October 30th - November 2nd 2003
In Arequipa, we checked into the hotel Las Torres de Ugarte, a very friendly hotel with parking - although room for only one vehicle! - and ideally situated close to the Plaza de Armas and next to the Santa Catalina Convent.
Sad, but true, one of the reasons we wanted to return to Arequipa - having visited for the first time three years ago - was to go back to El Gaucho, a fantastic steak house on the Plaza de Armas. It is still just about the best steak ever - huge portions and it just melts in your mouth.
But the steak was not really the only reason we returned to Arequipa. It is the most beautiful city in Peru, called the "White City" due to the white volanic material used in the construction of its buildings. The city was badly affected by an earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the richter scale, on 23 June 2001, although there was little evidence of any change from the Arequipa we had seen in September 2000.
One of the Cathedral towers fell down, but this had been restored and everything seemed returned to normal. The guide who took us around the Santa Catalina Convent said that when the earthquake happened, the government announced that it had measured 6.9 on the richter scale. Soon people started to hear the international news reports on Cable TV where the earthquake was said to have measured 7.9 on the richter scale. The government apologised for the error, but the more cynical might say that they made the "error" for a very simple reason - anything over 6.9 would have required them to have declared a national emergency. This in turn would have meant that all the citizens would have been exempt from paying taxes until the situation had returned to normal.....
The Santa Catalina Convent is a must see in Arequipa. It is like a small haven in a bustling city, itself forming a miniature, colonial walled town, which was only opened to the public in 1970. Prior to that it was shrouded in mystery as the nuns within had minimal contact with those from outside and no one from outside was allowed to enter the convent. For four centuries nuns have lived in the convent and upon entering and becoming a nun, they would remain there until they died (this is not the case now). They each had their own cell - which were surprisingly large - and their own kitchen with servants. Some girls entered the convent out of vocation, whilst others were sent by their families as a status symbol.
Wandering the cobbled streets and plazas with their walls painted various colours of white, terracota and blue, takes a good 2 to 3 hours, especially if you have a fantastic guide as we did. The nuns no longer live in the old parts of the convent - a new building has been built, but apparently you can hear them playing volleyball in the early evening in the old part once the convent has closed its doors to the public for the night!
On Halloween, although there were the usual pumpkins etc dotted through various bars, a far more important festival was that of Criolla, to do with the patron saint of Arequipa - we think! As we came out of the convent, a huge number of people, primarily school children, were parading through the streets and congregating in the Plaza de Armas. They filled the entire square, each group of schools representing a different continent, and we sat and watched from the balcony above the square. A mass took place, candles were lit and eventually the crowds started to disperse.