They say that the grass is always greener on the other side, but almost any Cuscenean would strongly disagree with this statement, especially if they are talking about Arequipa, a city about 7 hours south of Cusco. I secretly suspect that my host mother offered to accompany me to Arequipa just to show the opposite — the grass can never be greener than it is in Cusco.
To travel to Arequipa, aka “The White City” because of the white snowed-covered tops of its surrounding volcanoes as well as a vast number of buildings made of white volcanic material, we took a super comfortable Flores bus. I first entered this city in the Plaza de Armas, which has no similarities with its Cuscenean namesake although it was built in approximately same time period by the Spanish conquistadors.
As we strolled the narrow streets of Arequipa, nibbling on the famous alfajores (typical local treat made with honey or condensed milk), the views of the close volcano ‘Misti’ and the people around us surprised me. “It is like a different country,” I finally concluded out loud. “It IS a different country,” my host mother conveyed. “It’s Arequipa!” By the end of our short visit I was fairly convinced that it could be a different country. As she later explained to me, the White City of Peru is in a very favorable economic position. Some of the most important industries are located in the region, among them the leader of the Peruvian market: lama and alpaca wool production. Arequipa also produces a vast majority of food products, such as famous Iberica chocolate and the aforementioned alfajores. This is quite different from Cusco, which survives mainly on tourism, due to the great heritage left for them by the Incas.
Arequipa is also an important cultural and historic center, although most of the art and architecture dates back to the colonial past. It has a number of excellent museums such as Santuarios Andinos Museum, which draws millions of tourists thanks to its main attraction — a 600-year-old mummy, popularly known as Juanita, preserved by an ancient freezing method. The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is another must-see attraction in the city. Also known as the city within the city, some parts of it still function as a monastery. Arequipa, unlike Cusco, has shopping malls and movie theaters, but lacks the impressive Inca walls and ubiquitous combis that zip through the city center.
Despite the bias that my host mother (born and raised Cuscenean) had, I managed to enjoy Arequipa. However, I must say that it also made me appreciate its unique and charming “rival” Cusco even more.