Arequipa reminded us a lot of Sucre in Bolivia (which we loved) – it was also filled with beautiful white buildings (giving it the same nickname la cuidad blanca or The White City), it had the same tranquil feel of a small town despite being a big city, had a great central market to fulfil our needs for fresh fruit juice and persuaded us to stay longer than we intended.
Rather embarrassingly, I ended up with a bad spout of sickness after our Colca Canyon hike (umm… over-exertion?) so we became even worse tourists than we normally are and completely ignored the majority of the usual tourist attractions in exchange for cups of coca tea and afternoon (and morning and evening) naps. It is still pretty easy to put together a list of 5 amazing things about this wonderful little city.
1. Santa Semana
We arrived back from the Colca Canyon on the Thursday before Good Friday to find the city center packed with people and food stalls. We were told that Maudy Thursday was the most important night of the holy week of Easter in Arequipa. On this night, all the families in the city come into the center to join a procession through the streets, visiting each of the 7 main churches in the city center (this literally involves walking through them – sometimes without even a pause to listen to the ongoing sermon). The best part for us is that food sellers line the streets between the churches to sell Easter candies to the passing procession. There was no sign of chocolate bunnies or eggs – instead there were grapes covered in candy, chocolate covered marshmallows, candied figs and apples, home-made nougat – oh, and plenty of pork sandwiches for Chris.
The whole city had an amazing atmosphere and we completely overdosed on sugar – brilliant.
2. Mercado Central
We were very lucky that Carlitos (the owner of the tour company we used to hike Colca canyon) offered us a free tour of the city. As it included a visit to the Mercado Central we couldn’t turn it down. The market was really excellent, neatly divided into the key sections: fruit juice, vegetables, meat, fish, potatoes (there are so many different kinds here that it needs its own section), cheese and traditional medicine. It had all the key ingredients you would expect in a Peruvian market:- lines of ladies making fresh juice, sheep heads, testicles, llama foetus… and something we have not yet seen before:- frog juice.
Frog juice is sadly, exactly what it says on the tin: Juice made out of a frog. You start by picking out your frog from a little batch of live ones they have at the stand. They then kill it, boil it, skin it and blend it into a juice. One glass will set you back 15 soles (£4). I am relieved to report that neither of us tried it – even though the locals swear by its health benefits (in particular, it apparently improves your memory). There was one little girl waiting at the counter for her cup of frog juice and when Carlitos asked the owner to show us the frogs he had to do it carefully because the little girl wasn’t supposed to know what was actually in the juice (!!!) I made a promise to my future children to never do that to them.
3. Santa Catalina Monastery
We did one proper tourist activity in Arequipa and visited a particularly beautiful old monastery. Historically, the monastery was a place that rich people sent one of their daughters (for a large fee) to spend their lives in isolation, praying for their family so that the family could be guaranteed a place in heaven – whatever sins they might commit. Today, the monastery still operates but on quite different terms: nuns do not have to pay to join and a free to come and go as they please. However, luckily for us they have preserved a large part of the monastery in the way it was for tourists to come and visit. We took a guided tour (for an extra 20 Soles, £5) and learnt lot about the place – but I mostly enjoyed taking pictures of the beautiful coloured walls!
4. Zig Zag restaurant
We arrived in Arequipa the first night from Copacabana desperate for the toilet and starving (thanks to the Peruvian buses which had no toilets and no food!). Given that we had missed out on lunch we decided to splurge and pay London prices to go to Arequipa’s most highly rated restaurant, Zig Zag. (Mmmmm… I am getting hungry just writing this post.) The restaurant is famous for meat so that is what we both went for. I stuck to good old beef fillet and can say that I think it was better than any steak I had in Argentina. Chris went for the Zig Zag trio of Pork, Alpaca and Beef and polished off all three without any problem. All the food was served on hot stones and came with Andean potatoes ans ratatouille.
5. Old buildings and leafy plazas
In short, Arequipa is very pretty. The central plaza is leafy and fresh and surrounded by beautiful buildings that would be equally at home in a European city. It is very easy to spend a morning just wandering around the pretty streets.
And a special mention for…
The thrill of staying in a city on the base of an active volcano