Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.
I was enchanted by the description of Arequipa in our guidebook: “a colonial-era jewel” known as the White City for its buildings created from sillar volcanic rock. We decided to spend our second anniversary there and were excited to book a room at La Casa de Melgar Hostal–an incredible colonial property built in the 18th Century and later home to Manuel Segundo Ballón, bishop of Arequipa at the end of the 19th century. The bishop organized a famous expedition to El Misti volcano to erect a cross on the highest point of the summit, celebrating Mass on the small altar next to the cross on January 1, 1900. The hostal is named after patriot and poet Mariano Melgar, who devoted his life to achieving Peruvian independence and who is believed to have lived here temporarily. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. We did have trouble with hot water in our room and discovered the switch to the hot water tank was outside in a passageway and it kept being switched off, even after we switched it on. The beauty of the courtyards and convenient location more than made up for any grumbles we had.
Click on any photo to view larger images and captions.
As I mentioned in my previous post, for about $14 each we booked seats on Cruz del Sur for our 5.5 hour trip between Puno and Arequipa. Cruz del Sur is a “tourist” bus line, with attendants serving drinks and snacks, bathrooms (though you’re instructed to only use them for #1), individual touch screens in each seat back, etc. Our seats were on the front row of the second level of the double-deck bus–right above the driver. This was not good seat selection for me, as every close-call with pedestrians, animals, and other vehicles (especially as our driver passed on windy, two-lane mountain roads) were front and center for my viewing non-pleasure. By the time we somehow safely arrived in Arequipa, I was begging Brian to please let us FLY to our next destination, Cusco.
We arrived late to Arequipa and braced ourselves for another scary taxi ride. At the hostal, something didn’t go right with our reservation we had tried to secure via a badly connected phone call the night before from Puno (using Skype and relying on wifi). Fortunately, they had a room available for us. We had more difficulty securing rooms as we went along on this trip than we had had in Turkey, but we still prefer the flexibility of not having everything pre-arranged.
Plaza de Armas
Colonnaded balconies overlook a beautiful plaza bustling with people, pigeons, and palm trees.
The original structure dated to 1656 but was largely destroyed by an 1844 fire and then rebuilt, only to be leveled in an 1868 earthquake, and rebuilt again. As recently as 2001, an earthquake toppled one of the towers. We decided to pay to tour the cathedral and museum with an English-speaking guide. The highlight of the guided tour is getting to visit the bell towers on the rooftop and take in incredible views of La Plaza de Armas and the city.
Arequipa is the only city on our trip where we stumbled upon antique stores. This was fortunate for us because Brian was looking for license plates to bring back for his dad’s collection. We didn’t have much luck finding a Bolivian plate in La Paz, but wouldn’t you know, the very first antique store we happened upon in Arequipa had old Peruvian plates. Mission accomplished! The ones we found were located near the Monasterio de Santa Catalina along Calle Santa Catalina. Many of the stores had ceramic bulls, a popular roof ornament in Peru.
Casa de Moral
Apparently we hadn’t had enough colonial architecture so we decided to visit this peculiar house museum, built in 1730. I call it peculiar because it is now owned by the bank BCP, has an interesting collection of historical maps and displays related to currency, as well as delightfully furnished rooms, BUT included a strange tour led by a guide who quizzed us on everything instead of explaining what we were seeing. For example, instead of describing a painting of the crucified Christ, our guide demanded, “What does the INRI mean?” And this went on and on. When it seemed the guided tour was over, we asked to explore on our own but didn’t really feel free to do so. We hurriedly went back through the rooms, stopping to read the interpretive signs that gave more information about what we were actually interested in!
Iglesia de la Compañía
This Jesuit Church was constructed between 1590 and 1698 and is one of the city’s oldest. It is notable for its façade and alter carved in the churrigueresque style. Located on the southeast corner of the Plaza de Armas, it is much smaller than the nearby Cathedral but well worth the visit. For a small fee, you shouldn’t miss seeing the San Ignacio Chapel, with its colorful murals of tropical birds, flowers, and fruit. Next to the church is the Claustros de la Campañía, with two ornate courtyards lined with art and small shops featuring genuine Alpaca knits.
We had extra time during our last day in Arequipa and decided to take a walk to the Yanahuara neighborhood as suggested in our guidebook. This turned into a nice experience of seeing how people live outside the city center and included a pleasant walk through a residential neighborhood. After crossing Rio Chili, we wanted to see El Monasterio de la Recoleta because one of my friend’s grandfather attended school there. Crossing Av. Ejercito to get there was a little dicey, but we made it. We wish we had had time to tour its famous library but settled for a quick glimpse of the exterior before continuing on to the main square in Yanahuara.
The mirador (lookout) from the main square offers incredible views of the City of Arequipa with El Misti hovering over it. Tour buses stop here and locals sell souvenirs in a makeshift market. The Iglesia San Juan Batista dates to 1750 and houses the Virgen de Chapi. When we stopped in, the main church was closed but we were able to see the Virgen in a side chapel. Next door (and seemingly part of the church complex?) is a large souvenir shop.
As we returned to the City Center we stopped to have a late lunch/early dinner at the locally famous restaurant, Sol de Mayo. Tour buses lined the street to its entrance. The outdoor seating was pleasant and the service was excellent…the food was just “meh.” (Obviously, I’m not a great critic). We really enjoyed the delicous rocoto relleno and would have been happy with just that. Instead, we each ordered an entrée, which turned out to be way too much food for the two of us. We found much tastier food for far less money elsewhere.
If you visit Arequipa, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina is the must-see attraction. I’m tempted to put this into its own entry, as we spent nearly an entire day at this “city” within a city. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and between my husband and I, we came home with over 450 pictures to sort through. In addition to the picturesque architecture, the monastery is home to an impressive art gallery with religious works and “Cusco School” paintings.
I recommend hiring an English-speaking guide–ours was very informative and it’s an easy way to converse with a local who is more than happy to answer all of your questions. After visiting the entire circuit with her once, we went through the complex two times more on our own, staying until after dark when they lit the rooms with candles. We also enjoyed our meal in the on-site café, which was reasonably priced for the quality food–including dessert baked by the nuns.
Despite its beauty, the Monasterio has a bit of a sordid past. Founded in 1580 by Dona Maria de Guzman, a wealthy widow, rich families could pay 100 gold coins a year for their novice daughters to live in the Novice Cloister. After graduation, if they chose to take their vows, the nuns would pass into the Orange Cloister or one of the many Streets lined with dwellings. The 2,400 silver coin dowry paid by families was very high (as much as $150,000 in today’s U.S. dollars). The nuns had servants or slaves and were accustomed to a social life that continued even within the walls of the convent. Eventually, Pope Pius IX sent a Dominican nun to crack down on these going-ons in 1871. Sister Josefa Cadena freed the servants and slaves, sent the dowries back to Europe, and closed the Monastery to the public.
Earthquakes in the 1960s resulted in damage to many structures and the Sisters built a “new monastery” in which to reside. In 1970 the local government required the convent to modernize with electricity and running water; the complex was opened to tourists to help fund the modernization and restoration efforts. Today 21 nuns and 2 novices live a cloistered life in the newer part of the complex that is closed to tourists.
Other Thoughts on Arequipa
Arequipa is indeed a beautiful city. However, I was surprised by what a “big city” feel it has. Traffic is crazy and crossing the street as a pedestrian is challenging. Like La Paz, it was nearly impossible to escape the fumes of the numerous vehicles choking the Colonial streets in the old portion of the city. These things combined led me to be disappointed that it didn’t have the quaint charm I had expected from our guide book’s description. But the sillar-built architecture is grand to behold and the cuisine is varied and tasty.