A few minutes later the taxi dropped me off at the corner of Arequipa’s main square. The central part, as in Lima, is a great square with trees, lawns, flowers, pathways, lights and large fountain in the middle. Three sides of the square are arcades two floors high, with a sidewalk and storefronts below, the second floor having balconies for restaurants and hotels. The fourth side, up the slight incline as the square isnt on level ground, is completely taken up by a massive, double spired cathedral. For those that have been to Mexico, which is my base point for comparison, my immediate reaction was how similar this is to Cuernavaca and Coyoacán, an impression I was to have several times in the day.
Another image reminiscent of Mexico: behind the cathedral loomed an immensely high range of snow capped mountains. Amongst them there should be the volcano Misti, but it was shrouded in early morning haze. Were it visible I’m sure the image would be like the volcanoes behind Mexico City, that I very occasionally saw from my top terrace in Coyoacán after a heavy storm beat down the air pollution of that city.
I had eaten breakfast on the bus, so first objective was to find a hotel to stay in. Walking around Lima earlier I had noticed that hotels broke into two categories – hotels and hostals. Hostals are like Italian ‘pensione’, simple places that are more economical than hotels. Since all I needed (ever need) is a good large bed with clean sheets, hostals are fine for me. I had checked the Internet before various places before flying; since I didn’t know the cities or how it worked here, this didn’t help me so I didn’t book anything (unlike for Lima, where I needed to go direct to somewhere sure).
So I walked around the square, then one block away from the square, to see what there was. A great number of hostals, is the answer. Arequipa is obviously a city geared for tourism; the Mexican equivalent jumping into my mind now being ‘San Miguel Allende!’, a beautiful town in central Mexico best known for being where many movies are shot, thus becoming popular with Hollywood and the California crowd of artists and creatives.
Back to the main square, which was now quite busy with morning traffic and people. I went for a hostal called Arequipa Suites Plaza in the top right of the plaza, not least because it was connected to a restaurant with a strategic view over the plaza. “How much for a room with a queen size bed? (I’m tall, singles are never long enough, and I sleep restlessly, singles are never wide enough)’. “With bathroom or without?” “With, thanks.” “60 soles (18 US$ at current rates).” replied the desk manager, whose name I later learned is Betty.
Up to the room (bed just right), dump bag, charge phone, download fotos from camera to laptop, jump out f clothes and into shower (lovely hot water), throw dirty shirt etc into shower with me to wash them (remember I’m traveling light here, just one backpack), hang same, shave and brush, dry and dress. Look out of window onto Arequipa’s plaza below me and the spires of the cathedral right in front of me. Splendid!
Once ‘respectable’ I went down to the lobby to check emails, there being a PC available free of charge for guests to use just by the desk. “Would you like a coca?” asked Betty, pointing to a thermos of hot water and some leaves in a jar. Ah, the famous coca leaf! “No thanks, but do you happen to have some coffee?” “Sure, instant OK?” Again! I’m in a country that grows coffee beans and I’m offered Nescafé! I went for the coffee. And took the opportunity to ask Betty what there was to see in Arequipa. “Lots! Here, let me show you.” With this Betty pulled out a couple of maps and showed me some of the places I could visit in the center of town – churches, townhouses, institutes and musea.
“How long are you planning to stay?” Betty asked me. “Two nights, maybe three”. “Oh well then you have to visit the Valle del Colca, its only a day trip from here.” “Yes, I’ve been told it’s worth seeing – I met some people yesterday who come from there”, I replied, telling her about the dancers. “Well I have a friend who has an agency just over the square. Take this card and he’ll give you a discount.” “Thanks, I might at that. But first I want to see Arequipa!”. And with this I was off to explore the city.
Looking at the map for a moment, I walked down the arcade to the corner on the same side as the hotel. On the corner opposite was a church with a very ornately carved stone façade. This, and the complex behind it, which I didn’t go into, is Jesuit territory – the Compañia de Jesús. Walked up the street so see what was there, and found another church, to San Domingo. I went in and was quite amazed by its almost Calvinist simplicity. Well, it wasn’t quite, obviously. The altar was a cornucopia of gold leaf. But the walls were bare of any decoration except for eight very well carved statues, excellently lit. Very elegant.
From here I walked up a few blocks then cut back to the Plaza Mayor. Crossing the façade of the cathedral I walked up another street, passing an entrance to the University of San Agustín, where students were milling about. Across the street was a wonderful building with an internal courtyard, its walls a brilliant blue, with a dark stone fountain in the middle. Another image from Mexico, famous for its own use of primary colors. The windows looked familiar too; familar but not the same. Here in Areqipa the stone is a soft beige, almost white, like that of Provence – or Andalucia. What was obviously once a private house is now host to small boutiques selling jewels and alpaca knot clothes.
A bit further up the street, back on the side of the University, was the entrance to a convent dedicated to Santa Catalina. This place was very much open to the public; the cashier’s booth proclaimed the entrance was 10 soles. I walked in, refused the guide, and walked into another world. Literally.
This convent is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Here, from the late 1500s onwards, ladies from the privileged families of Arequipa (and, I assume, other places) came to retire from the mundane world in which they had lived before – the one we live in. Nothing new in that, that’s part of what convents are for. Here, however, although shut away from the world officially (limited contacts with relations and all that) they did not intend to shut themselves away from a genteel way of living. These had been, still were for the most part, wealthy dueñas, so could afford something that, while humble, was still graceful.
Each therefore had their own, what we would call mini-apartment, with salon, bedroom, kitchen, private garden and, yes, servant’s quarters. Made of adobe for sure. Wooden bed also (nice wide ones mostly). Simple furniture. Crucifixes, icons, the works. But quite livable. Each house, for that’s what each nun lived in, was named after the occupant too – her religious name of course, not her worldly one. There were communal baths, and a communal washing area too, its ‘tubs’ made of great terracotta amphorae split in half and laid on the sloping ground as though they were the tossed halves of walnut shells, a watercourse running the length of them.
The streets and lanes, for this convent is enormous and really deserves the description ‘city within a city’, were obviously all perfectly maintained. Indeed this city-within-a-city was also a state-within-two-states, secluded from the outer world and independent of the church authorities too, for the better part of its existence. Again the astonishing similarity with Mexico – all outer walls in the convent are painted in primary blues, reds and whites; inner ones in soft yellow or mellowed white. Flowers and plants are abundant; there’s even a deep shady garden in one corner. There are several cloisters, remnants of frescos still painted on the walls.
Thank goodness there is also a cafeteria in the middle of this. By midday I was feeling the heat and strength of the sun beating down on me. Through an archway a delightful garden beckoned, chairs under a large canvas umbrella, easy chairs in the corner terrace, shaded with thin poles of bamboo. One coffee and a tall glass of water later, I was able to move off and complete the tour of this stunning place.
The reason the convent is open to the public is primarily because not so long ago it fell into ruin and decay after one of many devastating earthquakes hit Arequipa. The nuns had to leave for property next door, where they still live. The local government took the massive complex over, restored a good part of it (not all, that’s evident) and opened it to the public.
I eventually made it out and, hungry, headed for a restaurant, the cortile of which I had stuck my head into earlier. The interior was quite contemporary, the colors less primary but still bright – orange, violet and apple green. Mexico again … The food was delicious : recoto relleno with papas (stuffed pepper with side order of sauteed potatoes), which I ordered without knowing its one of Arequipa’s classic dishes. A glass of the always excellent Peruvian wine and I was happy. Luis, the waiter, was super attentive and happily explained some of the dishes to me. Peruvian cuisine is known to be good (I didn’t know this before arriving, of course) and believe me, it is.
After this i headed back to the hostal. Another receptionist was on duty. I asked if I could go up to the top terrace, where the restaurant was, to see the view. ‘Of course you can, and our cuisine is very good if you want to eat there this evening’ was her reply. I’m sure it is, but I’m way too stuffed with my recoto relleno to eat any more today. Returning to the lobby I asked if I could check the internet (usual stuff). She offered me the option of coffee or tea, and this time I went for the tea. Tea made by throwing some coca leaves into a cup then pouring boiling hot water over them. My first coca tea, then. Taste? Like hot water poured over scented leaves, somewhat sweet thanks to the sugar, a little oily thanks to the natural oils in the leaf itself and a slightly bitter aftertaste. No buzz or anything like that. Its supposed to be invigorating for high altitudes. I found it mildly relaxing, like hibiscus tea is. Anyway, took it up to my room to appreciate the moment, downloaded the many, many fotos I had taken, showered again and took a short siesta.
In the late afternoon I walked over to the agency that Betty had suggested and booked a day trip to the Valle del Colca, departure time 02:30 am the following morning. “It’s a little way and there’s much to see. Plus we have to be back by 5pm before it gets dark.” was the explanation given. Right, well if I’m getting up that early, forget the drink on the terrace – I’m off to bed!