Peru Part 1 - Arequipa
After flying into Lima and staying one night we arrived in Arequipa. Arequipa is Peru's second largest city, but its compact Colonial centre makes it easily walkable. Uniquely among the cities of Peru, Arequipa has never been an Inca settlement and was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish. We decided to start our Peru journey in Arequipa as it is around 2500 meters above sea level, which is the perfect place to acclimatise to the high altitude. It's also a stunning city that deserves a few days to explore and appreciate.
Arriving in Arequipa
Arequipa is surrounded on all sides by three majestic volcanoes, which means the city operates with two distinct climates. Before the sun rises over the mountains it is freezing cold and after it is pleasantly warm. We stayed in Casa de Melgar, which turned out to be a brilliant choice. This hotel was once a colonial mansion. The rooms are set around colourful plant filled courtyards and are complete with antique furniture and embroidered wallhangings. It was also only a five minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, the centre of community life in any Latin American town.
Visiting the Monasteries
The Santa Catalina Monastery is like a city within a city, built in the 16th century and painted with striking natural pigments. The monastery covers over 20,000 square meters and has its own streets named after cities in Spain. Twenty nuns still live there today. The monastery has an incredibly peaceful atmosphere. Whilst it is a beautiful building to explore on your own, the way to get the most out of it is to have a guided tour. For example a small dark room took on new meaning when the guide explained that this is where the secluded nuns would speak through the grill to their family living in the outside world.
We also visited the Santa Teresa Monastery, which is much smaller and less well-known but definitely worth a visit. It houses a stunning collection of art from the Cusco School. Before coming to Peru I had never heard of the Cusco school, it is a fusion of traditional Catholic devotional paintings with a Latin American influence. It is characterised by decorative floral detail, embellishment in gold and the rosy cheeks of the subjects. The monastery is home to one the most stunningly beautiful rooms I think I have ever been in. The walls are covered in pale pink and green frescoes from floor to ceiling; hand-painted hundreds of years ago and carefully restored and maintained.
We took an excursion out to the countryside for one day. Neither of us drive so we used a local bus tour company. It was a four hour tour and worked out to be good value and was a great way to see the countryside. One of my favourite places that we stopped at was the Mansion Fundador, a colonial mansion in the countryside once owned by the founder of Arequipa and subsequently his insane son. Like so many buildings in Arequipa it is painted in vibrant colours and furnished with beautiful antique furniture. We also visited the Old Mill at Sabandia, which was a particularly charming and tranquil spot
Where to Eat
Arequipa gave us a great introduction to Peruvian food and was very good value. Our favourite restaurant was Pishku, which had a beautiful courtyard and served the best ceviche I had all trip. I became a bit obsessed with the sandwich chain La Lucha. We went there for lunch in Lima and then again in Arequipa, and I am still dreaming about those sandwiches. We had marinated pork (Chic Charron) with sweet potato and red onion on chunky, crispy rolls. The staff were some of the friendliest and most attentive we met in Peru and the sandwiches were amazing value.
We discovered Chaqchao chocolate cafe on our last night and wished we'd found it sooner. As you would expect it makes amazing hot chocolate as well as a selection of craft beer and chocolatey treats. Alfajores are not uniquely Peruvian, but they are delicious and they are sold everywhere in Arequipa, particularly in the Plaza de Armas. They are round crumbly shortbread biscuits filled with dulce de leche and dusted with icing sugar. Peru is known for growing coffee but not for making it. More than once we bought a takeaway coffee so bad we had to throw it away. Fortunately we found Kaffee Haus right opposite our hotel and during our four day stay managed to fill up a loyalty card and claim a free coffee. They roast and grind Peruvian beans in house and make delicious coffee.
Stay tuned for part two to read about our travels to the Sacred Valley.