Travels with Mikey, Day 2: Arequipa — Monasteria Santa Catalina


March 26, 2013 by jiejie768

There is a Plaza de Armas at the center of nearly every Peruvian city, but the one Arequipa is among the most attractive.

There is a Plaza de Armas at the center of nearly every Peruvian city, but the one Arequipa is among the most attractive.

Despite spending the night on a bus, Mikey, Meg and I all felt pretty rested upon arriving at Las Torres de Ugarte, our homebase during our two days and three nights in Arequipa. Our time in Arequipa was broken up by a 2-day, 1-night trip to nearby Colca Canyon.

We arrived mid-morning on Tuesday, March 12, with plans to leave for the canyon on Thursday. As such, we had two days to firm up our tour of the canyon and see what the White City was all about. We heard a handful of explanations about Arequipa’s nickname, ranging from racist to architectural, but I choose to attribute it to the white sillier stones used to make most of the buildings in the historical city center. In addition to the beautiful colonial architecture, Arequipa offers eye-candy in the form of the omnipresent El Misti Volcano — a solitary peak that rises stunningly from the countryside — and Pikchu Pikchu and Chachani, a pair of neighboring volcanoes that make up a snow-capped ridge to the left of El Misti. There are also a handful of other mountainous ridges that are visible as Arequipa sits at the base of a valley surrounded by several peaks that reach above 18,000 feet.

Our first stop after leaving the hotel was a tour company recommended by the extremely friendly and helpful staff at Las Torres. We were looking to book a trip into the canyon and wanted to know what our options were for the two-day, one-night window we’d scheduled for this excursion. They were as follows:

— We could book a bus-heavy tour that featured a lot of driving, with several stops along the way to snap photos and learn a little about the canyon’s history. This trip would leave Arequipa at 8 a.m. Thursday, deliver us to a lunch-buffet in Chivay (the capital city of the Colca Canyon villages) by about 1 p.m., take us on a one-hour hike into the canyon, give us some time at a local hot springs, and book us a hotel in Chivay for the night. There would also be about four stops along the way to Chivay to view scenery and wildlife. The second day would feature a 5 a.m. wake-up call and an early morning drive deeper into the canyon to Condor Crossing, where we’d hopefully see some condors before returning via bus to Arequipa.

— Or, we could book a trekking adventure that would leave Arequipa at 3 a.m. Thursday morning. This trip would take us directly to Chivay without any stops, where we would eat a quick breakfast before heading straight to Condor Crossing, arriving at 9 a.m. Thursday (as opposed to 9 a.m. Friday in the other trip). Then we would head to Cabanaconde from whence we’d embark on a five-to-seven-hour hike deep into the canyon. We would spend the night in a campsite deep in the canyon sleeping either on cots or the ground. The next morning, we’d wake up early and hike back out of the canyon, another two to three hours, before boarding a bus and heading back to Arequipa. Both tours featured a bilingual guide and would return us to Arequipa at roughly 5 p.m. Friday.

We were torn. On one hand, the second tour sounded a bit intense, especially since Mikey was just being introduced to life at altitude — Arequipa sits at about 7,500 feet and the hike would feature points higher than 14,000 feet. On the other hand, that tour offered the most in-depth look at the canyon, and the first tour sounded like a lot of just sitting in a car. We wanted something in between but didn’t have that choice.

Since not all of us have Lolo’s joie d’vivre when it comes to food served on Peruvian buses, we decided our next step should be to grab a proper meal while we mulled our tour options. This proved slightly harder than anticipated as our search for a pizza was inhibited by the fact that it was still earlier than 11 a.m. This did give us a good chance to scout out the city center, learn where the banks were and locate the all-important Starbucks on Calle Lima, Arequipa’s bustling pedestrian street that branches off of the beautiful Plaza de Armas.

The mountain ridge featuring Chachani and Pikchu Pikchu towers above the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa.

The mountain ridge featuring Chachani and Pikchu Pikchu towers above the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa.

El Misti Volcano is visible amid the trees and cathedral towers in Arequipa's Plaza de Armas.

El Misti Volcano is visible amid the trees and cathedral towers in Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas.

When traveling in Peru, the Plaza de Armas is a recurring theme as it operates as the main attraction and central point for just about every city you’ll visit — Lima being a notable exception as the Plaza there is gorgeous, but most tourists stay in, and operate out of, Miraflores which is a 20-30 minute bus ride from the city center. As such, Meg and I have seen our fair share, and it’s safe to say Arequipa’s ranks at or near the top of the list. Certainly Cuzco’s is beautiful, and we have a soft spot in our hearts for Ayacucho’s, but the weather, architecture and surrounding scenery in Arequipa offered a breathtaking sight.

As ever, you can take the Ryan and Meg out of Seattle, but you best not take the Starbucks out of their hands.

As ever, you can take the Ryan and Meg out of Seattle, but you best not take the Starbucks out of their hands.

After walking along the length of the pedestrian street once, we were returning to the plaza, or let’s be honest, Starbucks, when we noticed a pizza place that was closed on our first pass had opened its doors and was emitting an appetizing aroma. So it was that we settled in for an Italian brunch. The most notable trait of this meal (the pizza was OK, but not exceptional) was it offered Mikey his first taste of chicha morada, the sweet, dark purple corn punch that is a beloved dietary staple in the mountains of Peru. As we ate and our blood-sugar climbed, ambition gave way to reason, and we decided that the first, easier, tour was probably the way to go. The truth was that the trekking tour was really recommended as a 3-day, 2-night excursion, but unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of time. Additionally, Mikey, who was already feeling the altitude in Arequipa, didn’t want to push his luck. I’ll write about our canyon trip later, but looking back, I feel we made the right decision; someday, I’d like to do the trek, but this wasn’t the time or situation for it.

With our Colca Canyon decision made, our focus turned full bore to the next two days in Arequipa. Our list of objectives were, in order: see the Santa Catalina Monastery, take a spin through the city’s stunning cathedral, visit a viewpoint somewhere in or near the city, and see Juanita, a mummy discovered frozen in ice atop one of Peru’s highest peaks. We went three for four, as it turns out Juanita was on loan for study at a university and was not in the museum that she usually calls home.

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First and foremost was the monastery. Both GeGe and the Collinses had told us, in no uncertain terms, that this was a must-see for any visit to Arequipa. Santa Catalina monastery was founded during the Spanish colonial rule and originally was home to a group of nuns who had something of a wild reputation. The denizens of Santa Catalina came, mostly, from wealthy Spanish nobility and they reputedly partied it up — well, as much as a nun can party, I guess — in the monastery’s early history. Eventually, the Vatican decided it was time to clean things up and a regime change sometime during (I think) the 1800s changed the culture to one more befitting a monastery.

All of the nuns at Santa Catalina had (and still have, as it is an active monastery) to spend a portion of their time in solitary and silent reflection. Thus, in addition to a collection of stunning courtyards and a city-within-a-city residential area, there are several rooms to be viewed that feature their own kitchens. It took us a while to realize why every room had a kitchen, but I guess if you’re supposed to be praying in solitude, that includes mealtime. The monastery is huge, taking up about three or four walled city blocks. The structure can only be described as labyrinthine as seemingly every room we entered led to another, previously unseen room, and then another. In addition to countless kitchens and private sanctuaries, our explorations uncovered a cuy pen full of live (for now) guinea pigs.

The exteriors of the monastery’s buildings are painted in either a vivid red, or electric blue and the colors are mesmerizing. In addition to several picturesque courtyards, our tour included a couple of fantastic rooftop viewpoints that offered a not-quite-bird’s-eye view of the city center and a stunning vista of El Misti Volcano, Pikchu Pikchu and Chachani.

After wandering the monastery for about two hours, the sun had set and we headed out in search of food and merriment. Our guide book led us to a decent, but fairly expensive (about $12 a plate) restaurant, where Mikey got his first (but definitely not last) taste of Cusqueña (my favored Peruvian libation) and lomo saltado, a Peruvian mainstay that is basically beef stir-fry on a bed of rice and french fries. He also sampled my alpaca steak before we left in search of cheaper drinks.

Our first stop brought us to a bar called Las Brujas (The Witches) where we capitalized on the happy-hour special offering three pisco sours for a mere 15 soles (about $8). A lackadaisical approach from Las Brujas’ wait staff, however, stymied our attempts for Round 2 and led us across the street to a restaurant/bar intriguingly titled Tacos and Tequila.

Mexican food is hard to come by in Peru, so Meg and I were pretty excited when we sat down and perused the menu. Sure, we had already eaten that evening, but we had several meals to go in Arequipa and 10 sol ($4) burritos were most certainly in our future. That night, Mikey and I ordered 22-ounce Cusqueñas while Meg and I split an order of chips and salsa with guacamole. We returned to the hotel that evening sated and satisfied, with plans to revisit Tacos and Tequila come dinnertime Wednesday.

Catch up on all our Travels with Mikey:


One thought on “Travels with Mikey, Day 2: Arequipa — Monasteria Santa Catalina

  1. Patty Ward says:

    You are such a great writer! We are really enjoying reading about your daily adventures ~ what great memories the three of you will have from this trip (and stories to share).
    Wishing you safe travels & good times always~
    Jim & Patty

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