Monday, 4 February 2008

The City in White

Nestled at the base of the twin volcanoes of El Misti and El Chachani, Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city. Although it has a population of around one million it has managed to retain the small town charm of a city like Cusco. The city is a little off the standard gringo trail and as a consequence there are less street hawkers. In the off-season the waiters in the restaurants appear aimless as they wander between empty tables and occasionally venture to the pavement to try and drum up interest. Although the city spreads itself liberally over the valley floor the old colonial centre of the town is relatively compact, with the Plaza de Armas at the centre of a grid of streets that play host to the usual collection of monasteries, museums and churches. Arequipa is unusual in a number of respects though: the cathedral extends to a full side of the colonnaded Plaza de Armas; all the main building are built using a white volcanic rock called ‘sillar’, giving the town a slightly cleaner and lighter feel; and, the the most outstanding building is not the cathedral, but the Monastario of Santa Catalina.

Built in the 16th Century, this refuge for the wealthy second born daughters of Latin American and Spanish aristocracy served as the Four Seasons of the ecclesiastic world. On entry as a novice, the girls would be allowed to bring a maid to help perform their daily chores allowing them more time to perform their devotions and craft. As a precondition for entry the family would have to provide a healthy dowry that was, in turn, invested in property within the city and agricultural land to feed the nuns and fund building works. For the wealthiest of nuns it was possible to build a personal living quarters within the convent and, as a consequence, the convent extends over an extended block in each direction; almost a mini Vatican within Arequipa. In fact, when the Vatican finally came to find out about the ‘unusual’ practices of this Dominican institution it sent a rather severe Mother Superior from Spain to rectify their behaviour.

In the end, the charm of Arequipa and the company our traveling companions David and Anne-Marie led us to stay in town for the best part of a week (including our trip to Colca Canyon). Staying in this charming city was a nice way to close out our stay in Peru. As was the case with Ecuador, it feels like we have only scratched the surface of the country. There is still a great deal that we haven’t seen in Peru: the jungle of the North-East, the high altitude mountains of the Cordillera Huayhuash and Blanca and the beaches of the North. It is now time to head south though to chase the summer season in Patagonia. With the decision to head down through Northern Chile to Patagonia we have had to postpone our visit to Bolivia. Hopefully, serendipity will continue to serve up its usual pleasant surprises in Chile.

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