Three days in the White City

Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Arequipa

The city of Arequipa is nestled high among the dramatic volcanoes and mountains of southern Peru. It is known as La Ciudad Blanca (The White City) as its buildings are constructed from the white volcanic stone, sillar, that is widely available in the area. Arequipa is also casually referred to as the ‘Berkeley’ of Peru, because of its leftist, secessionist leanings and frequent street protests. Fulfilling this reputation, crowds complete with paper mache effigies of political figures and banners took over the streets several times a day (and strangely, in the middle of the night). After picking up my mother at the tiny airport, we set off to explore Arequipa’s dramatic cathedrals, plazas lined with arched colonnades, and dodge the aggressive cabs that own the streets. At one intersection, the city tried to give pedestrians a slight advantage by installing a stoplight with an electronic singing ‘walk’ sign. It was a mostly unsuccessful experiment as cabs ran the red light for over half of the time allotted for pedestrians. We took a peaceful break from the hectic traffic by visiting the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. For its first 250 years, the monastery operated partially as a repository for rich, protected girls of the Arequipa upper class. Many of the ‘nuns’ had ornate tapestries and chandeliers to decorate their ‘cells’ and servants to cook and clean for them. Upon instituting austerity reforms in 1870 the monastery changed its hedonistic ways and became closed to society. In 1970 the small group of remaining nuns moved to a newer convent, and the monastery was opened to the public. This giant cloistered 400-year old monastery takes up a complete city block. Winding through its narrow alleys between bright orange and blue adobe buildings, the sounds of honking horns and hawking vendors were blissfully muted.

Arequipa’s main cathedral at night

The next morning we visited the Inca Ice Maiden Juanita at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. This museum displays the incredible tombs that were unearthed high on the peak of Volcan Ampato near Arequipa. 500 years ago several young girls were sacrificed to Inca mountain gods and buried with various gold statues, dolls, and vessels. The tombs were covered by snow and the bodies of the sacrificed girls were preserved frozen for hundreds of years before volcanic eruptions melted snow and exposed the tombs in the 1980s. Juanita now resides in a -20 C freezer in the museum surrounded by dimly lit display cases containing offerings that were buried with her. Her skin and hair is still intact, and she is curled up in a position that I often adopt when reading a book in bed. Inspired by the Inca handiwork in the museum, we next spent many hours trolling the various trinket shops, clothing stores, and antique vendors that fuel Arequipa’s booming tourist trade. We also visited the Alpaca 111 factory outlet to shop for some bargains and visit their small menagerie of camelids. To keep us warm in the chilly Peruvian highlands we bought some baby alpaca sweaters and hats. We also admired the super-soft vicuña scarves, but they were only for touching, not for buying, since they would set you back over $1500 USD. Vicuñas are a wild relative of alpacas and llamas, and were near the verge of extinction until Peru instituted strict protection laws. Alpaca 111 is the only store licensed to sell vicuña products in Peru. I quickly decided that I want a small herd of alpacas after cooing over their teddy-bear faces and fuzzy soft wool. Tomorrow on our drive to Colca Canyon we will pass through the natural habitat of camelids, so we hope to see some wild herds of vicuñas, alpacas, and llamas.

Alpacas at the Alpaca 111 factory outlet

Sky, sand, sea

Desert spilling on to the Pan-American Highway

We were pleasantly surprised by the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima. With a manicured park snaking along dramatic coastal cliffs, Whole Foods quality grocery stores, hipster bars, clubs, and restaurants, along with the cool weather and ever-present fog, we felt like we were in San Francisco (minus the homeless people). After resting for a week in Lima and catching up on some online work, we were ready to hit the road again. 16 hours of Pan-American highway separate Lima from Arequipa, our next destination. We quickly left the depressing slums and shanty-towns that encircle Lima and entered the hypnotic dessert that stretched on our right to the ocean and on our left to the Andes. Hours of dunes and desert were first punctuated by the enigmatic Nazca lines. Viewable only from above, the drawings of mystical creatures and geometrical designs were etched into the desert 2000 years ago by the Nazca culture. They removed the dark red stones covering the white sand to create drawings that may have been intended for gods in the sky or used as sacred paths leading to places to worship. Since this desert is one of the driest in the world with little wind, the drawings have lasted millennium.

Nazca lines etched into the arid desert

We continued south as the desert sand slithered across the highway and dunes took over whole lanes. The sun was setting when we rolled into the weird world that is Puerto Inka. A dirt road from the Pan-American goes 2 km to the ancient coastal Incan port with some of the strangest camping we’ve experienced. The temperature plummeted as darkness inked out the arid landscape and waves crashed on the narrow bay’s rocky beach. We popped up the camper and were grateful for our down sleeping bags. Just as the pre-dawn sky began to lighten, I had to answer the call of nature and was crouched by the car without my glasses. Squinting in the distance I saw someone (or something) white moving very quickly back and forth along the edge of the small cliff that separates the beach from the camping area. In record time I was back in the camper to put on my glasses but the mysterious apparition had already disappeared. I am not usually ‘that kind of person’ but seriously, I saw something strange.

Remains of homes in Puerto Inka

We spent some time later that morning wandering through the foundations of homes, remains of tombs, and store-room area the Incas used centuries ago for drying seafood and seaweed. These products were then brought to Cusco on an Inca road that still cuts across today’s modern landscape. Human bones and remains of cloth lay in the partially opened tombs and ancient llama corrals spread over the hills behind the village. While some excavation of this site was evident, the small signs marking the area weren’t very informative and there doesn’t appear to be much information available online, so we still don’t know much about this site. After searching fruitlessly for my crepuscular llama ghost among the remains, we then hit the road again for another 8 hours of driving through desolate desert and dunes before climbing into the Andes to arrive in Arequpipa.
Snow capped mountains by Arequipa