Next stop, Arequipa. Flying in to the airport we saw the unmistakeable conical lines of Misti Volcano and a sprawling, spread out city. We arrived at Hotel Maison d’Elise with its pretty, Mediterranean style rooms, Cable TV and lovely en-suite bathroom quite early in the afternoon, so wandered out into the city. Narrow, cobbled streets, white buildings and the huge Plaza des Armas bustling with noise; cars hooting and policemen blowing whistles while the Cathedral and colonnaded buildings stand stately and elegant. The building stone is white, volcanic sandstone and some of the Church facades and graceful colonial buildings are quite magnificent in their ornate carving. The city is spoiled for pedestrians by the local male habit of using Church walls, convent walls, Bridge walls – indeed any walls – for relieving themselves. With 360 days of sunshine the concentrated urine smell is quite overpowering in side roads and on corners. Most unpleasant, almost worse than a French pissoir!
There are two notable places to mention in Arequipa, the Ice Maiden Museum and the Santa Catalina Convent.
The story of the Inca Maiden is well presented in the Museo Santuarios de Altura. Situated in one of the lovely old, colonial houses is the bizarre treble glass (or Perspex?) case containing the eerily grinning, frozen, mummy – “Juanita” or the ‘Ampato Maiden’. Every 5 hours she is re-frozen to maintain her condition and we had to peer at her before the glass covered with ice crystals. She was apparently buried in a pit on the top of the Ampato Mountain some 500-600 years ago, wearing fine Inca clothing, gold pins and surrounded by various semi-precious artefacts as a sacrifice to the God of the Mountain. A pure, unblemished child, drugged on coca leaves, semi-frozen after the cold trek to the top of the mountain and then bashed on the head with a hammer. “Juanita” was found in 1995 after a volcanic eruption on a neighbouring volcano caused ash to melt some of the snow on Ampato and reveal the mummy. At the end of the visit we sat through a National Geographic film about the find; the studies, the theories and the findings. It also had a reconstruction of the ritual sacrifice – what a lonely and terrible journey to one’s death.
Not quite so bad was the self-inflicted seclusion of the nuns of Santa Catalina Convent. For four centuries the nuns there took vows of poverty, celibacy and devotion. Meeting with the public was not allowed, and even gifts brought to the nuns were put in a dumb waiter cupboard that revolved so the recipients couldn’t see the donors.
The Convent itself was a miniature town with courtyards, cobbled streets, cloisters and Church plus living quarters and kitchens. The Novices Cloister, painted white and terracotta, had 56 pictorial depictions of the stations of the rosary round the upper walls – lest we forget? Another courtyard with religious paintings, painted a beautiful blue and white with red geraniums and an orange tree in the middle. We kept turning the left (the simplest way not to get lost!) and wandered at our own pace through small rooms with bleak wooden platforms for beds; kitchens open to the sky with kleftico ovens and blackened pots; a small, gloomy little chapel of rest where nuns were laid on a wooden bier, surrounded by paintings of previously deceased nuns, prior to being buried and two echoing, vaulted dormitories. The small narrow streets were photogenic in the sunshine, the garden a place of solitude and peace and the laundry quite fascinating with about 18 large, earthenware bowls each with cold water pipe and plug. (I’d rather have been a cooking nun than a washing nun!) The main Church was somewhat gaudy – fairy lights and 2 fairy angels surmounting the altar and case upon case of seriously gloomy models of Christ. Favourite was Christ with blood – bloody head and thorns, bloody spots on hands, body and feet, gashes of red on torso etc. Second favourite – Mary in extravagant dresses and pained expression.
A fascinating look into a life now totally disappeared – solitude, silence, privation (squat loos etc.) praying and eating.
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