10 October 2018

In Peru's 'White City', Monastic Secrets Written in Volcanic Stone

From Puno, my next stop is Arequipa, Peru's second most populous city, which is nicknamed the 'white city' on account of many of the buildings in the historic city centre being constructed from sillar (ashlar) — white volcanic stone. And speaking of volcanoes, Arequipa has not one but three in close proximity — the appropriately named El Misti, as well as the extinct Pichu Pichu and Chachani.

I am travelling by bus from Puno and I spy these striking peaks long before we pull in to Arequipa. I take the 8:30 am Cruz del Sur departure from Puno. My ticket costs $23 — for an extra $6, I could have had a VIP seat but these are downstairs and I want to enjoy the views. My seat is at the front upstairs — extremely comfortable and with a lot of leg room. There are individual entertainment screens, but thankfully, these are also individually controlled. We don't stop along the way but the conductor serves a light lunch just before noon. The scenery is quite impressive, from the mountains, to the golden-hued terrains mountains and large, calm lakes, to fields and fields of llamas and vicuñas, and even some flamingoes.

We arrive in Arequipa at 14:30 and I take a taxi to the Plaza de Armas, which costs about 20 soles and takes 30 minutes in the afternoon traffic. I am staying at Hotel Casona Solar, which is easily the nicest hotel I've stayed in all trip; it's also the cheapest. This casona (colonial mansion) dates back to the early 18th century and used to belong to the mayor. The hotel offers a beautiful and calm respite in the midst of the bustling city (the Plaza de Armas is five minutes' walk). My room is large and with the vaulted ceiling common to many buildings in the city, which has experienced many earthquakes over the centuries. The room is quiet and well-appointed (it even has a kettle) and the bed is the most comfortable I've experienced in Peru. Meanwhile, Joshua, who is usually at reception, cannot be more helpful, offering excellent restaurant recommendations, arranging a breakfast box for my final day, and generally making my stay even more pleasant.

Keen to explore, I head to the verdant Plaza de Armas, which is busy with both tourists and locals meeting and socialising, night and day. On the north side is the grand Basilica Cathedral, while the other sides are lined with sleek arcades, all in the sillar stone. Arequipa is noticeably warmer than Puno too — it's around 22C and sunny throughout my visit — which makes for a pleasant amble. I indulge in a spot of souvenir shopping at the Galería de Artesanías 'El Tumi de Oro' craft market, and strike out at the first two speciality coffee shops on my list.

A major tourist attraction is the 20,000-square-metre Monasterio Santa Catalina, which was originally built in the late 16th century, although has been enlarged and rebuilt various times, including as a result of earthquake damage. On two evenings a week (currently Tuesday and Wednesday), the monastery stays open until 7:30 pm, so you can continue to explore the buildings by candlelight after sunset. Entrance to the sprawling complex is 40 soles and although I don't plan to hire a guide, I soon realise that the small free pamphlet is insufficient for my informational and navigational needs. The guide service is only 20 soles (plus an optional tip), in any case, and I learned a great deal from my helpful chaperone.

We spend an hour walking through the complex, which is organised into 'streets' named for Spanish cities. We see the red-orange Novices' Cloister, and the blue Orange Cloister (which has an orange tree), and visit various rooms — or, rather, residences, for this was originally a place for the daughters of the super-rich. Many of them have spacious living areas and their own kitchens and gardens. They are also early adopters in filtered water — many of the rooms have cone-shaped filters made from volcanic rock through which the water gradually drips. As the sun begins to set and the candles and fires are lit, I make a second circuit, pleased that I make it back to the entrance without getting lost.

For dinner, I go to Zingaro, a Lonely Planet recommendation. The food is good: I have prawns — an Arequipa speciality — encrusted in crispy quinoa, and a lovely filet of salmon with sweet potato. But almost all of the other customers are foreign tour groups, at various stages in their Peruvian trips. There is much drama over whether they should order cuy (guinea pig). Most don't.

The following day, I continue in my speciality coffee quest, and find success at Huayruro Peruvian Coffee Shop, a couple of blocks east of the Monasterio. In a cosy, sillar-stone building, Huayruro serves a vast array of coffee drinks using beans from the Cusco region. In the 'iced coffee' menu, for example, they highlight coffee drinks from around the world, including the Peruvian 'café & cacao', the Portuguese mazagran (lemon juice and coffee) and the Vietnamese caphe sua da (coffee with condensed milk). I miss the filter coffee brew method illustrations on the menu at first, but spot an Aeropress on the counter and change my order just in time. The coffee is well made and tastes good. They have pourover and French press options too, as well as brunch.

On my way to the Yanahuara neighbourhood, I stop at Mundo Alpaca, a small petting zoo, where you can feed llamas and alpacas, and learn about the wool production process. It's free to visit but there is an opportunity to purchase alpaca-wool items in the shop. I end up buying some beautifully soft gloves, which are on sale. I also learn never to even look at vicuña wool items. The vicuña is a llama relative that produces tiny quantities of extremely fine wool. They can only be shorn every three years, and as such, the wool produced is very expensive.

Just across the River Chili, Yanahuara is a quiet neighbourhood, whose buildings are predominantly made of white sillar stone. The Plaza de Yanahuara is a good place for views of El Misti, although when I visit, the volcano is living up to its name and is shrouded in haze. I continue to a picantería — restaurant known for its spicy dishes — which Joshua at my hotel has recommended. Indeed, I am the only English-speaking person at the bustling La Nueva Palomino. Many of the menu items don't appear even in Google's Spanish dictionary, but I manage to order a couple of items and a chicha (fermented corn drink). If you're with at least one other person, the 'super-picante' includes samples of various dishes, with enough food for 2–3 very hungry people. I try to order half-portions of the pumpkin chilli (ají de calabaza) and the beef stew, but these come with rice and a papa rellena (a sort of deep-fried potato croquette stuffed with cheese). It's all delicious but I barely manage to eat half, and because I've somehow managed to order the lunchtime deal, I only end up paying 20 soles (about £4.60).

To walk off my lunch, I head to Palacios Coffee, a small coffee shop and roastery back across the river. They've been open since 2013 and have an impressive range of brew methods available, as well as two single-origin coffees roasted in house. I go for the El Ciprés, which has delightful fig and strawberry notes when brewed through the Clever dripper. I have no room for any more beans in my suitcase, but Palacios also sell coffee-based scrubs, lip balms and soaps — I can't resist the verbena-scented soap, which is turquoise and called 'macchiato'.

Afterwards, I pay a visit to the Museo Santuarios Andinos, which is home to the mummified remains of a young Inca girl, Juanita, who was offered as a sacrifice to the gods in the late 15th century and discovered in the 1990s. Like many Peruvian museums, it isn't terribly engaging — we watch a dated documentary for 20 minutes and then proceed through a couple of rooms with exhibits before viewing Juanita. The story of Juanita is very tragic, however, although the video tries to persuade us that she would have viewed her death as an honour.

I am starting to succumb to the cold that will put a damper on my return to the UK the following day, but I have one more Peruvian dish on my to-do list: chupe de camarones, a thick, spicy prawn chowder with cheese, egg, beans and potato. Although it's really a lunchtime dish, Joshua suggests I try Dimas, located just opposite the monastery. The food is delicious and the service very efficient. I take a final wander through the Plaza de Armas and then return to my hotel to pack.

In the morning, it's another early start for my flight back to Lima. I have very much enjoyed my time in Arequipa and wish I had an extra day or two in the city, although with two extra days, I would probably have chosen to visit Colca Canyon instead, whose absence is my biggest itinerary regret.

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