For some reason, Arequipa in Peru reminds me of Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings.
The fact that the very impressive gothic cathedral in the heart of the city, and indeed, much of the rest of the city centre itself, is made of sillar – a white volcanic rock and that it bears more than a passing resemblance to the castle of Minas Tirith could have something to do with that perception.
Also called ‘The White City’ (incidentally, not the first ‘White City’ we’ve come across, the other being Sucre in Bolivia), Arequipa and its sillar constructed historic city centre is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Prominent every direction you look in the city, are the surrounding volcanoes of El Misti, PichuPichu and Chachani, which form a stunning and slightly ominous backdrop to the city. The volcanic landscape provided the city with a virtually inexhaustible supply of the volcanic rock sillar, which incidentally, apart from being plentiful, is also an ideally strong and porous building material for an earthquake prone region. The white volcanic rock is also responsible for the ‘white’ in White City.
The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa
Destroyed twice and damaged numerous times by earthquake and fire in its 350 year history, the Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa was last rebuilt in 1868 and has been standing ever since. The magnificent cathedral has been built-in the colonial gothic style with strong French influences, which explains the relatively light and airy interior. Inca motifs of corn and jaguars can also be spotted amongst the many intricate carvings in the sacred space.
Priceless wood carvings and an altar made of Carrara marble grace the cathedral. I spent some time walking around, just taking in the serene atmosphere and stopping for a quick prayer.
A city within a city – Santa Catalina Monastery
One unmissable highlight of Arequipa is the colonial era Dominican monastery of Santa Catalina just a short walk from the centre of the city. Occupying a large city block, the high walls of the monastery keep the Dominican nuns that lived there in the past and present away from the prying eyes of the city. Early in its history, it was occupied by wealthy nuns (if ever there was an oxymoron), daughters of the Spanish elite, who brought with them fine paintings, china, pianos, clothes and other accoutrements of fine living with them to the monastery. They lived in separate ‘houses’ within the vast complex, each replete with a private kitchen and usually servants quarters.
The excesses were finally banned by the Vatican and the nuns eventually adopted a more humble communal lifestyle more in line with their religious calling.
The beautiful monastery still has reminders of times more opulent, with its stunning cloisters, and numerous individual ‘residences’ belonging to the nuns. Visiting them took me back into the past, into a world all but lost today.
I left my job as an advertising Creative Director in August 2012 to travel Africa and South America for a year with my wife, documenting these beautiful places with my Fuji X-Pro1. View the rest of my RTW adventures on Handcarry Only and come along with me on my journey by following me on Twitter, liking HcO’s Facebook page or subscribing via email.