Walking through the colonial-era streets of Arequipa, you can sense this history with every step. But don’t stop here: visit the nearby natural areas, such as the Colca Canyon, to sense the great history of this area.
Arequipa was one of the most important regions of Peru’s Spanish Viceroyalty. Vigorous mining and other methods of exploitation allowed the Spanish Empire to build the ostentatious city. But, long before this, the area was domesticated by nomadic tribes, who were hunter and gathers, domesticated animals such as llamas and built agricultural terraces surrounding the Chili River.
When the Inca arrived to the area, the employed mitmaes, which involved the forced migration and resettlement of families or ethnic groups to newly conquered lands.
Upon the arrival of the Spanish, they built a city from sillar rock: a white, porous volcanic stone that gives a unique beauty to structures. With this unique stone, they built baroque, rococo and neoclassical convents side by side.
A strategic setting for trade
The city of Arequipa is only four hours from the coast. For this reason, and its proximity to the highlands of Cusco, the Inca included the area in the western section of the Qhapaq Ñan (the Inca road system). The Spanish, therefore, established the city of Arequipa in a place that was already important to the Incas for trade and communication.
One of the most outstanding of the buildings is the Church of the Company of Jesus, built in 1698, which has a finely carved facade, and interior decoration that includes work by the Italian Bernardo Bitti as well as images of plants, animals, and scenes from the Andean cosmovisions.
The Santa Catalina Convent is also worth mentioning. It was built with the layout of a small town. They named the streets after Spanish cities, and you can still visit cells that were once occupied by nuns. In 1970 the city opened its cloisters, lanes, gardens, vegetable plots, chapels, cells, kitchens and its magnificent collection of religious art for the public.
Arequipa’s many opulent townhouses and other buildings were not erected by chance. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Arequipa was one of the Spanish Empire’s most important trade centers, thanks to its textiles, manufacturing, and above all its minerals. The region offered connections between Cusco, Puno, and Bolivia. Although the mining crisis resulting from the struggle for independence, the city recovered quickly with the development of the alpaca fiber trade, which was fueled by demand for wool from factories in England.
Into the countryside: Colca Canyon and beyond
Arequipa’s most important resources were not in the city itself, but in the surrounding countryside in the ancient lands of the Collaguas and Cabanas (the original inhabitants of the zone), which were later occupied the Incas. A visit to the Colca Valley is essential in order to understand the deep history of the area, which is located 140 kilometers away from Arequipa. The Colca Valley has some exceptional scenery, from a canyon 3,400 meters deep to the plains ofPampa Cañahuas, surrounded by volcanoes up to 6,400 meters in height. The traditions of its original inhabitants and the remains of pre-Hispanic cultures make Colca an almost surreal destination.
Suggestions for visiting the Colca Canyon
Start by visiting the Cruz del Condor, a viewpoint from which you can see wild condors overflying a vast open space stretching as far as the river. From there you can go to the ancient farming communities of Chivay, Yanque, Maca, Cabanaconde, and Coporaque, where Catholicism made its mark in the form of churches far larger and more ostentatious than the size of the villages seemed to warrant. This demonstrates the economic importance that the area had for the Spanish. These churches were built on the orders of Viceroy Toledo at the end of the 16th Century with the intention of Christianizing the indigenous people, collecting taxes, and organizing forced labor in nearby mines. Except for the extensive and ancient terraced fields, there is almost nothing left of pre-Hispanic cultures anywhere near these villages.
This is why the stone citadel of Uyo Uyo, located in the district of Yanque, stands out as an important site for tourists to visit. This complex of 45 structures, covering an area of some 10,000 square meters was built by the pre-Inca Collagua ethnic group, which lived in the upper part of the valley while the Cabanas lived in the valley floor. The two groups not only spoke different languages, and were from a totally different culture. Their descendants still live here, and the Collagua women distinguish themselves by wearing white cylindrical hats with appliqué decoration, while the Cabana women wear oval felt hats and clothes embroidered in dark colors.
Credit: Ultimate Journeys Peru
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