Ask any architect and they’ll tell you: traveling to a city you’ve never visited is doubly exciting when you view it from a designer’s perspective. When Max, from our office, made a trip back to his home country of Peru, he decided to visit Arequipa, a city he had never seen. Accompanied by his family, he checked out this historic and architecturally eye-catching destination, and shares his observations below.
What Makes Arequipa Unique
For many people, the mention of Peru brings to mind Lima, the country’s capital and largest city, or Machu Picchu, one of the famous Wonders of the World. However, if you’re looking to experience something different, a two-hour flight from the capital will get you to a city like no other in Peru – Arequipa. Arequipa is also known as “La Ciudad Blanca,” or “The White City,” due to its many buildings made out of sillar, a white volcanic stone.
Founded in 1540 on the orders of conquistador Francisco Pizarro as a stronghold in the Andes, this beautiful city sits at about 7,550 feet above sea level. Three imposing mountains surround Arequipa. One of these is Misti, a 19,098-foot-tall inactive volcano, that serves as the picturesque backdrop to the city and its narrow cobblestone streets, glacier-fed reservoirs and aqueducts, and fresh air lightly scented by eucalyptus trees scattered around the city.
The Historic City Center: Plaza de Armas and Cathedral
Similar to how most New England towns needed a church and a post office to be established, in Peru, a town or city needs two things: a big park or plaza and a cathedral. This is the case in the city center of Arequipa, where an exquisitely ornamented stone cathedral stands as the tallest in South America. Founded in 1612 and finished in 1656, the structure was designed in the Renaissance Revival style. It is an elongated building with two towers atop, and two large arches – dressed with sillar Corinthian columns – at either end.
The cathedral endured a fire in 1844 and three major earthquakes, but it has been restored every time as a symbol of the city and the country. In 2000, UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site. Cars are banned around the plaza to create a pedestrian-friendly environment and to protect the cathedral.
Hidden Charm: Santa Catalina Monastery
Arequipa’s charm doesn’t end at the plaza—it extends through its streets with hidden courtyards, alleyways made of sillar, and more churches decorated in the style of the cathedral. Only three blocks from the city center is the Santa Catalina Monastery, a place unlike any I have seen in Peru and one that reminded me of certain parts of Europe.
Imagine a mini city-within-a-city, run by cloistered nuns who lived in a small world of their own with little-to-no visitors, and everything needed to survive within the sillar walls of the monastery. Built in 1579, the convent received women from Europe and Peru, typically the second daughter in the family. At times of war, pests, and poor health conditions, this convent stood to prosper as the nuns traded the animals they raised or the food they grew on their roofs and ground gardens.
The site also contains a complex and resourcefully engineered stormwater system, which leads to bathing rooms, gardens and areas for clothes washing. Most quarters included a mud oven and cone-shaped stones that were used for water filtering. The five-acre complex is organized into cloisters, old living quarters, three main courtyards, a gallery, a chapel, a café, and the new area where the current nuns live.
Some of the most interesting architectural features are the barrel vaults with wooden trusses, and stone voussoirs. Areas were built in different centuries, which is noticeable as you walk the site. Some show a Spanish style while others follow a more Italian villa style, with natural dye colors and internal streets named after cities in Europe. The convent, like the cathedral, has also gone through various renovations due to earthquakes and weathering. In 2008, the monastery was added to the World Monuments Watch.
Sitting Tall Over a Valley: Colca Canyon
An hour away from the city along winding roads is Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest river canyons. Home to the Andean condor, the largest flying bird, the canyon is viewed along a beautiful but treacherous ride. The ride provides many lookout points from which you can see terraced crops where alpacas, llamas, vicunas, and other laminoids are raised; the terraced agriculture in the canyon predates the Incas.
The highest point on the journey is over 16,500 feet above sea level. The larger district of Arequipa also has sections that are at sea level, making for some sharp weather contrasts in the area. I can attest to this: we went swimming at the beach one day, and the next day stood at the top of the canyon in falling snow, reminding me of the winter waiting for me back home in Connecticut.
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