Arequipa is a city of grand colonial mansions and venerable churches built from a creamy white volcanic rock. Christened the Ciudad Blanca, or “White City,” because of these lustrous white buildings, the whole city truly does glisten with an alabaster shimmer.
Peru’s second largest city is centered around a majestic Plaza de Armas that could be the younger brother of Cusco’s magnificent main plaza. The 19th century neo-classical Catedral dominates one entire side of the square and is backdropped by a trio of volcanoes. Arcaded and balconied colonial buildings border the remaining three sides of the plaza.
My visit to this white city started off leisurely with dinner on a second-floor balcony overlooking the Plaza de Armas. Stuffed with pizza and salad, I nevertheless couldn’t ignore my dessert stomach’s demand for queso helado, an arequipeño specialty. It literally translates to cheese ice cream, but it doesn’t actually have cheese in it. It is, however, a really sweet square of frozen deliciousness.
The next day I headed to Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a convent founded in 1579 by a rich young widow. Occupying an entire city block and surrounded by high walls like a fortress, the convent is like its own little town, completely isolated from the rest of the city. It has little streets with actual names that connect plazas and wind around the compound to living quarters, a garden, a chapel, a cemetery, and even its own coffee shop. Oh wait, no. The cafe was added later for the tourists.
The nuns seemed to have lived quite a lavish life, at least according to nun standards. Only girls from the best Spanish families were accepted into the convent, and their fathers had to pay large dowries for their admittance. Upon entering the convent, they were permitted to continue to live according to the standards they were accustomed. This meant that they had their own servants, threw parties, and lived in cells that were really much more like apartments than confined rooms.
Each cell had a kitchen, living room, and bedroom, all with plush furnishings. Some even had dining tables, music rooms, bathrooms, and second floors. The wealthier the nun’s family, the more luxurious her living quarters at the convent.
About thirty nuns remain living there today but stay hidden from public view as the tourists traipse around their place.
I meandered around the nuns’ town for hours, getting lost in cells that went on and on and on, finding myself in courtyards of orange trees and flowers, a plaza with a fountain, and an art gallery of religious paintings. I climbed stairs that led to nowhere but at one time ascended to second floors. My exploration of the dead-end staircases eventually did lead me somewhere – on the roof of the chapel, where I could see sweeping views of the roofs of the short buildings that make up Arequipa.
It was next on to the Casa del Moral, an 18th century one-story mansion built around a central courtyard. It was constructed in the baroque-mestizo style, which combines indigenous Andean elements with Spanish design, a unique style that originated in Arequipa.
The house is basically an exact square with a hole cut out of the middle for the courtyard. It was very easy to tour but not as fun as exploring a mansion with a jumble of interconnecting rooms because it was impossible to get lost! I also noticed something I hadn’t before when visiting old houses – the style of furniture really hasn’t changed much since the colonial days. All the bedroom needed was a TV on the dresser and a laptop on the desk and it could have been a modern house, albiet with a more traditional style of decor.
I completed my day of tourist spot-hopping at the Museo Santuario, a museum that exhibits an Incan child mummy who was sacrificed as an offering to the gods over 500 years ago on the top of the Nevado Ampato volcano in southern Peru. A mountaineer and archeologist discovered the almost perfectly preserved young girl in the frozen snow of the volcano in 1995. Dubbed Juanita the ice princess, the mummy was wrapped in colorful garments that indicated she was from the royal class.
To the Incas, being chosen as a sacrifice was a huge honor. The young girl would have believed she was going to live with the gods in their world. The sacrifice ceremony likely began with an arduous trek from Cusco to the summit of the volcano and ended with her drinking a hallucinogenic. She was then hit on the head and buried on the top of the volcano.
Sacrifices to the gods are thought to have happened every seven years, coinciding with El Niño, the weather pattern that brings extreme weather to countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. The periodic bad weather would have negatively affected the Incas’ crops. El Niño also caused shells usually only present on the coast of Ecuador to be carried down to Peru. The Incas believed their crops were suffering because the gods were upset and viewed the arrival of these shells as a message from the gods that it was time to make another sacrifice.
Consequently, the Incas would perform a human sacrifice – usually of a child – and include some of the shell “messages” at the burial site. Afterwards, the bad weather would usually disappear, and the Incas interpreted this as a sign that the gods were appeased by the sacrifice.
The mummies of fourteen sacrificed kids have been found in the mountains of southern Peru. Juanita is the best preserved, but unfortunately maintaining her preservation requires her to be cooped up in total darkness for a few months out of the year. As (bad) luck would have it, April is one of those months, and Juanita was not on display during my visit to her museum.
Sarita is Juanita’s understudy during the ice princess’s months in seclusion. She may not be as well-preserved as her sister in sacrifice, but Sarita is preserved enough to cause her visitors to gaze at her in open-mouthed awe. She sits in the lotus position, appearing to float in mid-air in her special glass tank.
The sacrificed children may or may not have gotten to live with their gods as they hoped, but they do get to live on in a kind of immortality here on earth.
The sky was dark when I walked home that night, and the Arequipa of the night had unveiled itself. The entire city pulsed with a nighttime energy. The Catedral was radiantly lit, illuminating the plaza that was lively with revelers. The streets were filled with arequipeños emanating a merry aura. It wasn’t until I ran into a street parade with a float carrying a Jesus figure to a nearby church that I realized the mostly Catholic city was out in full force celebrating the night before Easter.
It was a fun stroll through the city back to my hostel, me totally energized by the festivities. And I will need all the energy I can get now that I am headed for a trekking trip in the Colca Canyon just outside of Arequipa!