Known as the white city because of the ‘blanco’ volcanic rock that much of the stonework that constitutes the buildings is hewn from, in the Peruvian city of Arequipa you get colonial-era architecture mixed in with classical Peruvian terraces, all framed by snow-capped mountains (most notably the menacingly precarious 5825m, semi-active volcano of Misti) around the city limits.
Honing in on the smaller details of Peruvian street life, and you see the usual contrasts of people in modern garb – T-shirts plastered with sassy English slogans seem to be particularly popular – with those in more traditional, Andes-flavoured clothing. Away from the tourist-friendly glitz of the central square, the shop fronts and signs were more rundown and workaday. One common theme I couldn’t help notice throughout Peru were the photos of scantily clad ladies that invariably advertised the wares of garages and motor parts shops.
The primary cultural fix comes in the shape of the sprawling Monasterio Santa Catalina, a fine religious complex on the scale of a fortress; it’s grander in scope than your average largely because of the fact it effectively has a city within its own walls. There’s also multiple well-preserved Nun’s cells, kitchens and leafy courtyards featuring colourful walls and religious frescoes for good measure.
The most eye-catching monument is La Catedral, the twin towers of which dominate the city skyline. Inside, though, its decidedly austere, perhaps a consequence of the multiple earthquakes that have levelled it over the centuries. My friend and I had also planned to checkout Museo Santuarios Andinos, where the famous ‘ice maiden’ who had been sacrificed 500 years prior and perfectly preserved by ice in the Peruvian mountains since. But she wasn’t there when we visited, so we didn’t bother!
They say that visiting Arequipa and not going to the Colca Canyon is a bit like going to Cusco and not checking out Machu Picchu; in other words, it is the principal attraction in the area. And with good reason too, as it is the second deepest canyon in the world; twice as deep, indeed, as Grand Canyon in the USA.
It doesn’t really have quite the scope of that, though, or at least it doesn’t in the parts we visited, suggesting that you could well get more out of it by doing a proper hike through it. Bit I still enjoyed the experience all the same. This might have had something to do with our slightly eccentric guide – you should have heard her impersonations of the wind! – but I think that it was more to do with the scenery itself.
Sure, it’s not as grand as Grand Canyon, but the scenery is more varied and spectacular in its own way. Sheer, riven-rock faces – stitched through with verdant rice terraces – plunge in to shadowy river cataracts thousands of metres below. Gushing water flows through patches of fertile vegetation, and the brilliant blue sky is filled with the majestic swoop of condors. Admittedly, these are difficult to capture on camera, but the sight of them in full flight is an impressive one indeed.
Other highlights included visiting a local town complete with an evocative church and, oh yes, alpacas, as well as hot springs that, whilst not naturally occurring, are still very much worth a visit for their soothing, healing properties. However, it is the canyon itself that makes the biggest impression, and comes highly recommended to all who visit the area.