Thursday, December 15, 2011

The White City of Arequipa

Arequipa is the city in which I first lost, and then regained, my faith in humanity. Our saga with Andina Travel Services was the reason why I felt disillusioned with people. But, luckily, just a few hours after that disappointing experience, a kind stranger who welcomed us to his home helped me remember that most people are good, and that humanity should not be judged based on a few rotten apples.

With a population of almost a million, Arequipa is the second most populous city in Peru. For comparison, Cuzco is inhabited by half a million people, but it feels several times smaller than Arequipa. I think one reason might be that Cuzco seems more traditional and old-fashioned, whereas Arequipa feels much more modern. In Arequipa, there seem to be more taller buildings, as well as more companies and universities. In Cuzco we saw many people in traditional Peruvian outfits, whereas in Arequipa everybody was wearing more modern, Western-style clothes.

This doesn’t mean that there are no interesting buildings in Arequipa, just the opposite. The city was founded in 1540 by Spanish conquistadors, in a valley formerly inhabited by successive pre-Hispanic cultures, and many of the city’s colonial-era buildings survived in great condition till our times. Because of those buildings, the historic center of Arequipa was inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites List.

Also the location of Arequipa is spectacular. The city lies at the foot of a 5,822 meter-high (19,100 feet) volcano (El Misti), after which it derives its name: ariq qipao means "land or place behind the volcanoes." The volcano contributed to the city’s nickname as well. In Peru, Arequipa is known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), as most buildings in the city are built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock.

Arequipans are very proud of their city, its beauty, cultural heritage, and location near the volcanos (all in all, seven volcanos are within close vicinity of the city). The city inspired many of its inhabitants to become writers/poets. For example, one of the most famous Peruvian writers alive, Mario Vargas Llosa, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize of Literature, was born and lives there. And another famous Peruvian writer, Manuel Gonzales Prada, is famed for saying: "Not in vain were we born at the foot of a volcano” (No se nace en vano al pie de un volcán).

While wandering on the streets of Arequipa and taking photos of its central square—Plaza de Armas—we met another proud Arequipan. Seeing me with a camera, he stopped rushing wherever he was going, and started a conversation with us in which he invited us to the roof of his house. He insisted that the views from up there were unsurpassable, and that going there would give me an opportunity to take great pictures of the square, the city, and El Misti (the volcano). Seeing that we weren’t comfortable going to his house without him, the kind stranger changed his plans, turned around, and took us back to his house, and up the stairs to its roof.

I loved every minute of this adventure. I loved the views from the top, but even more I loved the fact that somebody—a selfless stranger—would alter his plans to share with us his love and admiration for Arequipa. While we enjoyed the views of the city, the nice man told us the story behind Arequipa’s name, and shared with us his observations on the changes that had occurred in the city during the 30+ years that he had been living there. I was so absorbed by his story that I hardly took any pictures. It’s a pity, as those photos would have been spectacular. Not only were the views from the top fantastic, but also the time of the day was perfect for taking pictures: we were there a few minutes before sunset, the soft light of which made the white buildings of Plaza de Armas look even more picturesque and dreamlike. But not every memory has to, or can be, immortalized on film. Some of them—like this one of a kind stranger who helped me regain my faith in humanity—are so special, that they will always live on in us, and make us feel warm inside even when we recall them 20 years from now.

Curiously, Plaza de Armas in Arequipa was inhabited by thousands of pigeons. The locals seemed not to mind their presence.

And here is another gem that we found in Arequipa. Can you recognize the people on the poster?