I think I’d make a good Peruvian taxi driver. I have zero patience, I’m always in a rush and if I can’t get a cup of coffee, I really do want to kill people. I’ve got the car for it too. My old Skoda is just the ticket, although I might need to break the exhaust off to really fit in.
Unlike Chile, Perú is in one big hurry. I noticed it the moment I crossed the border. Whereas Chileans will wait patiently for 3 hours to buy a sandwich without so much as looking at their watch, Peruvians can’t be doing with dallying. At the border they yelled for the bus driver to drive faster, they shouted at the poor soul loading the bags onto the bus, and they stamped down hard on the first sign of faffing amongst fellow passengers.
I wasn’t sure I was going to like Arequipa when I arrived. It had taken forever to get there on a bus without air-con, I smelt horrific after the journey and the first thing I saw in this busy city was a man throwing a well-aimed rock at a stray dog. I thought it wasn’t going to be my kind of town. I was wrong.
Arequipa is noisy and impatient but quite lovely. Ok so the car drivers would rather see you bounce off their bonnets than wait a millisecond for you to cross the road but the city centre is full of handsome squares, dazzling buildings of white volcanic rock and great bars.
I’d arranged to go drinking with Marco, a local Couchsurfer who was happy to show me round town after he finished work. As I checked in at the Casa de los Pingüinos (a lovely mini hotel with hostel prices), I failed miserably in my attempt at explaining the concept of Couchsurfing to the matronly Dutch owner.
“So you’re meeting a Peruvian guy you’ve never met before that you know very little about”
“And you’re going to drink alcohol with this man”.
“And you don’t know where he’s going to take you”.
No. But it’s OK, he’s a Couchsurfer.
“But you’ve never met him!”
Yes, I know. But he’s a Couchsurfer. It’s OK. He’s got good references. Honest.
She looked at me hard, squinting her eyes as if trying to memorise my features so she’d recognise me when the police scooped my body out of the nearby canyon. When I further tried to explain that Couchsurfing was a network of over a million people who let complete strangers stay in their houses for free, she turned pale. She clearly didn’t plan on expecting me to return alive and able to pay the bill later.
As it was, and as expected, I had a great night with Marco and his mates. Perú might not be as rich as Chile, but you wouldn’t know it from the bar scene. On a mid-week night just before Christmas, the bars and clubs were busy with a young crowd. Out on the streets, friends congregated and passed round bottles of rum, women sold cigarettes out of suitcases on street corners and buses rumbled along the cobbles, young boys yelling out the destinations as they went.
I ate my first falafel in a year in a great Turkish joint called Istanbul, had happy hour mojitos in Brujas and ended up drinking Cusqueña in a club where there appeared to be as many people on the stage as off it. Thanks to Marco, a musician who clearly knew absolutely everyone, I was introduced to half the city.
Surprised by my safe return, the hostel had had to hurriedly set me a place for breakfast the next morning. With only 24 hours in Arequipa (hardly time to do it justice), I set out early to see the sights.
First up was the Sanctuaries Andean Museum to see Juanita, the incredibly well preserved mummy of a young girl who was sacrificed by the Incas on the summit of the nearby Ampato Volcano. She was found by a team of anthropologists in 1995 and the museum shows a 20 minute video reconstructing the moment she was ritualistically clubbed over the head before everyone is whisked off on a guided tour. It was all fascinatingly grotesque and it once again made me glad I hadn’t been born an Inca. Too many steps and if the volcano kept erupting, too much chance you might get clobbered to appease the gods.
For a nanosecond I considered becoming a nun in Arequipa. The Santa Catalina Convent was so gorgeous I almost stayed, until I realised I wouldn’t be able to get Pinot Grigio, Radiohead or internet access. I’m not normally the least bit interested in religious buildings but this is a city within a city, as colourful as a Mediterranean village with hidden gardens, flowerpots and quiet courtyards. Closed as a working convent in 1969, it’s now open to the public and has an elegant restaurant tucked away inside that does tasty salads.
Around the old town, Arequipa is a mite touristy (it’s a common stop off on the way to Cusco) but walk a few blocks in any direction and you find the real Perú. There’s no H&M, Starbucks or KFC round here, just small shopping galleries, tiny shops with old-fashioned counters and busy markets. The people here are proud of their city and consider it and themselves to be different from the rest of the country. It’s Perú’s answer to Barcelona, and just like the Catalan capital, I loved it.