Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Arequipa, The White City

Ripped from the pages of Tolkien and decorated in the bittersweet trappings of colonial splendor, Arequipa contains echoes of the Gondorian golden age beset by Smaug's ominous mountain. It stands in the shadow of El Misti, a conical volcano, and its name comes from the Quechuan (Dwarven?) phrase "Are, quepay" -- city under the mountain. The city's eponymous color comes from a stunningly white, volcanic stone called sillar; at any time of day or night, the stones stand out brilliantly against the black pavement and muddy cobblestones. Geographically, Arequipa lies very near Colca Canyon. Unlike the Grand Canyon, Colca Canyon has gently slanting, hilly sides. While we did not make it into Colca country this time, I'm led to believe that - in addition to the Canyon's most popular Andean Condor watching excursions - it hosts some of Peru's best white-water rafting, horseback riding, hiking trails, and some massive, remote ruins preserved better than those at Machu Picchu.

I can't even begin to consider the long, exhausting bus ride we took from La Paz into Arequipa, so I'll cut to the arrival. Arequipa's central bus terminal mirrors the rest of Peru; though smelly, chaotic, and crowded, a fleet of taxis is always waiting outside to shuttle you off to La Plaza de Armas. And what a plaza! We hadn't eaten much for a day or two, so we allowed ourselves to be hustled into on of the many open-air, second-floor eateries surrounding the square and enjoyed that delicious Peruvian cuisine we had missed so much in Bolivia. I honestly can't remember what we ate that first night, but the set menu at any of those restaurants offers a great value; we spent the whole meal observing the softly illuminated fountain, cathedral, and crisp, white buildings. Oh, and watching the Ghostbusters. Really, there was a car with a hodgepodge of extra gadgetry attached to its exterior with a similar shape and siren quality to the Ghostbusters car running through the center of town throughout the course of our meal.

Neither of us bothered to reserve a room in Arequipa, so we had to find a hostel on the fly (which isn't really that difficult in Peru). We can't remember the name of the place we finally settled, on, but it was located on the left side of the Cathedral, two or three blocks away from the plaza (as are most of the nice, affordable hostels in Arequipa). Once sheltered, we bathed, sorted our dirty -- wet and moldy, since that awful washer woman in Bolivia -- clothes, and went to bed completely exhausted.

Brice and I spent our first full day in the White City wandering the streets and taking in the sights. We started with the churches surrounding the plaza, and toured the Cathedral as well. The Cathedral in Arequipa, though its exterior architecture is beautiful, has a very protestant interior. All of the earthquakes and volcanic disruptions that plague Arequipa took their toll on the original structure's interior, so they settled on a minimalistic approach to cathedral artwork. Brice found some hatch-backs with (count them) two spoilers, so we stalked them through the streets hoping to get a photo for all of his gear-head friends back in the States. That was actually a pretty fun pass-time, looking back.

The greater part of our day took place within the walls of the Santa Catalina Convent, a labyrinthine compound in the middle of the city lacking both an Ariadne and -- we hoped -- a minotaur. Letting ourselves get lost in the winding passages and expansive court yards, we took the opportunity to learn about the lives of the nuns who inhabit it. Santa Catalina began as a sanctuary for upper-class women dedicated to the church; they brought all of their worldly luxuries into the convent, and generally employed female slaves in their daily service. But in 1871 a strict Dominican Mother Superior joined the convent, and the women were quickly reformed. Today, the nuns inhabit only the northern corner of the convent where they lock themselves away from the prying eyes of tourists.

Scores of wood ovens dotted the rooms and passages, and there was no absolute divide between where 'courtyard' ended and 'kitchen' or 'habitation' began. We climbed some stairs onto the roof of one of the cells, and took in the stunning view of Arequipa and El Misti from the best vantage point in the city.

Looking back on Arequipa now, I mostly remember floating from one interesting thing to the next. We viewed the Juanita Ice Maiden (she is NOT a mummy), sacrificed on the peak of El Misti at the peak of the Incan empire; we wandered into the suburbs of the city, and followed the winding streets; we journeyed out to a monastery with a remarkable library, and saw some school boys moving a statue of Jesus in the back of a pick-up.

At some point in there, we bought Brice some hard-hitting antibiotics (all drugs are over the counter in Peru, as far as we can tell) at a local pharmacy. Whatever form of gastrointestinal death he caught in Bolivia, we soon beat it into submission. We also did laundry and some other necessary chores - bought some severely understuffed Oreos, crackers, chokosodas, and more toilet paper. I remember feeding pigeons some roasted corn kernels they put out in the restaurants.. we tried to eat them ourselves, but since we were always dining al fresco we decided it just HAD to be pigeon food. Seriously, why would you feed that to people? Like I said, the details all blur together into one fuzzy, happy sensation.

But what really stands out to me, above all the rest, is the night we spent at El Viñedo. Located at 319 San Francisco street, this is -- bar none -- the best food in all of Peru. Viñedo means "vineyard," and they do have a respectable wine list, but this place really earns its keep with its steak. Maybe you could find a better piece of meat in Argentina. Maybe. Having never been, I couldn't say. But let me tell you this: you will NOT find a better steak in Peru. (Believe me, we tried. Even a hugely expensive restaurant in Lima that specialized in steak couldn't compare.) I ate a medium-rare cut of tenderloin with garlicky mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, and light drizzling of red wine sauce; Brice had ostrich kabobs with fresh-cut pineapple and bell pepper, hand-cut steak fries, and mixed vegetables. Especially after the fried chicken horrors of Bolivia, we were seriously ready for an evening of self-indulgence and leisure. After dinner, we hit the town and let our hair down for the rest of the night; it felt great.

When we finally did leave Arequipa, it was on a bus for Nazca and the coastal lowlands. After spending so long in the mountains, I didn't really know what to expect on the coast. Brice and I had a couple of rough days in and around Nazca (animosity), but I'll try to be nice in the next post.

1 comment:

tonia said...

A truck load of 'Jesus'.... I love it! I'm glad you are blogging this... You and Brice will like rereading it someday. Things that seem like a pain now... or at the time. Will be funny in the future.