The charms of Arequipa

Having finally made it into Peru, our journey from the border took us through what felt like 5 endless hours of epic desert scenery on our way to Arequipa. So here’s a funny admission, I hadn’t ever really thought about the scale of South America, and in my head I imagined Peru to be a relatively small country….Just demonstrates my casual ignorance! Peru is actually the third largest country in South America, behind Brazil and Argentina, and is about 5 times the size of Great Britain…..Here was I thinking that it was a country roughly equivalent in size to Wales-how wrong can you be?! Still, the landscape was breath-taking, and it gave us time to build the excitement for the travelling ahead; for now, after mostly volunteering in Argentina and Chile, we were back to travelling and on route to the first of our must see destinations, the exquisite Machu Picchu…But more on that later.

First up was Arequipa, the capital of Peru from 1835 to 1883, following their independence from Spain. Now the historic center of Arequipa is a World Heritage Site and a major tourist destination. With stunning surrounding natural scenery, and a wonderful blend of architectural influence-the city was sure to be a great introduction back to the world of sightseeing! Given that I am no architectural expert, I’ll refer to Wikipedia to give you a succinct description of the style:

The religious, colonial and republican architectural styles blend European and native characteristics into a unique style called “Escuela Arequipeña”

We headed to the Old Town, as most tourists’ will I would imagine, and what we were met with was a picturesque city with plenty of colonial influence. The Plaza De Armas is absolutely beautiful, with all of the buildings surrounding the square being made of sillar-a white volcanic stone, and for the most part that we were there, it was absolutely buzzing with locals and tourists. Artisanal markets, alpaca wool clothes stores (Arequipa is called the World´s capital of the Alpaca), skyline dominating cathedrals and shoeshine boys-we were back to being tourists with aplomb; time to search out the museums, sights, and shops!

You don’t have to wonder far from the main plaza to find one of the most famous tourist sites in Arequipa, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Very much like a city within a city, this place is absolutely mind boggling. Built in 1579 it covers over 20,000 square meters, and used to be home to a community of 150 nuns and 300 servants (!), although nowadays the monastery is home to just 20 nuns who live out of sight in the northern corner of the complex; the rest of the monastery is now open to the public. The nuns that lived here did so in complete silence and isolation from the world around them, and as you walk around you get to see these funny interfaces where they used to have goods delivered through what I can only describe as ‘rotating dumb waiters’, ensuring minimal contact with anyone from the outside world. When you start to walk around this place you do start to ask yourself the questions about whether they just wanted to protect their own little paradise rather than any other holy motives-the entire monastery is a made up of quant and picture perfect brightly coloured streets, beautiful courtyards and even an orchard. Each of the nuns had private dwellings and were known to be quite handy when it came to baked goods-it really was quite lovely….That was until you saw the tools for self-flagellation, and then you remember that this place is a home for devout Catholics…Enough said!

Having spent a couple of the days in the old town we were planning our off once again. There is certainly a lot more to do in Arequipa, and in the surrounding areas. Condor watching in Colca canyon for example, the canyon is one of the deepest in the world, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the Andean Condor is a protected species-alas we just didn’t have time to explore this ourselves, we had a plan of getting to Cusco and to Machu Picchu for my birthday, and so time was of the essence.


En route to Peru-Arica:Tacna border ‘fun’….


Having been well and truly baked in the desert, it was time to start our journey into country number three on our mini South American tour-Peru. Llamas, Machu Picchu, coca leaves and artisanal markets ahoy!
From San Pedro we boarded a trusty, dusty and tired looking night bus and headed for the Arica:Tacna border crossing. Unfortunately the only company that does this journey is Turbus, and so our hands were forced to return to the company who had dealt with our last journey in such a botched manner. Anyway, this time they actually managed to get us to our destination with no hiccups, but fear not, for the travel challenges were to be waiting for us on arrival at the bus station in Arica!

As is so often the case, tiredness is a significant factor in the multiplication of stress, and reduction of patience. Our next travel challenge would be money related, as in the fact we didn’t have any….The process was supposed to be simple, arrive at Arica domestic bus station, walk about a 100 metres to the ‘international terminal’ (sounds A LOT grander than what it is!), catch a collectivo that will take you over the border to Tacna for around $10. Simple. That is, unless you find that you cannot access any money. As I previously mentioned in an earlier post, my bank card works in any cash machine in the world, apart from Chile. The long and short of it is that for some unknown reason the online money transfer that we had done the day before hadn’t cleared-so we couldn’t use Jo’s bank card, and my credit card wasn’t letting me use the cash machine (it would later transpire that this was a ‘security’ measure for unusual activity-even though they knew where  was!), and there we were, sleep deprived, hungry and irritable, sat at the international terminal scratching our heads trying to work out a way to find our $10 transfer fee. No money for coffee, no money for breakfast, and no access to internet…ARGH, a whole bag full of first world problems!
After a hour and a half of trying various cash machines, hoping that the money would clear, we had a light bulb moment-Jo still had some sterling left. Problem solved, all would be fine, we could just change this money at the Cambios and everything would be alright..

Oh, hang on, what do you mean you won’t accept sterling?!?

I was crushed, from the highs of finding my solution, to the horror of someone in a currency exchange centre telling me that they wouldn’t accept sterling…It’s supposed to be the GREAT BRITISH POUND?!
US Dollars? No problem.
Euros? Of course!
Argentinian Pesos? Hand them over..

Great British Pound? No thanks mate, not worth nowt here…*
(*but in Spanish, obviously!)

I couldn’t believe it, I was frantic, frenetic, fussed and frazzled-how were we going to get out of this place?! By now about two hours had passed and the queue for the departure tickets had grown to the equivalent to that of a queue for a Beatles concert in the ’60s. Desperately I was trying different money changers, all with the same answer; until one of them suggested that if I went to the main money changers in the town centre then I may have more luck-finally some progress! Then I was hit with the fact that this would be a 40 minute walk, in the ever increasing heat-helpfully people suggested that I take a taxi or a bus, I don’t know whether my glare translates so well into Spanish as I tried to explain to them that obviously

I don’t have any money for taxis or buses, that’s precisely the reason I need to get this sterling changed!!!


40, sweaty minutes later I had located the central area where most of the money changers were located, victory was wthin my grasp-or more accurately, the Queens head on a nice crisp £20 note. I approached the window, enquired as to whether they would change sterling…Yes, yes they would-result! With laughable excitement for the miniscule transaction that was about to occur I handed over ‘Liz’ and awaited my prize. II turned around while the cashier was ‘doing his thing’ so that I could take in my surroundings, seeing around me for the first time because of my previous single focus on our ‘troubles’.
“Senior”, I heard, it was done-I turned to receive the trappings of victory I looked down at the transfer tray…and there it was, a £20 note staring back at me.

Um…excuse me, I think there has been a mistake, you seem to have given me back the sterling that you’re changing for me?!

But no, this was going to be a true testing of my patience, tolerance and calmness-you see, they wouldn’t accept the note because it had some writing on it. You know the kind of thing, someone had obviously been counting up their mounds of money at some point in this notes history and they had scribbled a running total on the top corner-as far as this money changer was concerned that invalidates the note?!
Truly believing that I was on the cusp of a ‘Falling Down’ moment, I snatched the note back and set off in search of a money changer who was less ‘fussy’. Fortunately for me, and the people around me, my next attempt proved to be successful-and this whole load of stress and worry simply dissolved. Finally we would be able to transit into Peru!

Another 40 minutes later, and two cups of coffee in hand, I finally returned to Jo waiting patiently at the terminal. We got our collectivo, and then simply had to suffer a terrifying high speed car journey through the border and into Tacna!

But we had made it, we were there-VIVA PERU!!!
Now to find our way to an actual ‘next stop proper-Arequipa.