Monday, October 21, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Arequipa

***This post is part 16 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Arequipa is often regarded as the most beautiful city in Peru. Officially founded some 473 years ago, the remnants of a long history under Spanish rule can still be seen today in its elegant colonial architecture, most noticeably in the city center. Three massive volcanoes tower prominently over the skyline, and all of them, Chachani, El Misti, and Pichu Pichu, are intricately woven into the spirit and psyche of the entire region.

Colloquially, it is known as La Cuidad Blanca, or the White City, due in part to the prevalent use of sillar, a type of white volcanic rock found in abundance nearby, for building construction. Another, perhaps less diplomatic, reason for the moniker comes from the largely European characteristics of its population and culture during the colonial period. In fact, Arequipa is noted for its faithfulness to the Spanish Crown, even as the country struggled for independence during the 19th century.

La Cuidad Blanca

In recent years, Arequipa has become an important stop along the Southern Peru tourist circuit. For those wanting to visit Colca Canyon or climb El Misti, the city will serve as a convenient base for both day trips and longer excursions. Since I only had two full days here, I opted to stay close so I could enjoy the main sights around town.

After arriving at Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte, I checked in with the friendly front desk agent, who handed me the keys and also provided a useful map of the historic city center. I had reserved a single room with ensuite bathroom on for only $35.00 USD per night. Perhaps the best thing about Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte is its quiet and convenient location next to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. It is also just a five-minute walk from Plaza de Armas.

Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte


My room was located at the top of the stairs on the second floor. While the space was slightly small, it was clean and had everything I needed. An old TV was installed in the corner, providing me with some entertainment during the evening hours. I appreciated the spacious shower, which was a welcome change from the previous few nights. Everything else in the bathroom was perfectly adequate.

I had a pleasant view of the inner courtyard from my window. Reading through some reviews on TripAdvisor, however, I noticed that there are actually a number of rooms in the property that only have windows facing an interior stairwell. Try to request a room with an exterior window if at all possible, or ask for one of the courtyard rooms located outside the main building. 

Single room

Old TV set


The charming courtyard is a serene place to unwind or read if you have some downtime during the day. There are plenty of chairs and a couple of tables with umbrellas as well. The resident tortoise stakes his territory near the back of the courtyard, and can get a little grumpy if you decide to approach too closely. He tried his best to (slowly) ram his shell repeatedly into my shoe, until I finally got the hint and moved out of his way.


Resident tortoise

A complimentary breakfast buffet was served every morning in a large dining area on the penthouse floor. The quality and selection was much better than what I experienced in Chile. There was fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, cereal, and bread. Juice, coffee, and coca tea were also available. Each guest could request eggs cooked to order as well. Having a full breakfast was a great way to start off a day of sightseeing. 

Dining area

Breakfast selection

Arguably the most popular historical sight in Arequipa is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, or the Monastery of Saint Catherine. Often described as a city within a city, this massive 20,000 square-meter complex is an astonishing maze of twisting passageways, brightly painted corridors, and colorful gardens. Walking through the centuries-old compound and seeing the restored living quarters is like being transported back in time. While much of the grounds is open to the public, small sections remain off-limits as the working monastery is still home to approximately 20 cloistered nuns.

Monasterio de Santa Catalina

The monastery offers tours in many different languages, and I would highly recommend joining one. There is so much history inside these walls, some of which the guide will share by way of colorful stories and speculation. In particular, it was quite interesting to see the vast disparity between living cells occupied by nuns from wealthy families and those from more meager backgrounds.

Living cell

Art gallery

Wash basins in the garden

Like many large cities in Latin America, the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa is a primary gathering point for the community. Almost all buildings surrounding the square are composed of sillar, and the vivid white facade of the long archways really stand out, especially on a clear sunny day. This is a great place to relax with a drink, people watch, and just soak in the lively atmosphere.

On the north end of the plaza stands a massive cathedral aptly named La Catedral, with two towers soaring above everything else in the vicinity. The cavernous interior is certainly a sight to behold. There are intricate statues, exquisitely carved flourishes on the arched ceiling, and an impressive pipe organ located at the rear of the main hall. 

Plaza de Armas

Archways composed of sillar

La Catedral

La Catedral interior

Less than half a block away from Plaza de Armas is the Museo Santuarios Andinos, famous for an exhibit showcasing the frozen mummies that were discovered on Mount Ampato some 60 miles northwest of Arequipa. The most famous of which, Juanita, caused a sensation in the scientific world when she was found in September 1995.

To maintain her well-preserved condition, Juanita is only on display annually between the months of May and November. Other mummies are rotated in throughout the remainder of the year. Unfortunately, I visited in April, and was not able to see Juanita. However, the other specimen in the exhibit was just as fascinating, and the museum itself has an extraordinary collection of ancient Incan artifacts retrieved from the same location. No pictures are allowed inside.

Museo Santuarios Andinos

Extending from the Plaza de Armas is a pedestrian street named Calle Mercaderes that is lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops. This four-block car-free zone is quite popular with tourists and locals alike, especially during weekends, and I found it to be the perfect place for a quick bite to eat. On the Sunday that I was there, a large holy procession made its way down the street, along with hundreds of curious onlookers.

Holy procession

Calle Mercaderes at night

In addition to La Catedral, there are a number of Catholic churches located all over Arequipa. These are often some of the most ornate and well-maintained buildings from the colonial period, and many are worth taking a look inside. One of my favorites was Iglesia de San Francisco, located approximately three blocks north of Plaza de Armas.

While the interior was elegant as expected, what I really enjoyed was the large tree-lined square in front of the church. This part of town was noticeably quieter, and I spent a good amount of time here reading and listening to music on my last day in South America. Behind the church building in a narrow alleyway is a small artesanal market selling all types of handicrafts and jewelry.

Iglesia de San Agustín

Iglesia de San Francisco

Plaza San Francisco

While I'm no foodie by any stretch of the imagination, I did want to celebrate the end of my journey by splurging a little and sampling a nicer restaurant in Arequipa. Within the past decade, Peru has raced to the forefront of a South American gastronomical revolution, redefining haute cuisine by fusing traditional mestizo recipes with international influences.

Looking online, I found a highly rated restaurant called Zingaro just half a block south of Plaza San Francisco. The space was beautifully decorated inside, and the sillar walls and arched ceilings were purposefully left in a rough state, recalling the old colonial architecture seen throughout the city.

Zingaro Restaurant

Of course, I started the meal off with a refreshing Pisco Sour, the national drink of both Peru and Chile. Wanting to stick to more traditional recipes, I decided to order perhaps the most famous Arequipeño dish of all, the Rocoto Relleno, as an appetizer. This is essentially a large stuffed pepper served with potato pie, all covered in melted cheese. For the main course, I went with another local favorite, Chupe de Camarones, a hearty soup overflowing with rice, vegetables, and river shrimps. Both were absolutely delicious! Surprisingly, the entire meal cost under $35 USD including tip, which is fairly reasonable by American standards.

Pisco Sour

Rocoto Relleno

Chupe de Camarones

Taking a stroll around Arequipa at dusk afforded some stunning colors in the skyline. At times, it felt like I was staring at a painting, with the deep shades of lavender and violet blending into the Chachani volcano in the background. Since my flight to Lima was scheduled to depart at 9:50 pm, I had plenty of time to linger around Plaza de Armas before heading back to Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte and hailing a taxi for the airport.

Plaza de Armas at dusk

Calle Simón Bolívar and Chachani

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