Chapter 9: Arequipa, Peru
Chapter 9: Arequipa, Peru
Until the age of 18 I never went on holiday. There was a short stay at my Nain’s farm back in the late 1970s, but that was less than a mile from where I lived! A variety of reasons resulted in this lack of travel. Dad’s farming upbringing meant one could never be away from home for long. Too much to do. Many in the farming community would concur with that. Dad’s health was also a factor; he had pneumonia when I was just three years old. His chest had been playing up for a long time. Exposure to dust and pollution whilst working on the family farm contributed. We never complained though. It was like we never knew any difference. We went out on day trips. Indeed, living in such a beautiful part of North Wales you felt you had the best of the natural world on your doorstep. Walking the Clwydian Hills and cycling the country lanes as far as Llangollen were summer holiday indulgences. Mountain trout fishing and straw bale den building often occupied our August days.
When Dad retired from his postman job due to ill health in 1984, a briefly subdued atmosphere at home followed. I always remember one evening Dad beckoning me to go along with him for a walk up to the woods and along the foothills. He was quiet but I could tell he wanted company. Money would be even tighter from then on. However, it was around that time that Dad wanted to show us what he could. We began the following summer with a road trip out to the Lleyn Peninsula. Nain came with us as well. Dad knew the area from his time fitting milk machinery on various farms near Aberdaron.
A particular visit to Towyn Beach in Tudweiliog really introduced me to the joys of getting away from it all. It was a stunningly clear day. My sister and I spent hours on an inflatable dingy in the clear blue waters. Mam, Dad and Nain happily resting and chatting on the pristine, sandy beach. The gentle experiences of that day, including the westward journey through the mist of the Ysbyty Ifan moorlands over to Ffestiniog and the late evening sunset return, were blissful. A year later I returned on a first ever camping holiday. I’ve been returning to Pen Llyn ever since. It’s a wonderful part of the world, an almost island like feel surrounded by the Irish Sea. A proper open view of the big, wide world.
Fast forward 25 years later and here I was, about to embark on a more authentic part of my South American journey. It was time to get closer to the way of life in these parts. I’d enjoyed my trip thus far. The hostels and backpacking community were great fun, but narrower and shallow compared to the broader definitions of travel, exploration, and adventure. Why stick around in your own groups when you go to the other side of the world? I felt a certain privilege, therefore. I would be able to relate my own modest upbringing with the people I was starting to meet on my travels. Folk with similar stories of their own. I would feel more on a level with them.
Friday, April 23
The day arrived, the big crossover into Peru. I had a delicious continental breakfast with Margo. Roberto surfaced and joined us to continue his advice. He recounted a time when he’d taken a taxi in Arequipa and two other men got in soon after and mugged him in a very violent assault. Be under no illusions, warned Roberto. We were entering a country where poverty was more pronounced, and people survived in different ways. Tourists and travellers were presumed rich boys and girls. We were all potential targets. I listened but my concerns were more about my keeping focussed and being myself.
Xavier returned from town having already completed his task for the day. He was an environmental consultant with a particular interest in trees and had visited a nearby school to give presentations to raise awareness. His formal manner and courteous nature were very appealing, but I reluctantly declined his offer to join up for a visit to the Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa, where some of the world’s oldest mummies are housed.
I was departing, and an hour later I followed Roberto’s instructions carefully to take a cross-border taxi not only to the frontier but over to Tacna in Peru. In no time at all I’d found a collectivo with just one space left. There were four friendly ladies, in traditional dress, already in the other seats and we set off. I smiled as the ladies shared their plans for the day. It was a hot, sunny day as we headed along the coast road for the Peruvian border. The bright landscape glare made me blink a lot.
Matters ran smoothly at the immigration desk. The taxi driver presented our passports, we took our bags, and, with a quick check followed by some cash exchanges, we entered Peru. Another 20 kilometres and we reached Tacna’s main terminal.
I felt somewhat anxious in sunny Tacna. The narrow streets were cramped full of noisy, speeding traffic. The vibe was already so different to what I’d been used to in Chile and Argentina. I took a small taxi from the station to my place for the night in the centre of town. I chose the relatively cheap Universo Hostel, a single room with a hot shower and cable television for 35 soles, about £8. I exchanged my Chilean cash at a nearby bureau. Food was already a lot cheaper. I had an appetising menu del dia for just £3.
I later went to evening Mass in the cathedral in Parque Ugarte, shaking hands with fellow worshippers at the end. I wanted to express my gratitude and have faith for the rest of my travels. I felt reassured and stayed out to briefly sample the warm, evening air and atmosphere of my first night in Peru. There weren’t many foreigners about. The streets were packed with lots of darker skinned men, women, and children, in typical end of the week scenes replicated the world over. I enjoyed a burger at a kerbside kiosk but feeling quite tired I retreated to my room.
Tacna certainly felt different but also had a modern feel. Time was moving fast on this trip, I reflected in my dark room. After playing some guitar I changed out of my clothes and fell into another night of light sleep.
Saturday, April 24
Car horns were tooting and blaring a lot more over the border in Peru. I hailed a taxi which scuttled down the narrow streets towards the Terminal Terrestre. I wasn’t in a hurry but reckoned being at the station at a decent time would bag me a bus before midday.
Bus station bedlam greeted me. The Peruvian experience was already captivating. I felt entertained by this unpredictable sense of freedom. The randomness of life when travelling can open my mind to a point where I’m in a trance, but it’s a focussed one. It’s like being in the zone when you’re writing something or performing a song, a feeling of inner confidence. There were frantic gestures at a small kiosk from where a guy rushed over to ask for my destination. A bus was leaving for Peru’s second largest city Arequipa at 9.30am. I hadn’t any food, but my timing remained impeccable in this new country. The Peruvian passengers were already enjoying a bit of bus karaoke with some singing along to Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair and Sound of Silence. The action films were a bit too much though. I had my first food of the day when the bus assistant distributed free chocolate sponge cakes and cartons of juice.
We crawled out of the southern desert landscape up through mountain ranges and into deep, irrigated valleys where subsistence farmers eked out a simple living with cattle, sheep, and vegetables. The ascent into the bowl like hollow of Arequipa left me gasping with its breath-taking green outskirts. There were lots of lush grasses and crops. This was my favourite bus journey so far. Village stops along the route presented scenes of bustling locals, carrying all sorts of foods and crafts. They eagerly surrounded the bus and its potential customers.
At Arequipa’s terminal large posters in English and Spanish warned people about taxi abductions and advised to take registered taxis from inside the terminal. Large groups of colourfully dressed Peruvians were animatedly chattering away. I became happily caught up in the atmosphere of terminal mayhem, so, before going into the town, I booked my next ticket, a 96 soles trip to Cusco, courtesy of Cruz del Sur. Canyon country and Lake Titicaca could wait, I reckoned. That’s the confident and controlled mood I was in. As a solo traveller, the tourist honey pot of Cusco caught my attention. I wanted to be there as soon as possible after Arequipa.
I got talking to a Dutch couple in the taxi area. Their cautious expressions when I first approached them made me chuckle. They immediately loosened up when I began talking and they realised I was British. They were worried by the town’s reputation as well and were waiting for a friend to collect them. I wished them a good time. They wished me a safe journey and indicated a taxi, which I agreed looked legitimate, and I set off into Arequipa.
The driver carefully asked me where I wished to go and made sure I locked my door whilst he had his window slightly down. Roberto was right in saying travellers soon develop a sixth sense where attention and focus are sharpened in a short space of time. There was a sense of danger lurking in the vicinity. I stayed alert though.
I hadn’t made a reservation, but the Lonely Planet description of Los Andes Bed and Breakfast on La Merced swung it. It was indeed a nice, spacious hotel-like place close to the main plaza. I had the biggest room I’d been in yet at an incredibly cheap 18 soles. The third-floor room overlooked the street and the Plaza de Armas, with a stunning backdrop of the 5,000 metres high El Misti volcano. The room had three beds and came en-suite.
After sorting myself out I took an early evening walk into the impressive plaza and later stopped for dinner at a restaurant called the Zig Zag Creperie. I chose a salad, chicken curry and fruit juice. The meal filled me. A vibrant Saturday night atmosphere dominated Arequipa’s town centre. A concert and public speeches could be heard in a large hall. There were lots of people on the streets selling alpaca clothes at cheap prices. They looked great but I was happy in my t-shirt and fleece jacket for the time being. I popped into an internet cafe, a busy place where hectic exchanges added an air of abruptness to the night.
I retired back to Los Andes and enjoyed a bit of television in the lounge area on the third floor. An English language channel showed a Top of the Pops 2 Manchester Special which I remembered watching a few years back. I enjoyed the repeat showing. Groups of young travellers were floating in and out of various rooms. Back in my room I savoured the space and solitude as the outside taxi horns added a cosmopolitan feel to the warm night.
Sunday, April 25
Although I slept soundly, I woke up with my mind muddled up by the most random of dreams. What are they all about? This latest one left me pondering about music. It must be my saviour on this increasingly solitary journey. Whether it be street music, the recorded stuff or my own, I felt a drive and purpose. There was so much to fathom out.
I entered the dining room to enjoy breakfast. The light, plush interior of Los Andes really reflected that of a decent hotel back in the UK. There was an almost Georgian style about it. The creaking, polished wooden floor tiles and their sweet, pine aromas were an endearing feature. I enjoyed a fresh fruit and cereal breakfast served in guest house style. The fresh coffee worked a treat.
A loud military march was taking place in the Plaza de Armas. The army band’s rapidly beating drums heralded an escalation of volume. Huge gunshots rang out as the midday sun beat down. The sound ricocheted off the splendidly light-coloured volcanic rock (sillar) buildings.
When the parade died down, I crossed the road from Los Andes to check out the Museo Santuarios Andinos, a university facility offering a compelling yet disturbing display and tour. Juanita the Ice Princess, a frozen Inca maiden, was the star attraction. She was sacrificed up on the 6,288 metres Ampato summit more than 500 years ago. However, her mummified remains were presently in cold storage for preservation and restoration. Nevertheless, another mummy appeared before us.
Sarita was another Inca child sacrifice to the Gods who were represented by the mountains. The torn cloth and strands of hair hanging off the skeletal remains startled me. This part of Inca culture struck me as being so cruel and criminal. I supposed the multi-lingual tour guide saw similarly aghast expressions like mine every day. The rest of the tour presented many original Inca implements. I was particularly impressed with the fabrics and dyed colours.
I took a rather expensive Sunday lunch at one of the main plaza balcony restaurants called El Mistico. I paid 70 soles for a beef dish which wasn’t really to my taste. The pretty waitresses with their smiling expressions were joyous though. My designated waitress later allowed me to go up onto the restaurant roof to take some stunning angle shots of the Plaza de Armas and the cathedral.
A pleasant Sunday afternoon warmth caressed the plaza where I sat down on a bench to take some sun and let my lunch go down. I walked along a route to take in some of the churches. They were all shut though so I continued to people watch before contemplating the following few days. I spent some time on the internet, withdrew some money from a bank, played some guitar and handed in some laundry to the nice people at Los Andes’ reception. I later went up onto the balcony to lie on a sun lounge, but restlessness brought me back down onto the streets and down to the Rio Chili. Nothing spectacular but it made me realise I hadn’t seen rain since Bariloche in Argentina.
Monday, April 26
The familiar aspect and position of my bed and window reminded me of being back home in North Wales. I reflected on this as the luxurious light of the rising sun seeped through the thin curtains. It bathed the magnolia-coloured walls. At 7am the blaring car horns began again.
I spent two hours before lunch sunbathing on the Los Andes roof terrace. Due to its tropical latitude the snow hadn’t yet appeared to give that mystical look to Arequipa’s guardian volcano El Misti. I was enjoying reading Golden Soak, by now a gripping adventure story set in the Western Australian mining region.
Lunch at Antojitos de Arequipa was good. For roughly the equivalent of £2.50 I had chicken and potato soup followed by chicken rice and papua, all washed down with a complementary Coca Cola. My sweet tooth tempted me to try a delicious ice cream in the next-door parlour.
I’d earlier been talking with a very talkative Canadian woman in Los Andes. We discussed the best times to visit the enormous citadel-like Monasterio Santa Catalina. Apparently, the evening openings on Tuesday and Thursday were highly recommended for the lowering sunlight effect on the coloured buildings. I later discovered only Thursday offered the evening opening.
I reclined for another stint on the terrace. The late afternoon sun warmed my body, unlike the deadly midday glare. I noticed a rather large mole appearing on my stomach. I realised I needed proper protection for my fair skin against the sun.
Soon after dark I visited the cathedral which had opened its doors for the Evening Mass. It was incredibly big inside but there weren’t many people attending. Churches always attracted me very much with their size and grandeur. Such constructions made me think of the collective effort taken to build them. Arequipa had lots of other cultural delights. I looked forward to visiting them on my final day before the overnight bus journey up to Cusco.
Tuesday, April 27
It wasn’t every day one got to visit a monastery, let alone two! Visiting my first ever one would make it a day to remember. With an early start, I dragged my groggy self to breakfast. I was joined by the second proper cyclist of my journeys, John, an American guy in his fifties. John even had a mini trailer to carry his luggage, secured in a large, hard case. He seemed rather flustered when he contemplated the journey out of the busy town centre. I empathised as I watched him set off on his latest leg of a quite remarkable and courageous voyage, from Cartagena, Colombia down to Ushuaia, Argentina. At least he avoided the crazy bus terminals, I reflected, at the sight of his rapidly diminishing manoeuvring amidst the heavy traffic.
Back in my room I was carefully packing away when I realised something wasn’t right. My wallet and passport were in the bedside chest of drawers. Forty US Dollars and 100 Argentine pesos had vanished. I gulped and sat down to compose myself. It could have been a lot worse, but why hadn’t I used the safe keeping facilities on offer at reception? I felt a little cross with myself and it dented my confidence somewhat.
After getting some coins back for two returned bottles of Arequipena beer, I walked down a side street to Casa Del Moral. A 200-year-old mulberry bush graced the inner courtyard and lots of stunning paintings and furniture lined the interior. Then I headed up to Monasterio Santa Catalina. For just 30 soles I remained inside the small city for almost three hours. I declined the guide and avoided the group tours and noise and instead became happily mesmerised by every nook and cranny. The red and blue exteriors of the old structures, the orange trees, the blue walls against the blue sky, the frescos, the galleries, cells and kitchens. All of them sprinkled some old magic in the midday sun. Understandably, there are public access restrictions in the part of the monastery where the nuns still reside.
After lunch I visited the recently opened Museo de Arte Virreinal de Santa Teresa. Local student Analina provided a fascinating tour. I learnt lots and looked at many Cusco School of Art anonymous works featuring baroque, gold leaf and flowering techniques. Outside, in the courtyard, I also saw my first Peruvian hairless dog with its rough, almost reptilian skin. And then I saw so many guinea pigs as well.
I later returned to the Los Andes where the receptionist retrieved my luggage and booked me a taxi. I waited, and I waited. Some confusion and bemusement ensued when a young German couple took the taxi intended for me. The concierge apologised. He immediately flagged down another taxi. It looked legitimate enough, and I safely arrived at the terminal for the 7.30pm bus up to Cusco.
There was an almost airport-style check-in procedure. I had to pay a two soles departure tax at a small kiosk before the Cruz del Sur staff could process my ticket. When the passengers for the bus were called, I felt a tinge of excitement for the next part of my trip. My last day in Arequipa was a rare treat that freed the senses. Those monasteries were magical and lifted the spirits for my next journey.
They say one has to sometimes go backwards to move forward. If you wish to carry on reading please click ‘older posts‘ to move onto Chapter 10 and beyond. Once again, thanks for your interest. It’s well appreciated.