Nov 17, 2012

Arequipa, Peru: mummies & monasteries

“This is more like it,” was my first thought as we squealed around corners towards downtown Arequipa in an impossibly compact cab. Colonial architecture, cobblestone roads, people flooding the streets – it had the character and buzz that I expected but didn’t receive from Lima.

Arequipa's main square with volcano El Misti in the background
Arequipa is big and beautiful, proving for the first time on our trip that the two aren’t mutually exclusive in South America.  We arrived on a Saturday night, and the downtown core was absolutely buzzing. The bars were packed, there were people on every corner, and best of all, the main square was full of a promising mix of locals and tourists even at 10pm. As my travel companion was still under the weather, we headed to bed early, with high hopes for an exciting Sunday in Arequipa. Unfortunately, as it turns out, while big and beautiful aren’t mutually exclusive in Arequipa, “exciting” and “Sunday” are. We awoke to a changed city: shops and restaurants were shuttered, streets were deserted, even of cars. Coming from a place where Sunday means brunch with caesars, it’s easy to forget that it’s still a day of worship and rest for much of the rest of the world. Luckily, Arequipa is pretty enough that simply wandering around admiring the white volcanic buildings is activity enough.

Me and La Cathedral in the main square in Arequipa
And, as it turned out, one of the coolest attractions in the city was open for a short window of time, and we were able to make it in. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce Arequipa’s oldest resident, Juanita:

Juanita (photo by greg.road.trip via Flickr)
Although often referred to as a mummy, Juanita is in fact a frozen 13-year-old girl (which, if you’re wondering, means that she still has hair, nails, skin and all of her internal organs). Her body was frozen over 500 years ago, after she was sacrificed by her fellow Incas on the top of the volcano that looms over the city. She lives in a triple-thick freezer unit in the Museo Santuarios Andinos in the centre of Arequipa, and for a modest fee, you can see her for yourself (plus learn about the Incas and child sacrifice from an English guide). 

This was one of the most interesting attractions on our entire trip, and I’d highly recommend it. I mean, when else are you going to find yourself face-to-face with an (albeit frozen) genuine Inca? The history around her story is almost as fascinating as Juanita herself, and it was cool seeing the clothing and other household items she was buried with, which were almost all fully intact (it made me feel pretty confident about the excessive quantity of alpaca wool products I purchased on my trip).

After our visit with Juanita, it was time for our daily dose of Cusquena. We managed to score a spot on the only rooftop balcony around the main square just in time for sunset. And what a glorious sunset it was. 

Sunset over the main square in Arequipa, Peru
Our second and final day in Arequipa started with a meal at one of the many second-story restaurants around the main square (many of which offer very cheap set menus, make sure to ask). At this point we’d been in South America long enough to not be surprised when a large religious procession appeared below us in the square, despite it being late on a Monday morning.

Religious celebration in the main square, Arequipa, Peru
Once we were charged up on coca tea and avocados, we headed to one of my other favourite attractions from our whole trip, the Santa Catalina Monastery

Silence at Santa Catalina, Arequipa
Not having much experience with monasteries, I was expecting bleak, plain and colourless. What I found instead was vibrant, beautiful and full of colour. Like most of the original buildings in Arequipa, Santa Catalina is made of white volcanic rock, which while beautiful in itself, also provides the perfect canvas for bright colours. The nuns of Santa Catalina took full advantage of this – most of the walls are painted a vibrant shade of blue or red, and those that aren’t are covered in pretty religious scenes or quotes.

It almost feels like a city of its own – winding, named streets connect communal kitchens, orange groves and bath houses, plus all the former private quarters of the nuns, many of which are surprisingly homey. Almost all of them have private terrace cooking areas, and the nicest ones have sitting rooms and walls covered in art. It almost convinces you that being a nun might not have been so bad. Almost.

This bed was about as comfortable as it looks
Despite being in one of the busiest parts of the city, you really do feel cut off from the outside world while you’re inside Santa Catalina. But the many courtyards, fountains and the fact that it’s all open air mean you still feel connected to nature. Oh, and they’ve got a liquor license (seriously, come on Canada). Sean and I both agreed we’d love to stay there for a week and just tune out. (I think we could be onto something – monastery retreats?)

Blissed out after our two-hour escape from reality, we lazily explored a couple of the cathedrals lining the main square before dinner, when Sean was finally able to try the Peruvian speciality cuy (otherwise known as guinea pig). As a vegetarian, I might be especially sensitive – but this was more disturbing than I’d anticipated (it still had teeth and ears, for crap’s sake). Sean's verdict on cuy? Greasy, and kind of tasteless. This may have something to do with how it was prepared though - our Peruvian guide to Machu Picchu told us they prepare it this way (deep fried whole) so tourists can take photos exactly like this, but the traditional way to prepare it is to make a stew, or to stuff and bake it, and it's much tastier. 

Cuy (aka guinea pig) in Arequipa
And on this unfortunately nauseating note ended our time in Arequipa. Although we didn’t get to experience the famous Colca Canyon trekking Arequipa is known for, Juanita, Santa Catalina and the beautiful setting were more than enough to make the visit worth our while. Definitely worth adding to your list of stops in Peru…as long as you don’t arrive expecting to get things done on a Sunday.


  1. How'd he enjoy the guinea pig?

  2. Good point, should have included that! He didn't love it... said it was pretty greasy and kind of tasteless, but I think that's just because of the way it was prepared (deep fried whole). Our Peruvian Machu Picchu guide said that's the way they make it for tourists, but traditionally they use it in stews, or stuff and bake it, and it's much tastier.