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Published: October 19th 2007
Well the first surprise of the day occurred before our plane from Lima had even landed in Arequipa. Much to my surprise, we were greeted by what I can only describe as a ‘brownscape’. Its exactly 20 years since I was last in Arizona, but that was what it reminded me of - just barren brown desert, bordering a city that appeared from the plane to have brown roads, brown fields and brown houses. But first appearances can be deceiving, and while there is no doubt that Arequipa does not have an overabundance of rain (made me feel quite homesick!), it is actually a very attractive city, with definite similarities to Cuenca in Ecuador. It is actually known as the “White City”, due to the large number of buildings constructed of an off-white volcanic rock called ‘sillar’. Its distinctive stonework graces countless fantastic colonial churches, monasteries and mansions scattered throughout the city.
The city of Arequipa lies in a fertile valley under the watchful eye of three volcanoes, all of which are around 6,000m high. The most impressive is El Misti in the centre, with its prefect cone-shape, and this is still an active volcano, having erupted a number
of times in the last century. Like a lot of South American cities, the central city is a chequerboard pattern and it is easy to find your way around, and if all else fails, you can look up and you will likely see one of the spires of the Cathedral, which flanks the central square. Just outside of the city are two neighbourhoods, each with their own distinct character. Firstly, there is the suburb of Yanahuara, where we checked out the views and the Iglesia San Juan Batista, which dates from 1750, but took a bit of a beating in a recent earthquake. Then we visited another suburb called Cayma, nicknamed El Balcon (the Balcony) for its privileged views, which almost look as though they came straight out of National Geographic. I’ve done my best to see if I can reproduce this vista for you, but you know what it’s like when you send a boy on a man’s errand!
After checking out the nearby neighbourhood, we took in a brief tour of the city itself, taking in the central square, Plaza de Armas, the Jesuit church of La Compania and its painted chapel, the church of San Francisco,
and straight across the road from our hotel, the Santa Catalina Convent. This latter building occupies a whole block, and once contained over 400 nuns, but now there are fewer than a tenth of that number, and most of the convent is open for public viewing. It has been wonderfully restored, and with the help of a guide, you can step back some 400-odd years and try to identify with the extraordinarily Spartan lifestyles of the nuns at that time, with the conditions for the ‘apprentices’ almost making Death Row look like a 5-star hotel!
We were fortunate enough to stay in a hotel called La Pasada del Monasterio, directly across the road from the Convent, and a former Monastery itself, that has now been converted into a modern hotel (however not quite up to the ex-14th century convent we stayed at in Antigua Guatemala, Des, but there again, QSL aren’t picking up my tab now!).
After a couple of days in Arequipa, we took off for a 2 day tour of the Colca Canyon. I was going to include this visit into this blog, but it had so many outstanding features, that I have awarded it its
very own blog. On our return to Arequipa, we had one last day, the morning of which was spent white-water rafting on the Rio Chilli, only a short distance from the city. This was a class III rapid, with a couple of stretches being of grade IV quality, one of which we had to get out and walk as the company didn’t feel like covering its clients for any broken necks! I’ve done quite a bit of rafting through the years, and this ride of some 1½ hours probably had the least ‘free time’ of all, with white water virtually comprising the whole trip. We were accompanied by a guy from the States, a girl from Germany and another from French Canada (Quebec), as well as local guide Luis, so again had interesting and fun company for the day. For any readers planning to visit Arequipa and wishing to do rafting, you could do far worse that contacting Cusipata (details in Lonely Planet) as they were very professional.
In booking the tour to Colca, we deviated from one of our original plans of fully independent travel. No, we haven’t booked onto a 3 week bus tour full of Germans
or French (which we seem to run into at every destination, and bless every day we aren’t travelling on such a tour), but the agent we used persuaded us to allow him to pull together a ‘package’ that basically covered most of our travel for the duration of our Peru visit (around 3 weeks) and through to La Paz. By ‘package’, we now have forward booked all our hotels (even got Joan’s seal of approval on quality!), a number of one or two day tours, all land transport including trains to and from Machu Picchu, bus from Cusco down to Lake Titicaca, catamaran over the latter, and then bus through to La Paz. Those that know me well won’t be surprised that I totted up the total cost of all these individual items, and the total charge for the package by this company came to only around 60 per cent of the cumulative cost. I’ve never been able to resist a bargain! If the rest of the Peru visit is successful (and to date they have exceeded expectations), I’ll give this company a big plug in my final Peru blog, and if it’s not successful, I’ll just sue their arse
And so, now we are on our way to Cuzco, and the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu …..
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