Episode 44 – A UNESCO Site and a crazy long drive

Very mixed feelings about our first land excursion in Peru today. Our destination was the second largest city in the country, Arequipa, whose historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it certainly is a picturesque city.

What we were unprepared for, though, was just how far inland we needed to travel from the port to reach it, and how little time that would mean we had there.

For TWO….AND….A….HALF…. HOURS we climbed to 7000 feet above sea level from the port of Matarani to Arequipa, along roads carved into the mountainsides using a series of 90 degree, “S”, and hairpin turns. The Andes here are rocky and barren; picture the world’s largest “falling rock zone” and then remember that this is a country plagued by earthquakes so common that Peruvians claim anything less than 7 on the Richter scale doesn’t even wake them. Our driver seemed unfazed, but then the door between him and the passenger cabin was opaque, so maybe he was actually clutching the wheel and grimacing the whole way.

The road is two lanes wide, with no shoulders, and often no guardrail either. Looking down out of the bus window made all kinds of crazy images of disaster go through my head, so I just focussed on the rock wall side of the bus.

Some of the stranger things we saw along the way were uninhabited small grey cement block shanty houses placed seemingly randomly on the desert plateau areas. Around 40 years ago, people were encouraged to buy cheap plots of land outside the city ($20 !!) to relieve urban congestion. In order to effectively stake their claim, they needed to build a house on their land. Apparently “house” has a pretty loose definition; 4 walls that can stay standing. Some have roofs and doors, but many do not – they are just empty shells. Electricity was finally provided to these areas 2 years ago ( you can see the hydro wires below), but 40 years after these homesteads were sold, there is still no water supply. On the up side, there are no taxes assessed against them!

In fact, the whole concept of house taxes was another strange thing. It seems that if your home is not “finished” you don’t pay taxes, so a large percentage of new homes have incomplete exteriors, or steel support rods sticking up from the roof for a second storey that will probably never be built. No wonder there are economic issues. Of course, the fact that Peru’s last 5 presidents have all ended up in jail convicted of corruption doesn’t help.

We drove through the area where the Cerro Verde (Green Hills) copper mines are located. When the rocks and the water run-off areas in the mountains take on a greenish tinge like verdigris, that’s a sign there’s copper there.

We stopped briefly at the arch in Juliaca, from where we could get a nice view of El Misti (“the mister”), one of the area’s volcanoes, which last erupted with ash and steam (no lava) in 1985. We were also able to see two other volcanoes: Chachani (el Misti’s “wife”, who appears to wear a white dress of snow in the winter) and Picchu Picchu (“peak,peak”).

Outside the Catholic Church, where a wedding had just taken place and the bride and groom were being serenaded by a mariachi band, there was a green cross erected, which signifies that the church was built on the site of an Incan or other native temple. Around the corner was a life-sized nativity scene made of corn husks.

We finally reached Arequipa, where we had just over 2 hours to eat lunch and explore the city centre. The city was founded by the Spanish 1540 and is famous for its architecture as well as its blending of Spanish and indigenous cultures. We’d read that what gave the city its nickname “Ciudad Blanca” (white city) are the many Spanish Colonial buildings constructed from sillar, a pearl-white volcanic stone native to the Andes in this region. Our Peruvian guide had an alternative explanation: the Peruvians of the 1600’s began referring to it as the “white city” because it was inhabited mostly by privileged Spaniards, whose skin was whiter than theirs. Ted did his best to get a cross-section of the sites in photos.

Some of the sillar stone buildings around the central square, including Santa Catalina Church, and the municipal offices.
Christmas decorations in the square. Feliz Navidad!
A Peruvian woman posing with her alpacas. People who live in the highlands always need money…. tourist season at $1USD per photo helps!
Lunch featured potatoes (Peru grows over 3800 varieties – Google it!) and Peruvians’ favourite drink, beer. Notice the multicoloured alstroemeria (“Peruvian lilies”) on the table. They’re my favourite flower, and they are everywhere here – in just about every imaginable colour.

There is no doubt that the city’s main square and surrounding buildings are lovely. I only wish we had had more time before getting back on the bus for the return trip back down to the port. The early evening drive was even more harrowing than the morning’s, since the road was now congested with transport and mining trucks barreling uphill toward us. We arrived back at the ship just as the sun set over the Pacific. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like on that unlit mountain highway after dark.