Arequipa, Peru: 11-13 March 2015

Arequipa, Peru

11 march 2015 –
8:27 – waiting in the Irish cafe on the main avenue in Copacabana. It’s my last day in Bolivia and here are the famous road delays they warned me about: the main street running down to the water, usually loud with the shouts of bus company employees pushing tickets out of town – today it’s silent. The cafe owner tells me the local government neglected to connect running water for a nearby community, and they’re blocking several of the roads to the Peruvian border in protest.

8:57 – in the main square I find the Irish couple I met in the cafe and together we negotiate a minivan to the border with a driver who claims he can get us there on back roads. Our driver Luis checks the radio and asks police at a roundabout where there’s an open road to the border. We’re on a rutted muddy country lane for about a kilometer, then a wider paved road littered with debris. We see people running along this road – young people, teenagers, with racing numbers pinned to their stomachs. I ask Luis about this – is it part of the protest, or an unrelated race? He says it’s a race of some kind but I don’t completely understand his answer. He seems intent on driving so I don’t press it. As we get further from Copacabana I start to see the real signs of the blockade – old brick buildings torn down, bricks scattered across the road, trees pulled over to block the lanes. More teenagers racing. Luis stops the van in front of a large group of men and women gathered with a Bolivian flag outside a government building. He says this is as far as he can drive us; “they’ll stop us if we try to go further.” But a few of the men on the edge of the group wave us through. Luis drives carefully past, everyone waving us on. “Que suerte”.

Past the blockade more bricks and trees scatter the road but it’s only a few minutes more before we’re at the Bolivian exit migration office and shaking hands with Luis and shouldering our backpacks and heading inside.

The office is quiet – the tourist buses won’t go along the roads that Luis knows, so there aren’t many people passing through today. We’re stamped out with no fuss, and we exit Bolivia on foot, walking the 100 meters down the road and through an arch and into Peru, where we get stamped in just as quickly. An enterprising taxi driver asks where we’re going. “Puno” we say – a town a couple of hours away where we can catch buses to other parts of Peru. He says he’ll take us for 5 soles (about $2). This seems great. He drives for about 5 blocks and stops. “Here’s the bus for Puno,” he tells us. I sigh.

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12:15 – the minivan we eventually find near the border stops at a terminal in Puno. It’s a local terminal so we get directions for the inter-city buses and walk the few blocks there. The buildings around the terminal are bare, raw red brick and exposed cement and concrete, bare rebar sticking out the top. The road is broken gravel and mud. I pass a heap of trash and rubbish and quickly glance away as I see a young boy squatting to defecate in the tall grass. Supposedly Bolivia is poorer than Peru but this part of Peru certainly looks worse.

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At the terminal I find a cheap bus to Arequipa. As I board, the bus drivers use a little hand-held video camera to film me (and the rest of the passengers) as I write my name on the passenger list and I get on the bus to find a comfortable seat on the second floor.

14:19 I look up from my book and find we’re passing through a perfect grid of industrial brick buildings. At regular intervals a side street opens up and I see it goes on perfectly straight for dozens of blocks. I can see the hills at the edge of town but I can’t see far enough along the side roads to see where they end. Each street is equally long and straight and busy. Once we pass a stadium with SAN ISIDRO written on the side.

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The afternoon deepens and the landscape changes, becoming more beautiful and more open. Rolling green hills and mountains host herds of sheep and alpacas. As we turn west a mountain range rears up ahead of us, sharp peaks dusted with ice. I see a solitary cone away to the south that looks like a volcano. Behind the mountains, the sky lights up with a brilliant sunset.

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An hour after dark we’re in Arequipa. I get a fleeting impression of narrow streets and bright streetlights and screaming taxis jamming the avenues, and then I’m stepping into a cool colonial house divided into dormitories, and because they overbooked I’m in a private room for the night, and I’m tired from my journey and curling up to sleep.

12 march 2015
I wake up early and make myself breakfast and sit on the terrace at the hostel drinking coffee and watching the morning haze rise. In the mornings in Arequipa I would go to the central market just as the stalls were opening and hear the vendors greeting each other and smell the fresh bread and fruit, and I would buy some brown eggs in a little plastic bag and a fresh mango and cook the eggs with tomatoes and onions and garlic and eat them on the terrace at the hostel where I was staying. From the terrace I could see the volcanoes early in the morning before the air got bright and hazy: Chachani which is a series of peaks all together; Misti which is a huge cone off by itself; and sometimes the little cluster of peaks further south called Picchu Picchu.

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Arequipa by daylight is lovely. I could see the buildings downtown, all white, crowding together. Here and there are the stone towers of cathedrals and churches. On the other side of the hostel’s wall is the flat roof to an old spanish-style building with a tiled courtyard and wide stone steps leading up to a promenade. Farther out I could see the buildings march away into the hills, becoming more modern and less beautiful as they fade.

Out from the hostel I turn right and walk down to a wide pedestrian avenue lined with modern-looking chic clothing stores, high-end pharmacies, and little pastry shops. The pedestrian street opens onto the principal Plaza de Armas, dominated at one end by a huge stone cathedral and lined on the other three sides by airy colonnades. Hordes of pigeons splash in the central fountain tucked among tall palm trees.

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From the plaza I turn east and walk along a cool street of big square buildings made out of white stone. As I pass huge, two-story arched entrances, I look inside and see dark stone entrances that open up into bright courtyards.

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Around the entrances to these huge doors, which once led into the houses of rich Peruvian aristocrats, stone carvings mix Spanish baroque ornaments with designs from the indigenous cultures living here when the conquistadores arrived.

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In the afternoon I take a free walking tour. Our guide points out the white volcanic rocks that were used to construct the old aristocratic houses and are now broken into small pieces to line modern buildings. He tells us about the people who lived here before the conquistadores – prior to the rise of the Inka empire, people farmed here in small villages. The mild climate attracted Inka explorers and so they stayed, relocating the existing population to other areas of the Inka empire. Arequipa was conquered like the rest of Peru, and eventually freed from colonial rule like the rest of Latin America, and remained a small rich town until the 1970s, when the city exploded in a manufacturing boom. This part of Arequipa’s history is written in the shabby, industrial suburbs that grew rapidly out from the pretty colonial center.

We tour old streets that date back to the 16th-century founding of the city, visit a little alpaca wool workshop, and do a quick food tasting of potatoes, chocolate, Pisco.

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Late in the day I find a restaurant serving an enormous fixed-price menu del dia for 12 soles – there’s a little ceviche appetizer, a bowl of rice soup with a chicken leg in it, a huge plate of rice and potatoes with chicken breast, and purple corn pudding for desert. As much steak as I are and loved in Argentina, and as much as I enjoyed the market chicken in Bolivia, I think Peru has the best food of all the countries I’ve visited in South America.

13 march 2015
This morning I finish the last of my coffee as the outlines of the volcanoes disappear into the haze and pollution as the day warms up. The sunny terrace starts to get too hot after a couple of hours, so I come down and finish packing my things to leave behind the reception desk at the hostel while I take a day trip to a nearby hot spring. The French receptionist gives me directions to the buses going to Yura and the hot springs. “We went there once… but they were closed,” he tells me in Spanish. “We got there too late. You should go now.”

10:45 – I get into a city bus for Yura and pay two Soles to the bus assistant whose job is to yell YURA! out the door as we pass groups of people on the street, and to collect money. The bus driver is a talkative older man who can’t stop laughing as we’re driving off. He bought a bicycle horn to replace the bus’s regular horn and he’s giving himself the giggles honking the bicycle horn out the window of the bus.

It’s an hour to Yura, and we pass over the Grau bridge and head uphill past the airport and into the manufacturing sector of town, which is barren and industrial looking as you might expect. The suburbs keep going and getting poorer and people get on and off. When old men or ladies with little children get on I give up my seat. Once I sit down next to a man about my age and we introduce ourselves. He’s from Trujillo, visiting Arequipa for a law seminar, and is on the way to the hot spring too.

After the corrugated metal outskirts of Arequipa finally peter out, we drive along a gently curving highway through dry desert hills dotted with grimy kiosks until we come to a narrow valley. Just as we come around a curve I see a series of pretty, tallish adobe and stone buildings in a kind of colonial style. There’s a flagstone walkway next to a map showing a layout of the small town, with hiking and horse trails leading up to Inka ruins in the mountains. I wander into the hotel with Alberto, my friend from the bus, to buy tickets for the hot spring.

There are four pools in the complex but none of them are natural like the springs I’m used to in Nevada. Alberto wants the swimming pool but I veto this, remembering the spring Patrick and I went to with children wearing swimming diapers and flailing pool toys at each other and the pool so packed with people that there wasn’t a foot of space. I think the bath with five separate pools looks the best, least likely to be full of screaming children.

Because this spring is part of a resort complex and not an undeveloped pool like I’m used to, the baths are indoors and we have to pay 1.50 soles extra for bathing caps. I put mine on and feel like I’m in the 1950s and dip into the first pool. The water is tepid and smells of sulfur and I come out shivering. The plaque by this pool says the water relieves rheumatism. The following pool, which is even cooler, is supposed to relieve gastrointestinal complaints, so I shiver there for ten minutes and try to explain celiac disease in Spanish to Alberto. The next pool, which is the hottest, claims to soothe arthritis. I don’t have arthritis but I stay in this pool for a long while anyway to keep warm. The water in this pool is being aerated somehow and fizzes like a soda (perhaps this is good for arthtitis). The last two pools are even colder and are meant to relieve eye complaints. I dutifully dunk my head under the cold water and open my eyes to check if I still need my glasses when I come out. My vision has not improved so I go back to the hottest pool and talk with Alberto for another hour.

If you don’t have a better option for going to a hot spring, this one isn’t bad. I don’t have a lot of faith in the supposed curative properties of hot springs – besides the mental and physical benefits of feeling relaxed and happy, and the lithium content of some natural pools which do have antipsychotic properties – so for me this was more of a curiosity and a nice way to spend the morning.

For lunch Alberto and I eat at a restaurant across from the pools (I order a ceviche that nearly brings tears to my eyes) and catch a bus going back to Arequipa. Next to me on the bus is an old lady who talks longingly about how much she would like to go to the US to work, but can’t get the proper visa. It’s a story I’ve heard from a lot of Peruvians. There’s no work in a Peru, they say.

Back in Arequipa I grab my backpack from the hostel and wave down a taxi and pay the driver extra because he talks to me about his family and his kids (both in their 20s) working in mines and the tiny salary he makes each month, and then in the terminal I find a bus leaving for cusco in 10 minutes that has cama beds for cheap, so I pay a little extra for a fancy leather seat in the lower floor of the bus and settle in to a kind of tired stupor as the light outside fades and the long miles roll away under the bus wheels to Cusco.

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