This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Arequipa the Off-White City

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Welcome to the “Off-White” City

We did not really plan to come to Arequipa right now, but because of problems in Puno we are forced to detour through the city in southern Peru in order to get to Bolivia via Chile. This ends up not being so bad at all. Arequipa happens to be the launching point for nice trips to the beautiful Colca Canyon and condor viewing.
The cathedral
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, but it does not feel that large at all. This is probably because, as usual, we hardly leave the center which has the concentration of historic buildings and tourist facilities. Though rolling into town we can definitely see how the urban sprawl pushes all the way up to the edge of the massive active volcano, El Misti, that looms large in the background.
View of El Misti as we roll into town
Arequipa is called the “White City” because the old colonial buildings were constructed using light volcanic rock. For me saying ‘white’ is a bit of an exaggeration. To me everything looks grayish. In Popayan, Colombia, another colonial town also called “white city,” the buildings are painted a blistering bright white. But I guess calling Arequipa the “off-white” or “light gray” city does not sound as cool.
A library
Arequipa’s center has a nice blend of old and new. Colonial era churches and mansions dot the streets. The main plaza always full of people, palm trees and pigeons is highlighted by the gigantic cathedral while near by is a pedestrian street with many modern clothing shops. The very clean central market has ladies selling tasty saltenas (pastry filled with meat, chicken or potato), fresh fruit juice stands and people lining up to get healthy concoctions of noni and maca (Peruvian ginseng). Overall, Arequipa is really quite pleasant and a nice place to kick back for a couple days to get an urban fix.

Pigeons at the main plaza

Healthy drink stand
A Convent-ional Visit

The Santa Catalina Convent is considered the most important colonial structure in Arequipa. It was founded in 1579 and the nuns were selected from the wealthiest families. The ladies pretty much went about their business until 1970 when the mayor of Arequipa forced the nuns to open their doors to the viewing public. I actually find this part quite amusing because I am really not sure how you get a bunch of nuns to open their doors after 391 years. The only thing that I can come up with is that the mayor threatened them with a bill for four centuries of back property taxes.
Inside the walls four centuries later
It costs quite a bit to enter the convent 35 Soles (US $12) and more if you want a guide which is not entirely necessary because there is a lot of written information provided for those who prefer self-guided tours. It takes a few hours to get through the whole thing because the complex takes up a whopping entire city block. I spend over two hours wandering through the various cloisters and around the maze-like arrangement of cells where the nuns used to slumber giving an almost too-intimate look into their lives.
Prisoner of choice: A nun's cell
Some highlights include the cell of Sister Ana (still with a cult following) who died in 1686 and beatified in 1985, the giant kitchen with smoke charred walls where the sisters baked bread to make some dough and a large gallery housing an impressive collection of religious art.
An old painting
It’s An Alpaca World After All

Arequipa seems to have a lot of shops selling goods made from the fine wool of baby alpaca. So it makes sense that the city is also home to Mundo Alpaca - Alpaca World. With a stroke of luck our hotel happens to be just three blocks from Mundo Alpaca, a family friendly place (though I think kids will be bored senseless) that teaches us about the entire wool collecting process from the animal’s back to yours -- in the shape of a sweater.

Alpacas on display
After passing through the shops and browsing high quality alpaca wool products, the real fun starts. We follow a route that leads us through the entire wool gathering process. We pass a small pen housing seven llamas and alpacas. Then we are led to a sorting room where a woman is separating the dusty wool chunks by quality and then outside where two young ladies are weaving textiles.

The museum has some good written info about wool, all types of machines on display for processing wool, old photos of alpaca wool processing, and an art gallery with paintings that have nothing to do with llama or alpaca wool. Mundo Alpaca is free for all Andean camelid connoisseurs and the just mildly curious.
Sorting alpaca and llama wool
Our Last Supper

Since it is our last night in Peru we decide that we will pass on our usual less than US $2 meals and splash out for once. We choose a restaurant, ChiCha, that is owned by celebrity chef Gaston Acurio. He has fancy restaurants all over South America, but this is like his more casual place. The restaurant is located in a beautiful 18th century mansion, but I can never shake the feeling that I am in a Las Vegas locale. Maybe it is the modern decor and color scheme.

The menu is mostly Peruvian fare with many comfort food options making it kind of like the numerous restaurants opened across the USA the past decade selling fancier renditions of home-cooked favorites like mac & cheese or meatloaf. The meal presentation is beautiful which is fun. The food is good but not great. Even though there seems to be a wow factor missing this is still a nice way to end our first visit to Peru and tomorrow we’ll take our full bellies to Chile.
For those North Americans in need of their own comfort food
McDonalds is "now in Arequipa"


  1. I always look forward to reading your blog. It is so well-written. South America is a fantastic place. Thanks so much for the "tour" of Arequipa!

  2. Thanks again Margaret. You are making me blush. I really appreciate the kind comments.

  3. We were in Arequipa yesterday. The plan was to fly out of Puno, but the rioters damaged the runway at the airport so we couldn't fly out. Had a long drive to Arequipa--6 hours I think. Got a plane to Lima and waited at the airport another 6 hours for our flight home. Long trip. Peru was awesome! We had wonderful travel guides who seemed to know everything. Can't wait to go back. Arequipa central was nicer than I expected.

  4. Hola Gabriele,

    Great to hear you guys had a great time in Peru. Next time you should explore the north. We're really looking forward to getting there in a month or so.

    Six hour rides are pretty standard in our travel social circles. Glad to hear you made it back. I'm looking forward to seeing your photos one day.