I Heart Arequipa

I had almost forgotten how vibrant a sunset could be until the drive through volcano valley. I wasn’t thrilled about arriving late in Arequipa, but the view out my window was worth the risk of catching a taxi in the dark. Upon reaching Arequipay Backpackers, known among travelers as one of the best hostels in Peru, I was greeted warmly and showed to my bunk. Exhausted from the long 12-hour journey from La Paz, I could not have been happier to have a bed and shower.

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With a good nights rest under my belt, I was ready to hit the streets of Arequipa. I didn’t know what I was going to do or how long I was going to stay, and I was in no rush to decide on either.

The central plaza of Arequipa, Plaza de Armas, is absolutely stunning. I’m not entirely sure if my perspective is still warped from being in Bolivia for so long, or this place is truly magnificent, but I was in complete awe of Arequipa’s main square. Maybe it’s the intricate and perfectly kept gardens, or the white archway terraces that line the block. Maybe it’s the volcanoes that loom in the background or the sheer size of the church. Perhaps it’s all these things that make this plaza such a marvel. I couldn’t even tell you how many hours I spent soaking up the scenery.20121027-155409.jpg

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I ended up giving myself two days to enjoy Arequipa. I watched people the park, perused the shops (avoiding the Starbucks and MacDonalds – welcome back to the globalized world), strolled the cobble stone streets, sampled the local market, haggled at antique shops, ate saltenas like a pro, visited the high-ceiling churches, and toured some museums.

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Arequipa, known as La Ciudad Blanca, sits within dangerous proximity to a string of active volcanoes – one of which started smoking again two weeks ago. It’s a cultural oasis in the middle of an almost deserted volcanic region. The city is filled with museums, churches, universities, culinary institutes, and everything metropolitan, but with a colonial Spanish twist. Two days are not nearly enough time to take advantage of all Arequipa has to offer. However, I was able to cross off two of the most important “must dos” in the city: see the famous Ice Maiden and indulge in some exquisite Peruvian cuisine.

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The Ice Maiden, or Jaunita, as she’s called more specifically, is considered to be one of the most important archeological discoveries in South America. Juanita is a girl that had been offered to the gods as a human sacrifice at the age of 12 over 500 years ago. Her body was discovered on top of El Misti volcano in 1995. Everything except her face (skin, organs, and clothes) have been fully preserved by ice. The analyses of her body and garments provide some of the greatest insights into the ancient culture and rituals of the Incas.

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After learning what had been in Jaunita’s stomach at the time of her death, I decided to fill my own – and very alive – stomach with some of this Arequipan gastronomy I’d been hearing about. I chose a restaurant with a rooftop view of the volcanoes called Mixto and ordered one of the typical Peruvian dishes, Chupe de Camaron. Rico doesn’t describe it. This was the best meal I’d eaten in over 3 months. I stayed as long as I could, slowly enjoying the food and the beer until it was mid-afternoon and had to rush off to my Spanish lesson. (I love how almost anywhere you go in South America you can hire a Spanish tutor to sit and chat with you for a couple of hours – es una buena práctica!)

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That night, as I prepared for a two-day hike into Colca Canyon the next morning, I was a little disappointed I had not given myself more time in Arequipa. For not being much of a city person, I was surprised that I found such an affinity for this one. I wish anyone visiting Peru to pass some time in Arequipa. And if you ever do, would you mind taking me with you?

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