The White City

Arequipa (23 – 24 November 2013)

Having completed three somewhat hardcore cultural tours in Peru, with one during which I got really sick, I started on my journey to Arequipa feeling like I was going on a vacation. I was back on my own and following my own itinerary.

I took a flight to Arequipa to save time. Although the scheduled flight time was more than an hour, I arrived after about 50 minutes. It felt like such a waste to schedule flights for that sort of distance but going by road would have taken me a few hours and that would have meant a few hours less for me to see the city.

At the Plaza de Armas

Arequipa is called the White City. I understood it as a city with white buildings although I overheard a tour guide saying that it really means a city of white people. The city does use volcanic sillar rock as building materials and these rocks are of a very pale grey or pink, almost white. On the other hand, it was the Spanish who had founded the city.

Arcade by the side of the Plaza de Armas

Arcade by the side of the Plaza de Armas

Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa

Although Arequipa is more than 2,300 metres above sea level, I had become so used to high altitudes that I did not even notice it. Having recovered from altitude sickness, or soroche as they call it in Spanish, I decided that I needed to feed my fats. Everyone thinks that I am so skinny and yet I am more than 20% fats inside. I am in reality a skinny obese person.

I finally got to enjoy alpaca. The one in Cuzco had a bit of a strange taste to it. This one in Arequipa however, well it tasted like beef.

I discovered chicha, a local beverage made from corn that can be either alcoholic or non-alcoholic. I had the non-alcoholic version, called chicha morada, and it is made from purple corn. The product that came to me was a dark purple that looked like permanganate and it was quite shocking to me when I first saw it. I had not expected something made from corn to be this dark since I was not used to purple corn at all. I enjoyed the drink very much though. It tasted like a fruity soda but was better than soda.

Chicha morada

Speaking of local drinks, I learnt to love the Inca Kola very much when I was in Peru. It is a Peruvian soft drink and tastes and looks like cream soda. I would try to order it whenever I could.

There was a lot of activity going on in Arequipa during my visit. Some people were out protesting at the Plaza de Armas. It looked like they were unhappy with some labour issues. I was watching one of their protests during dinner from the safety of the restaurant on the first floor and the comfort of my alpaca dinner. It however only involved a group of people holding candles and standing together.

Protest in front of the cathedral

The next morning however, there was a parade of the city’s security forces. I wonder if this was held as a show of force to the protestors. Or did the protestors time their protests to coincide with this parade?

Parading around the main square

Those activities were definitely short distractions. I was in Arequipa to see its historical monuments which I realised were also artistic monuments. The most artistic of all was the La Compañía Church.

Main portal of La Compañía Church

I was definitely impressed with the decor of the church. The real gem however was its San Ignacio Chapel. Its walls are covered with jungle motifs with local plants, animals and people. It was really gorgeous and a serendipitous find for me.

Inside La Compañía Church

The Mayor Monstrance in the San Ignacio Chapel of La Compañía Church

Side door of La Compañía

The church also has a cloister but this does not seem to belong to the church anymore. It is now a commercial area with a restaurant and some shops. The beautiful carvings of the columns however still remain.

At the cloister of La Compañía Church

Cloister columns

Arequipa has a couple of convents that can be visited. A less visited one was the Convent of Santa Teresa. I think I was the only visitor that Sunday afternoon and I got all the attention of the attendant. He led me along the cloister as he opened one door after another for me to visit. It was just so awkward to be paid so much attention to!

There is also a small museum of colonial art at the convent. I was however more fascinated by the murals on the wall which again has local motifs.

Cloister of Convent of Santa Teresa

Corridor of Convent of Santa Teresa

The real attention seeker in the city for me however was the Convent of Santa Catalina. It is a big convent and when I was inside I felt like I was in a separate township altogether. This was definitely the most fascinating place in the entire city for me and if I could have visited only one place in Arequipa I would have wanted to make this convent that place. I was fascinated enough to spend about four hours in there.

The convent, belonging to the Dominican Second Order, was built in the 16th century and used to accept only girls from upper class Spanish families. It was apparently a tradition at the time for the second child of a family to enter a life of service in the church. The way girls were accepted by this convent however sounded like their families paid the convent to take their daughters away. Each family had to pay a dowry when they admitted their daughter. As the families were upper class, the convent could be expected to be quite well off. In fact, I am sure this is the reason the convent was so big. The nuns, cloistered they might be, did not seem to live too shabbily in there too.

Today there are only about twenty nuns left living in a small section of the convent. The rest of the building is open for public visits.

The cloistered nuns’ only window to the world

Silence in the convent

Area for convent’s guests

Wall art

Not only does the convent give visitors a glimpse into cloistered life, it is also a work of art with its vivid colours and murals.

One of the cloisters


A former nun’s room

Another former nun’s room

One of the streets in the convent

Laundry area

One of the kitchens


One of the streets in the convent


On the roof

Confessional (priest’s side)

At the art gallery in the convent

The most eye-opening place in Arequipa however was the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries. Not that the museum was itself anything incredible but people visit it for what it houses. It is well known for being the home of Juanita, a well-preserved body of an Incan girl who had died in the 15th century.

Juanita was discovered near the summit of the more than 6,000 metres high Mount Ampato near Arequipa all frozen up. The poor girl was a victim of capa cocha. I say she was a victim because capa cocha was the Incan practice of human sacrifice. This was prevalent in the Americas at the time and for the Incans it was carried out because of some important event and most likely to please their gods. Children were preferred for the sacrifices as they were considered purest. Being selected however was probably not as dramatic as Hollywood might depict if a movie about it was made. In fact I heard that it was considered a great honour since the selected were doing something extremely important for the empire and they were promised a life with the gods. Also, the selected were treated like nobility. Just like Hansel and Gretel in my view. They were fattened up for the kill.

On the appointed day, the children would be led by priests to the appointed sacrificial site, usually on the summits of high mountains like Mount Ampato. It was not a pleasant journey to death though as not only would the journey be long but the height of the mountain they were to die on would have caused altitude sickness. I know first hand how that feels like. The children would be given coca leaves for that though I doubt it would have helped much if at all. At the appointed site the children would be drugged to I suppose give them a more pleasant death and prevent any incidents such as the child changing his or her mind. Juanita died from a blow on her head.

Juanita’s discoverers also found many grave goods buried with her. The girl herself was dressed like a nobility. Notwithstanding a lung infection, evidence of her physical health before death suggested that she was of noble blood to begin with.

Arequipa was my last stop in Peru and it felt a little sad when I was leaving. It was a pretty end to a quick tour of the country.

Street in Arequipa

Street in Arequipa

Above the door of Church of San Francisco

Even today I still cannot believe that I have been to Peru. I do not however feel that I have really seen Peru properly. No doubt I had visited some of the more important sights on the conventional tourist trail in the country, but I feel that I had only lightly fondled (not even a scratch) its surface. The little more than two weeks in Peru had only made me more curious about it.