Is there a pleasure quite as intense for a motorcycle traveller as waking up free of an intense and distracting illness? You’ve spent days unable to focus on your trip, revolted by food you’ve dreamed of tasting and greeting spectacular views with a hot vertigo that leaves you clutching the handlebar of your bike in a vain attempt to extract some pleasure, or at least interest, from the road. You’ve been dry-swallowing the tablets that are supposed to make you feel better because at least that way you can keep them down.
And then the day dawns without the thumping headache that has made you see torn dark clouds everywhere ahead on the road. Suddenly you are free, feeling light and ready to get out and do stuff instead of creeping into a cool corner and hoping for sleep. If you are very fortunate, this will happen to you in Arequipa in Peru, as it did to me.
Arequipa sits at 2335 metres above sea level, effectively on the slopes of El Misti, the 5822-metre volcano which guards the city to the north-east. It was founded on August 15, 1540, under the name of “Beautiful Villa of Our Lady of the Assumption” in the name of Marquis Francisco Pizarro. A lovely name, bestowed by a swineherd become conquistador. Pizarro was one of four illegitimate half-brothers, all of whom were involved in the conquest of the Inca. Francisco, then governor of Peru, was assassinated in Lima in 1551. He did not record his experiences first-hand; he was illiterate.
The city kept its pretty name for only a year. On September 22, 1541, King Carlos V ordered that it be called the “City of Arequipa” instead, an adaptation of the local Aymara and Quechua name Ariqipa. The Spanish Crown subsequently honored Arequipa with titles such as “Very Noble and Very Loyal” and in the Republican era, it was awarded the title of “Heroic city of the freedom people of Arequipa”.
None of which prepares you for the beauty of the city. Its historic center has deservedly been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And despite being a major destination for national and international tourism, Arequipa has managed to pull off a trick that few other cities in the same situation have been able to maintain. It remains itself, not a tourist replica of itself. Despite the many cafés and tourist shops, you never feel as if you’re a tourist yourself. You are a visitor to a real city which happens to open itself to you.
The central square is a garden, surrounded by the religious, viceregal and republican architecture which is a mixture of Spanish and local characteristics and makes up a style called Arequipeña School. As in any South American city, the traffic mills around the square in a never-ending passeggiata, but it gracefully allows pedestrians to dodge its flow. Police on small but fully equipped Honda bikes assess the flow but rarely interrupt it.
One of the most popular dishes in the many restaurants which fill the second-floor colonnades of the buildings around the square is rocoto relleno, which began in Arequipa. It is named after the pepper which is its main ingredient. This looks like a bell pepper but tastes like a hot one. It is stuffed with ground beef, onions, garlic, and some vegetables; add a bit of cheese, throw it in the oven, and you have Arequipa’s most famous dish. Usually it is served with pastel de papa, a layered dish like lasagne but made up only of cheese, eggs and potatoes.
Arequipa has been called the most architecturally beautiful city in the world with its archways, cobblestone avenues, grand cathedrals, the austere monastery of Santa Catalina as well as that perfectly designed central square, all still in impeccable condition. Most beautiful might be pushing it a little, but Arequipa presents its beauty so consistently that you would be hard put to cavil.
Nearly attractions include the guardian El Misti volcano, Colca Canyon with its giant Andean condors as well as the many historic sites in the city including the Museo Santuarios Andinos where you can learn the story of Juanita the “Inca Ice Maiden.”
Most of the roads around are in good condition and the climate is ideal for motorcycling. Warm, dry days are followed by cool, crisp nights. The average high throughout the year varies by only one degree Celsius at 21–22°C, 70–72°F. It rains on average all of 8mm per month.
Sadly, I only had a couple of days in Arequipa before the – suddenly highly enjoyable, because I was well again – fast ride down to the coast. But it is one of the places I would like very much to revisit. Maybe when this virus is finally under control…
Photos The Bear