IT was back on to a plane today for our first flight in Peru with a LAN Airbus taking us Arequipa.
This is the second-largest city in Peru, a destination that’s growing at a rapid rate with tourists using it as a launching point to see the Colca Canyon, and we had a driving tour of the destination before heading to our hotel for an afternoon rest.
Taking a nap is a requirement at altitude, and it was delightful to be told to stop for a few hours in the afternoon to help the body get used to the elevation.
Arequipa is home to 1.2 million people and most live in the white buildings constructed from the soft stone that’s been ejected from the surrounding volcanoes over the years.
“The buildings that radiate out from the city centre are made from this white volcanic stones,” our Arequipa guide Helmut explained during the morning’s orientation tour.
“The highest volcano that sits right behind the town gave us most of the stone, there is the pink variety as well as the white stone, and it is a mix of ash and gas which is why it’s so light.
“The white is a more popular building material because it’s stronger, it’s like a pumice so it’s easy to carve, and it lasts a long time because our environment is so dry but if it rained a lot we wouldn’t be able to use it to build our houses because it erodes easily.”
After an afternoon of napping we headed into town to see a little more of the city, starting an evening of exploring at the Convento de Santa Catalina which has been home to an order of cloistered nuns since the 16th century.
Santa Catalina, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is described as Arequipa’s “city within a city” because it’s been a self-contained settlement for so many years catering to the needs of the women who lived within the high walls.
Back in the early days of the convent the place was a comfortable place for the daughters of wealthy Peruvian families to live, and that was because every family gave its second child to the church and they were sent away with all the luxuries of home.
“Centuries ago certain responsibilities came with the place children occupied in rich families,” our Convent guide explained during a tour of the compound.
“The first child was for the family, they would inherit all the wealth and work to keep the family dynasty going, while the second child was for God with sons becoming priests and daughters becoming nuns.
“And the third child was for the country, meaning that sons would join the military and go to fight in wars.”
The girls that went to live at the Arequipa convent took servants and cooks, we’re given heirlooms to decorate their comfortable multi-room quarters, and didn’t have to do much when it came to working and praying.
The Convent de Santa Catalina was also home to many widows, who took children to live safely inside the walls when husbands died and they were left to fend for themselves, and the families lived in apartments flanking a network of narrow lanes.
Life wasn’t always comfortable for the nuns with one pope changing living conditions after visiting the settlement and deciding the nuns weren’t satisfying the poverty clause in their vows.
He made the women move out of their private apartments and into vast dormitories, evicted the cooks and servants that looked after them, and sent them to work in dark kitchens preparing all their own meals.
The austere period didn’t last long, with that pope dropping off the perch not long after he told the nuns to live frugally, and the ladies went back to their old ways with the deal sealed after an earthquake destroyed the dormitories.
Arequipa is at the centre of earthquake territory and Helmut told us there are about 30 seismic episodes every months, so we are paying close attention to see if the earth moves while we’re in town.