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Falling for Arequipa, Peru
By Kay Kemmet
June 13, 2012
Tall sillar walls shield them from the outside world. From behind closed doors, they say “amen” in unison, but they´ll never step out from their monastery into the bright Arequipan sunshine.
The nuns of Santa Catalina monastery have chosen silence and poverty but also more than that: They’ve chosen isolation and will never to return home to their families or the life they knew before.
Arequipa is a city of dedications: religion, food, history and architecture, and the natives are justified in bragging about the city´s beauty. While the center of the city is filled with tourist restaurants, travel agencies and hostels, and those standing in front of the Cathedral of Arequipa looking up at the snow-capped mountain Chachani, it´s easy to forget about the tourist wranglers handing out flyers elsewhere in the Plaza de Armas.
Taking in the breathtaking mountain scenery or watching young kids feeding pigeons in the plaza, it´s easy to slip into the tranquility of this place. It feels safer and the people feel more welcoming and are quick to start up conversation – my blond hair is always a go-to topic.
Hidden 16 hours from Lima beyond the sand dunes and into the Andes, Arequipa feels cut off, preserved and, overall, safe – even with it tremulous history, which I experienced my first day with a 6.1 earthquake.
Women in the midst of praying by gold encrusted walls in the Iglesia de La Compañia jumped up and started running for the street. If they hadn´t, I probably would have stayed frozen watching the walls shake, experiencing my first real tremor.
A walk around the city essentially offers a free museum entrance, as it is filled with beautiful buildings made from sturdy volcanic rock. Seeing the frozen corpse of Juanita doesn´t hurt either.
While colonial architecture dominates the city, Incan history isn´t forgotten. The Museo Santuarios Andinos, run by local university students, houses the majority of Incan artifacts found on the nearby mountains and only takes an hour to visit.
Just a few blocks outside of the plaza – and far from any tourist agencies – the Mercado San Camilo is a pretty standard enclosed Peruvian market, offering fresh produce, cheap Arequipeña food, fresh fruit juice and locally made cheese and olive oil.
It´s also a great escape from the tourist-filled plaza without taking a taxi. Here I encountered my first hole-in-the-ground toilet in Peru — unlike in the monastery where modern restrooms are built in next to the colonial architecture. I was transported back to my days in India where I mastered the stand and squat, but I wonder how many tourists would be willing to do the same.
Beyond Arequipa´s warm sunshine is the Colca Canyon. After a seven-hour bus-ride, I didn´t have time to hike down into the canyon, but I did make it to see the condors — an experience I had previously written of as reserved for lazy tourists. Cuzco and Machu Picchu made me appreciate the Incas, but Colca Canyon helped me appreciate the Andes. Seeing the condors only added to the majesty. While I feel I didn´t get to fully appreciate the canyon, its people and views from the top made a good impression.
If the city wasn’t filled with beautiful vistas and interesting locals, the sun alone would have made the 16-hour bus ride worth it. Sitting in the plaza, meeting the locals and soaking up sun made Arequipa a great getaway even if it was for only a few days.
I’m not one for religious dedication, and beyond appreciating the architecture, I rarely feel the sanctity of a place. But something about the nuns at Santa Catalina intrigued me: their disconnect with the outside world, their simple lives, the miles between them and their families.
To an extent, I understand what that feels like to leave everything you know behind and enter a new culture. Unlike these veiled women, I will return home to my friends and family. Still, I feel differently about my life there than I did before, and Arequipa was a great stop on that path.
Kay Kemmet is an international student at Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru studying Spanish, Latin American history and journalism. She’s from Bismarck, North Dakota and studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Total coments: 5
Commented By: Peruvian_gringo
On: June 14, 2012. 12:18 am
Arequipa, the city where everyone has to visit at least once. Once visited, they will be coming back for more. With it's culture, history, architecture, delicious food, and warm and friendly people, they will be coming back for more.
Commented By: peruvian_kiwi
On: June 14, 2012. 3:44 pm
Hi, I enjoyed reading Kay's article about Arequipa as it brought back memories of my similar experience there, however I found it a little disturbing to see that a university educated journalism student used the word "disconnect" as a noun. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't "disconnection" the noun and "disconnect"the verb?
Commented By: sandra arthur
On: June 14, 2012. 6:02 pm
I loved the article. Well done Kay! Your appreciation of my city's culture and beauty is correct and I thank you for seeing it with beautiful eyes and open heart. Sorry about a comment I red... some people cannot appreciate things for what they are.
Commented By: Miraflorino
On: June 15, 2012. 11:45 am
To peruvian_kiwi "Disconnect" is these days commonly used as a noun.
Commented By: JIMMYJAMES
On: June 15, 2012. 11:15 pm
NOUNS SCHMOUNS.... JUST GLAD TO SEE YOU WRITE A BEAUIFUL ARTICLE WITH NO NEGATIVITY!!! YOU HAVE COME A LONG WAY! THANKS KAY
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