City of white lava

Arequipa: We follow Lake Titicaca, crossing from Bolivia into Peru and spot the difference immediately: rickshaws ply the streets (our first since Asia), the houses appear to be better constructed (more concrete, fitted roofs and less adobe), there are cows grazing rather than just llamas and sheep, and the ubiquitous ‘Evo mas’ (‘vote to keep Evo Morales’) political graffiti is replaced by its Peruvian equivalent and ads for the urine-yellow Inka Cola.

Rickshaws - our first since Asia

Heading west we drive through dry mountain scenery, volcanic craters and the occasional fertile valley, where mountain run-off has been channelled into irrigation schemes that support orchards and cereals. In such places, the steep mountain sides are are array of stone ledges, usable terracing built by people who lived 2400 years ago and maintained over the centuries. Just 45% of these continue to be used, partly because the Spanish diverted water when they came, leaving some terraces thirsty, partly because of climate change and also because many of the pre-Incan and Incan villages were abandoned when the Spanish ordered the population into more easily controllable new towns.

High-plateau lakes

Approaching Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, we drive through a few kilometres of shanty town – hastily built, poor housing with no running water and little power, peopled by campesinos (peasants): migrants from the country’s decades of civil unrest and refugees of the guerrilla conflict with the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorists. The current influx, after greater national stability, is from country people looking to improve their economic prospects. Adding to the shanty town’s ugliness are the multitude of deliberately unfinished buildings, whereby owners avoid paying the tax due on completion of a construction.

Volcanoes line the route
Our bus follows local Peruvians travelling by truck

The city of Arequipa, overlooked by the picture-perfect volcano El Misti and neighbouring high mountain peaks, is a splendid colonial city built from white ‘sillar’ volcanic stone. The main square with it’s large fountain, trees and stone flagging is surrounded by pleasingly proportioned colonnades and an attractive cathedral. Off the square, intricately decorated stone buildings testify to the wealth and importance the city continues to command. Arequipeños are proudly different to the rest of Peru; they speak almost a dialect with many different words, their food is famously spicy and delicious (Nick is a convert to roasted cuy (guinea pig)), and at one time they even introduced a separate flag and passport.

Pigeons mob a fountain in the plaza
European colonnades surround the plaza

We visit the Incan ice princess, a mummified human sacrifice discovered 15 years ago by a German mountaineer atop nearby Nevado Ampato volcano. ‘Juanita’ is an incredible sight, just 14-years-old at her death more than 500 years ago and literally frozen in time. Sitting with her knees bent and her long hair hanging down her back, in her richly woven burial clothes, Juanita is so perfectly preserved that she seems ready to rise up from her icy tomb at any minute.

Lovely courtyard in Yves Klein blue
Peaceful space
Red flowers on blue

Children, always of noble birth, were regularly sacrificed by the Incas to appease their gods, who vented their spleen via natural disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and droughts. The child, Juanita, would have been chosen for her perfect looks and walked from her home to Cuzco for ceremonial preparations, before making the several hundred kilometre journey to Arequipa and then up the more than 6000-metre-volcano to the summit. Here, prayers and rituals would be performed by the priests and the child would be given a sedative and then dealt a fatal blow to the head – Juanita has a crack in her skull above her right eyebrow.

Detail in the sillar stonework
Sillar is a volcanic stone from the area
It is particularly stable in earthquakes - Arequipa gets struck at least once every century

She was discovered in 1992, when ash from an erupting volcano melted the snow around her burial site and dislodged her frozen body. Dozens of similarly sacrificed children have been found on this and other mountain tops: ritualistic murders to pacify supernatural forces, the last and most devastating of which was the arrival of Spanish conquistadors.

Another peaceful courtyard
Details like this are carved in the relatively soft stone
Gold used in colonial churches was usually stolen from Incan buildings
Colonial-era stonemasons used Incan motifs

4 thoughts

  1. I don’t comment that often, but I wanted you to know that I look forward to reading it like no other. The superb combination of evocative writing and stunning photos is almost overwhelming, plus that your point of view is always so honest and refreshing. The trouble is that I suppose now, after some weeks of following your journey, I am become accustomed to the quality, and don’t take the time to say thank you. So I do that now. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with the world.

    1. Thanks so much, that’s a really lovely thing to write. Travelling and writing is an isolated task, and it’s so nice to know that someone enjoys reading what I write!

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