Monday, October 17, 2022

Put this Peruvian city on your South American itinerary

Arches overlooking the city of Arequipa, Pery

We arrived in Arequipa in southern Peru and were met at the airport by our guide Beatrice, native of the city, and driver Roberto. We soon saw why Peru’s second largest city is called “white city.” Many buildings (homes, palaces, churches, convents) were built with sillar, white volcanic rock found in abundance in the area. As the historic center, it contains many colonial-era buildings, primarily churches and convents, built during the 400-years of Spanish domination from 1452 through the 1800s. 

Volcanoes nearby

Arequipa means “behind the mountains,” an apt name since the city is located at the foot of volcano Misti, a city icon. It’s near the Valley of the Volcanoes, which contains more than 80, some still active. In fact, the topography is very dry and rocky, resembling what I think the moon’s surface must look like.

Mountains and volcanoes surround Arequipa.

There’s great variety in the climate, geology, and ecology. Although it’s located in the middle of the Peruvian desert at 7800 feet, ash from volcanoes makes it a fertile agriculture center for crops like onions, garlic, and grains. 

Arequipa encompasses centuries of history of the Peruvian Highlands. Its archeological heritage, Inca legacy, and older cultures have left an indelible mark on culture, customs, art, and the city’s development. Industries include alpaca wool factories, cement factories, and copper mines.

White volcanic rock used for buildings

Convent reveals city’s history

Santa Catalina Convent, founded in 1579, is one of Arequipa’s most visited sights. Beautiful chapels, squares, and streets that retain original styles and vibrant colors of orange, blue, and red make this a must-see. Calle Sevilla, the oldest and longest street, retains the look of Arequipa from the 16th century, when the convent was essentially an entire city.

Carmen, our guide, explained that the Dominican convent was populated by many second daughters, who were expected to become nuns while oldest daughters married. The nuns lived on one side of the wall, and the public (town) was on the other side. They took vows for silence, work, and prayer, coming at age 12 and training till age 16.

There were 80 different apartments; wealthier nuns had better places, and poorer nuns might be their servants trying to work off their dowry. In addition to other duties, nuns embroidered robes and other finery for priests.

Santa Catalina Convent 

Tiles on the floor of the convent were in the original Santa Catalina church. Faith-based artwork from the 18th century was restored in 2006, and 100 paintings are displayed in the art gallery. Today entrance fees go to the nuns for upkeep of the property, which is now a museum and tourist attraction. The nearby square is a busy commercial area where arches along the streets add charm to the trees, paths, and fountain in Plaza de Armas.

Tourism is growing

We visited the main square in Arequipa where arches, each decorated with quotes from important people, look over the city.  The first cathedral in the region is here, indicating an important transition from Inca to Catholic religion. The ancient Grau Bridge is a famous landmark over the Chile River. Peru just became a democracy 30 years ago, but with more than a million people living in the country, tourism is actively pursued.

A fun fact: It’s cheaper to take a taxi than to drive around the city, so there’s plenty of business for its 48,000 taxis.

Exterior of Hotel Casa Andina in Arequipa

While in Arequipa, we stayed at Hotel Casa Andina Private Collection, a restored colonial-era house with original stone flooring. Rooms in the old section have stone walls two feet thick, small windows, alpaca blanket, 10-light chandelier, and flat-screen television.  A new part of the hotel was built behind the former Spanish mansion.  Wicker sofas and chairs invite guests to lounge in an open sitting area. A full buffet breakfast was served outdoors by the main courtyard of this charming hotel located within walking distance of many attractions.

 Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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