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.


My, it’s a bit Chile…

Argentina fading in the wing mirrors, and the magnificent Andes looming ahead, it could mean only one thing-we were bound for Chile. Absolutely my favourite border crossing to date-from Mendoza it’s a 7 hour bus journey to get to Santiago, straight over the Andes, and it’s absolutely fabulous. You begin with a drive through the flat lands and vineyards of Mendoza region before you soon start climbing up the mountainside and dipping in and out of tunnels as you twist and turn up to the majestic mountain range that runs pretty much the entire length of the border between Chile and Argentina, as well as running through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia. It’s the highest mountain range outside Asia, over 4000 miles long, and as you make your way towards the border you pass by the mighty Mount Aconcagua, which at it’s peak rises to an elevation of about 6,961m and is the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere. It was breath-taking just to get near it on a bus journey, and just a week following our journey one of our friends was actually going to be climbing it! Just another 15km or so on from passing the mountain and you reach the border, where you have to step off the bus into snow and icy winds; obviously I was wearing shorts and t-shirt and was completely unprepared for exiting at the border, a schoolboy error some may say! The border crossing itself was extremely straight forward, although worth noting that Chile has extremely strict controls on what you can travel into the country with-so definitely worth checking what you have in your bags before making the crossing, otherwise the danger of a hefty fine. Specifically you can’t take any organic materials across the border, no honey, fruit, vegetables…as well as your stash of weapons and drugs!!
So, safely through the border we started the descent from the border via a series of no fewer than 27 switchbacks! Quite the introduction to Chile!

Before we knew it we were arriving in the thriving metropolis that is Santiago, time for a week of sight seeing in the capital before our next volunteer placement in El Monte. We weren’t simply going to be wondering the busy city street though, as is our eagerness to learn Spanish, we soon found ourselves a week long Spanish language course to see whether we could give ourselves a little bit of a kick start. Queue 5 hours a day in a hot classroom getting somewhat frustrated with my inability to just pick up a language with no problems…Obviously Jo was much better prepared than I was, and certainly got to grips with more than I have managed.

That’s not to say we didn’t manage to explore the city-Santiago is a vibrant, busy, thriving and colourful city, with a whole load of awesome museums and enchanting street culture to charm and seduce you. From the multi coloured buildings lining the streets in the  district of Bellavista, housing numerous bars and restaurants for late night entertainment; to the many green spaces and museums that provide a platform for arts and cultural expression-it really does seem to have something for everyone. Not forgetting the backdrop of the Andes to put things in a different perspective. Amazingly, as of the census from 2002, a massive 35% of the population of Chile live in the capital-which certainly makes for interesting etiquette on the metro during rush hour!

Basically Santiago proved to be a wonderful introduction to Chile, next stop the sleepy town of El Monte and a few weeks volunteering at ‘The Anthill’…And what a surprise that turned out to be!