Southern Peru

Arequipa: Sun, More Sun, and an Earthquake

By Larry Kraft
Photos by Larry Kraft

The Krafts experience their first earthquake on their visit to Arequipa. See what else they got up to in the ‘white city.’

This is Larry Kraft’s second article about the family’s environmentally focused trip around Peru and Latin America. Read the first part here.

We are a family of four, near the beginning of a year-long environmentally focused trip around the world. Peru is the second country we’re visiting (following Costa Rica), and we’re excited to be sharing some of our experiences with Peru This Week.

Following a brief 2-day stop in Lima, we arrived in Arequipa for the beginning of our 6-week stay in Peru. Our son, Jason, picked up a stomach bug on our travels from Costa Rica, so we wound up spending a few extra days letting him recuperate in this lovely city.

White City

Arequipa is called “The White City,” and it is easy to see why. Especially in the historic center, many of the buildings are built from white volcanic stone, or sillar. In fact, our hostel was a great example, as it was called the Casa de Sillar.

Walking around the central historic section of Arequipa, you can almost take a picture of every building you see. However, a few really stand out. The Plaza de Armas is the most impressive city central square we’ve seen so far. The square plaza is surrounded by sillar structures, but is dominated by the Basilica Cathedral. And you have to visit the Plaza at different times of the day and night to appreciate the different ways light interacts with the sillar.

Another highlight is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. This city within a city takes up several blocks, and in fact has its own street system. It was a functioning convent for almost four hundred years (founded in 1580), until 1970, when it was opened to the public for tourism. There are helpful, multilingual guides you can hire for 20 soles, or you can wander around on your own, as there are good explanatory signs in multiple languages.

We spent most of our time in the historic district, but did venture out a few times into the bustling metropolis surrounding it. There are the typical pluses and minuses of city life, with many conveniences — as well as challenging traffic, which likely is not helped by the fact that I never saw one vehicle actually obey a stop sign.

Unique Location

Arequipa is located at an elevation of 2328 meters (7,638 feet), so strenuous exercise immediately after arrival will leave you breathless. Though over 100 km (60 miles) from the sea, its weather is dominated by the impact of the Humboldt Current (sometimes called the Peru Current). The Humboldt Current carries cold water up from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru. It cools the air above it, making it more difficult for the air to absorb moisture, though it can create a lot of fog, as the habitants of Lima are well aware. However, the result for Arequipa is very little rain and a LOT of sun, more than 300 days of sun every year. In fact, it is considered to be at the northern tip of the Atacama Desert.

For us, after arriving from the Costa Rican rainforest, the weather was boringly wonderful: brilliantly sunny every day, not too hot (though with the elevation the sun is quite strong), and cool at night. There was absolutely no variation from this. (I think being a weather forecaster in Arequipa must be a very easy job. Put in your forecast of “sunny, High of 23°C, Low of 12°C”, go on vacation for 9 months, and come back for the 3-month rainy season.)

Volcanoes surround Arequipa. El Misti at 5822 meters (19,101 feet) is the closest, with its near-perfect cone visible from almost everywhere in the city. El Chachani (6,057 meters or 19,872 feet) and Pikchu Pikchu (5664 meters or 18,583 feet) are also easily visible. These are all considered active volcanoes. In fact, El Misti’s last eruption was in 1985.

Earthquakes

Arequipa, is seismically active, as is all of Peru. We were amazed to learn that there are an average of 200 earthquakes per year in Peru. This is quite new for us, as Minnesota, where we live, has no earthquakes. We were “lucky” to experience a small one (the first time our kids had felt one). Jason and I were in the hotel room, and when I told him the shaking we were feeling was an earthquake, his eyes almost popped out of his head.

The reason there are so many earthquakes is that Peru is located near the intersection of two tectonic plates (Nazca and South American). As the South American plate moves over the top of the Nazca plate, earthquakes, and sometimes volcanoes, are created. In fact, this motion of the two plates is what has caused the rise of the Andes mountain range.

Activities

In addition to visiting the sites and museums in Arequipa, there are a lot of activities one can do nearby. You can climb one of the three volcanoes, relatively easy climbs for their size. It’s also possible to do white water rafting. We didn’t go climbing, but we did take our kids for their first white water rafting experience. They loved it. Hugo, our guide, from Expediciones y Aventuras was fantastic, and we navigated mostly class II and III rapids (with one class IV thrown in), with no issues and a lot of happy screams.

Resources

As we are traveling with an environmental focus, we were quite happy to see the amount of solar panels on rooftops. Given the amount of sun in Arequipa, solar power is a no-brainer. However, everything we saw seemed to be for hot water heaters. It seems like even more solar energy could be used.

The biggest, and most obvious question, given the lack of rain in Arequipa, is water, and where it comes from. It is a big issue. The Rio Chili is the water lifeline for Arequipa. It starts high up in the mountains, and is fed by snow melt and glacial run-off. The problem is, with climate change, there is less and less snow in the mountains, and the glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate. We heard from locals that El Misti used to have a white skirt that reached far down the mountain. Now, there is hardly any snow visible on the top — at best, it looks like a bit of gray hair.

There are a lot of discussions going on about water in Peru, given the high percentage of the country that depends on water from Andes glaciers. We read about a new water law encouraging better stewardship of the available water. This is great, and absolutely necessary. But there nearing a million people living in Arequipa. With comparatively little water sustaining the city, it’s hard to imagine what will happen to this beautiful city if glaciers melt and dramatically less snow falls in the nearby mountains.

If you want to hear more about our adventures, come back to Peru this Week in a fortnight! You can also follow us on our family blog, and also our kids’ blog. We write for The Wilderness Classroom, a non-profit site followed by 85,000 schoolchildren., and we’re on twitter too!

About the Krafts

Larry Kraft has worked for more than 20 years in high-tech companies; most recently, he was Senior Vice President at Minnetonka-based Digi International. Lauri Kraft has managed PR for a technology company and performed full-time in musical theatre; lately, she has been writing a children’s book. Jamie, 8, and Jason, 6, attend Peter Hobart Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Both will return to Peter Hobart after their year of travel.

Your comment will be submitted for approval by an administrator. We reserve the right to not publish offensive or profane remarks.