Arequipa – La Ciudad Blanca y el Cañón del Colca

My first week in Peru, I got asked where I was going to visit. I replied “Lima for two weeks, the jungle for two weeks, and then Cusco for two weeks.” And every time I said that, the Peruvian I was talking to said “aren’t you going to Arequipa?” After hearing about Arequipa for almost two weeks, I decided that in one of my free weekends, I would trek down here to see what it’s like.
Arequipa is quite the city. It’s the second largest in the country, but to put it in perspectice Lima has 8-10 million people, and Arequipa has about 1 million people, and that might be an overestimate. The city is locally known as ‘La Ciudad Blanca,’ because the historical center is built almost exclusively out of sillar stone. The sillar stone is found at the foothills of the, not one, not two, but three volcanoes that surround the city. The stone is very strong and resistant to earthquakes, and makes for beautiful colonial architecture.
I got here at about 5:30 in the morning after a night bus from Cusco. I checked into my hotel, which was located near the center and was probably an old colonial home that had been revamped into a hotel (and made out of sillar). After getting settled, I went to the cathedral, which is the only cathedral in Peru that spans the length of an entire block. And of course, nearby was La Iglesia de La Compañía, also made out of sillar and absolutely magnificent. 

Both churches were breathtaking, but the best part had to be the Chapel for St. Ignacius in the Jesuit Church. In here, every inch of wall and ceiling is painted by anonymous painters from the Cusco School. It is filled with flowers, birds, fruits, and little children. The scale of this piece might rival Il Jesu in Rome, for those of you who know that church. I couldn’t take pictures but I’m sure there are some good ones online that you can take a peek at.

Then I went to el Monestsrio de Santa Catalina, a huge complex about a block from the Plaza de Armas. This monastery actually was like a city in the city, totally isolated from the outside. It takes up a whole city block, and housed nuns for around 500 years or so in the center of Arequipa. The entire complex is very well preserved, beautifully designed (again out of sillar) and rather reflective and tranquil amidst the hustle and bustle of a big city.


I apologize if this is starting to sound like a list of things I did here, but I just can’t help sharing all these cool things I saw! In the afternoon, I walked around and admired the volcanoes from a couple viewpoints, then headed to the Museo Santuarious Andinos, which houses Juanita. Juanita is a frozen mummy who was a human sacrifice in an Incan ritual to please the mountain gods. She was sacrificed on top of a mountain and was totally preserved because of the freezing temperatures for 500 years. The museum was crazy cool, with great artifacts and Juanita in the subzero 500 year old frozen flesh (and again, no pictures allowed sorry).

And a visit to a new city wouldn’t be complete without trying the regional food! Here are two Arequipeña dishes that were just awesome! First, rocoto relleno, a stuffed rocoto pepper that was probably the spiciest thing I’ve eaten here, although I’ve had much spicier (cough cough Diablo XX habanero salsa). Rico! And the other is chupe de camarones, a crawfish-zapallo-cheese-corn soup that is out of this world tasty! 

That was just Friday. Saturday, I got up and got on a bus to Chivay, a city near the Cañón del Colca. To get there, we passed through a few small towns, and over the highest road in the Americas, with an altitude of 4910 meters (or around 15,000 feet), where the environment looked like the moon. These strange balanced rock formations were everywhere, practically no life, and two snow capped mountain ranges in the distance.
Once we got to Chivay, we dropped our stuff off and went to the local hot baths to take a 36°C bath at the beginning of the canyon. Felt great out there! Then dinner with a Peña, a traditional Peruvian dance and music show. 


This morning, we got up at about 5 am to eat breakfast the head out to the canyon. We passed through a couple small cities with enormous churches and a few viewpoints before coming to  the Colca Canyon. I realized that I haven’t explaine what’s so special about this canyon. Two things – first, it’s the second deepest canyon in the world (the first deepest is actually a few miles more north, but it is only accessible via hiking, and is only a few meters deeper too). Secondly, it is home to the Andean condor, a huge endangered bird whose habitat is this canyon. Their wingspan is about 3 m (9 ft) and they prey solely on carrion. They don’t fly, but glide using the natural currents produced by the sun warming the canyon floor. 
And boy, was this canyon incredible! The walls are nearly vertical and you can hardly see the bottom. The condors were incredible, flying around and just being themselves in their home. Although it was crowded, the amazing views and majestic condors were more than worth the trip! And of course, the rest of the canyon is stunning as well, with little pueblos dotting the sides as the river cuts deeper and deeper into the earth.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about all this as much as I’ve enjoyed experiencing it, but I do want to take a moment to reflect on all of this. First, everyone I talked to in Arequipa seemed very educated. From taxistas to tour guides, hotel managers to college students, everyone seemed to know what was going on in Peru and in the world. They all spoke intelligently and had critical and sobering ideas, which in some ways is surprising but in other ways reveals another layer to this historical and intriguing city.

Secondly, this trip was a testament to the ability for humans to conquer all types of terrain. From building a city from scratch in the shadows of three volcanoes (and ingeniously using the volcanoes own rocks to do it) to terraforming the dry earth around a high canyon to farm in the Andes, humans have taken what was a desolate landscape and somehow thrived. This, to me, is an amazing thought, because we in many ways are facing another challenge that we must work on to overcome. I would like to say that Peru has no litter, but that would be a bold faced lie – Peru, as beautiful as it is, suffers from trash and litter like no other. And to zoom out further, our actions are having an impact on everything. The condors I saw today have started to decrease in numbers due to pollution in the area caused by tourist buses. To reference another fellows project, tons of dams have radically altered ecosystems in the USA and all over the world, with pretty bad consequences.

So what am I saying? I guess in short I’m saying that we’ve got a problem, and all of our ancestors had problems too. But they were able to overcome their problems, and I hope so can we. And from Pope Francis’ new encyclical (which I have not read but only heard about) some major world players are finally realizing the same thing. If my study has shown anything, it’s that the environment affects us – a lot. It affects our food, our culture, our lifestyle, and to be poignant, it affects our health. But, as Arequipa has shown me, it is possible to solve this problem, and I think we are smart enough to do it.

Anyway, I had an amazing trip to Arequipa, one that totally lived up to all of the things my Peruvian friends told me about. Only a week and a half left, with my brother coming and Machu Picchu ahead! For now, Ciao and buenas noches!

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