Arequipa – The White City

We thought we knew how public transport in Peru works, but my friends, we were wrong. Even though we were travelling through Peru for a month Arequipa still had some surprises for us.

Chaos at the terminal

Where to go now? That was the question we asked ourselves. It was ten o’clock in the morning and we just got out of the bus from Nazca (11 hours in the bus). There was no time for nice and slow wake up after the journey. Once out of the bus with our backpacks secured real craziness started. It was obvious we were not locals which meant all the taxi drivers waiting at the terminal concentrated on us. It was difficult to fend off all the offers.

We wanted to enjoy real Arequipa the same way as locals do (hmm, that might not be exactly true). It meant we wanted to hop on the local bus (often called collectivo) and get to the centre on our own. We did it successfully couple of times before and it felt like something wild and adventurous to do.

We looked around, looked at the map in the phone and were lost. City centre was at far away from little dot that represented us. Problem was finding the bus which will take us from here to there. Few questions later (thanks to Tanas Spanish) we knew we had to go to the other side of the road. It sounds like an easy task, but with the huge amount of people, stalls on the pavements and our backpacks it was extra challenge. We got to the junction, realised that there is no crossing and went back. There was very visible pedestrian overpass which we missed at first.

How to get to the centre?

We got to the other side, now it should be easy. Just wait for the bus with some sign that looks like Centro or Plaza de Armas, hop on and wait. It did not happen here. There were too many buses stopping and they had numbers. It helps to look lost, some good soul will usually come and help.

It happen this time too, good people told us which numbers are heading to the centre. We were in the crowded bus and on the way in no time. Thanks to all the people standing around us, without them we would have ended on the floor. Gas, break, sharp turn all that accompanied by loud hooting from all directions.

There was no signalling button, people shouted something, bus stopped and they went in / out. Problem was, we did not know what was that magic word. I was clutching phone in my hand and checking map and our position. We were approaching it fast. Once the bus stopped we found ourselves trapped inside. Some people got out, but more people jumped in. Someone saw us pushing towards the doors and shouted at the driver. Magical word was “baja” which means “I want to leave the bus”.

First look at Arequipa town centre

We made it, hooray. It was time to sit and plan what to do next. City centre was just around the corner. We had to climb up some stairs to get to the Bolognesi bridge (Puento Bolognesi) and cross few junctions.

Streets were busy with people and cars, quite surprising in those narrow streets. Even though it looked chaotic there was some order in it. No one was run over or pushed under the car. Buildings we passed were old and interesting to look at. Lot of hostels and stores everywhere.

But then we got to the main square and it was really impressive. We saw multiple Plaza de Armas so far, but this one was winning. Nice park with palm trees, hedges and even fountain in the middle. Amazing white colonial buildings with arcades on three sides. And the best on the fourth – Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa. Huge and majestic building, with not one but two towers.

Basílica Catedral de Arequipa
Basílica Catedral de Arequipa

First quick look was over now to more pressing issue – where to spend the night?

Hostels everywhere

We walked around a lot, hostels on the road to the bridge looked too noisy (and expensive) so we made a little detour from the busy streets. It was quieter but but prices were still too high, so we kept going.

In the end we stopped in the Backpacker Inn, roughly 500 meters from the centre. With our broken (but improving) Spanish asked lady at the reception about accommodation for two people, ideally in private room. She told us that they are full, but right next door might be something available. Quick call to her friend confirmed it to be true.

Hostels worked with each other as we were able to fill all the papers in first office and just go to the back into the Friendly AQP hostel. It was really nice place with garden, roof terrace and common room. Breakfast was included which was even better.

Quick look around

Time to go out. It was hot so we were buying loads of ice cream (Queso helado) from ladies in traditional Peruvian clothes. They opened big pot with cold cheesy desert and scraped it into the plastic cup. To make it even better they put little bit of cinnamon on top.

But we’ll get back to food little later. Now back to the streets.

There was information centre right in the main square. We got some information about Colca canyon (in Spanish). Buses were going there every day from main terminal. In roughly five we’ll get from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, one of the entry points to the canyon.

After that we had time to leisurely walk around. Main square was still as impressive as when we saw it few hours ago. In the park (and around) were independent guide guys offering city tours (usually free). It sounded like a good thing to do.

Streets around the square were equally impressive. Nicest buildings were occupied by banks, expensive bars, restaurants and souvenir stores. We were not obviously their target group.

There were more affordable areas for us, like laundry, McDonald and other small local fast foods, bakeries and cake shops.

Food in Arequipa

Food was everywhere from small stalls and windows in the walls to big restaurants. And we were more than happy to try some of it.

First I have to commend breakfast in the hotel – freshly made pancake with sliced bananas, coffee and juice. Amazing start of the day.

In town we found local fast food jewel right next to laundry place. In Ugante street was a small place called Festi Burger. They prepared simple but tasty stuff, like burgers and choripans (fry local chorizo and put it in the burger bun, add some mayo and other unhealthy stuff and that’s it).

Chupe de Camarones
Chupe de Camarones

Special day come and we went to fancy restaurant for lunch. We ordered Chupe de Camarones – Shrimp soup. It was wild – in the middle of the plate was sitting big potato accompanied by multiple shrimps and some other vegetables. It was tasty but very messy to eat. After the soup was time for main course – Rocoto Relleno dish typical for Arequipa. Stuffed pepper filled with grounded meat with spices, olives and slice of cheese on top.

Rocoto Relleno
Rocoto Relleno

Desserts (they need their own chapter)

Now was time for sweet stuff. There were too many thinks to bite into and it was not possible to try all of them (without developing diabetes). For us cakes were winners as long as they did not contain dulce de leche. That heated sweetened milk is something like a caramel, but for us it was overpowering all the other flavours.

What surprised us was a glass cup filled with white cream and fruit. We thought it might be real cream, made from good old milk. We got one each and started eating enthusiastically. But it was not at all what we expected. White stuff probably never saw milk. It was unbelievably sweet and warm. Bitter coffee saved the day and made it possible for us to finish this treat. Even though Tana needed a break in the middle and had headache from the sugar-rush.

City tour – the good, the bad and the boring

We decided to try the morning city tour. It started somewhere on the street Santa Catalina, not far from the centre. Problem was that address was quite vague and we did not know if we are at the right place. No signs or person waving placard with “I am the city tour guide”.

We asked few people around, locals looks puzzled and shook their heads. Fellow foreigners knew more, place to sit and wait was inside building Casona Santa Catalina. It took quite some time before guide appeared, at least we had time to talk with one German tourist in awesome travellers hat.

Our guide was young guy who spoke English, which was nice. He took us through town, showed us multiple churches and old buildings. We even spent some time in small market with certified Alpaca products (I wonder if he gets provision for bringing people in). Stuff there was so expensive I almost wanted to cry. I mean it was nice, but paying $300 for a sweater was too much. Even though it was somehow certified. For that money each sweater should have signature and photo of the alpaca, which gave the fur for it.

Our walk felt little chaotic and I don’t think we’ve learned much. In the end it felt like we are looking at the same things in different streets and hearing same stuff again and again. But there were some interesting points.

City tour the interesting stuff

Houses were built in traditional Spanish style, big rooms, not many windows, high ceilings. It kept them nice and cool plus you were able to enter house on the horse. Decor was combination of local and European elements. Not only in buildings but also in churches. Local culture was represented by heads of pumas, snakes or condors and local flora. European Christianity was represented by statues of saints and crosses.

In Iglesia de la Compañía was big painting of the last supper. It was modified to appeal to local indigenous population. Jesus was little darker and food on the table contained local stuff like corn, potatoes and guinea-pig (Peruvian speciality). Churches front wall is also something you should see, very nicely and richly decorated.

Our journey ended on the other side of the river Chili, we crossed famous Puente Bolognesi and went to Wuayiki Roots restaurant. Our guide told us one more time that he’s the only one who goes to all the places we saw today and that we should recommend him to our friends. Banknote from me and Tana changed owner and we were on the way back to hostel.

What else to see?

Our guide did not take us to the Basílica Catedral de Arequipa near the main square. So we went to explore it on our own. There are some restrictions related to clothing, no short sleeves and no shorts. It was nice and discreetly decorated. Its history is also quite interesting, this region is shaking quite often and cathedral was destroyed or damaged multiple times.

We were looking for a place where to have a drink and good view for a sunset. There are many restaurants and bars around the main square offering balconies and roof terraces with that view. We ended up in special restaurant – The Sonccolay. There were no guests at the time and thanks to that we got a quick tour through the kitchen. They are specialising on pre-inca cuisine made in traditional clay pots. It looked interesting but very expensive. At least we bought some hot beverages, one beer and sat on the roof with main square and sunset view.

One more place worth visiting was Mercado San Camilo. It was colourful, chaotic and full of life. There was everything – fruits, vegetables, meats (that was actually scariest and smelliest section), cheese, bakeries and freshly made food. If you want to experience something that most of the locals eat try this (and maybe buy some extra toilet paper).

Time to go (twice)

We spent more than five days in Arequipa. Our stay was split by trip to Colca canyon, going to the terminal was similar to our first journey to the centre. But at least we knew how to tell driver that we want to get out.

When we got back our Friendly AQP hostel didn’t have any free space, so we had to look somewhere else. We found a room in the Puente Bolognesi street. Price was surprisingly OK and equipment too, but the noise was too much.

We spent last few days in hotel near Plaza de Armas, our room was far from the entrance thus no noise from the street. Hotel guests and puppy next door where new sources of noise. That poor thing didn’t like to be left alone in the room.

It was sad to leave Arequipa but we had to – adventure is out there.

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