In Peru, you never know what to wear. Shade’s too cold, sun’s too hot, one minute, it’s foggy, windy and drizzling, the next, dry and blazing hot.
The coast crosses to the mountains and the mountains to the jungle, and as the altitude goes up and down, so do rain clothes, sunny-day clothes and cold-weather clothes.
In a small country like mine, when it rains, it rains all over; when it’s sunny, it’s sunny all over. Summers are not too hot, winters are not too cold, mountains not too high, valleys not too deep. A rolling countryside, with an occasional height anomaly, nothing extreme – a perfect place for someone who loves four seasons, regularity and variety.
Peru, on its part, has three climatic and topographical zones that couldn’t be more different: the Amazon selva that is shared by various countries, the coastal zone we just left behind, and the rugged sierra belt that cuts across Peru from north to south like a giant backbone.
Overnight, we climbed from 0 altitude to 7,600 feet above sea level, swapping the flat, monotonous desert for the dynamic geography of mountains and volcanoes.
It feels as if the block of earth we’re standing on has been ejected a mile high!
We get off the bus just as the white city of Arequipa starts to wake up. We gather our gear, down one Inca Kola, split our stash of coca chewing gum to get rid of morning breath, and walk out into the Andean sun, pouring in through the terminal’s windows.
It’s a whole new landscape outside.
The faded, colorless sky is gone, replaced by an intense, bright blue hue with white fluffy clouds close enough to touch. The eventless, flat horizon has come alive with staggeringly tall cones of mountain volcanos and snow-capped peaks, overlooking small pueblos with cultivated Inca terraces.
This radical transformation wouldn’t be complete without green hillslopes, large open fields and crispy air; thrown in for good measure is a feeling of weightlessness.
We’re in the Andes, the home of the Inca!
Three hundred days of sunshine a year – that’s what it’s like to live in Arequipa, the second-largest city of Peru.
We’re at almost 8,000 feet above sea level, with one and a half mile between us and the surface of the Earth.
“You’ll get used to it,” laughs Pablo during our city walk when I can’t stop wheezing and panting like an old cardiac (damn, the myth of human body at high altitudes is not a myth!).
“Wait tomorrow when we get even higher. Colca Canyon is at 12,000 feet!”
Good thing this place has so many nice areas to catch my breath and rest, like the small artisan market next to the San Francisco monastery near the main square. Selling local textiles and alpaca products, I could easily rest here for half a day!
Called the world’s capital of the alpaca, Arequipa is famous not only for the countless plazas, cobbled streets, multiple courtyards and cloistered gardens of the Santa Catalina monastery, the largest monastery in South America, but also for the wool products that range from boutique-style, fine apparel to synthetic cheapos in tourist markets. Sold by cute indigenous ladies in red-layered skirts and wide embroidered hats, we’re all sporting Andean-style textile bags and water bottle holders the next day.
That’s the South America how I imagined it!
The old part of the “white city,” as Arequipa is called because of the white volcanic rock sillar from which the buildings are built, represents the prototype of Spanish colonial architecture.
The main Plaza de Armas (how did you guess?) is one of the most picturesque and symmetric plazas in South America. Ringed on three sides by arcades, restaurants and rooftop bars, it has a dramatic cathedral stretching the length of the fourth, with a stunning backdrop of mountains and snow-capped volcanoes. The plaza is especially spectacular at night when all the lights come on.
Several things in this city take me by surprise.
First, local rubbish trucks that play the tune Under the Sea while collecting garbage.
Second, almost every other place on the street is a laundry service, an Internet café or a copy center.
Third, certain local food specialties really shake my world.
“Are you coming with me to see the famous Santa Catalina Monastery?” I ask Pablo, when the walking tour is over and we have picked up our ironed laundry, sent home a bunch of emails and printed out new tour info.
“No,” he shakes his head. “I’ve got stuff to take care of for the Colca Canyon trip tomorrow. Besides, I hate going to those places. Everybody thinks I’m a tourist and tries to sell me all kinds of stuff, like sunglasses or sweaters, or is asking for money.”
I look at him, puzzled.
“I look white,” is all he says. “ Like a gringo.”
Pablo has jet-black hair, dark eyes and olive skin.
Maybe, Colombians are like Arequipeños, I speculate while getting lost inside the maze of arched cloisters, nuns’ kitchens, wood-carved confessionals, silence patios and orange tree gardens of the Santa Catalina monastery furnished with English carpets, silk curtains, porcelain plates, damask tablecloths and silver cutlery.
They, too, consider themselves direct descendants of the Spanish colonists and think they’re whiter than the rest of Peru.
Soon, I find out that it’s not just them. Apparently, half of the Brazilian population identify themselves as white, as do 80% of Costa Ricans, Argentinians, and Uruguayans.
That makes some of the South American countries “whiter” than the United States or the European Union average.
Pretty amazing, how words can take on “a different coloration” in distinct places.
And not just words.
“What do you recommend I try?” I ask Pablo at dinner, leaving my choice to him.
I should know better.
But I didn’t learn my lesson back in Lima, when he made me eat ceviche, Peru’s national dish, basically a raw fish in lime juice.
(Jesus! What am I, a cave man who doesn’t know how to start a fire?!)
Being Czech, the only fish I’d ever had until recently was the traditional fried carp filet we have for Christmas dinner. Not exactly a classy fish, I know, and full of annoying bones, too, but traditions are traditions.
Halibut, cod, sturgeon, catfish – I don’t speak the language of your tribe!
So, when a small, fried corpse with a corn cob on the side, rings of onion over its belly and a whole carrot in its wide-open mouth lands on the table before me, I’m not alarmed. I even manage to squeeze out a laugh at the sight of its outstretched legs and staring eyes.
“It’s cuy,” Pablo says. “A fried guinea pig, Andean specialty. Muy rico.”
I hold my breath.
Is it even legal to eat guinea pigs?!
Not that it has that much meat on it, anyway.
Must be the painkillers he took, I watch Gerry whose balls are big enough to give it a shot, as he gets ready for the meager-fleshed animal. That same afternoon, I had to take him to a dentist because he had a bad toothache, and look at him now – chomping happily away on the poor pet now that all the pain’s gone!
When he’s done, he has to order a second meal because he still feels hungry.
Fourth, the world-famous Juanita museum that is really cold inside.
Not so surprising, if you think about it – Juanita is the frozen mummy of an Inca girl, sacrificed as an offering to mountain gods, when she was approximately 13 years old.
“A favorite teachers’ place for high-school field trips,” Pablo chuckles at me.
He’s good with his jokes – there’s always a teacher or two on his tour!