Poor Arequipa. If you want a great urban experience in Peru, you go to Lima. If you want a great Andean experience, you go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. As Peru’s second largest city, just one-tenth the size of Lima, Arequipa can be overlooked. Tis a pity, though, because it’s a vibrant, beautiful city with world-class hiking in the nearby Colca Canyon. High up in the Andes – the city sits at about 7,600 feet above sea level – Arequipa is also blessed with a wonderfully cool climate, with average summer highs (recall that it’s summer here) in the low 70s. Delightful.
One of the most striking things about Arequipa is the local white sillar rock out of which much of the center part of the city is built. The result of volcanic eruptions, sillar is light, porous and easily carved, yet sufficiently strong to be the central element in construction. As a result buildings are beautifully white with great domes and vaults. The central core of Arequipa – particularly the baroque cathedral on the central plaza and the nearby Santa Catalina Monastery – was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.While the central plaza is big, leafy, and surrounded by glorious sillar buildings, particularly the cathedral, the real star of Arequipa is the Santa Catalina (St. Catherine) Monastery. Built in the late 16th century with a decided Moorish style, the monastery for Dominican nuns is essentially a small, walled city within a city with five narrow streets connecting various parts and buildings. A couple dozen nuns still live in a newer section, but most of it is now open to the public. It is a site not to be missed.
One of the first things you notice as you tour the nun’s cells is that these were not poor women. Their quarters were surprisingly spacious, often with private kitchens and parlors separate from the bedroom. In fact, families had to pay a dowery of the equivalent of about $150,000 in today’s dollar. Women, we learned, owned their quarters and could and did sell them to other nuns. One of the women who entered, we read on the description of her cell, entered with a variety of possessions including one slave. Not the picture of nuns that I usually have.
And then there’s the food. We remembered from our trip to Peru in 2010 that the food here was great but I really didn’t remember it being this great. One lunch we had at a little place called Qaya was one of the great lunches I’ve ever had and sometimes it seemed as though there were no bad choices when it came to the restaurants.
We came here for four days, but spent nearly all of two of those days on a hiking trip up in the Andes a couple hours north. The time we spent in Arequipa, though, was pretty great. It’s funny; you just have no idea before getting to a new city like this if you’ll love it or be quickly bored. For every San Cristóbal (which we fell in love with) there’s a Paracas that’s, well, not so exciting. Arequipas was one of the great finds.