A week of history and culture with a twist of terror

Arequipa, the second most populous city in Peru with a population of 836,859 boasts an historic centre that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 in recognition of its architecture and historic integrity. The city sits at an altitude of 2,335 m (7,661 ft) above sea level, at the base of a former snow-capped volcano called El Misti which has an altitude of 5,822 m (19,101 ft) above sea level .

We limited our visit to the historic center of Arequipa which probably doesn’t accurately reflect the city as a whole.  Still, we found Arequipa to be reminiscent of a vibrant European city, rich in culture and heritage. The city is very clean and we felt safe walking the streets both day and night.  We enjoyed picture perfect weather every day – sunny and about 20 Celsius.  Here are some of the highlights of our week in Arequipa.

Silence, please!

The Santa Carolina Monastery was built in 1580 and later expanded in the 17th century.  It was built with sillar, the white volcanic rock that gives Arequipa the name of the White City, and ashlar, petrified volcanic ash from Volcan Chachani overlooking the city. Located just three blocks from the central square, Plaza des Armas, it was easy to find this walled city within the city.

This is a monastery of nuns of the Domincan Second Order.  At it’s peak, there were over 450 people living in the monastery; today there are only about 20 nuns living in the northern corner of the complex, cloistered away from curious tourist eyes.

When researching the monastery before our visit, I was surprised to learn the monastery only accepted women from upper class Spanish families who had to pay a generous dowry – basic admission was the equivalent of $150,000 US in today’s dollars for their daughter’s admission into the monastery.  This monastery was more like a rich girl’s boarding house rather than a convent; each nun brought with her 1-4 servants, and indulged in the same lavish lifestyle she was accustomed to when growing up.   The nuns gave parties, had musicians in to entertain them, and enjoyed fine china, crystal, silk rugs and curtains.  This sure isn’t the picture one conjures up when imagining a monastery in the 16th century! However, the good life came to an abrupt end for the nuns when the Pope caught wind of their shenanigans and sent Sister Josefa Cadena, a strict Dominican nun, to straighten things out in 1871. She sent the rich dowries back to Europe and freed all the servants and slaves, many of whom decided to stay on as nuns themselves.  She instituted internal reforms and transformed the monastery from its country club status to a real monastery where the nuns genuinely renounced the world and embraced a life of poverty.  I bet those nuns didn’t know what hit them!

In the 1960s, the monastery was struck twice by earthquakes, severely damaging the structures, and forcing the nuns to build new accommodation next door. It was then restored and opened to the public. This also helped pay for the installation of electricity and running water, as required by law. It is now one of Arequipa’s prime tourist attractions.

As I walked through the alleyways and courtyards, into the private nun’s chambers which they call cells, it was easy to imagine what life would have been like in this cloistered community hundreds of years ago.  It was so peaceful and serene.   There were nooks and crannies around every corner, stairs leading nowhere which now served as plant stands, and sky lights bathing dark corners with natural light.  Solitude would have been a constant companion, except when you were having parties of course.   I could picture myself living in such an environment….for a few days at least.  After that, it would probably get on my nerves.

More photos of the Monastery of Santa Carolina

Plaza des Armas

South American towns and cities typically have a central park or plaza; Arequipa’s Plaza des Armas is one of the most beautiful we have seen thus far.  It reminded me of the plaza in Cusco.  Under a background of majestic, snow capped mountains, the plaza is surrounded on three sides by colonial arcaded buildings which are home to many upscale restaurants and cafes, some with charming second story balconies overlooking the square.  The north end is dominated by the impressive, twin towered Cathedral which was founded in 1612.  A large water fountain flows in the center of the square. The plaza is always crowded and bustling with locals; we have seen very few tourists around town.  On Saturday night, we saw three wedding parties being photographed in the plaza (unfortunately we didn’t have our camera at the time – I really hate it when we do that!)  Hundreds of pigeons have made the plaza their home and children love to buy bird feed from local vendors to feed the friendly pigeons. Surprisingly, the plaza is very clean in spite of the huge flock of resident birds.  The plaza was a great place to take a break on a park bench and just people watch.

More photos of the Plaza des Armas as well as street scenes around the Plaza.

Churches, churches, churches

Like every South American city we have visited, there was an abundance of churches in Arequipa, the vast majority of which are Catholic.  I have to admit that after a while, the churches all start to look alike, at least in our memories.  Still, one feels compelled to at least visit the most outstanding churches.

Of course the Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa occupying the entire north end of the Plaza des Armas was not to be missed.  The construction of this cathedral began on the very day the city was founded: August 15, 1540.  Imagine, less than 40 years after the church construction began, it was reduced to rubble by an earthquake.  In 1600, when the church was almost completed for a second time, another earthquake caused some serious damage, followed by yet another earthquake in 1604 that reduced it once again to rubble.  In spite of its sad history of destruction caused by one earthquake after the other, the most recent being in 2001, today the imposing cathedral stands erect and intact, a testament to the Arequipenos’ determination to protect its most precious church.

A slideshow of the Basilica Cathedral:

We wandered into several other churches in the historic district but didn’t even take note of their names.  Yes, I guess we’re experiencing church fatigue – maybe you’re getting sick of all the church pictures too.

A slideshow of other churches we saw in Arequipa:

To market, to market ….

I love going to local markets, the non-tourist kind that sell fruits and vegetables and all kinds of interesting and weird things, just wandering amongst the vendors, immersing myself in the hustle and bustle, catching a glimpse of everyday life of the locals, and shocking my senses.

On Saturday morning, Chris was sick with a head cold so I decided to venture out on my own in search of the the Mercado San Camilo, located between our hostel and the plaza, according to my map, on the Av San Camilo between Av Pierola and Av Peru.  I had some difficulty finding it at first as I thought it would be an outdoor market, perhaps because all the markets we visited in Ecuador were outdoors.  I wandered around the busy streets (I think everybody was out shopping on Saturday morning), and was surprised to see the many Christmas stores stocked to the brim with tacky Christmas decorations just like any Canadian dollar store in December.  I finally found the unmarked entrance to the market which was housed in a large building.

This was a typical market that sold everything from chicken heads (I took a picture because I didn’t think anyone would believe me otherwise) to sombreros.   The market was very well laid out, with overhead signs advertising the various sections – fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, textiles, clothing, etc.  I was most intrigued and equally grossed out by the meat section.  As I walked down one row after another of unrecognizable meat parts, at a certain point I couldn’t stop to take any more pictures as I was overcome by the stench of raw, unrefrigerated meat.  I still managed to snap a few shots of strange delectables, at least I assume Peruvians think of them in that way.

Later that day, I returned to the market to purchase some fruits and vegetables as we decided we would prepare our own food for the next couple of days while Chris recuperated.  I purchased a large bag of vegetables – brocolli, green onions, red pepper, tomatoes, coriander, garlic, carrots – all for under 10 soles (about $3.75 CAN).  Compare this to the Starbucks coffee I bought in the morning (I figured it would cheer Chris up which it did) at a ridiculous price of 8 soles each ($3.00 CAN).  It was the first coffee in three months that resembled our coffee at home and it was our first cup of real coffee since arriving in Arequipa.  As we savoured every sip, we both agreed it was worth every sole.

A slideshow of what I saw on the way to the market and some of the more interesting finds in the market:


And now for some culture

While wandering around during the day on Saturday, I saw an advertisement for a concert in the Municipal theatre scheduled for 7:00 in the evening: Tuna Mejor de Arequipa.  I was ready for some culture and was prepared to go alone but Chris insisted on coming along even though he was still sick; he was concerned about me being out at night alone even though I had assured him I would take a taxi back.  I think it was good for him to get cleaned up and out of the hostel for a couple of hours.

Unfortunately, we didn’t bring our camera with us (I hate it when we forget our camera or even worse as was the case that night, when we consciously choose to leave it at the hostel) and so I’ll just have to describe the evening for you (I’ll try to keep it brief).  The show was scheduled to begin at 7:00; we arrived at 6:35 with plenty of time to spare. The show began at 7:45.

We were entertained for two hours by a group of 18 men, ranging in age from about 18 to 60+.  They were standing on the stage in three rows: 8 men in the back row playing various sizes of guitars; 6 men in the middle row playing mandolins, and 4 men in the front row – two with percussion instruments, one waving a flag, and the main singer.  All were dressed in a traditional costume comprised of a large black and red cape adorned with flowing colorful ribbons over a puffy white shirt, black pants to the knees, black knee socks and black shoes.

Based on the reactions from the audience, the majority of whom were 60+, I suspect the songs were traditional oldies, some of which were specific to Arequipa. It was all good fun, with the audience singing along, clapping their hands, and waving their arms in the air back and forth as if they were in a rock concert.  An announcer introduced each song but we didn’t understand a word.  During intermission, we were entertained by two young dancers clothed in traditional costumes, dancing a traditional Spanish dance. It was much better when they finally turned the stage lights on – guess the light guy was taking a break too.

Here’s a video from a similar performance by the group in 2007 – not the best video but it will give you an idea of what the show was like.


 Hiking in the Colca Canyon

Last but not least, we spent three days hiking into the Colca Canyon without a guide. At a depth of 4,160 m (13,650 ft), the Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, although the Colca Canyon walls are not as vertical.  It is considered the second deepest canyon in the world; the deepest canyon, Cotahuasi Canyon is just up the road.  Maybe you’ve already thought of this, but it didn’t occur to us until we started our first descent to the canyon floor – anyone with issues with vertigo or a fear of heights may have trouble doing this hike.  I’ll tell you all about this harrowing experience in the next post.

Category: Peru, South America
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2 Responses
  1. Nancy says:

    I love the pictures of the chicken heads and hooves. Do you put them in a stew or eat them with eye balls?
    I would like to see all those textiles and yarn. My suitcase would be full.
    The stinky white fleshy stuff in the market looks like tripe (cow stomach). I am gagging just thinking of it. I cannot stand the smell either.
    The local concert sounds great. I do not think the 45 minute delay would go over well here. I like the fact that you are really experiencing the culture but I would definately stay away from the unrefrigerated meat.

    • christina says:

      Hi Nancy,
      You would love the textiles in South America. There are tons of fabric and yarn stores everywhere – the art of sewing, weaving, knitting and crocheting has not been lost here. You’d fit right in 🙂 And who knows what your Chris could concoct with chicken heads and llama hooves – BBQ anyone? Christina