The highlight, I think, of the few days I spent in Arequipa, the second most populous city in Peru, was my visit to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Another expensive one, 35 soles (plus extra, of course, for a guide), but again very much worth it and I spent several hours exploring this city within a city. Originally built in 1571, its premises cover more than 20,000 square metres and still today house around 20 nuns in part of the complex. The monastery was founded by a rich widow, Maria de Guzman, and mainly welcomed wealthy girls into the Dominican order. One of its more famous nuns was Sister Ana de los Angeles Monteagudo, beatified by the Pope John Paul II in 1985. The streets and alleyways have been restored in vivid colours, and I didn’t find the cells particularly austere; the barbed wire undergarments on display, however, took away some of the appeal of this otherwise romantic lifestyle.
I also visited the Iglesia de la Compañia and the tiny San Ignacio Chapel where the ceiling, painted by anonymous Cusco school artists, unusually depicted tropical birds, flowers and fruit, along with warriors and angels. Outside the chapel, a 17th century painting of ‘Santa Ursula y las Once mil Virgines’ – 11,001 virgins tortured and killed by a Roman emperor in the 4th century. At first I didn’t find the Cloisters of the Compañia but I returned in the evening to make another attempt and got to enjoy the views over the Plaza de Armas and the mountains beyond.
Alongside Plaza de Armas, I was quickly swallowed up by my first labyrinth of artisan stalls. There was the usual touristy tat but also some beautiful jewellery – I bought a ring and a bracelet that I’ve been wearing every day since – and (allegedly) alpaca jumpers – I bought one of those, too, to keep me warm during the cold Andean nights.
Arequipa was the second place after Lima where I found Starbucks and international chains of a similar ilk. I resisted the urge this time but i did have dinner at the #1 recommended restaurant on Trip Advisor, Zig Zag. It was there that I had my first alpaca burger. The whole meal was delicious: the homemade bread served with different sauces as a starter, and then the burger itself, succulent meat cooked and served on volcanic stone with quinoa and vegetables. A glass of red wine rounded it all off.
So Arequipa was one of my favourite places so far: the churches, the architecture, the food, the artisan stalls… all against the backdrop of snowcapped peaks. Next stop: Cusco. I was approaching what I expected to be the highlight of my trip, the Inca Trail and its final destination, Machu Picchu. The popularity of this region became clear as I boarded the night bus to find it full of gringos for the first time on my trip. Tourists, yuck. (Yes, yes, I know, I’m a tourist too…)