact that Mr. Rivera's childhood years in Ayacucho were characterized chiefly by fear and violence, he looks pretty much like any average collegiate American kid at a football tailgate party.
"This is phenomenal," he says glancing around the throngs of people gathered on the sun-baked plain.
"There have never been so many people coming to visit here, so many people who care about Ayacucho. Tourism is coming here and it's going to help everyone in one way or another," Rivera says.
But despite the all-out push for tourism, some are less optimistic about the potential for tourism to benefit Ayacucho.
"Tourists are migratory birds passing through town, taking home pictures of our sad, poor faces. Tourism is phantom development," Jorge Huamani says.
"This is a town crying out for real, true development. We have some of the best lands in the world, some of the best crops, and here we are opening doors to tourism when we should be developing our agriculture."
Whether or not all agree that tourism will be the miracle this economically depressed and war-scarred town needs, everyone seems to accept the urgency for some kind of development in Ayacucho.
"What worries me is that the poverty continues to be so serious, the difference between the rich and the poor is still so great," Carrasco says.
"And if this poverty continues, there is always the possibility that people will have to protest. It won't be called the Shining Path, it will be called something else, but it could come back."