XXXII. Arequipa I 20 June –

XXXII. Arequipa I  DRAFT

Note: We spent considerable time in Arequipa, and I returned to the flat after Ragna left for Iceland.   Mostly we were not traveling, just living, and a daily blow-by-blow would put a speed freak to sleep. The account of that time will be roughly divided into Arequipa I [between when we rented the flat and when we went to Colca Canyon], Arequipa II [between the trip to Colca Canyon and our week in Chile], Arequipa III [from our return to Arequipa from Chile through our departure for Lake Titicaca, Cusco, and the jungle] — and perhaps an extremely brief Arequipa IV.  However, what follows is a quick draft, posted only so that I could post other pages in sequence, some of which are closer to finished.

moonrise - Arequipa - from in front of the flat

We arrive in Arequipa June 21, determined to find an affordable flat.  We — Ragna particularly — want some continuity, a place that might feel like home for awhile, where she can paint and draw and I can write, and from which we can wander out to see more of Peru without carrying with us most everything we own.   We have a lead on one place, through an acquaintance on the forum.  (I recommend that site to anyone considering visiting or moving to Peru.)

Our arrival itself is not auspicious.   After a long drive, we arrive after dark and haven’t a clue how to reach the Plaza de Armas.   Although central Arequipa is small, the metropolitan area sprawls across hills and desert for miles.   At one point as we are headed toward the Plaza we stop to ask directions.   I do not realize Ragna still has the car radio, which she had removed to put into the glove compartment as one does in Peru, in her hands.  Stupidly, I stop with the passenger side at the curb, and a fellow hems and haws about the directions until the light changes, then snatches the radio from Ragna’s lap, knowing that with all the traffic behind me I can’t chase him.

We’re tired, and this doesn’t improve our mood, or our patience with the difficult task of finding the budget hostal we’re looking for, in an unfamiliar town where most intersections don’t have street signs, and the street names change every few blocks anyway.

We stay one night in the Posada del Monasterio (S./ 195 per night), across the street from the famed Monasterio.   We do get re-energized long enough to wander out to a nearby pizza place.  It’s mid-winter, and Arequipa seems a bit cool, and the hotel is large and old and drafty.  Late at night Ragna has stomach problems and needs a coke, and I wander out in search of one — and discover that just down the block is the hottest part of Arequipa’s lively night-spot scene.  Unfortunately, the noise from that also makes sleep a little difficult most of the night.

The next morning we move to the nearby Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte (a more intimate little place, but still U.S. $40 per night).   And we begin to ask around and scour the newspaper for rental ads.

Las Torres de Ugarte is quieter, and small, but still a bit cold.  The heater helps, but then one night we plug in the heater and everything goes dark; I step into the hallway and see that the whole building is without electricity; having noticed that heaters are prohibited, we carefully pack ours back in one of the suitcases, then learn that it’s actually the whole neighborhood that’s without power.   Like the kid banging a stick against a telephone pole before the New York Blackout, we worry, but we’re pretty sure we haven’t caused this one.

The hostal is quite pleasant.  The people are very nice, the location is convenient, and a bit quieter than where we’d been, and up on the roof we enjoy coffee and sunlight and great views of Chachani and Misti.  Chachani’s snowy cap looks extremely close.  Arequipa feels inviting.   We’re guessing maybe we made a good choice.

Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas is an impressive one. The huge cathedral dominates one side, and on one of our first nights in town I walk down to the plaza at night, to get us some food to go, and see the moon rising.  From where I sit, on a balcony on the west side of the Plaza, it rises just beyond the cathedral, but I don’t have my camera with me.

Two sides of the Plaza boast restaurants with balcony or even roof-top seating.  All have fine views of the plaza, but not generally the best food in town. The plaza itself is popular. Unlike some deserted plazas at the center of other Peruvian towns, it’s almost always full of life. Young people and old hang around on the benches, or on the steps of the cathedral. Children chase pigeons and each other. Pigeons dart in and out of the water from the central fountain. Colorful vendors sell gum and cigarettes and chocolates and drinks, as well as a few trinkets for the tourists. And in late afternoon the strong sunlight bathes everything in a red glow, and a couple of times a month the flow gives way immediately to moonrise, the majestic full moon peaking between the Cathedral and the roof-top restaurants, then peering over the top of the east side of the plaza.

Northward of the plaza are a host of very fine restaurants that vary widely in price and ethnicity. There are also old buildings, cobblestone streets, bookstores and other shops, bars, and, above all, the Monasterio Santa Catalina – a star in the Arequipa firmament, discussed at more length in the section that follows this one.  East, there are a bunch of places to buy various goods relatively cheaply, by European or U.S. standards, as well as to replace a computer hard-drive or have a suit tailored. Less than a block South, there’s the Cusco Coffee place, opposite the museum where Juanita – perhaps the other major star in Arequipa’s firmament, along with Misti and the Monasterio – reclines permanently in a darkened room.

Apartment-hunting is interesting.  I have to make a bunch of phone calls in a language I’m just learning, and we have to find our way to places that are identified by a system of addresses I’m not too familiar with.  Rather than necessarily being at 110 Grau or 23 Elm Street, these are in “Urbanizion Herbie Sanchez, H-11” or the like.  Thus one finds the development in question, or neighborhood, then looks for H-11.  Some are not so easy to find.

Results vary; but during one phone call the owner offers to come to the hotel and lead us to the flat he’s renting, which is out in Cayma.  We follow him across the bridge to Cayma, past security guards and a gate, and up to a relatively new building with four apartments in it.   He and his wife show us the lower floor, which — with the basement area and garden that go with it — is huge:  there are a couple of master bedrooms, each large and each with extensive closet space and a comfortable bathroom.   There are two other bedrooms on that floor, two other bathrooms, and a large common area and kitchen — plus two or three more small bedrooms, along with a bathroom and common area, in the basement; and outside, off the small garden, there’s a small maid’s room with bathroom.   The walls are white and the floors are white tile and the whole place seems both vast and a little cold; but we’ll sure have plenty of space.  The rent’s expensive for here – $600 per month, or $500 if we pay certain utilities — but modest when I consider the fellow who rents the new two-bedroom flat beneath my home in Oakland.  It’s nice, but $1375 buys a lot less space in Oakland than in Arequipa.

We have a home!

Chachani, from in front of the flat

Chachani, from in front of the flat

Misti, the volcano

Misti from Yanahuara Mirador

Within days the flat feels like home.   It’s secluded and quiet, helping us do just what we want to do.   An easel for Ragna, where she loses herself for days in her work, mostly studies of animals and of the colorfully-dressed women we’ve met in all sorts of places.   Often my first chore after an afternoon ride is to print a particular picture I’ve shot, so that she can work from it.   (Her drawings are a lot more ineresting than my photos.)

Our landlords, Aurelio and Andrea, are delightful and welcoming.   They’re both engineers, or he’s an engineer and she’s an architect.  She has designed both this building and the one they live in, not far away.  He grew up in a small town up towards Cusco, but has obviously done well in the city.   They own these two homes, have three grown kids studying or working in Europe or Australia,  and (in retirement, at 66) he’s the president or mayor of this and another nearby neighborhood.  Both are smart folks with ready laughs.  Their hospitality helps smooth our transition from the road to being at home.

Life quickly settles into a pleasant routine that would be tedious to discuss at length.   Ragna paints, draws, and works on editing video.   I write a little and try to post the photos and account of our initial travels in Peru.   We delight in little things, such as being able to make and drink coffee whenever and however we want to, shopping in food stores and making food at home, and having both electricity and the Internet [and an easel and plenty of space] without struggle.    I explore a little of Arequipa before or after errands, and we sometimes take an afternoon drive just to see what’s what in the outlying neighborhoods and the hills; but we spend a lot of time just luxuriating in being at rest a little, in a comfortable space.

Aurelio visits sometimes for “language exchange,” although Ragna’s not nearly as diligent a student of Spanish as he seems to imagine she will be; and sometimes we have lunch or supper with them, and sometimes those sessions involve interesting lessons in the fruits, vegetables, and cuisine of Peru.  We learn a lot — or Ragna does.  I can’t say I retain much of it very long.  And all four of us laugh a lot.

We also explore the town’s restaurants a bit.   It’s a good town to eat well in, for reasonable prices.

Of course, living as a foreigner in another country is never wholly dull, or simple.  Foods, errands, transportation, social customs, laws, and everything else offer refreshing or frustrating new wrinkles to even the slightest task, every day.

One evening Ragna sends me out to buy a couple of things.  Having had to go only out to Avenida Cayma, I pull away from a shop and coast down toward Ejercito without having turned on my lights yet.  A cop waves me over.

He explains that I will have to go to the station house, and that the fine will be S./ 200 or S./ 240 or something.   I can see he is angling for me to make another suggestion; but I play dumb for awhile, partly to see if he’ll be more explicit and partly because I’m half tempted to call his bluff; but eventually when he repeats the extent of the fine, I comment that that seems a lot.   Immediately he asks how much I think it should be.   More like S./20 or S/30, I say.  He quickly agrees to S./30, and hands me a small notebook which, in the darkness of the car, I am to open and into which I insert thirty soles.

After a week or two, Ragna begins feeling ill: unsettled stomach, headache, general flu-like symptoms,  which (when I prevail upon her to let our landlord’s daughter Anita, a recent med-school graduate, examine her) turn out to spell altitude sickness.  We’re surprised, because we’ve been here a week or two already, and because we’d been briefly to higher altitudes earlier in our travels here.   Anita prescribes mate de coca [tea from the coca leaf], as well as some other medicine she and I quickly go out to buy, and also tells Ragna to avoid heavy or spicy meals, drink no alchohol, do without coffee and cigarettes, rest, and place coca leaves on her temples, as well.   Ragna does most of this (all but the coffee and cigarettes) and quickly recovers.   Aurelio brings us a large bag of coca leaves.   I muse on the cultural difference: in the U.S. we’re too childish to do anything but abuse cocaine, and the government overreacts with draconian laws that enrich the drug smugglers; here, a respected, upper-middle-class engineer (and even local official) is quite naturally bringing us coca leaves as the most effective medicine for a familiar malady.  Sensible.  Normal.  In the U.S. he’d probably be sentenced to a decade in jail for that!

Having said that, I should hasten to add that mate de coca bears only a minimal family relationship to the drug cocaine.  Don’t come to Peru expecting to get delightfully high on the tea, bags for which you can buy in any grocery in pretty cardboard boxes.   Won’t happen.    However, some people do find it a very healthy and refreshing daily beverage.  Still, it’s ironic to see Ragna, a strongly anti-drug person, drinking cocaine tea, although unfortunately she won’t let me photograph her with the leaves on her temples.

We go for rides in late afternoon, if time doesn’t get away from us before we notice it.  Outlying areas are interesting, some with elaborate miradors, or viewing points.   Too, the strong sunlight paints what we see in vigorous red strokes.

One day in mid-July when we’re in the city center to buy art supplies, we have lunch at a roof-top restaurant overlooking the plaza.   The sun is warm, the view absorbing, and the coffee and food fine.   From our vantage point we can watch all sorts of activities on the plaza, but also see distant landmarks.   A little live local music enhances the pleasure of it all.

Afterward, we walk down Mercaderes Street, a cobble-stoned street running East from the Plaza’s northeast corner, but without vehicular traffic for the first block or two.   Ragna stops to shop, so I shoot

what I can in a shop, then stand in a front corner of the shop, watching the street.

Nearby, a lady is begging.  With very little success.  Families and businesspeople and even a cop in riot gear pass her by — then she gets alms from a wholly unexpected source.

Travel Notes:


Arequipa has an abundance of places to stay, in all price ranges.   Obviously if you’re looking for a longer-term or apartment situation, I’d recommend Aurelio and Andrea, and can provide their contact info upon request.   I saw a variety of shorter-term places to stay, near the city center but also out in Yanahauara and Cayma, including some budget options that looked good to me.

I can say that Hostal Torres de Ugarte is a fair mid-range option.   (Right next to it was a hotel that cost $100 or $200 or $300 per night or something.)  U.S. $40, pleasant service, breakfast included, a convenient but not so noisy location.  Possibly a cochera on premises.  (They had room for one car, and ours was it for the several days we stayed there.)  Monasterio was also nice.  A more historic building, and probably a superior spot for breakfast.   Much larger, though.  And on the side near the San Francisco – Ugarte intersection, noisy on party nights.  S./ 195 per night — roughly U.S. $65, probably a little high for this market.   I’d say someone shopping around could stay comfortably in Arequipa for a good deal less than we did.


Arequipa has a lot of good restaurants, and we’re far from trying ’em all; but we find some we sure like.

We think highly of both Nina-Yaku (San Francisco 211) and Paquita Sim [a mix of chinese, Japanese, and Thai] out in our own Cayma neighborhood, hidden a short block south of Ejercito not far from where Cayma crosses it — a block or so east of the big supermarket with the movie house above it; and La Vineda, further up San Francisco. Too, Zig Zag Creprerie, at the Alianza Franesca (Santa Catalina 208) is an appealing-looking place I don’t get around to trying until nearly my last night in Arequipa, but would recommend: good, imaginative food, comfortable atmosphere, reasonable prices, and the possibility of eating well but eating light.   Plus tables with chessboards.  (They also have a more up-scale second restaurant a block or so away.)

Of course everyone recommends Tradiciones Arequipa [Av Dolores 111, well out of central Arequipa — take a cab], and early in our stay we eat there with Aurelio and Andrea and their daughter, Anita.  It’s delightful; it’s outdoors, in a garden; and it’s not even terribly expensive.   (Cuy – guinea pig, a delicacy here – is on the menu, which contains such a pretty picture of a recognizable guinea pig, roasted and placed on a plate, that I resolve to shoot a picture of the menu next time I come.  Ragna declines to try it, on the ground that she could never explain it to Elia, who is 11 and loves his pet guinea pig.)  Similarly Sol de Mayo, which I hear a lot about and see advertised on the backs of buses, is another large, outdoor place, not so far from us, and when I finally go there for lunch with Aurelio and Andrea near the end of my stay in Arequipa, it’s also quite good.  (It’s in Yanahuara, just a block or so off Ejercito – Jerusalen 207, not the Jerusalen in Arequipa central.)  Another place they take us to — and I’d recommend you take a cab rather than try to find it, although it’s out near Sachaca — is Don Pietro’s.  It too is outdoors, and mostly for trout: reasonably good food, very reasonable prices, and a pleasant spot to be.

Other Points:

Arequipa’s a good spot to use as a base to explore other places, such as Colca Canyon, Cotahuasi, etc.  (It’s only four hours’ drive from Lake Titicaca, and five from the Chilean border below Tacna, and a good days’ drive to Cusco.)

Arequipa itself is notable for: a nice and busy Plaza de Armas; a great climate, warm and sunny; Misti and Chachani, which you can climb without expertise; and good, economical restaurants.    You can also drive to a reserve where you’ll get a good look at vicunas.  But aside from the volcano, two points stand out: the Monasterio and Juanita.   The Monasterio I discuss in XXXIII, the next post.  It’s worth visiting, and taking your time to wander through.   Juanita is Juanita.

A book I’d recommend you read, perhaps before visiting Arequipa, is John Reinhard’s The Ice Maiden.  He’s one of those folks who found something he wanted to do in life, and did it through some tough times, and after a good number of years the world started noticing and appreciating him, and even rewarding him.  He was perhaps the world’s first and is probably the world’s most experienced high-altitude archaeologist.

The Inca didn’t sacrifice humans extensively; but they did sacrifice some to mountain gods, often in locations no one else reached until the 20th Century, with scientifically designed equipment and clothing unavailable to the Incas.   They were remarkable climbers.  Bauchman, although he’s also climbed and archeologized in the Himalayas, has explored South America’s high country extensively.   The Incas understood that water came from the mountains and that very dangerous volcanic eruptions or landslides could come from them, and went to great lengths [and heights] to keep the mountains happy.   That meant pure human sacrifices, accompanied by top-notch clothing and jewelry and statuary that could fetch a huge price on the open market 500 years later.  The high, cold climate, particularly if snow and ice covered them, could keep the bodies of the sacrificed in remarkably pristine condition, barring a lightning strike.    The holy grail of sorts was a perfect mummy.

In 1995, near the top of the volcano Ampato, at aboout 6300 meters’ altitude, Reinhard and Miguel Zarata found Juanita [so named after John].   It happened that the eruption of a nearby volcano had melted snow on top of Amparo.  A few weeks earlier he’d never have spotted her.   By two or three weeks later the sun would have caused extensive deterioration in her.   He found her; but what do you do when you find something so incredibly valuable to science, but haven’t applied for a permit to explore there [because you weren’t really expecting to find anything] and lack the right equipment and resources to take her down the mountain?   Leave her up there, perhaps allowing someone less committed to science to find her?  Hardly.  But how the hell do you get her down off a high mountain most people couldn’t even get up on?  And keep her frozen in the process?

The book’s good.   Juanita resides in Arequipa, less than a block from the Plaza de Armas.   Some say she looks like she died last week.  Eminent Peruvian novelist Vargas Llosa says he’d like to take her home, if they allowed it, and perhaps marry her.   I wouldn’t go that far.   But she’s someone you do want to visit with if you get to Arequipa.   And probably your appreciation of her will be enhanced by having read Reinhard’s book.  (He won the _______ that year for this.)  During the 1996 election Bill Clinton, noted womanizer that he was, made a widely-reported remark about Juanita’s appeal.  (Kenneth Starr could never prove anything, though.)

The Monasterio is worth a leisurely exploration, with camera in hand if you like that sort of thing.  [See next post.]

Mollendo [to be inserted in a later Arequipa post, Arequipa III] is an appealing port town.  Arequipenos spend recreational time there in summers.  Even in the off-season, it had a certain appeal.  That the Pan-American Highway cuts away from the sea, well north of Mollendo, to go up toward Arequipa, then returns to the coast south of Mollendo, means there ain’t a lot of traffic passing through.   We didn’t stay down there, but if I went back to Arequipa I would.

Note: Altitude sickness:  At 2350, Arequipa is said to be a good mid-point between sea level and Puno or Cusco or various climbs.  It is.   However, it’s still a good deal further up in the air than where most of us regularly hang out.  Ragna — after a week or two in Arequipa, and despite our having visited higher altitudes earlier in our journey — began exhibiting what Anita [our landlord’s daughter, a recent medical school grad] said were classic symptoms of altitude sickness, and seemed to recover after following Anita’s prescription, which included mate de coca [tea fromt the coca plant] and placing a couple of coca leaves on her face, near her temples [a decoration she would not permit me to photograph].   Selma had altitude sickness almost from the moment she arrived, and quickly switched from coffee to mate de coca as her morning drink of choice.

Serious altitude sickness is unlikely in Arequipa, but can strike folks here or higher, and without regard to their age, sex, or general health and conditioning.  Three things are worth keeping in mind: that it can be serious, and can even kill; that in most cases a quick descent to a lower altitude is a complete cure, and it may even be possible to try the higher altitude again later [but check with a medico to be sure]; and, most insidiously, that it can affect your rationality, and thus undermine your ability to recognize the symptoms, assess their seriousness, or even cooperate with your companion who spots it in you.

Even the non-serious version ain’t much fun, sometimes.

Peruvian hairless dog

balloon seller

street vendor


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