Arequipa is a beautiful city, the second largest in Peru and, due to its colonial architecture and proximity to nearby Colca Canyon, a major tourist destination. For us, however, Arequipa was simply a waypoint; a stop on the road towards Bolivia that broke up 16 hours on a bus. But by choosing to skip the packed tours to the canyon and by seeking out local eateries instead of the kitschy gringo joints outside our hostel - we turned our quick waypoint into a full experience.
In the middle of the city lies the Santa Catalina Monastery; a 20,000 square-meter convent opened in 1579 that continues to function. After several earthquakes destructed its facade a reconstruction in the 1990s left a stunning architectural site and art museum open for the public to wander. We took a good four hours. The bones alone are gorgeous enough; high vaulted ceilings made of silar, a white volcanic stone that defines Arequipan architecture, and cobblestone pathways that wind and twist through the tiny cells that housed hundreds of nuns many, many years ago.
We walk along the outdoor paths running our hands over azul blue and adobe red facades and look up to see colourful religious scenes depicted across the ceilings of the covered terraces. One passage leads us to a collection of small rooms with checkered wooden screens built into the stone walls where nuns could communicate with the outside world and trade items through a sort of rotating wooden Lazy Susan. The small shaded chambers lit only by simple skylights are heavily evocative and as music plays around us - Renaissance polyphonic choral - shivers run over our skin.
Each nun's cell is simply furnished and would fit easily into a modern day decor magazine: a low wooden bed with colourful woven blankets, an antique wooden chair, a dusty altar celebrating a pretty, painted Madonna. Some cells access private outdoor gardens or stone kitchens. The nuns were famous for their baked goods and sold them to civilians to profit the convent.
In one room, intricately carved wood, bed-like coffins sit under eerie portraits of deceased nuns, eyes closed, painted just before interment. In another room, an immense kitchen and pantry with huge scales and an old flour mill. A small schoolroom demonstrates where young girls in need could come for lessons in Spanish, Maths, Music, and Religion. Giant terracotta pots broken into halves are lined up on their sides in one square: once an al fresco laundry. A small museum displays the different art created in the convent including embroidered clerical robes that took six months a piece, and life size dolls depicting biblical scenes. Everything is preserved and laid out with few restrictions so that visitors can wander alone through each area. As if wandering back through time.
Arequipa is famous for its spicy food and its unique and traditional picanterias are the places to go to find it. Picanterias are large eateries filled with communal tables covered in plates piled with delicious food and pitchers of chicha; a fermented corn drink. They got their start in rural communities when old abuelas opened their homes to hungry travellers and grew into the local staples they are today. We ventured far from the city centre to La Capitana, a hidden away piquanteria we could only find by repeatedly asking the neighbourhood locals. The atmosphere was full and friendly and a man played latin guitar in the corner. We ate the plata Americano - basically everything on offer that day crammed onto one plate: locro stew, ocopo, rocoto rellenos, and chupe de camarones. We left happy and ready to burst.
Arequipa is rich in culture and history thanks to its early Spanish roots dating back to 1540. Tucked into pretty stone courtyards are dusty antique shops full of old religious relics, juke boxes with Sam Cooke and Patsy Cline, and yellowed home photographs from the 1950s stuffed into overflowing apple boxes along with dated postcards of photoshopped llamas on mountaintops. If Peruvian hipsters exist this might be their Mecca.
The best place to spend one's money is behind San Fransisco Cathedral. The otherwise unremarkable church shadows a small stone courtyard that houses a handful of local artisans. The majority of "hand crafted" goods in South America are definitely factory made and most likely not of the "genuine" material advertised. A popular favourite among the Argentinian tourists are colourful striped pants while the Americans unfortunately have a penchant for the ear-flap beanies; articles we soon use to distinguish between nationalities. So far we've been unimpressed and kept our wallets closed. But in this square everything is good. Hand-made, well priced, and certified. An old man sits by his loom weaving giant wool blankets in oranges, pinks, and reds and sells soft cable knit sweaters of baby alpaca. We return three times to a jeweller selling precious stones, simply hewn and set into gorgeous silver from nearby mines. Turquoise, lapis lazuli, and opal for a fraction of the price back home. And after the big shop? Queso helado (the creamiest of ice creams) and fresh alfajores (shortbread with dulce de leche).
So how did we make the most of a simple waypoint? We sought out food away from the centre of town - the more people crammed in the better. We walked everywhere - you never know what charming neighbourhoods or hidden squares you might find if eyes are kept open. And if we learned anything from Latinos, we learned to take our time. Even a rushed trip through a city can carry weight if you pause to use your senses; smell the spices, feel the stone, strain to hear the drifting notes of faraway music. Stop moving. Stand still. Forget schedules. Pretend you have all the time in the world.
What is Dirty Roads?
We are two girls, dedicated to an elevated travel lifestyle. We trek the Earth with camera and pen in hand to document an experience. We believe in respecting the land and the indigenous cultures we encounter, tasting authentic and delicious handmade foods, challenging our world views, seeking incredible beauty, and above all going beyond our nerves. Travel is not travel without a dusty face.