Arequipa, the White City, is a graceful confection of colonial era buildings spread beneath the white peak of volcanic El Misti. The second largest city in Peru by population, Arequipa is filled with interesting sites, like the Santa Catalina monastery. a cloistered convent with brilliant, brightly painted walls.
Started in the 16th century the convent accepted only women from the highest classes of Spanish society. The tradition of the time was that the second son or daughter entered religious service, and Santa Catalina was one of the most sought after institutions in the 1500s. Families also had to pay a dowry for their daughter’s entry into Santa Catalina.
Each nun in the convent brought with her between one and four servants, as well as silk rugs, gold ornaments and fine English china. The nuns were far from unworldly – they invited musicians to perform, held parties and lived a lavish lifestyle behind the monastery’s doors.
It is possible to take a night tour of the monastery, which is very atmospheric, with lamplight illuminating the arched corridors, alleyways, cobbled streets ,and terracotta outer walls of the many buildings. The whole of the monastery spans an entire city block, and at its height, was a self contained, mini city of its own.
Perhaps the most famous woman in Arequipa is Juanita, the Ice Maiden, an Inca mummy found at the top of Ampato volcano, near the city. She was about 15 years old when she was sacrificed to the mountain. Juanita is important because she is remarkably well preserved, with skin, hair and soft tissue still intact. Today she is housed in a special museum with regulated light and temperature, along with other artifacts while researchers continue working on discovering more about Juanita.
About 160 kilometers north of Arequipa is Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. At it’s deepest point, 4,160m, the Colca is almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. There are pre-Inca terraces lining its sides, and at the very bottom, the silver grey ribbon of the Colca river.
We are here to try and spot Andean condors, the largest flying bird in the world, with a wingspan of almost 3 metres. As the day warms up, they achieve flight by launching themselves off the cliff’s sheer edges, into the air thermals drifting off the heat of the canyon’s floor.