Colonial Arequipa was built from stones that look like they came from another planet and has a vibe like no other place I’ve visited in Peru. On the surface, this city with it’s gridded streets and familiar plaza-centric structure shouldn’t feel any different, but walking through it brought back more memories of southern Spain than Cusco or Puno.
Like most places in Peru, the Spanish were not the first people to settle at the base of the towering Misti and Chachani volcanos. However, unlike many other Peruvian cities, Arequipa was not built over a much older town. Arequipa is, down to its foundations, a very Spanish city. There are no notable Incan ruins near the city and much of the indigenous culture (authentic or concocted for tourist) that you see around places like Cusco and Puno is nonexistent.
Gone are the women in layered skirts and frocks. In Arequipa, you more likely to see a local wearing a ball cap from a U.S. university than you are to see a woven hat. Some people might find this sad or think they were missing out on an “authentic” experience, but I welcomed the change. After five months in Cusco, I felt something that had worn off very quickly in the Incan capital, the feeling of travel.
Arequipa is a city built from the ashes — literally. Since its founding almost five hundred years ago it has been damaged and nearly destroyed by a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But the geologic violence that nearly wiped the city out also makes it unique. Arequipa has earned the nickname “The White City” because much of its colonial architecture was hewn from white and porous volcanic sillar from the mountains above.
Arequipa’s cathedral at sunset glows red and the buildings along its walking streets were nearly as impressive as the Spanish cities of Seville or Granada. Cafés with arched roofs line narrow streets rich with facades and Spanish motifs. I’m ready to be impressed by cities like Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aries, Argentina but in my Latin American travel experience Arequipa offers some of the most interesting and compelling architecture of any city by far.
This is thanks in part to the Convent of Santa Catalina. Located near the main plaza and often referred to as a “city with in a city,” this convent ranks high on my list of beautiful structures. It is firmly seated in the company of the likes of Granada’s Alhambra and some of Europe’s great cathedrals.
Santa Catalina was founded by a wealthy widow, and its nuns — many of them from the upperclass — lived much like they would outside the convent walls. They had servants and lived in isolated but comfortable quarters. Pious reforms and a more humble lifestyle eventually came to the cloisters but many of Santa Catalina’s most beautiful structures had already been built.
Nearly every room and courtyard of the convent compelled me to photograph it. From the long walking streets to the brightly colored walls, everything within the walls of this small city seemed captivating. Without seeing the enclosed church, canals, plazas with orange trees, and tiny neighborhoods inside the convent it’s hard to grasp how self-sufficient it really was.
Inside the convent there are kitchens, bakeries, hospitals, three distinct housing sections, parks, washing areas, chapels, fountains, squares, art galleries, and even a giant bathtub. Yet even though the early nuns lived a relatively privileged life, they were completely isolated from the outside world. Their only connection was a revolving shelf where visitors could pass things through to them and a room where they could speak with outsiders who sat several feet away on the other side of two wooden screens.
We stayed to photograph for several hours and if it was included in our ticket price, I would have loved to come back at night when all the ovens and lanterns are lit. Outside of the convent and outside of the city most visitors continue on to see Colca Canyon and watch condors or to climb the high peaks around Arequipa. For us, our road led out of the city by a different route. We were off to the world’s driest desert and to the border with Chile.