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A day in Arequipa

I had already fixed my departure from Arequipa for tomorrow morning, so today was all set for walking around the city some more. First up, I needed some breakfast. There didn’t appear to be anything at the hostal so I wondered around a few blocks looking for somewhere interesting to sit down for a coffee (a real one) and food. Eventually I found a place, not far from the convent of Santa Catalina, advertizing American breakfast. Great! Flapjacks! In the end I went for a delicious and wonderfully prepared bowl of fresh fruit salad, some toast and jam – and a real coffee. The place is called La Casa Blanca, another classic house where with inner courtyard which is also a hostal, as Jorge the bartender told me. The food was excellent, the coffee perfect, the service superb and the hospitality unforgettable. I am beginning to like Arequipa a lot!

By the back entrance to the Jesuit church and cloisters

From La Casa Blanca I walked up towards the green park at the top of the old part of town. Students an many places were queuing up to register for end of term exams. One street seemed given over to language institutes (primarily English but a couple of French also). At the end I got semi-lost: I knew where I was in relation to the center but couldn’t find what I was looking for. After walking down the central ring road, eyes beginning to water with the car pollution (Mexico!) I found myself in a maze of extremely tidy alleyways, with houses so similar to those of an southern Andalucian fishing village. This looks like it was once a poor quarter, totally refurbished by artists and well-to-do.

I wandered out of San Lazaro, as this district was called, through an another alleyway full of artisans’ stores and into a plaza next to the monastery and church of San Francisco. The square, shaded by trees, was a place for old people and students alike to sit, converse and watch the world go by, much as I was doing. As always, an itinerant shoeshiner was sitting on his portable workstool, cleaning someone’s shoes. Two pensioners were sitting on a bench opposite, each silent but obviously together. Two students, a reflection of their earlier lives, sat in tender embrace just two paces away. Such is life.

After a few minutes trying to take fotos of some of the people I walked over to the alley of the artisans and a small museum that fronted the plaza. There wasn’t much to see (a contemporary art exhibition) so I headed down the main street street, past the convent of Santa Catalina again and towards the Plaza de Armas. The great iron gates to the cathedral precinct were open so I peeked inside; it seems to have the standard, severe appearance of most religious buildings built in the late 19th century (the cathedral being rebuilt after an earlier, devastating earthquake). As I retraced my footsteps a woman came up to me offering to sell cactus fruit. As of yesterday I’m an expert of course, so I ask “How much for the ‘tuna’?” “Oh you know about them? One sol for three, señor.” Well that beats the three soles for two I paid yesterday! So I bought three, ate one immediately and pocketed the other two for later.


Past the church to San Domingo, back up the street I walked earlier in the morning, and to the gates of the convent to Santa Teresa; closed when I first walked here, open now. Bought my ticket, signed in, accepted the company of a guide and was given a most capable and professional tour of the convent. This one is infinitely smaller that the convent to Santa Catalina, and obviously built with the ladies of the tradespeople in mind, not dueñas of the hacenderos. No independence here – strict observance of church doctrine, right down to the wooden carousels on which outsiders could deposit messages, gifts and articles for their relatives, secluded inside as voluntary (and not-so, possibly) lifers. Never once could a nun be seen from someone outside the community. A community of nuns still lives in the convent; like that of Santa Catalina, the greater part is given over to the local government and is used as a tourist attraction.

The seller of seed for the pigeons

As always, the guide wanted to draw my attention to the extrinsic value of the religious artifacts on show in the Viceregal Art Museum, which forms a part of the convent. As always, I was more interested in the intrinsic value of the art itself. I learned that plaster figurines, some of reasonable size, were actually created by building skeletons of light wood, which then were covered in plaster soaked cloth to render the sculpture’s clothing more realistic. Clever – the same technique was used for cire perdue bronze cast sculptures; I didn’t know it was downscaled also. As in other buildings there was a sense of clean freshness in many of the rooms, so I asked if they had been restored. “Yes, after the earthquake in 2001 many of the ceilings in these rooms caved in, so they were rebuilt with the traditional slllar (a light colored form of tufa). We lost many of the plaster frescos that were once painted on these walls”. Amazingly, the mahogany floors survived virtually unscathed.

To my guide’s visible embarrassment I breezed past religious reliquaries, tableaux and dolls. One of them was fascinating and truly impressive. Imagine a nativity scene with its wooden dolls. Now take the same idea, apply it to other key events in the Old and New Testaments (Garden of Eden, Noah and his Ark, Murder of the Innocents) and put it all together. Takes up a lot of room, right? So build a big box around them all, open it up and use the interior sides as a back drop for the scenes. When you want to travel, pack the figurines inside, close the sides up and the top down, and off you go. Not this particular version (its glass panels would break), but smaller, simpler ones were taken by the priests into their parishes to both show and tell the locals of the mystery and magic of the Bible. Propaganda Fidei.

Other items that had found there way here were Wedgwood china (the bridge and the swallows being the give-away), a Chinese vase I was told was from the dynasty of Huang Di (OK, I know) and examples of lace. I asked if lace had become something for which Arequipa was known, as often an activity generated in monasteries is a stimulus for local artisan craft; not here apparently. At the exit the ever forbearing guide asked me sweetly for a tip; she was a student and this was her way of making some extra money. Of course!


I continued my wanderings around the central area of the city. Some time later I found myself passing the entrance to yet another of the wonderful colonial period houses here. The courtyard of this one was very attractive; being a museum I paid the entrance fee and walked in. The Casa del Moral was once the home of one of Arequipa’s leading families. With the passing of time and generations, the family dissolved and the property was sold off. Eventually one Arthur Williams of England bought it in 1948. By then a ruin, he rebuilt and refurbished it, keeping to the primary blue and red exterior walls of the convent. His heirs sold it on to a local bank, which then as part of a cultural program, has kept it in good order and sponsors its use as a museum. I marveled at the grace of the place, walking around its rooms twice and discovering the small garden through which a small stream no doubt flowed in the rainy season.

The Casa del Moral

I was on my way out and the guardian asked if I’d been on the roof yet. I didn’t know one could, so followed his directions back to the garden and there found the steps up to the roof. Here, walking over the shallow vault of the sillar-and-tile roofs, was a tremendous view over the town itself. Looking across the street I could see another abandoned ruin of what was once a fine house. That got me thinking … I walked all around, looking down and out and around.

Eventually I made my way back to the stairs and glanced back for a final view of the town. I could see the beginnings of the mountains through which I had traveled to Colca yesterday. Up and up they rose, seeming so close by. The clouds broiled past the higher slopes as the heat of the day caused them to rise. I could see the furthest extents of the city by now. Something caught my eye a little higher – the mountain continued to rise. I kept looking up. And up. A flash of light that surely wasn’t a cloud. No, it was snow. At that very moment the clouds shredded against the utmost peak of the mountain and I could see its summit. It wasn’t a mountain. It was a volcano. Misti, at last! And so overwhelmingly close! Stunningly close. My jaw dropped. I sat down. Couldn’t help it. The view of Misti was awesome. I stayed another fifteen minutes waiting for the clouds to clear sufficiently to take a shot. Here it is.

The Convent of Santa Catalina with Volcán Misti behind

It was lunchtime. I strolled through an alley way behind the cathedral I had come across earlier; there were a couple of places that looked interesting. One had a top terrace, so I headed up and ordered a prawn ceviche, followed by trout. The waiter brought me a complimentary Pisco Sour – my very first. I had thought of it as a Caipirinha, given its ingredients are similar (change the cachaça for pisco and you have it), but it came prepared as a Margarita (a semi-frozen slurry). Softer than a Caipirinha, sweeter than a Margarita. Not bad at all. The prawn ceviche was delicious – and now I found out why there is a Pampa de Camarones near Arequipa. These are river prawns, but nothing like the freshwater crawfish taste I was expecting; these are as firm and succulent as any I’ve ever eaten that come from the cold oceans. Must be the altitude. Yum! Trout was good too, as was the glass of white wine, the coffee and desert. Mixto’s is the place – I recommend it. After lunch, what else but back to the hotel to check email, have a cup of coca tea and take a short siesta.


In the afternoon I finally found the way into the complex of the Jesuits, with its light beige sillar courtyards, cloisters and patios. In the main courtyard a group were being taken through dance sequences by their choreographer. When costumed I’m sure its a sight. In by the back entrance, out by the front, I walked up one block then down the pedestrian precinct. “Hey señor, you need some laces!” The street vendor was right – the ones one my shoes were frayed. “OK – I’ll buy a pair from you if you let me take a foto of you!” I shot back. “No hay problema, señor, but I recommend you buy these laces, as they are stronger.” So, thanks to Pablo the lace seller, I have a foto and a new pair of stout laces.

Pablo the Shoelace seller

As the afternoon turned into an early evening, I simply wandered the main square, watching the people as they met up at the end of the day, let their children play, paid court to each other, read the papers. Resplendent in new laces, I had my soft comfortable suedes brushed clean by one of the shoeshiners. One woman, who had expertly caught a pigeon to show it to her nephew, wanted to see the fotos I had taken, including hers. So we all chatted for a few moments. A young, timid boy came up to me. His relatives were sitting on the same bench as I; one man gestured to me they were all deaf and dumb; if I had some change it would be appreciated. I didn’t, unfortunately, so within a few moments they all moved off. One youth was sitting on the steps to the cathedral, apparently reading his textbooks but infinitely more interested in the five female students babbling away to his left.

The sun sets over the plain of Arequipa

The sun was setting; I walked back to the hotel so I could see it from the top terrace. “Hola señor! Would you like to eat at our restaurant?” I got from the three women stationed at the door. “I still live here!” I smiled back at them. “I will eat there tonight, but on one condition – I can take a foto of you all!” Which I did, of course. Up on the top the air was chilling quickly as the sun faded away. They have a clever answer to this: ponchos, courtesy of the house. Very functional, very comfortable. Two guys were playing ‘traditional’ music for the guests. “Would you like to buy our CD señor?” “Sure, but is it really you on the CD?” “Yes it is, all five of us.” “But there are only two of you!” “Our friends are preparing for another show; soon we go to join them.” So, along with my laces, I’m the proud owner of a CD of Andean music.

Mary and the music

Night rushed into the sky, banishing the sun another day. The cathedral was now lit by great floodlights; the plaza by a myriad of streetlamps. I ate my steak, washed down a glass of red wine (Peruvian wine remains very good), arranged my taxi for the following morning (as Betty insisted, saying that there were still problems with rogue drivers drugging passengers and robbing them).

And hit the sack.