Arequipa. Located in the mountains of southern Peru, Arequipa (population: 1 million) is dubbed the White City because so much of it was built with white volcanic stone.
It also boasts a UNESCO-listed historic central district. The main square is a perfect stew of palm trees, fountain, public buildings and arcades dominated on one side by the cathedral.
But the unique must-see feature in Arequipa’s center city is the 16th century Convent of Santa Catalina, which extends over five acres and resembles nothing so much as a Spanish village.
Our press contingent entered arcaded courtyards and walked narrow streets with names like Cordoba, Seville, and Toledo. Walls also featured 21st century coats of white or brightly colored paint and, for the final touch, potted plants.
We spent at least an hour there with an on-site guide, partly to avoid getting lost and partly to learn
about life in the once-wealthy convent. Aristocratic families consigned young daughters to a lifetime here and, until 1871
reforms, provided generous dowries and luxury furnishings like china and silver.
The last daughter given to the convent took final vows quite recently, in 1960. Today, 24 nuns occupy a portion of Santa Catalina.
The city was founded in 1540, and the resulting colonial appearance in central Arequipa is very appealing, but no visitor can overlook the city’s backdrop of stupendously tall Andean volcanoes, the pre-Inca terraces at the edge of town, the traditionally garbed Andean women in Plaza de Armas — or guinea pig on the lunch menu.
The typical itinerary includes a visit to the Plaza Yanahuara because of its sweeping views of the city and a volcano called Misti. Arequipa is a bit more than 7,600 feet above sea level, but Misti towers over everything from its 19,110-foot peak.
The city also is close to wildlife of interest to visitors. When we left town, we drove into the higher altitudes favored by llamas and their relatives and straight into the National Reserve of Salinas and Aguada Blanca. Within an hour or so, we started seeing alpacas, llamas, even the wild and timid vicunas.
But about guinea pig on the lunch menu, it may be popular with Peruvians, but I had to give that a pass.
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