Anna Leask

Anna Leask is a police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Peru: Holy ghost of the White City

The historic Arequipa precinct, built from white volcanic stone, is a sight to behold writes Anna Leask.

Majestic churches and citadels and beautiful Spanish baroque architecture, make Arequipa a city full of striking sights. Photo / Thinkstock
Majestic churches and citadels and beautiful Spanish baroque architecture, make Arequipa a city full of striking sights. Photo / Thinkstock

They call it Ciudad Blanca, the White City. And when you find yourself in historic downtown Arequipa, the name rings true.

The precinct is almost entirely made from white sillar volcanic stone, and is a sight to behold. From the majestic churches and pristine colonial buildings to phenomenal Spanish baroque architecture, the white of the city against the lush green backdrop of Peru is stunning to say the least.

Picturesque yet bustling, the city was founded in 1540 and is bursting at the seams with history, culture and colour. So phenomenal is the centre of the city, known as the Main Square, that in 2000 it was declared a World Heritage Site.

On a tour spanning several hours, we found out just why Arequipa, sitting amid three volcanoes and a landscape of terraced farmland, is so special.

We wander through the narrow streets, avoid being hit by frantic Peruvian drivers and make our way to the Santa Catalina Convent.

I won't lie, I've been looking forward to this part of the tour since getting the itinerary and the weeks of anticipation were worth it.

The convent is a citadel - a 20,000sq m walled city inside Arequipa - and once inside it's like being in another world.

Built in 1579, the convent has housed nuns of the Dominican Second Order. About 25 women still live in the convent, aged from 20 to 100.

Beyond the outer walls the convent seems endless. Our tour begins in a long, narrow room with small unfilled windows lining one wall. This is the speaking room where once a month the nuns (who were never allowed to leave the convent) would take visits from family.

We sit and imagine what it would be like to be one of those nuns - confined to this quiet and simple life, and by choice.

Our guide for the day, Veronica, is a nun herself and she explains what life is like.

"We're here to pray. This is what we do, we don't go out. We live her for contemplation, for praying," she tells us, a remarkable calm in her voice.

Although Santa Catalina is open to the public, the current nuns' quarters are not part of the tour. But Veronica leads us to the area where nuns were once housed, split into areas based on their level of "experience".

The first cloister is for novices and painted a brilliant azure blue. Another area is for the professionals, who have multi-room apartments with small kitchens, outdoor areas and even space for a maid.

Each room has the name of the nun engraved in beautiful script over the door, and most have been left set up as they were. The rooms are bare with just a bed, small table, chair and the obligatory religious ornaments and artefacts.

The areas are linked by a network of narrow cobbled streets and signs directing the way to communal areas. The convent boasts a morgue, which I would describe as more of a shrine, and its own cemetery. While the latter is sacred, and a no-go for tourists, the morgue has been left as-is and still holds portraits of all those who died and lay in state in the small white room.

There is also a large communal kitchen, certainly not modern in any way but clearly functional with its large fireplaces and even an ancient water-filtering system.

The bathing area is equally fascinating, if you are as much of a history geek as me. The nuns bathed, fully-clothed, once a month in an large and deep indoor tub. And though cleanliness was next to godliness, modesty won when it came to bathing.

The nuns gardened, laundered, they took in widows and orphans, ran a hospital and prayed their hearts out - and they did it all within the confines of this quaint and quiet convent.

Terracotta-pot lined walls bursting with colourful flowers, streets named after saints; stunning paintings of the Last Supper and rosary; ornate candles and shrines of the Virgin Mary all add to the absolute magic within the walls of Santa Catalina. So serene it was inside the clandestine city that it was a shock to emerge back into busy Arequipa.

But emerge we did, and on to our next stop - the breathtaking Church of the Society of Jesus (website in Spanish). The heady smell of incense weaved its way into our nostrils as we walked into Arequipa's oldest church.

Small rooms to the side of the main chamber were packed with locals, coming in to light their candles and say their after-work prayers, but the church was surprisingly silent.

The art inside the church cannot really be summed up simply. Massive paintings depicting religious scenes - mostly of Jesus and Mary - filled the walls, bordered by intricately detailed frames painted in shimmering gold leaf.

There's a strict "no photos" rule inside Peru's churches - it's all to do with how the flash lighting affects the ancient artwork. But just a few moments inside this beautiful building will imprint the imagery in your mind for life.

My favourite parts of the church were the terrifying carved sculpture of the earthquake god - a charred-black Jesus-esque statue where locals light candles (electronic to protect the art) in a bid to keep Arequipa shake-free. It's had a few devastating quakes over the years, which no one has forgotten. My group decided we'd be remiss not to light a few candles for Christchurch, and hope that the warped earthquake god above us took notice.

And then there was the domed room. Almost destroyed in 1976 after a particularly nasty quake, it took three years to bring the room back to its former glory.

Fresco-style paintings span from the floor to the high-domed ceiling, and it is absolutely striking. Birds, fruit and leaves, all painstakingly painted in vibrant colour, cover the walls and well-placed mirrors allow a better look at some of the more hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. It's very clear to see why this church, because of this spectacular room, is known as South America's Sistine Chapel.

It's fair to say Arequipa is a city where history and art-lovers will have their fill of delights. And after a day of taking it all in, we had the privilege of staying at the gorgeous Libertador Arequipa Ciudad Blanca Hotel. If you're heading to Arequipa, it's definitely worth the spend for even one night at this hotel, which boasts the most luxurious bed I have ever slept in - and some of the best gastronomy in the city.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six flights a week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima and other destinations around Peru, including Arequipa.

Best of the country: Adventure World offers a 12-day/11-night Highlights of Peru tour.

Anna Leask flew to Arequipa courtesy of LAN Airlines. Accommodation was courtesy of Adventure World and Condor Travel.

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