Finding the Real Arequipa

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
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Trip End Dec 22, 2011


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Flag of Peru  , Arequipa,
Friday, October 28, 2011

My new friend from Australia has been searching for the real Arequipa as well so this morning we teamed up to unearth what the city has to offer.  Neither us really enjoys a museum or anything of a touristy nature but the Santa Catalina Monastary is supposedly a don't miss attraction.   We debated whether or not the 35 soles ($14) admission fee was worth it for two guys who couldn't care less about this sort of thing.  In the end we bit because we felt guilty for never feeding our minds with anything cultural other than the local fermented grains, and how often are we in Arequipa after all.

The monastary was founded in 1579 and has been expanded over the centuries using the white volcanic rock surrounding Arequipa.  Actually most buildings in the city center are of the same stone, and the nickname "white city" stuck.   After a couple of hours walking around Santa Catalina's inner labyrinth of streets, I can't imagine spending a lifetime within these confines as the nuns did.   As nice and well preserved as the paintings, walls, and furniture are, unlike the nuns, I can leave, and we found ourselves back out on the sidewalks hungry for lunch.

We inquired in the tourist office for a recommendation where some real local food could be had.  Yes, I know...rookie mistake to look there but we were right next to it.  She asked if $15 was too much for a plate and tried to steer us to a sit down restaurant near the main square.  Lady, do I look like someone who is about to blow fifteen George Washingtons on some overpriced meal, especially after dropping about that much at some convent?   No, let's back it up and start over again.  I rephrased this simple request and asked where would she go for lunch.   She paused for a minute, looked us up and down, and then whispered across the wood counter "the market" as if it is some underground secret withheld from the casual tourist.

The "market" turned out to be where the real Arequipa we have desired hides.  Just three short blocks away from the touristy central city, we found sidewalks alive with real people going about their real business.   Sidewalk vendors selling anything and everything competed for prime real estate on these narrow concrete strips, and I knew we were in business in this neighborhood.  

We followed hungry crowds to some tiny food stands in the middle of this covered market packed to the gills.  About 75 cents each and some broken Spanish scored us tamales fresh from being steamed in the corn husk along with citrusy onion salad. A couple of bucks later and a few stands down, and we were feasting on the specialty of Arequipa which had fueled our quest for local food in the first place, the rocoto relleno.  

This exotic sounding dish takes the ordinary American stuffed pepper to an extraordinary next level Peruvian style.  A regular red or green bell pepper stuffed with spicy meat, sauteed onions, garlic and olives is paired with a giant portion of potato casserole that would be at home on any American Thanksgiving table.   Yes, Peru has once again delivered on the gastromical front and I pity those poor souls who end up with a $15 tourist special of the day plate at a sterile English speaking sit down restaurant.   Taking a food crapshoot while sitting on a narrow stool with the locals is where it's at.

All this food excitement left me needing a nap so I headed home.  About an hour into my afternoon siesta the earth seemed to move, and I thought to myself what the hell was that.  I got to thinking if something is going to rock my bed, hopefully it's going to last a little longer than a disappointing few seconds like that.  This could just be a dreamy aftershock from another round of lunchtime foodgasms, so I went back to my half awake state.  A few hours later I learned a strong 6.9 earthquake hit the Peruvian coast near the dunes and Nazca Lines, and I should have been there right now had I listened to my travel friends and followed their tracks.  Even Lima rocked for a full 30 seconds...Still not enough for any bedside enjoyment, but better than the few seconds I got.

In another post I had mentioned pretty good luck to have missed my trek in Xela due to torrential rains, and this fortune seems to have found me in Peru as well. My travel buddies from the Amazon had asked me to travel down the Peruvian Coast by bus to surf the sand dunes and then fly over the Nazca Lines. Since I had little interest in sandboarding or cheating death in a dicey Cessna over outlines of animals in the desert, I settled on StarPeru to expedite my journey across this area. Whoever you are, Inca God, who told me to skip central Peru, thank you.  If I drank caffeine, I'd light a candle and drink some of that yellow bubble gum flavored Inca Kola to honor you.  

A lot of Arequipa I can find easily back home in the US...
Street protests...check
Pizza Hut...check
McDonalds...check
A pedestrian zone filled with typical clothes and shoes...check
But a rocoto relleno at a noisy local market...nope, not at all back home.   This is why I love to travel.

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I leave Arequipa at 3am this morning for three days of hiking to the bottom of Colca Canyon.  Obviously I won't have internet access for a few days, but check back the night of the 31st, and I should have some pics up.  
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