Peru #8: Arequipa

I must admit to not having heard of Arequipa before doing research on my Peru trip, so was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s the country’s second-most touristy city after Cusco. This is perhaps down to it being one of the first places that backpackers hit after crossing the border from Chile, as well as being the nearest city to the trekking attractions of Colca Canyon and the El Misti and Chachami volcanoes.

But that’s not to say that there’s nothing to do in the city. Although I primarily used it as a base for my trips to Colca Canyon and El Misti, I got the chance to explore a place that possibly deserves a few days’ visit. My stay in Arequipa would include meeting one of South America’s most famous deceased children, getting someone to look after my belt while I was hosed with water in a football stadium, and bumping into some old acquaintances.

Getting in and where to stay

I headed to the bus terminal in Puno in the morning, supposing there would be a plethora of buses leaving to Arequipa very frequently. I wasn’t wrong and managed to get on one at 9am, paying 15/S for a journey of approximately seven hours. Part of this was spent chatting to an elderly gentleman who assured me that he was about to give me the best advice I’d ever hear: an ugly wife who can cook, clean and bear and raise children is better than getting hitched with a looker. I thanked him for his wisdom and also gave him some water to drink when he looked very frail and dehydrated.

We were a little delayed because the police stopped our bus a couple of times to half-heartedly check luggage. I wasn’t sure what they were looking for until seeing a crying woman ordered off the bus with four or five bags, returning with just one of them. It transpired that she had bought loads of clothes in Juliaca and the quantity suggested she intended to sell them elsewhere at a profit. The whole thing was strange as the police immediately targeted her and whispers suggested there had been a tip-off. I imagine that people do this sort of thing all the time to make a little bit of money, so I thought it quite harsh of the policemen to confiscate her goods, and they probably found a way of cashing in on them.

Add in the usual routine of picking up passengers where possible en-route, including an extremely pungent miner who plonked himself next to me for an hour or so, and we arrived in Arequipa at about 4.30pm, giving me a little bit of time to have a look around. As the bus terminal is in the outskirts of the city I jumped in a taxi for 7/S and he dropped me off at Plaza de Armas (the name of every central square in Peru). I stayed at Los Andes Bed and Breakfast (30/S for dorms with four single beds and no bunks), which was very chilled-out and ideal for resting between excursions and I could also leave extra baggage behind when going on tours. Breakfast was ample and varied, what with a variety of bread, fruit, yoghurt and hot drinks available, and I’d also have the pleasure of bumping into the miserable German couple I’d come across in Puerto Maldonado. They hadn’t improved their spirits and I wondered what made them tick. They asked me if the hostel had computers available, as they didn’t have a smartphone between them, strange for the modern-day backpacker.

What to do in Arequipa

Arequipa is known as the White City, called as such due to most of its buildings being made from silar, a type of volcanic rock. One such building is the massive cathedral in the main square, tarted up with Christmas decorations and bright lights while I was there. Due to its location the city is home to a diverse range of people, from the more Quechua-looking to those who dressed in a more westernised way, as you would generally find in Lima. There was a woman in typical Quechua dress in the square asking tourists to take pictures with her colourfully-adorned baby llama, as happens in Cusco, but the Arequipa police obviously aren’t fans and she was ejected from the square. There are a load of official photographers though, but with the advent of smartphone cameras barely anyone was giving them any custom.

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Arequipa by day
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Arequipa at night

The main attraction in the city, often listed among Top10 lists in South America, is the Santa Catalina monastery, described as a city within a city covering a whole block and representative of how nuns have lived over the years. Impressive architecture they say, and it’s easy to spend half a day there. I wouldn’t be able to comment as I figured that the 30/S price tag, hefty for attractions in Peru, wasn’t worth my while to traipse around a religious site, especially as the few days I spent in the actual city came following arduous trekking and I’m not a huge fan of churches.

Another recommended place, however, is the Santuarios Andinos, home to the famous Juanita, A.K.A the Ice Maiden, the almost intact remains of a child from over five hundred years ago found in the crater of a volcano and now preserved in a fridge (there’s probably a better term for her habitat). The museum itself costs 20/S for entry and a tour is obligatory and can be undertaken in Spanish or other languages. Now, where possible I try to go on the Spanish tours because they’re more informative and insightful, as the guide dares to stray from the script which they memorise and generally robotically regurgitate. I also feel that when in Peru, one should do things in Spanish, which is fine as I understand the language perfectly.

However, as is the norm in touristy places, you get the odd language battle with natives who profess to speak English and enjoy doing so.  As was the case when they asked me in what language I wanted my tour. Realising the girl was keen on doing it in English I shrugged and said either was fine for me, as these days I’m not as bullish as I used to be when it comes to language battles, as I’ve had plenty of experiences doing things in Spanish. As it happened, I was the only one on the tour and she spoke at me for about half an hour, quite tiresome and made even more so by the monotonous tone of her recitation.

I was interested to learn that while usual appeals to the mountain Gods in times of drought, famine or war often consisted of offerings of precious metals, coca leaves or even animals, when desperate situations called for it, the last recourse was to sacrifice human beings, the purer the better. For this reason, boys or girls of about eleven years old were chosen, and rather than feeling condemned to death, it was regarded as an honour. In this particular region, the ones to be sacrificed were taken to the summit of volcanoes and wrapped up in rags before being tossed into the crater. Apparently many of them died of hypothermia on the way up, and evidence shows (for instance, in the case of Juanita) that if they made it to the top, they were often killed by a blow to the head, perhaps to spare them from freezing to a slow death, or maybe so that those accompanying them knew for sure that their offering wasn’t going to escape, though it’s difficult to imagine any child making it all the way back down the mountain alive.

An examination of Juanita demonstrated that she had died having being clubbed in the head with a blunt instrument and the extremely cold temperatures at the crater meant that she was excellently preserved until being discovered in the late twentieth century. Juanita is one of dozens of mummified children to be found in the Andes, but is the most famous because of her intactness.

At the end of the tour we came to a room in which the temperature dropped somewhat, though claims that you need to wear a coat are a little exaggerated. The guide left me alone with Juanita for a few minutes so I could ‘contemplate her journey’. I looked at her from several angles, unable to really connect with her, but fully admiring of her bravery.

It is customary to give tips in Peru to guides, even in museums, and because mine was a little scary and I would consider tipping coins really awkward, I gave her 10/S and thanked her for her time.

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Juanita

Being stripped of my belt and hosed down

I was lucky enough to be in Peru as the football season was ending and thus went to see a playoff semi-final between Melgar and Universitario at the local stadium. I will detail the game better in another blog, but away from the football, what I found most surprising was the prohibition of belts in the stadium for safety reasons, and henceforth the need to pay 1/S to leave my belt with a lady who tied it to a tree during the game, sticking a piece of paper on it and writing a number 7, giving me a copy of the paper that I would need to reclaim the belt at the end of the game. I very much doubted I’d see it again, but lo and behold I’d get hold of it after the match, though among the masses of people leaving the stadium and looking for their own belts it was initially tasking to find her. To remind me of this madness I still haven’t peeled the sellotaped piece of paper off my belt. Add to this being hosed by a massive industrial water pump pre-match, and I learned that football  off the pitch in Peru, and indeed all over the world, is vastly different.

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Belt Number 7
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Melgar FC Stadium

Food

I wouldn’t say I particularly indulged in local delicacies in Arequipa, as most days I was on some kind of tour and fed myself on snacks, though the first night I was badly in need of meat and got a greasy combo of chicken, beef, sausage, chips and salad at a rather grotty foodery for 12/S. I also ate Rocoto Relleno(stuffed pepper) at the local market on anther day, but left unimpressed by the fact they charged me 8/S (market food is usually 5/S) and reheated mine in the microwave. In general Peruvian food is decent and the stuffed pepper is something of a popular dish, but my recollections of it are merely the shrivelled vegetable on my plate with soggy potatoes.

Another recommendation is to get queso helado, basically ice cream made from sweet milk with a touch of coconut or cinnamon. It was indeed enjoyable yet nothing to really write home about. Better food was definitely had in Lima, the culinary hub of the country.

Conclusions

Arequipa is certainly worth a few days if you’re passing through southern Peru, and I’d recommend checking out Juanita and if possible taking in a football match, though having not been there, I can’t really comment on Santa Catalina monastery. It’s a great base from which to hike the El Misti or Chachami volcanoes, as well as being relatively near to Colca Canyon, the main tourist attraction in the region. The city is charmingly colonial and its warm days and mild evenings provide a break from the extreme weather contrasts experienced in other parts of Peru. It feels a lot less touristy than other Peruvian cities, and so a few days to recharge the batteries there could be an option.

Next stop would be Ica and Huacachina, sand buggies, sand-boarding and a vineyard tour providing very generous helpings of alcohol.

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