Welcome to Arequipa, the best city you've never heard of.
Danielle and I arrived in Arequipa last week and immediately liked it. In terms of tourist attractions, Arequipa shrugs its shoulders and chucks in a bunch of churches and museums. But Arequipa isn't about trying to keep tourists happy with gimmicks. It has its own life, and has the affluence and confidence of a city that doesn't need tourists (though its happy to cater for them with lots of charming Happy Hour bars and restaurants). Arequipa, as Danielle and I have discovered, is simply pleasant to walk around. It's pleasant to be in. It seems like a great city to live in.
Our days, therefore, haven't been spent manically sight-seeing or visiting key highlights, they've just been spent wandering around, eating, drinking, and enjoying. At an altitude of around 2500 metres, Arequipa is far less intense temperature-wise than recent places like Nazca or Puerto Inka, and reaches a thoroughly civilised 20-ish degrees Celcius in the sun. When the sun goes, it gets rather cool, but never too chilly. Really, with its terrific climate, surroundings, and sense of style, its hard to believe that Arequipa flies so much under the radar. But perhaps it's keen to keep it that way.
We've been staying in a hostel very close to the city centre, which like most Peruvian cities is based around a square called the Plaza de Armas. This is a charming centrepiece of the city, with three sides surrounded by two-storied colonial arcades, and the other taken up entirely by Arequipa's incredibly wide cathedral. In 2000, it was deservedly made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cathedral, no doubt, is the focal point of the city, built in the typical sillar style, and is a very handsome structure. On a clear day, from the other side of the square, the mountains rise up behind it. Unusually, the cathedral, in a sense, is sideways. Typically, most cathedrals have a grand facade (usually facing the west) and this serves as the main entrance. But with Arequipa's, the main entrance (from the square) takes you right into the middle of the cathedral. This means that during actual church ceremonies, various men sharply dressed in suits patrol the area making sure tourists aren't casually wandering into the heart of the church and disrupting proceedings. These men look very much like government agents. I'm sure they carry concealed guns.
Inside, the cathedral is a little disappointing, being a bit too clean and charmlessly modern, but just off the corner on the other side of the square the Iglesia de la Compania makes up for it. Elaborately detailed on the outside, with a mixture of Catholic and traditional Peruvian symbolism, it is also exquisite and atmospheric on the inside. Atmospheric except for the bizarre choice for speakers throughout the church to be playing twee Christmas music, often sung by children. Also, the Nativity Scene (ubiquitous throughout Peru - they love a good Nativity Scene) is pretty weird.
Aside from plenty of fairly aimless but amiable wandering, Danielle and I have taken a couple of tours. Both were terrible. The first was the open-top bus tour. We've become rather partial to open-top bus tours over the years, as they're a good and relaxing way to get a preview of places. Sure, sitting on a garishly-coloured open-top surrounded by over-eager fat-faced tourists taking photos of everything punctures any bubble I have of being an intrepid traveller, but they're quite fun. Also: I blame Danielle. The Arequipa bus tour was definitely our weirdest. It quickly became clear that that most of Arequipa's charms are contained within the fairly compact centre, but a bus tour needs a little more to work with. And so most of it was spent either driving through random parts of the city without any apparent explanation as to what we were seeing, or the bus making stops for everyone to get off and wander for 15 minutes. One such stop was fair enough, it was in a pretty square with some nice buildings, but the next - which took ages of driving - was a wholly unnecessary stop in a run-down district just because there was a nice view of the mountains. Ok, in hindsight, it did at least make for a good photo opportunity.
Then, after a lot more driving, we stopped at a shop! It was selling clothes made from alpaca hair, and next to the shop was some confused fenced-off alpacas. We spent almost half an hour looking at them. It was really, really rubbish. But the finale, no doubt, was the bus stopping at a large restaurant on the outskirts of the city, with ghastly faux-traditional Peruvian music blaring out. This was the bonus "gastronomic tour" and the bus stopped there for an entire hour for us to go and eat (and pay) in this tourist mega-restaurant. Danielle and I sat in astonishment for a couple of minutes as the bus emptied, and then an English girl approached us, echoing our sentiments with a "What the hell?" After some chat, we opted for bailing on the tour, and took a taxi back into the centre. We were miles away.
The free walking tour didn't abandon us miles from our starting point, but was a pretty mixed bag, and also included weird stops at a coffee shop and a bar. However, it also provided some interesting historical background to Arequipa. The city is a revolutionary one, and has kicked off on several occasions over the last couple of centuries. Wikipedia lists fourteen revolutions, but doesn't mention more recent ones suggested by our guide. Governments have been overthrown during these, and in 1836 a president was even shot to death in the square. The city has a very independent spirit, and was even its own republic many years ago. Adding to the city's sense of pride and self, it has suffered from some colossal earthquakes in the past, as recently as 2001. Each time, the city has picked itself up, and rebuilt. Our guide was enthusiastic, but unfortunately his English difficult to follow and his voice too quiet for our over-sized group, half of which preferred him to speak in Spanish. There was always the sense that some really interesting information was there, but it was often a struggle to grasp it.
The main reason Danielle and I have been in Arequipa for a week was because of New Year. After Christmas in a quiet beach resort, we thought New Year would be good in a city. And Arequipa didn't fail us. For the evening, we went to a restaurant, called Zig Zag, with unanimously good reviews from every source I've seen. For me, the main selling point wasn't the food, it was the claim in the Lonely Planet, and substantiated by a waitress, that the spiral iron stairway was designed by Gustave Eiffel, whose name might give the clue to his more famous iron creation.
Good old Eiffel. I have only good things to say about the restaurant, and not just because they seated me with a perfect view of the staircase (poor Danielle got ignored the whole evening). The main course was three large cuts of meat - pork, beef, and alpaca - sizzling on a plate, with potatoes and sauces, and was simply delicious. They even gave us paper bibs to stop us being splashed by sizzle.
Upon leaving the restaurant, the city was visibly busier. We had a drink somewhere then headed to the Plaza de Armas, as we reckoned it would be lively. It was. People were draped in yellow - apparently lucky for Peruvians for New Year - and we bought ourselves some yellow garlands. People were also selling fireworks, and as midnight approached it became clear that plenty of people had also been buying them. Arequipa - at least in the centre - didn't appear to have any formal fireworks display, so in lieu of that the people created their own. From about five minutes to midnight, it went mental. People were setting off fireworks everywhere. For around 20 minutes, the air was filled with explosions, rockets going in all directions (including right over our heads), and a general scene of cacophonous mayhem. Our lucky yellow garlands protected us from getting smashed in the face. It was exciting, hilarious, very noisy and occasionally a little scary. We loved it.
Once the din began to subside, we found ourselves having a drink on one of the balconies overlooking the square, and followed this with some drinks in a bar with some live music. It was approaching 4am by the time we got back to the hostel, and possibly we were quite drunk. Our absolute lack of energy or motivation for New Year's Day corroborates this.
And that's Arequipa, or a brief summary of it. As with all good cities, there's a lot lot more. But after a week, we're on the move again. To a place called Puno tomorrow, on the shore of Lake Titicaca (probably the best named lake in the world), and then off to La Paz in Bolivia for a passing visit.
Oh, and a quick sunburn update. You'll be pleased to hear that the painful period is now past (putting on a rucksack almost killed me) and has been replaced with a prolonged peeling period. It turns out that Danielle is somewhat fanatic about peeling skin, and has eagerly picked at mine several times a day, with the result that our small hostel room is now covered with pieces of flaked skin. Marriage is weird.