In the 15th century, the Incas conquered the Aymara Indians who occupied Arequipa, and the fertile region served as an important supplier of agrarian products to the Inca Empire up until its demise. The modern city of Arequipa was founded on 15 August 1540 by Garcí Manuel de Carbajal, an emissary of Francisco Pizarro. A year later, King Charles V of Spain bestowed upon it the rank of ‘city’.
Arequipa – 7,740 ft above sea level
We arrived at Arequipa in the afternoon of day 3, after a short one-hour flight from Lima. The plan was to spend several days acclimitizing to the high altitudes of the Andes before heading for Cusco on Christmas Eve. Despite being the nation’s second-largest city, most of Arequipa’s places of interest were within walking distance of the city’s Plaza de Armas (main square).
Of course, the highly favourable exchange rate coupled with our inherent laziness to walk led us to rely more on taxis than our feet to get around. Arequipean cabs resemble New York yellow-tops in many ways save one – our party of 5 guys had a hard time squeezing into the hatchback ‘mini-cabs’, especially after a heavy meal! Suffice to say we were packed tight like a can of sardines, driven around by madcap drivers and unloaded like exploding cornfetti. Boy were we glad all our rides were short!
The following 2 days were spent visiting the usual suspects – the San Francisco de Arequipa Cathedral, Monasterio de Santa Catalina and the Museo Santuarios Andinos (that houses Juanita the Ice Maiden). I wasn’t impressed by the Cathedral (having gone through a bunch of them in Lima), while the Monastery and Juanita exhibit was absolutely entralling.
Monasterio de Santa Catalina
The Monasterio de Santa Catalina was founded by a rich widow, Maria de Guzman in 1580. The monastery only accepted nuns from the best (and obviously, richest) Spanish families. Families were expected to fork out a dowry of about 2,400 silver coins (approx. present-day US$50,000) to admit their daughter into the convent. These were usually second daughters of upper-class families that were expected to serve penance on behalf of their families, just as their first sons were expected to serve in the Spanish army. We were told by our guide that in its first 300 years, the place was run more like an exclusive social club than a convent. The finest English china, silk, statues, paintings, musical instruments and clothes were stashed away for personal gratification. Instead of leading a life of austerity and isolation, nuns were rumoured to have sneaked out of the convent, or sneaked people in. Tales of pregnant nuns and the skeleton of a baby discovered in a wall were rife outside the tall walls of the convent. After incessant complaints, in 1871, the Pope sent a strict Dominican nun, Sister Josefa Cadena to straighten things out. Today, only 20 nuns remain clositered within the northern corner of the 20,000 sqm complex – a far cry from its highest-ever population of 450 nuns and slaves.
Museo de Santa Catalina
The Museo de Santa Catalina houses the best-preserved of all Inca mummies found in the Andes. Affectionately named Juanita by her discoverers, the mummy was found atop Mount Ampato in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard during an expedition after the eruption of neighbouring peak Nevado Sabancaya in 1990 melted Ampato’s frozen volcanic cap. The eruption exposed much of the rock and ancient structures that have been covered for the past 500 years. Johan and his team discovered that Juanita was between 12 to 14 years old when she was sacrificed – a common practice for the Incas who regarded the mountains as god. Our guide at the museum explained that this was because the Incas believed the mountain had the power to kill with avalanche, rockfall, lightning, blizzard or wind. The mountain also had the power to bless the people with rain-filled clouds, vital to the Incas who regarded water as a symbol of life. The guide explained Juanita may have been sacrified amidst bad times – droughts, poor harvests, wars or famines – in the hopes of appeasing or gaining the favour of the Mountain God.
When we were not sightseeing, we were busy filling our stomachs with local cuisine. The most memorable local delicacy I tried at Arequipa had to be that poor guinea pig that was served to me deep-fried. Peru is probably one of the few countries where you can actually ask for cooked guinea pigs without being hauled up for cruelty to animals. I knew my sister would be upset at me for trying guinea pig meat (she keeps 3 adorable ones as pets). But hey, you can’t say you’ve gone to Peru if you didn’t try cuy meat! In the end, my guinea pig didn’t turn out any good. It didn’t taste that much different from chicken. The chef also did an awful job of removing the guinea pig’s hair – as I pulled out each clump of hair from the critter spread-eagled across my plate, I thought of my sister’s adorable guinea pigs…ugh.
I was also able to sneak away from my companions and do a bit of street photography on our second evening at Arequipa. I roamed around the main square, observing and capturing candids of people. My big honking camera and skin colour attracted a lot of attention, making it challenging for me to blend into the surroundings and capture the sort of candid shots I was framing in my mind. For some strange reason, the locals kept saying konichiwa to me. They must get plenty of Japanese visiting them. There was also a man and his son who started a conversation with me, and in particular asked a lot of questions about my grande cámara fotográfica. I wisely chose to forgo my bad Spanish and handed my camera over to bridge the language barrier. His neverending extorts of “bueno!” as he oohed and aahed, and his amazed expression while fiddling with my camera made me wish I had a point-and-shoot handy to capture the moment.
Having seen most of the sights within Arequipa, our party departed early on 20 December 2005 for our first serious outdoor activity – a 3-day 2-night hike through the depths of Colca Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world.