Seeing the world, one country at the time

Taxis, Sillar, and the Lord of Miracles



Groggy and disheveled after 14 hours on an overnight bus, we were met in Arequipa by Carlos, a Condor Travel representative, who was easing us into our world travel in great comfort. Our mini-bus entered Arequipa, called “Ciudad Blanca” (White City). Officially, this is linked to sillar, the volcanic white rock used in their architecture.
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This rock is unique to the area and though porous, is hard enough to support construction. The unofficial story, relayed by two of our guides, is that the name stems from the majority white Spanish population, who avoided interracial relations.

After settling into our comfortable hotel, we headed into the city for a look around. A guard at the municipal building asked if we wanted to go up to the balcony and photograph the plaza and cathedral. Mistakenly thinking it was a tourist gimmick, we brushed him off. Later that night we would make up for it by going back and having someone let us into the locked rooms that led onto the balconies overlooking the lighted city. After our initial walk, we enjoyed breakfast on a rooftop terrace overlooking a church and courtyard where young, eco-friendly children and their teachers were marching for clean water.

October is the month of Senor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles), a religious festival. We arrived on the last day, the grand finale, so we were in for a treat. Senor de los Milagros is a national saint, which meant that the festival had attracted people from all over the country. The city centers around the Cathedral in the main plaza, and the crowds there were stifling. Vendors sold candied apples and cherries, popcorn and cotton candy.

Horn music, the smell of incense and crowds in one street grabbed our attention and held it as we watched the procession of the holy images of Jesus Christ and Mary displayed back to back on a silver platform, carried by 24 men swaying in unison under the weight.
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It reminded me of Easter week in southern Spain. Smoke swallowed faces, a man with a megaphone sold icons and souvenirs, women filed by in black veils and the sidewalks were packed with observers. Many of those in the procession wore purple, the color of the Senor de los Milagros. To show their devotion, followers had covered the street in flower petals worked into various designs and images. The statues belonged to one church and were making the rounds of the city all day. I could still hear the music later that night.

Following the advice of every guidebook out there, we headed to Santa Catalina convent, which is built of sillar but painted with brilliant orange-red and electric blue hues, in addition to white and cream. The convent is such a quiet and peaceful contrast to the mess of taxis outside. Carlos had told us that there are probably more taxis in Arequipa than people and we could believe it. Once inside the walls of the convent, I just wanted to sit quietly on a bench, enjoying the colors and the play of light and shadows.

Santa Catalina was founded in 1579 and inhabited by nuns from wealthy families who paid dowries to the convent for their girls to have a comfortable lifestyle under the circumstances. Though simple, it has a luxurious feel. The wooden doors are carved in fancy floral designs and red geraniums line the narrow streets. A number of the nuns’ rooms have back rooms meant for maids and cooks. All the rooms have hard beds, and some have pianos, chairs, and commodes. They have high ceilings, and light comes in through tall windows. Thick walls and white stone interiors keep the chambers cool in summer and warm in winter. Rooms lead into other rooms, many of which are kitchens with adobe ovens.

An earthquake destroyed much of the convent, which was never rebuilt. There used to be a second floor that seems to be gone. All stairways lead up to concrete walls. It’s a complex maze that opens up to new rooms and dead ends in small alcoves.
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You could easily get lost in there. There is a surprise around every corner. The convent is still used today, but only 30 women live there and it is modernized. Their living quarters are separate from the museum area. As we walked through the tiny streets, a nun slipped out of one door and into another, a quiet shadow dressed in blue and white.

Interestingly enough, the Catholic traditions are in stark contrast with the beliefs of the ancient Peruvians with their sacrifices and mummies and yet, the two exist side by side. Down the road from Santa Catalina were the chilly chambers of the Juanita the ice maiden, the famous mummy who was found five years ago in the crater of the Misti volcano, having been sacrificed to the Apus, or mountain gods, thousands of years ago.

We saw only too clearly how well preserved her little body is; nails, hair, skin and clothes. Studies and tests continue to determine her diet and habits, so she is kept in a protected glass freezer. The museum is small and well organized.
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There is an astounding number of mummies in Peru, preserved either by sand or ice. Juanita was only discovered as the ice began to melt and dislodged her body from her tomb. Several other bodies were discovered in the area shortly thereafter, but she is the most important and one of the oldest ever discovered. Curiously, our guide kept asking us to be quiet and respectful, as if Juanita were still alive.

To underscore the differences in faiths, we dropped in on mass at the Compania church, which has an intricate baroque sillar exterior. People were arriving in what we thought were impressive numbers until the Cathedral opened later and we understood the extent of the influence of the Catholic faith upon the Peruvians. It was packed, with people walking and milling about and crowds continually entering. We could barely pass through. We listened to the high-pitched singing a while, then left to look for a place to sit and enjoy the sunset.

Our restaurant choice for dinner overlooked the tourist street below so we could people-watch in secrecy and catch the last rays of the evening sun. After dinner Lars bought a chompa, or sweater, our first major purchase. It was way overpriced, considering it started unraveling just days later, but it was the only thing that would keep Lars warm over the course of our travels south to Patagonia. To wrap up the evening, Giancarlo, the friendly owner of a cyber café we stopped at, offered us a 3 for 1 happy hour even though it was over. We ordered Lars’ first pisco and for $3 got four for the price of one. It was the best pisco I’ve had in years and Lars loved it too, despite the raw egg. Long-term travel makes you obsessed with good deals, and this felt like one. Life was good and we were on top of the world. Within days, that would change. But first we were headed to Colca Canyon, home of condors and one of the three deepest canyons in the world.