In Peru, Who Knew?

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 22, 2002

From a green wooden bench in the middle of Arequipa's Plaza de Armas, I took in the scene: a nearly 400-year-old cathedral spanning an entire block, snow-capped volcano rising majestically in the distance, ivory-colored 16th-century mansions, tropical palms and blood-red geraniums everywhere. At that moment, every step of my journey to this southern Peruvian outpost seemed worthwhile: the overnight plane trip from Miami, the connection in Lima, the 75-minute flight over the naked brown Andes. This, I realized, was one of the best-preserved enclaves of colonial culture I'd seen in all of South America.

Unwittingly, I had stumbled into one of those untrammeled corners of the globe that travelers dream of discovering. During my week in this dazzling city, I sampled soup made of river shrimp and other local delicacies; stared into the eyes of a 500-year-old mummy; toured a magnificent 16th-century convent sprawling over five acres; walked beneath portals decorated with antique brass lamps crafted by Spaniards in the mid-1500s; and journeyed across the mountains to watch condors swoop into a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon and every bit as breathtaking.

Arequipa, Peru's second-largest city (after Lima) with a population of 1 million, has been largely overlooked by American travelers. Even adventurous types who have climbed to the top of Machu Picchu, toured Cusco and other remnants of the Inca empire or trekked through the Andes have only a vague sense of its appeal. And that's a blessing -- because its unique combination of colonial buildings, hearty cuisine, welcoming residents and dramatic vistas would ordinarily draw bus loads of tourists.

As the only real urban enclave in the southern part of this mountainous country, Arequipa is an industrial center. Local workers refine copper, weave coats and other clothing from alpaca, and craft leather into fine handbags and wallets. Farmers from the surrounding villages come to trade their fruit, vegetables, sheep and goats in the city's markets. For all that, to a newcomer the place has the intimacy of a small town.

The lack of tourists is one reason. As a friend and I traipsed along the cobblestone streets, we encountered the odd pair of backpackers from Hamburg or group of missionaries from Liverpool. But in the Calle de los Artensanos, a marketplace lined with handmade leather goods, lamps and alpaca sweaters, we were practically the only shoppers, allowing me to haggle the seller of a $300 handmade satchel down to $50. In the Church of San Francisco, constructed in the late 16th century, we sat in total solitude. At one restaurant, we looked up from heaping plates of spicy grilled pork to realize we were the only patrons in the place. By the end of the week, I found myself wearing that glow that diamond diggers must get when they cut through solid rock and suddenly strike something glittery.

I exaggerate, but only slightly. There's a tourism industry here: more than two dozen hotels and guesthouses, English-speaking guides at the ready, a visitors information center right off the main square, even kids handing out pamphlets for restaurants offering a "turist menu." The streets, cafes and stores are often packed with locals of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, a proud race of mestizos who dress in bold colors and hold their heads proudly. Friendly and curious, they warm quickly to strangers. When I wandered down Avenida Dolores, a boulevard bustling with clubs and cafes, locals stopped me every few minutes to strike up a conversation.

But foreign visitation, dampened by the terrorism that gripped this region until the early 1990s, is a relatively new thing. It was less than 20 years ago, for example, that a couple of adventurous backpackers from Poland discovered Colca Canyon, the gorge a day's ride away that draws most travelers to this part of Peru.

I confess that I had to be coaxed into coming here. My friend Elio, who was born in a mountain village not far from Arequipa before immigrating to the United States, invited me to accompany him on a trip home. The cuisine would be as fine as any in Paris, he promised, the architecture as original as any this side of Buenos Aires, and the locals as doting as long-lost kin. Although I finally agreed to come, I brushed off the accolades as the boosterism of a patriot. I was wrong.

A Taste of Arequipa

One step off the plane and we were already called to the table. A caravan of cars had arrived to meet us -- Elio's brother Damaso and brother-in-law Gilberto, assorted cousins, nephews, cousins and their offspring.

"Julia would have come," someone said apologetically, "but she had to stay back to prepare the ceviche."

And so before I could learn everyone's names, I was hunched over a bowl of trout yanked from the river that morning and marinated in lime. In this land where ceviche was invented, this was the best I'd ever had -- the beginning of a sublime week of dining. An invitation to cousin Blanca's house for a memorable lunch of shrimp stew was followed by a supper of plum soup at Damaso's. Gilberto made tasty fresh tamales for breakfast, and then Julia whipped up a mouthwatering chicken stew for lunch.

"We realize that we don't have the wealth of some other parts of the world," Julia explained as she served heaping plates of fried pork for dinner one evening. "But we like to think that our cuisine is something that the rest of the world doesn't have."

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