Arequipa lies high atop the lofty Andes Mountains – a phrase I never tire of saying – dominated by the dormant snow-capped El Misti volcano. The city is the second most populous in Peru and produced some of the continent’s most famous sons, such as Nobel Prize laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa and two-time UN Secretary General, Víctor Andrés Belaúnde. The colonial era architecture that characterizes this true ancestral gem was constructed using a white volcanic rock, which explains the nickname, La Ciudad Blanca (The White City). This unique metropolitan manifestation brews a resolute psyche among its inhabitants, spurring a collective sentiment of national pride and individuality. During my time living in Lima (from 1995 to 1999), Arequipa’s local government officials were toying with the idea of separation from the Peruvian state, an idea that was often met ridiculed by the bureaucrats sitting in the national congress. You could even acquire an Arequipan passport – with a picture taken right on the spot - from street vendors in downtown Lima.
|Our restaurant facing the Cathedral and Plaza de Armas|
I made this excellent adventure to Arequipa with my parents during the Easter break in 1999 for just a couple of days. We spent most of the first day in the splendour of the downtown core, working our way from the Plaza de Armas outward. The main square representing the beating heart of former Spanish colonial strongholds often share the same name. Principal government buildings and a cathedral usually surround this dedicated area. The Spanish conquistadors designed cities using a standard military mindset, strategically preserving an open area where people could gather and receive weapons should more distant defences be overwhelmed in an attack. The Bickfords kept watch from a picantería – restaurant where traditional food is plated – absorbing the fantastic view of the Basilica Catedral of Arequipa. After spending enough time among the Incan predecessors, it is evident that even the food in this city claims a more Spanish ancestry rather than a Creole, Japanese or even Chinese mix as in Lima. It was amazing back in the capital, the number of chifa fast food restaurants serving Asian dishes. The fine dining establishments located around the central square are an ideal choice for people watchers while enjoying a hearty traditional meal before hitting the streets. You will need the fuel, as there is a lot to see there. Don’t miss out on the nunnery, it is a city within the city.
The evolution of this city’s architecture is significantly correlated with its many earthquakes. It is actually quite surprising to see the number of buildings that have bravely stood the test of time against these mighty shakes. I experienced one of these quakes in the comfort of my own hotel room bed in the middle of the night. The scariest element of the phenomenon is that you can hear it coming, like a freight train barreling through you. A bunch of screaming tourists slamming their doors and running out in panic added much to this drama. Upon hearing this out-of-tune opera of squealers, I dashed out of my bed, reached for my Montecristo No. 4 cigars and bolted out the door. Mother nature was not going to steal these fine Cuban creations. Should the building crumble, the cigars would be safe. Anyway, I am deviating from the original subject of the colonial architecture of this fine Andean gem. Many of us fail to recall that while early architects, engineers and builders did not graduate from technical universities yet they were able to erect these grandiose monuments that continue to be admired to date. Their tools were more basic than children’s toys, but their determination was unparalleled. The elegance of these landmarks jumps out before the visitor’s gaze, underlining simultaneously the historical importance the Catholic Church of Spain in the development of this settlement.
Our hotel was on the outskirts of the city, in the suburb called Sabandia. It was a Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort located near a small artificial lagoon, a picturesque old stone mill and large open fields. There was an excellent restaurant onsite serving all sorts of gourmet items – we met the hotel owners one evening at dinner: they were French expats and motorcycle aficionados – large gardens with alpacas mowing the lawn with their razor sharp fangs (indeed nature’s best lawnmowers) and a swimming pool to kick back. One afternoon, my parents and I were lounging poolside, sipping freshly made lemonade, enjoying the sun and peace that the Peruvian countryside had to offer. This entire property offered a very relaxing ambience to the everyday city slicker. During our moment of deep Zen, our collective consciousness appeared to have connected so well with nature that we somehow managed to summon the local fauna. As we focussed on this overwhelming peace and tranquility, a horse galloped past us out of nowhere, edging the swimming pool ever so slightly. The three of us just shared a look wondering if in fact we had just seen what we thought. While we made up our minds, trying to absorb this brief oddity, the same horse returned trotting towards the pool and back around again, this time chased by some rather heavy set gardener employed by the hotel. I must say that it does in fact require quite the athleticism and skill to stop this kind of animal whose natural inclination is to run.
|At the old mill of Sabandia|
On a quiet afternoon – like many that can be observed in this area – the three of us walked down the country road to see the old stone mill. On our way there, we found an old terracotta red house with a large veranda displaying tables and chairs. It was a private home with the front entrance converted into a local restaurant. In Peru, especially if you look like an obvious gringo – a flexible word to describe any foreigner – people will sneak up to you with a “ya pe... come and eat here compa’e.” As I mentioned in my previous Ancón entry, these places are the best in terms of quality and value – not to mention abundance. We were easily convinced to drop in and try some of the local delicacies but the plate that was immortalized in my gourmet glossary was the infamous rocoto. I love spicy food, but after this plate of nuclear pepper stuffed with fireballs of ground beef, I was breathing out flames for about a month. Those who have sampled the variety of spicy Mexican food will agree that the many different kinds of peppers do have both a zing and a tang – heat and flavour – but the Peruvian ají could easily be used to remove cancerous cells or burn a hole through steel vault. That’s why they say: “to each… their own.” We even had the world’s smelliest dogs fulfilling proudly they sentry around our table, hoping a piece of anything would come to their level. Arequipa was one of my favourite places and I give it a “two thumbs up” to anyone with the opportunity to make this memorable trip.