|By Emily Guilmette, Kuoda Travel|
|Dear Kuoda Friends and Family,
A short while ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Peru’s “Ciudad Blanca!” My weekend in Arequipa was just lovely, and so I’d like to share my experience with you in the hope that you’ll be able to visit vicariously now and in reality soon!
The second largest city in Peru, Arequipa feels peaceful and genteel. The architecture is beautiful – low buildings of bare white stone or coated in colorful paint, primarily Spanish baroque in style, with local touches – the air is soft and the people are friendly. While there were pre-Incan and Incan settlements here before the Spanish arrived in 1540, there is little trace of them in the current city. As a result, you often feel more like you’re in Europe than in the Andes. Our President, Mery, noted that Arequipa is a wonderful place to sit, have a cup of coffee and relax, and I think this is a perfect summation of the ease you feel as you explore.
We arrived quite early on a beautiful Saturday morning. In fact, one of the more marvelous things about Arequipa is its climate – dry and sunny most of the year round, with cool nights in June, July and August. This meant that flowering vines splashed color and Spanish mystique in public squares and half-hidden courtyards as I strolled through the center of town, trying to decide whether I should wear my sunglasses or keep them off to take it all in.
Our first stop, before we even checked in to our little hotel, was the beautiful main plaza. Designated a UNESCO world-heritage site in 2000, Arequipa’s plaza is a colonial-era masterpiece, lined with arched colonades and bounded on one side by the cathedral with its refined facade and delicate spires reaching toward the sky. In the center of the plaza is a three-tiered fountain surrounded by palm trees.
As we had made our way there before nine in the morning, we had the pleasure of sitting in relative tranquility, listening to the splashing fountain and watching a dog gleefully chasing pigeons. The sun shone and the buildings sparkled.
This is because, of course, the primary building material in much of central Arequipa is a stone called sillar. White or rose, with a pearly sheen, this volcanic rock was used in the construction of many of the city’s buildings in the 17th and 18th centuries. The color of the rock gives the city its nickname – “the white city.” Quite soft and easy to work, sillar allowed architects to execute incredible carvings and it takes paint pigment quite well, so painted buildings have a rich color.
As we sat and took it all in, the city seemed to come alive – children playing in the plaza, bikers kitted out in their spandex spinning through (the area around Arequipa is great for outdoor activity and it is a wonderful jumping-off point for exploring Colca Canyon), women selling candies from old-fashioned boxes slung around their necks. We enjoyed leisurely cups of coffee and then headed for our hotel.
A ten-minute stroll from the Plaza de Armas, Casa de Melgar’s sillar facade is undistinguished. But, once you pass through the front door, you enter a magical labyrinth. The hotel consists of one or two old mansions, laced together with low passageways, plant-filled courtyards and gardens. Our room was simply furnished, but boasted beautiful floor to ceiling windows that made me feel like a white-gowned owner of an old-time hacienda. This small hotel offers a wonderful value for the money and is well-situated for Arequipa’s primary attractions and best restaurants.
We devoted the rest of the day to a visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery. This was the highlight of the weekend for me! If you are close to Arequipa, you must, must go!
In the center of the city, covering several blocks, this monastery has provided cloistered sanctuary for nuns since 1579. In the 60s it was opened to the public and the remaining handful of nuns moved into a modern building hidden from visitors. The old structure is a sillar building with winding passageways, peaceful courtyards with beautiful plants and bare apartments where the nuns lived. It feels ancient, steeped in history and somehow magical. Entering is like finding the door to the secret garden or stepping through the looking glass. You feel calm fall over you as you pass under an arch carved with the word, “silencio.”
Called “a city within a city,” the convent has its streets and different architectural styles – the result of rebuilding after the city’s many earthquakes. Many of the nuns came from wealthy families, so while their apartments were extremely simple (rooms for themselves with one or two chairs, a wall niche with a bed, a simple table, crosses), they also brought beautiful china and textiles with them and, at one point, the convent housed more servants than actual nuns.
Walls in the convent are brightly painted, either in brick red, french blue or bright white, and climbing plants add charm. The enormous Misti Volcanoe rises in the distance. We wandered for hours before stopping in the excellent cafe for Inka Colas and passionfruit cake and making our way to the exit. The convent is also open during week nights and we’ve heard that, lit by candles, it is magical.
In the evening, we tested Gaston Acurio’s Arequipa branch of Chicha, where we enjoyed excellent drinks and some of Arequipa’s delicious crawfish (or camarone). This is a specialty of the region and I highly recommend sampling a chupe de camarones (a creamy-spicy soup with crawfish and rice) during your visit. A word to the wise: Arequipa is hopping on Saturday night! Make sure to have dinner reservations.
On Sunday, we woke bright and early and made our way to the Plaza de Armas, where we found the city in full-swing celebration of its patrimony! In 2011, Arequipa turned 471 this year, we were told! We threaded through dancers, paraders and revelers and arrived one block past the Plaza de Armas at the Catholic University’s Andean Sanctuary Museum.
This is the home of the ice-mummy, Juanita. Discovered on the top of Mount Ampato in 1995, Juanita was a noble Incan girl sacrificed between 1450 and 1480 in order to end a drought or famine. Her body, and those of two younger children, was offered to the Incan gods and buried on the mountain top. Due to the freezing conditions, Juanita remains in incredibly good condition with skin, hair and clothes intact. This small museum is wholly devoted to her life, death and discovery and is incredibly moving. For example, the cloak of an older man, probably her father, was buried with her and is on display. As are her shoes. And, Juanita herself is there, in a cooling case. The museum tour is about an hour and I highly, highly recommend it. For me it made the Incan past come to life, more than anything I have seen in the rest of Peru.
We spent our afternoon relaxing and strolling before visiting the lovely suburb of Yanahuara for a view of the Misti Volcanoe and then heading home, very satisfied, to Cusco!
I hope you enjoy my small photo album from the trip and please feel free to email me with any questions about travel in Arequipa (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Best wishes to all!