The Valley of Wonders: A Weekend in Arequipa

Natasha Pate is a student at University of North Carolina – Wilmington and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is studying abroad with ISA in Lima, Peru.

Arequipa is the capital and largest city in the Arequipa Region, located in the south of Peru. Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel Literature Prize-winning novelist and native to the city, called the region the “Valle de Maravillas” (Valley of Wonders) because of its impressive natural and cultural landscapes. After Peru gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Arequipa was declared the capital city from 1835-1883. It is the second largest city in Peru, behind the present-day capital of Lima.

The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa in the Plaza de Armas

The historic center of Arequipa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is often referred to as “The White City” because many buildings, including the Basilica Cathedral, are made of ashlar, a white or pink volcanic stone whose softness allowed for an anti-seismic construction solution. Parts of the Santa Catalina Monastery, a sprawling convent founded in 1579, were also constructed from ashlar after an earthquake severely damaged buildings previously made from brick and tile. The convent is open to the public and nuns still live and work there today.

A mandate for silence inside the monastery

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Incas had a strong presence in the Arequipa region. The Andean Sanctuaries Museum, also located in the historic center, houses Juanita, a young girl sacrificed by the Incas. She was found in 1995 on the Ampato mountain, about 60 miles from the city center. The neighboring Sabancaya Volcano erupted, causing the glacier covering Ampato to melt and Juanita to be revealed. Since this discovery, many other sacrificed children have been found on mountains throughout the former Inca Empire.

View of Misti Volcano from the Mirador Yanahuara

Outside of the city lies the Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world. Here, local people still practice terrace farming and traditional ways of life, including lively dances. It is also home to the awe-inspiring condor. On a lucky day, condors can be seen soaring through the valley from the Cruz del Condor viewpoint.

A condor takes flight over the Colca Canyon

Other inhabitants of the valley include llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. Vicuñas, unlike their camelid relatives, are not domesticated and are protected by law because of the demand for their world-renowned wool. They were endangered but the population has recovered thanks to conservation efforts, including the creation of the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve. The reserve encourages cooperation between residents, police and visitors to protect the vicuñas and ensure the valley thrives for generations to come.

Llamas and vicuñas graze in the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve

The world awaits…discover it.

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