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Arequipa Peru

Peru: Arequipa
August 3-5, 2009


We arrived in Arequipa around 2:30 pm.  We got an apathetic taxi driver who claimed to know where our hostel was, but had no clue.  Once again, I, the tourist, had to take out my map and help the local taxi driver find the right street.  In the end, he let us off two blocks away because it was a one-way street and he didn’t want to circle around.  Which was, actually, understandable.  Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, with a population approaching a million.  The traffic was horrendous, as was the pollution.  Arequipa is a very dry city and is sparsely vegetated.  There was only one decrepit palm tree poking above the city.

We checked into our colorfully painted hostel and Maria showed us our room.  I asked if we needed to come down and fill in our passport numbers, but she said something about resting.  I thought she meant us, but it turns out she meant herself because for the remainder of the day, her teenage sons ran the hostel.  It appeared a little of the Arcaro Travel Luck was returning, because our room had a large window with views of Mt. Misti, the snow-capped volcano that kept watch over Arequipa.  Our bathroom also had a window, so it was possible to sit on the toilet and have a view of snow-capped mountains at the same time. 

Our room had other perks too, such as a shelf, a chair, a TV, an end table, and even an extra bed for our luggage to sleep on.  Our rooms up to this point had been Spartan, solely containing beds, so all this extra furniture was a luxury.  The room had its pitfalls though.  For example, in order to get the faucet to come on, we had to turn the screw with the screwdriver on Zac’s little leatherman knife.  In the course of our stay, the mirror fell off the wall and the handle fell off the toilet.  We had to sleep with the bathroom door closed to drown out the metronome of toilet noises.  We couldn’t get the shower to spew hot water until one of the hostel sons came and showed us the procedure.  We also asked him for some toilet paper, since the room had not come with any. 


Traffic in Arequipa

window in our hostel room

View of Mt. Misti from our window

bedroom at our hostel

View of mountains from our window

balcony at our hostel


We headed back out and found a late lunch in a little sandwich shop.  I had chicken salad and Zac had a hamburger.  Once fed, we walked through the city in the direction of the market.  It was housed in a giant building, and the entire area around it was filled with small shops as well.  The market was shutting down when we got there, but we still got a glimpse of its grandeur.  It was nice to be in a market that was not in the least way oriented towards tourists. 

We were tired of being on the tourist treadmill and Arequipa was a great city to get off of it.  It was big enough that we could escape the tourist district and still have stuff to do, yet it was small enough that we could walk around.  In fact, one of the most vibrant places in the city was a big empty spot on the Lonely Planet map.  Probably for this reason we seemed to be the only tourists there.  We just enjoyed wandering around, feeling like we were having authentic experiences rather than ones fabricated for us.  It was on this wandering that we tried the only street food of the whole trip that we wouldn’t care to have again: a waffle dog.  That’s right.  Picture a corn dog, but instead of the corn casing, put a waffle.  Then squirt some mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard on top.  They were very popular amongst the locals though.

We finally settled on a rotisserie chicken restaurant for supper located on a street filled with chicken restaurants.  These restaurants could be considered the traditional fast food of Peru.  There are set menus to choose from, the equivalent of our fast food combo meals where you get a sandwich, fries and a drink. We’d seen them throughout our trip, but had eschewed them as some sort of revenge on that first rotisserie chicken restaurant in Lima where the waiter wouldn’t give me what I wanted.  Irrational, I know.  At this restaurant, with a very nice waiter, we each ordered the “1/4 pollo, papas fritas, ensalada, y refresca”.  So we each got a fourth of a rotisseried chicken, fries, salad and Cokes.  I was disappointed to get a Coke, since the picture showed Inka Cola and our Inka Cola days were waning, but Zac reassured me that it was ok, saying, “Coke is different here.  It has real sugar instead of corn syrup.”

After supper we wandered around some more, and on our way back to our hostel (I used the map to make sure we took a different route each time) we stumbled upon a grocery store—only the second of our trip.  True to form, we walked around inside for a long time, looking at everything.  We bought a lot of snacks, and when we got back to our room I lined up everything on our shelf and felt like I had my own shop, except everything was now free.

We awoke the next morning to the call and response of roosters and car alarms above the low hum of traffic.  Getting up at seven still felt like sleeping in after so many early risings.  We were going to stay in Arequipa for two full days and take a night bus to Pisco.  So we actually had time to relax–no bus to catch, no tour to rush off to.  I’d originally put Arequipa on our itinerary not just because I liked the idea of looking at a snow-capped volcano, but also because it was a launch point for excursions to Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world.  But seeing dozens of tourist agencies hawking the same tours repulsed us.   We knew what to expect: a tour guide with poor English leading a group far too large on some rushed hike where we’d barely to get see anything before being rushed off to the restaurant or souvenir market.   So we decided to just hang out in Arequipa for two days and be our own tour guides.

El Molina de Sabandia

Our goal Tuesday morning was to go to El Molina de Sabandia, a restored mill on the outskirts of Arequipa, in a suburb called Paucarpata.  We could have just taken a cab there, but the Lonely Planet gave some directions on how to get there via a combi, the big vans that ply set routes and charge a fraction of what taxi fare would be.  Since we had plenty of time and were intent on having more authentic experiences, we set out walking figuring we could get there one way or another.  Not far from our hostel, we stopped at a pastry shop for breakfast.  I had a coconut custardish thing, and Zac had some chocolate cake ball that was too rich even for him. 

Duly sugared up, we had to walk pretty far to get to the area where we were supposed to be able to find the combis.  I needed a bathroom at some point along the way, having drank a lot of juice from my shop back at the hostel.  Sometimes I feel like all my traveling can be summed up as a an eternal quest for a bathroom.  There are always toilets at restaurants, tourist attractions, and bus stations, but if you’re just wandering around the city, it can be difficult.  Luckily, Zac and I hit upon a clever idea.  We could pay a small fee to use the internet at one of the ubiquitous internet cafes, and use the bathroom there.  Ironically, it was actually cheaper to do this than to pay the public restroom entrance fee.

We eventually made it to a part of town where we started to see combis, so we figured we were on the right track.  I started asking people where I could find the combi to El Molina de Sabandia.  Like in Lima, I didn’t really understand their responses, but we went in the direction they pointed.  This time, it was with far more success.  We finally hit upon a man who indicated that we were on the right street.  He even waited with us until the correct combi appeared.  We got on and rode merrily through Arequipa, feeling very proud of ourselves.  The driver’s helper (the one who shouts for passengers, opens and closes the sliding door, and collects money) eventually indicated that we were at our stop.  He pointed down a dusty road.  We got out and walked down that dusty road.  Sure enough, we arrived at the mill.  It was almost disappointingly easy.

From what I can translate from the Spanish on the back of my ticket, the mill was built in 1621 and rescued from ruins in 1973.  The mill was currently functional, although it didn’t appear to be operational.  Zac even found some corn laying around and tossed it under the rotating grindstone.  The grounds were very pretty—there was grass and the stream was lined with willow trees.  There was no tour, and we were free to wander around as we pleased.  We ate some snacks we’d brought with us while looking at the waterfall, which, inexplicably, had a syringe entangled in the grasses at the top.  This really bothered Zac.

chicken salad

waffle dog

chicken restaurant

my own cuca shop

Plaza de Armas in Arequipa

Plaza de Armas in Arequipa


the water that powered the mill

walk to the mill



El Molina de Sabandia

the mill stone

the waterfall

horseback riding outside the mill

 purple corn chips

Trees!  So rare in Arequipa

Cacti collection at the mill

Virgin protector


After the mill, we walked toward what we guessed was the center of Paucarpata, thinking it would be nice to have lunch there.  Unfortunately, the plaza was completely deserted and we didn’t find any open restaurants.  We weren’t sure which combi to take back, and there was no one to help us, so we just stood by the road and hailed the first one to come by.  I said we needed to go to “Arequipa, cerca del Plaza de Armas”.  At first the driver’s helper appeared to decline us, but then some passengers appeared to intervene, reminding him that the route did go close to the Plaza de Armas.  So we scrambled aboard, figuring we’d end up somewhere.

It was a much different route than the one we’d taken there, and at one point it went by an even larger and more interesting looking market than the one we’d seen the day before.  We started to get off, but some other passengers wildly protested.  When we seemed undeterred, they said emphatically, “Cuidado! Cuidado!”  They were telling us to be careful.  I started to have my doubts, thinking that we’d made it this far without ever getting robbed, and perhaps now wasn’t a good time to start.  We decided to stay on the bus until they told us to get off.  A while later, they indicated it was our stop, and we followed the driver helper’s hand signals to walk uphill.  Sure enough, it took us right to the Plaza de Armas.  This little journey demonstrated the heartening side of travel.  For every tout that sells you a crappy tour, for every taxi driver that increases the fare because you are a tourist, there are ordinary people on the street who help you get the ride combi, and people who advise you to not get off at the market they deem too dangerous for tourists.  So there are the exploiters and the protectors, the devils and the angels. 


local beer

Sera snacks on popcorn bought from a street vendor

Zac looks at his devil’s spaghetti with trepidation

Juanita, the ice princess

After a light lunch of chicken sandwiches, beer, and fruit juice, we walked to the Museo de la Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria, where, for $5, we could see the frozen mummy of Juanita the ice princess.  Her body was found on Mount Ampato (near Arequipa) in 1995 by Johan Reinhard.  According to our tour guide, she lived as a maiden in the Incan empire, where she would have been raised to be a sacrifice for the gods.  At about age 12, she was taken to the top of the mountain, given alcohol, then had her head bashed in.  She laid frozen in the fetal position for about 500 years on top of that mountain until Johan came along and found her.  He christened her “Jaunita”—a sort of egotistical “mini-me”.   The part that impressed me the most was that these crazy Incan people were out climbing on top of 21,000 foot snow-capped mountains without crampons or thermal sleeping bags.

After the museum, we continued our Arequipan wanderings, then took a taxi to the bus station to purchase our ticket to Pisco.  Pisco is a little off the main road, and I found a bus company that claimed to go directly to Pisco rather than just dropping us off at the side of the main road where we’d have to get a taxi into town.  On our way back up to the center of town, we had a friendly taxi driver.  Using our cave-man Spanish, we chatted about travel and cars.  We supped at a rooftop tourist restaurant near the Plaza de Armas where we ordered off the cheaper set menu.  Zac had “the devil’s spaghetti” which turned out to be incredibly spicy while I had boring, but palatable, chicken.  Our meal was preceded by a delicious asparagus soup.

Breakfast brawl

The next morning, we packed up our belongings and checked out of our room.  We were able to store our bags in the hostel office since our bus wasn’t until 9pm.  We found a little restaurant offering breakfast just around the corner from our hostel.  After an old man left, we were the only people there.  We were served bread, coffee (Nescafe), jam, real butter (a first!), eggs and juice.  But the real highlight, even better than the real butter, was the two year old restaurant kid.  She talked to us, and I ignored her in the beginning because I couldn’t understand anything except “mantequilla” and I thought perhaps she was some incarnation of Krishna and she was after our butter.  But then she asked our names, and I asked hers (something that sounded like Jane).  Then she brought out a little advertisement magazine and began ripping out pages.  It all went downhill from there, as she and Zac proceeded to have a very animated paper fight.  She crawled around on the floor, hid behind tables and chairs, and giggled and babbled incessantly.  When Zac went to the restroom, I took over the paper-ball fight duties.  Of course, that’s when her mom / our waitress came out and scolded her.  She was subdued, but when her mom went back in the kitchen, she cautiously, rebelliously, threw a few balls of paper at me.  It was the most delightful way to start the day—a wonderful little non-fabricated experience.


Our goal for the day was to walk to the suburb of Yanahuara.  There were directions in the Lonely Planet, and after our success from the day before, we felt confident.  Plus, in Arequipa the air and traffic are very bad, so an excursion to a quiet suburb sounded nice.  On the walk there, we had to cross a bridge that should have been heavily trafficked, but we noticed police had closed it off and were diverting traffic else where.  Of course, we had no idea why, but we looked around and all the pedestrians were walking across it like normal, so we did too. 

A little further on, we began to understand why traffic was being diverted.  There appeared to be a large construction worker protest going on in front of the police station.  We stopped at a safe distance and watched for a while, but not much appeared to be happening.  The police that were redirecting traffic seemed calm.  We deemed it safe to continue walking, as all the other pedestrians were, and we continued on the sidewalk, right behind the protest.  There were a lot of police and a lot of people with big sticks, some with nails stuck into them.  I was terrified, but kept walking calmly.  After we passed through unscathed, Zac and I both breathed huge sighs of relief.   

Our route then turned up into a peaceful neighborhood, eventually culminating in a beautiful palm-filled plaza with excellent views of Mt. Misti and the surrounding ranges.  We sat on a bench facing a bright yellow municipal building and ate some snacks we’d brought with us.  We wandered over to the stone arches that so perfectly framed the mountains, and then wandered over to the really old church and had a look at it.  We used an internet bathroom that actually had a toilet seat, which was exciting.  Having exhausted all there was to do (alas, the suburbs are perhaps a little too peaceful) we headed back down a different street.  Where it met the main road, we found an nice little enclosed market selling a lot of toys and some food.  Zac bought a Simpsons en Machu Picchu DVD from a vendor for a dollar.  In the hour or two that we’d be gone, the protest had cleared up and traffic was back to normal.




Back near the Plaza de Armas, we went up a different street and found lunch at a lovely little hole in the wall restaurant for only four soles ($1.30) each.  The set menu came with a generous bowl of soup, a main dish (Zac: chicken and rice; Sera: beans and rice), juice, and a banana.  We also ordered an Inka Cola to share.  This was our cheapest meal so far.  Why hadn’t we been able to find restaurants like this the whole trip?

After lunch, we walked back to the market and went up to the second level so we could have a good view of the whole place.  We ended up spending several minutes overlooking a smoothie stand.  This was the most complicated smoothie we’d ever seen being made, and we made up an interior monologue for the woman making it. 



cheapest lunch




smoothie stand

produce and flowers



 Outside of the market, we bought some queso helado from a vendor.  I’d been seeing this around for the past day, but as it translates to “cheese ice cream”, I’d been avoiding it.  However, this lady assured me it didn’t actually have any cheese in it, so we tried some.  It was delicious homemade-tasting ice cream.  So don’t judge a food by it’s name, I guess.

By this time, we’d decided two and half whole days in the same city was really way too much time.  We’d felt rushed before, but now we felt bored.  To kill some time, we went up to one of the balcony restaurants overlooking the Plaza de Armas.  Zac had coffee, I had tea, and we split a lemon pie.  The lemon pie, one of the cheapest things on the menu, cost eight soles, the same as the two meals we’d gotten for lunch.  Location, location, location.  We loitered up there for at least an hour, watching tour busses unload, probably back from Colca Canyon.  To pass the time, we’d try and guess which tourist would be most likely to get robbed.  We ate supper in a candle lit restaurant, not far from our hostel, that had no other customers.  I had chicken noodle soup and spaghetti; Zac had avocado salad and chicken. 

It was finally time to take a taxi to the bus station.  Throughout the whole trip, our hostel hosts tried to warn us that taxi drivers were not to be trusted and we should always get the number off the side of their door.  I felt bad for the taxi drivers, being treated like criminals this way, and we always felt perfectly safe with them.  But this ride to the bus station was scary.  Our driver didn’t go the way the other drivers had, and he kept turning down deserted streets.  We had all our stuff with us, and I was beginning to suspect he was going to take us to some friends of his who would rob us.  Our suspicions, fueled by cautionary hostel owners, were completely unfounded.  This guy just knew how to avoid traffic jams, and safely deposited us outside the bus station in record time.

I checked in at our bus station desk, and the lady said that our bus had changed.  We would now be leaving at 10:30 (which in reality became 11:30pm).  I was beginning to realize that Peru Rail’s rigidity had its advantages.  We had nothing to do but sit at the bus station and read for three hours until our bus came.

queso helado

Sera buys fried dough from a street vendor in Arequipa

street food

Nearly all the lights in Peru were the new energy efficient kind

Sera tries on a hat/face mask at a tourist shop
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