January 18 found us in the port of Matarani, on the edge of the Atacama desert. This is one of the driest areas in the world. When we were here in 2012 we were told that there is a town not far away where no rain has ever been recorded. You can see that earlier visit here:
There is not much to see or do in Matarani beyond its scenic coastline, so we signed up for an excursion through the desert to Arequipa, a city of more than 800,000 located more than 7,500 feet high in the Andes.
We drove through the desert & mountains for many miles, about an hour and a half each way. There was a lot of cactus among the mostly barren mountains. There had recently been an election and party logos were painted right on the mountain rocks, a desecration that probably won’t go away soon.
As we crossed the high desert we passed several settlements of shanties. These shacks were built by squatters and many have no access to running water or electricity. But the government has a program permitting these people to buy the land they are living on for, if memory serves, $150 that can be paid over time. Eventually water and electricity will be provided as well, though it can take a long time. Its hard to imagine living in these conditions unless you are pretty desperate.
Finally we reached Arequipa, driving into town past terraced fields built before the coming of the Inca in the 15th century and a giant statue of Jesus overlooking a neighborhood. We also saw shanty towns reminiscent of the ones we saw in Lima.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the location of Arequipa has been occupied by people for at least 10,000 years. Legend has it that when the Inca arrived here in the 14th century the soldiers liked the area so much they asked their king, Mayta Copac, if they could stay here. He replied “Yes, stay,” which in the Inca’s Quechua language is “Ari quepay.” Thus the name of the city.
The Spanish under Pizarro founded their city here in 1540, usurping the natives. This is Peru’s second largest city (less than one tenth the size of Lima) and the residents have a reputation for condescension toward other Peruvians. It also has a history as a right wing political stronghold.
We left the bus at Mundo Alpaca, where we learned about the production of alpaca products. There were several llamas and alpacas that we were encouraged to feed, including a baby llama born just the day before our arrival. Llamas and alpacas are difficult to tell apart without some familiarity with the animals.
A woman in traditional attire was demonstrating how they weave the wool & there were examples hanging on the wall. The designs are very intricate & it looks like demanding work.
Then came the main event: the gift shop. It featured alpaca yarn and finished sweaters, coats, etc. Nothing was cheap! We spent some of the time wandering through the gardens.
From Mundo Alpaca we walked to the Plaza de Armas. Arequipa is known as “the white city” because so many of its buildings are constructed of white lava blocks called “sillar.” The city is actually surrounded by three volcanoes, one of which (El Misti) is still active. We have read that this is the signature aspect of Arequipa, with the volcanoes rising to more than 20,000 feet (more than 10,000 feet above the city) behind the buildings of the town. But on the day we visited the low cloud cover made the volcanoes completely invisible (sigh). If we hadn’t read about them we would have left Arequipa without knowing there were any high mountains, much less volcanoes, near the city. So when you see the clouds above the buildings in the pictures, imagine the spectacular mountains behind them.
As we walked to the Plaza de Armas we passed the Monasterio de Santa Catalina,a convent established in 1580 and one of the most important religious buildings in Peru. There are still a few nuns living there and it is supposed to be quite interesting, but we didn’t have an opportunity to go inside. Like many of the buildings here it is constructed of sillar blocks, the white stone created by nearby volcanic eruptions. Outside the convent was a woman selling hats.
Arequipa has a really nice Plaza de Armas, full of flowers & palm trees with a bronze fountain in the middle. One side of the plaza is occupied by the cathedral & the others by rows of arched portals looking like cloisters and containing shops and restaurants.
The first church in Arequipa was begun in 1640 at the founding of the city and was consecrated in 1556. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 1583 and again in 1600, when reconstruction was almost finished. Completed again in 1656. it survived three more earthquakes & a damaging fire, then in 1868 several parts of the cathedral were seriously damaged by yet another earthquake. Finally an earthquake in 2001 destroyed the left tower & damaged the right one. Restoration of the cathedral to its current state was completed in 2002. But really, with that history, how long can it be before it happens again?
The cathedral was closed to the public all afternoon until 5:00 PM, almost as if they wanted to exclude any day visitors to the city from entering. But the façade was quite impressive, dominating the Plaza de Armas.
Across the plaza from the cathedral is the Jesuit Iglesia La Compana (church of the company), much smaller than the cathedral but open to the public and quite beautiful in its own right. Originally built in 1573, destroyed by (what else?) an earthquake in 1584, then completed again in 1660, it has a fabulous doorway façade that was completed in 1698. It is sculpted from stone in the intricate Mestizo Baroque style, considered one of the finest examples of that style. The work force was comprised primarily of indigenous people and their local flora and fauna are included in the stonework and decorative work inside.
Inside the church was quite elaborately decorated, with an impressive carved and gilded altar under a dome with skylights built in. It is filled with old sculptures & paintings and has a number of side altars (the one pictured below appears to be dedicated to St James the apostle).
We spent about an hour walking around the vicinity of the Plaza de Armas before it was time to go. We visited some shops & had an ice cream cone. It started to drizzle at the end of that time, so we walked to the bus to begin the long ride back to Matarani. Herewith a few random photos that didn’t fit in anywhere else.
We drove back to the pier through the mountains, pretty much the same route by which we had come but it seemed much longer because we were a lot more tired. The mountains were a rich color of brown, largely devoid of vegetation, with what looks like snow on the top and sides of many of them. This is not snow, however, but the white ash from the volcanoes, the same stuff as the sillar blocks in the city are made of.
Back at the port we got some needed rest before it was time to sail away. The shore line is quite beautiful, boasting cliffs, desert & mountains. There were fishing boats in the harbor near the ship. Altogether, this was a very full and interesting, but very tiring, day.