Arequipa, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, provided our ‘aclimatisation stop’ on the way from Nazca to Chivay and then Puno. Nazca is at sea level, and both Puno and Chivay are over 3,500 metres – a trip straight up to that altitude is asking for altitude sickness.
Arequipa is unofficially Peru’s second city, and lies at 2,380 metres, in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes, and has a near perfect climate – it hardly ever rains and has perpetual blue skies. El Misti volcano, pictured just to the left of the cross in the photo above is 5,822m high, and is topped by snow year round. It occasionally erupts and will probably do so catastrophically sometime soon – or so the locals think! Worryingly, this doesn’t seem to stop them building settlements higher and higher up the lava flows. The other two volcanoes are Chachani (6,057m) and Pichu-Pichu (5,669m).
The city was ‘re-founded’ by the Spanish in 1540, but the area was previously occupied by Aymara Indians and later, the Incas.
Perhaps Arequipa’s most striking feature – apart from its blue skies and snow-capped volcanoes, is the pearly white volcanic material from which the majority of its buildings are constructed. Known as ‘Sillar’, it causes the whiteness of the buildings to contrast beautifully with the deep blue skies, sparkling in the crisp sunlight.
There are a couple of worthwhile things to do in Arequipa, apart from visit all the colonial plazas and churches (had enough yet?), my favourite being the Museo Santuarios Andinos, or the ‘Ice Mummies’ museum.
A few years ago on nearby Mount Ampato some archaeologists discovered a series of Inca ritual sacrifice victims. These sacrifices were of young children, mainly girls, and are thought to have been offerings to appease the volcano gods. The amazingly well preserved bodies, including that of the famous ‘Juanita’
are kept in the museum, with all the artifacts found buried with them. It provides ample food for the imagination and a fascinating insight into Inca life 500 years ago.
Secondly, if you can spare the rather steep entry price, visit the more than 400 year old Santa Catalina convent which is effectively a beautiful, isolated 2 hectare citadel within the city. It was where about 450 young nuns from privileged families lived in total seclusion. Although rumours abound of their antics for the first couple of hundred years (wild parties, orgies etc), all the partying was quickly stopped dead by the arrival of a famously strict and draconian head nun. Try and visit at sunset on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as we did, when you can wonder around the convent by candle light.