05 June 2012

Arequipa, white city of churches

Arequipa, Peru’s second city, is famous for its white stone buildings, made of sillar, the local volcanic stone – I guess there are some advantages to having a volcano on your back doorstep – well, one anyway!

The buildings are beautiful, and Marianne and I had two whole days to wander around the inner city exploring them. Our first visit was to the Convent of Santa Teresa – or, more correctly, the Monastery of the Unshod Carmelites of Saint Joseph and Saint Theresa. The monastery was founded in 1710 and only partially opened to the public in 2005, as a museum containing hundreds of works of art from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The brochure says that the doors of the bell room are closed at noon ‘to allow one of the nuns to pass unseen to ring the bells for the Angelus, as has been done since 1710’ and ‘from the De Profundis room, one can hear the chant of the nuns praying the sixth hour’. The nuns still make traditional products, which they sell to visitors - Marianne bought some delicately scented rose soap.

The Monastery of San Francisco was originally built in the 16th century but has been badly damaged by several of the large earthquakes that have struck Arequipa over the centuries. There is still a large crack in the cupola but other damage is not easily noticeable. It has a beautiful inner courtyard, and many fine religious artworks and murals. The inner structure of the church is made of brick, giving it a very different, more austere look than the other church interiors.

The Convent of Santa Catalina is like a small town within the city. Founded in 1579 and only opened to the public in 1970, it has whole streets of private cells and apartments built for the cloistered nuns by their families. Part of its beauty lies in the colours of its walls – in some places they have been painted a paprika red, in others a vibrant sky blue, while much is still the white of the sillar stone. The gardens are beautifully planted and the streets, alleyways and window boxes are filled with red geraniums. It was fascinating to explore – around every turning was a new window to look out of, another doorway to peer through – and so many photo opportunities that I took over a hundred pictures.

At the end of our first day of exploring Arequipa, which luckily coincided with National Museums Day so entrance was free, we visited the Santuarios Andinos UCSM Museum and saw there the mummy ‘Juanita’, a young Inca girl who had been sacrificed near the top of the Ampato volcano and was only rediscovered in 1995. I have no photos of that amazing sight but the museum’s website has some images if anyone is interested in learning more of Juanita’s story.

The next morning we began with a small local church dating back to 1582, the Church of Santa Marta. It has exquisite paintings on its ceiling, as you can see from the photo.

We arrived at La Compañίa (the Jesuit Church) from the rear, entering through the cloisters of beautifully carved stone, which now house retail shops and a first-floor café where we enjoyed a cold juice. We also visited the church’s Cúpula Policromada, a stunning chapel with a vividly painted jungle of flowers and birds, and patterns covering its entire surface. Photographs were not permitted but I have to confess that I took a couple surreptitiously. The church itself was in use for a wedding when we first arrived so we returned later in the afternoon for a look. To be honest, although I haven’t included a photo here, I thought the external façade of the building was its most interesting feature.

We had a tour of Arequipa’s Cathedral with a lovely young woman, who came originally from Cusco. It’s a huge building, which has been damaged by fire and earthquakes over the centuries and, climbing up to roof, we were shown the damage to one of the bell towers. Its interior is more simply decorated than many of the other churches – it almost looks like the icing on a cake. The twelve columns surrounding the high altar represent the twelve apostles and are made of Italian marble, and it has the largest organ in South America, now unplayable due to earthquake damage.

The last religious building we visited was the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo, the first convent to be built in Arequipa. It is richly decorated, with an altar framed in gold and many ornate paintings hung on its walls, but by that point we’d seen enough churches to last us a long while, and were happy to head off for a cold beer and dinner before taking overnight buses in separate directions, Marianne to continue her journey through Peru and me to return to Cusco, for work the following Monday. We had enjoyed a delightful two days sightseeing in the beautiful white city of Peru.


  1. Enough now Annie! You know I'm a confirmed Hispanophile and you are giving me itchy feet!

  2. Everyone MUST come to Peru at least once in their lifetime, Simon! And there's nothing wrong with itchy feet.