Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa, Peru: between the desert and the volcano

Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.

As I was sitting on the second floor of an open-air café, I looked out of a stony arch at the Plaza de Armas and needed no explanation as to how Arequipa earned its nickname, “The White City” (La Ciudad Blanca.) The Plaza, with its uniform rows of arches on three sides and an unusually wide cathedral on its fourth, was built completely from the local volcanic stone called sillar that happens to be… well, white. On the other hand, one should not jump to conclusions about Arequipa. Things usually turn out to be a little more complicated in Peru’s second largest city than a label might suggest. I realized that right in the café, where I had just ordered a local dessert, queso helado (cheese ice cream.) It has a sweet refreshing taste but no actual cheese—its deliciousness comes from coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon, none of which are in its name. “Queso,” referred only to its appearance.

Everyone I had spoken to about my trip to Peru had recommended Arequipa as their favorite city in the country. Even Vicky, a woman I ended up sitting next to on the plane and who had grown up in Peru, commended me for including Arequipa on my itinerary. She correctly predicted that I would enjoy the warm weather, despite occasional showers, and its altitude of 2,300 m (7,550 ft), which is more manageable than that of either Cuzco or Puno.

Surroundings of Arequipa: Valcanos Misti (on the right) and Chachani. River Chily creates a hospitable spot in the otherwise dry landscape of the Atacama Desert, Arequipa, Peru
Surroundings of Arequipa: Valcanos Misti (on the right) and Chachani (left). The River Chily creates a hospitable spot in the otherwise dry landscape of the Atacama Desert.

Why are people so charmed by Arequipa? Sure, the white sillar makes Arequipa so visually unique that its historical center has made it onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List. But there are other reasons too. Take the city’s spectacular location in southern Peru: it lies in the fertile spot next to the River Chili, where the upper tip of the Atacama Desert meets the volcanoes of the Andes. The most cone-shaped of the volcanoes, Misti (19,101 ft; 5,822 m), lurks right behind Arequipa, and it symbolizes the city as much as the white architecture does. The combination of culture and nature ensures that everyone can find something they like in Arequipa. When I arrived in the city, I was immediately curious to find out how this exquisite outpost of civilization ended up between the desert and the volcano.

City with a grid

Arequipa city map, Peru
Arequipa city map (By Cmonzonc, licensed under CC BY SA 3.0)

To this day, it is not clear how Arequipa got its name. Possibly from the indigenous Ayamara language, combining the words ari (“summit”, in reference to Volcano Misti) and quipa (“lies beyond”). It might have also originated from the Quechua language spoken by the Incas—according to a legend, the Inca king Mayta Cápac arrived in the valley and liked the scenery so much that he proclaimed “Ari qhipay” (“Let’s stay here”).

Nowadays, visitors to Arequipa can find a reminder of the Incas in only one place: the Museo Santuarios Andinos. The small museum tells the story of an Inca girl that people now call Juanita, who, in the 15th century, made a trek to the top of one of the Andean volcanoes to ritually offer herself as a sacrifice to the gods. According to my guidebook, the museum exhibition ends with the display of her well-preserved mummy. During my time in the city, Juanita was temporarily away for conservation purposes and I therefore passed the museum for other landmarks.

The next chapter in the city’s history began on August 15, 1540, when the Spaniards founded colonial Arequipa and drew a perfect grid as the layout of its streets. Originally, Arequipa was a city inhabited almost exclusively by families of European descent and therefore many Peruvians associate the term “White City” more with its early demographics than with its architecture. Over the centuries, Arequipa grew to become a wealthy trading hub, collecting natural riches of its Andean hinterland, and exporting them through a Pacific port that happens to lie just a few hours away.

One of the white sillar streets in the center of Arequipa.

Portals, vaults, and delicacies

Walking through the historical center of Arequipa, I could see how the city has spent its wealth from trade: on countless historical mansions, churches, convents, and courtyards, all of them with white sillar facades—some with decorated portals, and others with reliefs on rows of arches. In fact, the style of architecture is so unique that it got its own name: Arequipa School of Architecture.

Arches with shops and cafes on the Plaza, Arequipa, Peru
Arches with shops and cafes on the Plaza

Some of the landmarks are very much worth exploring. I made a stop in Casa de Moral, a large, old mansion with an exhibition illustrating life in colonial times. The church Iglesia de la Compañía also caught my eye, thanks to its most splendid of the portals in the city. Once inside, I could only marvel at the vault of the St. Ignatius Chapel, painted with floral motifs, reflective of Peruvian nature (almost like Arequipa’s Sistine Chapel). On the other hand, the city’s cathedral has a much more recent look because it was rebuilt after a mid-19th-century earthquake.

Arequipa School of Architecture: elaborate white portal on of the church Iglesia de la Compañía, Arequipa, Peru
Arequipa School of Architecture: elaborate white portal on of the church Iglesia de la Compañía

Getting a feel for Arequipa does not mean only seeing, but also tasting. Women with street carts sell immediate heat relief in the form of queso helado. And in the majestic arched courtyard of Iglesia de la Compañía, a stall vendor offered me a taste of Tunki coffee from the neighboring region of Puno—the award-winning “best coffee in the world.” But most importantly, visitors can experience some of the finest Peruvian cuisine in Arequipa. In two sillar-vaulted, Novo Andino restaurants, Dimas and Zingaro, which serve traditional Peruvian meals with some modern flair, I had a chance to enjoy an Arequipan mix of sea and land: ceviche, followed by the meat of alpaca. I also got to try the meat of cuy (guinea pig)—the country’s most typical delicacy. And plenty of quinoa, grown in nearby terrace fields.

Novo Andino restaurant Dimas: sillar vaults and alpaca fillet with pisco sour, Arequipa, Peru
Novo Andino restaurant Dimas: sillar vaults and alpaca fillet with pisco sour

Colorful cage

One gigantic block of Arequipa’s city plan contains nothing but the walled compound of the four-hundred-year-old Santa Catalina Monastery. During our conversation on the plane, Vicky had urged me to visit the monastery and hire one of its guides to learn about what life was like there in the past. Although I usually like to explore on my own, I obliged.

A woman named Giovanna, wearing an elegant uniform of a red jacket and a wide, straw hat, became my guide. She took me into the first room, which set the tone for the whole tour. The dark cell had a rotating, wooden cylinder in place of a window. “This is where the nuns could speak to their families,” Giovanna said. “The family stood on the other side of the cylinder so that the nun would not see them. The cylinder was then rotated only to pass gifts to her.” “What?” I asked. I stepped into the monastery just a moment ago and was still trying to comprehend its story.

As we walked toward the center of the compound, Giovanna was telling me how the monastery worked: wealthy families of European descent who lived in the region would send their chosen teenage daughters to Santa Catalina to become nuns. Once they entered the monastery, the girls were to spend their entire lives in prayer within its walls. Not even once were they able to leave and visit the outside world. Never. Nor were they allowed to meet their families beyond speaking to them from behind the cylinder. They also had to avoid eye contact with every man they encountered—whether a priest or a doctor. These restrictions seemed far more severe than those of other monasteries I had seen before.

One of the many little streets in Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa, Peru
One of the many little streets in Santa Catalina Monastery

My freedom-related question—whether the nuns had to be kept in by force—turned out to be ignorant of that era’s mentality. As Giovanna said, the chosen girls were prepared for their lives as nuns from a very early age, and thus rarely questioned their preordained path. “Why would the wealthy families chart such a fate for their girls?” I asked with disbelief. Giovanna then told me that it was a matter of honor and prestige for upper-class households to have a daughter at Santa Catalina. But from what I saw as we continued the tour, there must have been another side to the story. We passed courtyard after courtyard—one of them for novice nuns, another one for the more senior nuns to socialize (one hour a day)—and afterward, we roamed the narrow streets of the monastery, with houses for the nuns. That is correct: houses.

Do not lean against the walls in Santa Catalina Monastery!, Arequipa, Peru
Do not lean against the walls in Santa Catalina Monastery!

Each nun had her own house consisting of multiple rooms, including a kitchen, that came with a retinue of servants. All of this was financed by the dowry that each family provided when their daughter was accepted to the monastery. The bigger the dowry, the larger the house. We explored several of them and in one particularly large house, Giovanna made a remark that I would not have expected in a monastery: “This belonged to a rich nun.”

With its own streets, gardens, bathing areas, medical rooms, laundry pools, and many other communal spaces, the monastery was truly a city within a city. Given the wealth that the nuns brought, this monastery-city became quite exquisite. In fact, my Lonely Planet guidebook called the monastery “a photographer’s paradise.” It was easy to see why; unlike the rest of Arequipa, Santa Catalina beams with a variety of colors. One courtyard with arcades was painted azure-blue, while one of the narrow lanes had vivid red walls and flowerpots. (Just be careful not to lean against the walls or you will end up with a red arm, as I did.)

I asked Giovanna who the nuns’ servants were. She told me that they were mostly indigenous women from nearby villages who would come to the monastery, do their work, and return home. It occurred to me, “Were not these women actually freer than the nuns?” Giovanna corrected my modern notion of freedom—the servant women would raise their own children in the villages in addition to their monastery work. Their life expectancy averaged in the forties, while the nuns, who were cared for in all respects, often lived into their eighties—a very high age for the colonial period. In between the numerous picture-taking moments, every visitor can ponder which life they would have preferred—being locked and cared for in a colorful cage or having freedom but with all the burdens and dangers that life brings.

 Nobel in the desert

Arequipa’s wealth had an important side effect: its population of burgeoning middle-class families, professionals, and artists turned this desert settlement into a cultural powerhouse. If anybody needed proof, it came in 2010, when Arequipa’s son, Mario Vargas Llosa, received the Nobel Prize for Literature—the only Nobel Peruvian to date.

From the left: House of Mario Vargas Llosa. The writer at a campaign stop in Arequipa when he ran for president of Peru in 1990. A room in the House turned into a cabaret to draw visitors into the plot of Vargas Llosa’s novel Casa Verde, Arequipa, Peru
From the left: House of Mario Vargas Llosa. The writer at a campaign stop in Arequipa when he ran for president of Peru in 1990. A room in the House turned into a cabaret to draw visitors into the plot of Vargas Llosa’s novel Casa Verde.

On the plane, Vicky noticed that I was reading a book of political essays by Vargas Llosa, and we began talking about him. After she confirmed that he was a respected writer and intellectual in Peru, she also added a non-literary fact that I had not known: Vargas Llosa’s current partner apparently happens to be the former wife of the singer Julio Iglesias. The sign that a novelist has reached sky-high prominence is when people begin to follow their personal life. The house where Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 lies on the edge of Arequipa’s center and has only recently been open to the public. I joined a guided tour with no real expectations, but left in awe at the engaging nature of this museum: each room presents a chapter of the writer’s life, with creative help from cutting-edge technology—from video projections to holograms. Visitors learn about Vargas Llosa’s childhood in Arequipa; his careers as a journalist, novelist, television host, and presidential candidate; his travels around the world; and his novels, including the famous Casa Verde.

Where to talk to gods

I spent the next day with Carlitos’ tour company on a condor-watching trip to Colca Canyon in Arequipa’s hinterland (one of the deepest canyons in the world). I got to see the herds of animals whose wool made the city wealthy, but also noticed a small new museum building on the edge of the canyon. Apparently, the mummy Juanita may be moved at some point from the city to this newer museum in order to bring her closer to the volcano of her sacrifice.

My last morning in Arequipa, Carlito gave me a lift from my hotel to the airport. I told him I could not let go of the volcanic scenery, and he, without hesitation,  gave me the last tour of my stay. We stopped first on the Chilina Bridge and then continued to Mirador de Yanahuara, a terrace with white sillar arches. From both spots, I could see the ultimate Arequipan panorama: all three volcanoes rising up from the edges of the city. Besides Misti, there is Chachani (6,057 m; 19,872 ft) and Pichu Pichu (5,664 m; 18,583 ft). No wonder that for the indigenous peoples, these volcanoes represented the places of sacred connections to the gods.

Arequipa: architecture & volcanos, Arequipa, Peru
Arequipa: architecture & volcanoes

I marveled at the sight—here was a large city surrounded by majestic nature. A remote corner of Peru with first-rate museums and a Nobel Prize for Literature. A place situated between the desert and the volcano, which had amassed great wealth and world-class restaurants. Its monasteries enforced strict regimes yet also allowed for comfortable lives. Visitors come as high-class foodies and adventurous mountain climbers. In short, no simple summary can contain the breadth of the city’s vibe. Only one thing is clear: the sillar in the Plaza is unambiguously white.


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