A few months ago, I traveled to Arequipa on my way down to Lake Titicaca. I was only there for two nights and I wish I had more time to dedicate to that city. I knew that there was so much I was missing, so I reached out to a local musician who knows the city better than I could ever hope to.
I got in touch with Alejandro Nicoli, an up and coming singer songwriter from Arequipa. He’s lived in the city since his childhood, so he is one of the best people to teach me about the region. The more I talked to him, the more I felt like I had missed out.
Nicoli is a down to earth and straightforward musician. He’s a proud Arequipeñan (known as Characatos) who plays trova music, which means he sings poetic songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Last year he released his first studio album, Eclipse. He got his first break as an artist when he opened for Nito Mestre at Colegio Max Uhle in Arequipa.
“There’s a lot of talent in Arequipa,” Nicoli says. “We have a lot of young artists who are looking to make a name for themselves, but it’s hard because the art scene in Peru seems to be centered in Lima.”
He noted that in the same way art is centered in Lima, so too is tourism in Peru centered in the capital and Cusco. But Nicoli says that Arequipa has its doors open to the world.
Arequipan musician Alejandro Nicoli (left) on a recent family trip to the Colca Canyon. (photo: Facebook)
“Arequipa is a marvelous place,” he said. “It’s wonderful to receive tourists. Our people are friendly and kind. You’re going to have an unforgettable experience.”
One of the places I wanted to visit but didn’t get the chance to is Colca Canyon. I’ve heard so much about its beauty. I wanted to learn more about this place that Mario Vargas Llosa designated as “the Valley of Wonders.”
‘The Colca Canyon is a must see,” Nicoli says. “It’s the second deepest canyon (10,400 feet) in the world, it’s huge. It’s in the town of Chivay about an hour and a half outside of the city.”
If you take a guided tour from Arequipa , the 90-mile ride to Chivay may take up to 5 hours because of the many sites and overlooks. The most famous is Cruz del Condor, which is located between the towns of Pinchollo and Cabanconde.
Nicoli remembers his first trip to the Colca as a teenager.
“The first time I went was when I was in high school,” he said. “They got us all up at the break of dawn, but when we got to the overlook there weren’t any condors flying. But ever since I have always seen the majestic birds, sometimes up to 14 of them hunting over the valley.”
Besides sightseeing and bird watching, there are many adventure sports to do in the valley. Trekking, horseback riding, biking, rafting, and climbing are the most popular.
There are 18 towns that comprise the Colca Valley region. Each one has something unique to offer.
Coporaque is a town along the “right” side of the Colca River. It can be found just 5 miles outside of Chivay. There you can stop by the Temple of Apostle Santiago Coporaque, the oldest religious building in the valley. According to historians, the temple was built on top of a copper palace that Inca Mayat Capac had built for one of his wives.
On the “left” side of the river there are more towns to visit as well.
Maca is a town about 14 miles to the west of Chivay. In the small town you can see where the Santa Ana of Maca church was built. It was rebuilt after a massive fire destroyed it in 1759. The church has baroque, gold leaf altarpieces and at night it is illuminated in such a way that it seems to be made from precious metals.
Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes because the Canyon has a relatively cold climate year-round. Nicoli suggests that you take a few days to explore the wonders of the valley and not just take a one-day tour.
Cruz del Condor. (photo: Wikimedia)
Once you’re back in Arequipa, Nicoli says you’ll want to stay for the food.
“Peru is known for its diverse gastronomy, and Arequipa is among the best,” he said. “There are some infamous restaurants here that we call Picanterias.”
Those are the hole in the wall places that only locals know about. The picanterias are traditional restaurants usually with firewood ovens where spicy food is served.
“They might not be the most elegant places, actually they look like holes in the wall,” Nicoli said. “But its those places that have the most traditional and delicious food in the city. The root of Peruvian food is in the noncommercial places. That’s where locals like to eat.”
Some of the dishes Nicoli recommends are the adobo de chancho (marinated pork), rocoto relleno (stuffed hot red peppers), pastel de papa (potato casserole), chicharron (deep fried pork).
“There is so much variety,” Nicoli said. His favorites are the pastel de papa and chicharron de chancho (pig).
Around Arequipa there are a number of active and inactive volcanoes: Misti, Ubinas. The Misti, which means “Sir” in Quechua is the most visible. You can see the snow covered giant of 19,000 feet from any point in the city.
“There is a very special energy to living in the shadow of the volcano,” Nicoli says. “Characatos are special because we live in the shadow of these giants. There are many volcanoes surrounding us. But we don’t live with fear and we’re used to the earthquakes.”
Nicoli says it\‘s best to not be intimidated by the volcanoes or the small to medium earthquakes, which are common in Arequipa. It’s not worth missing out on such a beautiful city for fear of a natural phenomenon.
“We invite you with all of our hearts,”Nicoli said. “We have amazing food, music, and I’m sure you’ll love it.”
Nicoli with an eagle on his shoulder during a family trip to the Colca Canyon. (photo: Facebook)