We landed in Arequipa on a clear and crisp morning in May. The Andes mountains, purple and white-capped, cut against the deep-blue cloudless sky. A taxi took us to a downtown hotel converted from a magnificent house built in the eighteenth century. Downtown Arequipa reminded us of old Spanish towns like Cordoba and Segovia. Squat houses with iron-wrought windows and lace-like carved facades painted white, blue, or yellow. The Main Square or Plaza de Armas, more beautiful than Madrid’s, is festooned on all sides by graceful arches shining white in the sun. The arches are built with lava blocks, the preferred building material of older Arequipa.
We settled in our hotel and started to explore the many sights of this beautiful city. Walking the maze of courtyards and pathways of sixteenth century Monasterio Santa Catalina one reverts to the time of Spanish conquistadores and viceroys. Strolling the streets of old Arequipa is a feast to the eyes, and palate. My wife and daughter discovered an ice cream parlor, very clean and airy. It had quaint iron-legged marble-topped tables, just as you’d find in a Vienna pastry shop. It sold _queso helado_,’ a local delicacy made with frozen milk topped with cinnamon. We finished with an _alfajor_,’ a sort of cookie filled with a creamy confection made with milk cream and molasses that betrayed its origin in medieval Arab-influenced Andalusia. My daughter was beaming, my wife was content. When we paid and left, my wife inadvertently dropped a 100 soles bill on the floor. A waiter at the parlor found it and ran a block up the street to find us and return it. The young man’s honesty was a pleasant surprise.
Our first day in Arequipa had been good. In the following days we enjoyed the many sights of this beautiful city and experienced little acts of neighborly courtesy. We visited the central market, a cavernous structure where every possible kind of foodstuff is sold by good-natured, portly ladies wearing floppy straw hats and long colorful conical shaped robes. When we tried to pay with wrong denomination bills, they laughingly corrected us and took the right amount from my extended hand full of coins, all the while making admiring comments about my daughter, the preciosa Rusita,’ the beautiful Russian little girl. My daughter ate it with a spoon. One day we got lost in the maze of twisting streets in the old town of San Lazaro and an elderly gentleman we met insisted in walking with us for several blocks to be sure’ we found our hotel.
We left Arequipa with a renewed sense of kinship with the people of this kind and proud city. At dawn on a crisp and clear day we jumped on a minibus headed for the Colca Canyon. The road twisted and climbed for four hours amid natural scenes of incredible beauty. We felt quite insignificant in this world of towering mountains and tall deep-blue skies. The road climbed to a spot 15,000 feet above sea level. I feared that my wife and daughter, used to St Petersburg’s sea-level life, would feel dazed and uncomfortable. They were elated. Our driver asked my daughter to built a small pile of rocks on the hillside, one among thousands in a forest of rock piles, as an ancient indian symbol expressing oneness with the earth and the desire to return to the place one day. The child’s shining gaze told of her excitement and interest in the moment.
Our descent from this point to the green valley below reminded me of a trip I once took to Nepal. It was my turn to feel elated. The valley was deep and narrow, a river ran in the valley amid white boulders that shone in the sun. On each side of the river the hillsides were carved into dozens of terraces, green and yellow with grass and barley. Cattle graced in the alfalfa fields. As we descended, the town of Chivay grew larger and shone in the midday sun. Chivay is a small and colorful town that dates back to the sixteenth century, a Spanish outpost in their conquest of the Andean hinterlands. It is a delightful mixture of Spanish and indian cultures. A church with whitewashed walls dominates the main square and, nearby, an Spanish-built single-arch stone bridge gracefully spans the river, still intact despite time and earthquakes. Llamas and alpacas roam the streets herded by young girls in multicolored dresses and bowler hats.
After lunch we left Chivay for our lodge down the narrow valley…
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