Our taxi driver has jumped out of the car and is now moving the temporary bollards that prevent traffic flowing towards the central Plaza de Armas, Arequipa. As we watch him strain to shift the sizable blocks, wondering whether this is standard protocol in Peru, we nervously mutter to each other that we should really just get out and walk the final short block to our hotel. Before we can reach a decision though, he's back behind the wheel and drives us approximately 20m to another set of bollards (which he doesn't move - clearly one set is his limit). Having paid the full taxi fare at the airport, we thank him and start to head off - but hang on, he's still talking to us. We turn around to see him standing with his open palm thrust forward, presumably asking for a tip for his efforts towards thwarting Peruvian traffic control. So we give him a handful of soles and we're about to head off on our way...

But then the cheeky bastard shakes a finger at us and argues until we, our Spanish being limited to a handful of words that don't include "pull the other one mate", give him another full fare!

Needless to say, I'm in a bad mood when we arrive at our hotel, La Plaza Arequipa Hotel Boutique. However it quickly dissipates when we step out onto the balcony that overlooks the main plaza, with a direct view of the palatial cathedral which, over the following days, we watch as it cycles through all the different shades of sunlight. (Ok, admittedly my bad mood hangs around a bit longer, but it sounds nicer to say that it was alleviated by the hotel.) We are greeted with a welcome cup of coca tea, an infusion made from the dried leaves of the plant that gave the world cocaine and which is frequently used as an antidote to altitude sickness. Whilst I sip mine delicately, hoping it will banish the strange, raw feeling in my head, Michele is consulting a map and drawing up an action plan for the next few days.

This plan consists largely of museums and monasteries, for behind Arequipa's bright white walls lie countless of these hidden treasures. The first one we visit is the San Francisco Church and Monastery where we are introduced for the first time to the Virgen Dolorosa, a haunting depiction of the Virign Mary swathed in black with her hands clasped to her chest and seven swords protruding from her heart. In a room off the red-tiled cloisters, we find a glass cabinet filled with the luxuriously embellished outfits that another effigy of the Virgin Mary is dressed in on rotation. It's a simple and peaceful place; we are the only visitors and aside from a woman who unlocks the sequential doors for us and a gardener who carefully tends to the plants in the cloister, the entire place is empty.

This can't be said of other attractions in Arequipa. Most famous of all is the Monasterio de SantaCatalina, which we visit first thing on our first full day in order to dedicate enough time to this sprawling citadel, richly painted in azure and burnt ochre. As we walk through into the first cloister, a group of multilingual guides sit in the shade, waiting to take visitors on an hour-long tour for an extra fee. We opt to explore on our own, although I later realise that there is far more to learn about the convent than we gleaned from our visit.

Over the next few hours, we amble through a maze of passageways, visiting the rooms that the nuns would have lived out their devotion in. The rooms are often bare but aesthetically pleasing, reminiscent of our time in Southern Italy, with worn brick floors and smooth white walls, dark wooden bed frames and pale blue shutters. The rooms for the novice nuns, who would have lived here for four years before progressing onto the next cloister, are more sumptuously decorated with the relative luxuries of bedspreads and curtains. Further into the heart of the convent, a day room for the nuns to socialise together seems almost outlandishly opulent with its satiny wall hangings and plump cushions. However, the things that strike us as most interesting of all are the facilities that enabled the nuns' everyday lives; the scorched black kitchens where the sweet smokiness of hundreds of fires still lingers, and the vast terracotta washing bowls that more closely resemble a work of art than a place for such mundane tasks as laundry.

Small pockets of the Monasterio allow for a moment of peace; a bench in the shade of a tree, or a terrace with a view across the city's low rooftops to the grand Misti volcano that dominates the skyline. Just like the city of Arequipa itself, there are endless little courtyards to be discovered behind the smooth, secretive walls that line the alleyways of the convent, named as they are after the Spanish cities from whence their creators came; Cordova, Toledo, Granada. We finish our tour in a long, cool hallway filled with the shadowy paintings of the convent.

We leave the Monasterio for a late lunch at Dimas, a smart little restaurant hidden in one of Arequipa's typical enclosed courtyards. Having dined the day before at the much lauded Chicha (which we found to be a confusing mix of high-end service and decor, but bland and chain-like food), Dimas allows us to feel that we are sampling something a little more authentic, even if we are on the most well-trodden path of the Gringo Trail. My sea bass is a little overcooked but the beautifully-presented dish is tasty with well-seasoned vegetables and mango salsa. Dessert is a rich scoop of chocolate mousse - whilst the vegetarian options are scarce throughout our month-long trip, the supply of high quality chocolate is never-ending (on which note - Chaqchao and oCacao are the places for chocolate caliente in Arequipa). We pair it all, of course, with deliciously fresh Pisco Sours.
On our second and final full day, we head out of the city centre in search of the best views Arequipa has to offer. Whilst most travellers would opt to take a tour bus up to Yanahuara, we decide to walk in order to get a firmer grasp on what Arequipa is really like. Passing from the central plaza, along cobbled streets of low-slung white buildings, the offerings evolve from glass fronted tourist cafes to cave-like local eateries with menus scrawled on whiteboards and eventually to the closed doors of the residents' homes. Crossing over the Rio Chili, with an uninterrupted view of the Misti volcano, hazy with distance, we begin to climb upwards along pockmarked streets. The pavements are empty and the doors are closed but little signs of life are revealed through the songs of caged birds drifting out from between the shutters.

By the time we reach Yanahuara, the plaza in the sky, the “artesans” (and make of the “” what you will) are unpacking their wares beneath a relentless sun. There are a handful of other visitors admiring the view over the white city, but it’s hard to understand why so many tourist trinkets are being laid out on display in this isolated spot. We observe the panorama for a couple of minutes (although having already looked out across this low-rise city from the roof of Santa Catalina, the thing that grabs my attention most is the sign for the Pisco and wine museum) before sitting in the leafy shade of the palm trees in the centre of this plaza. From here, we are afforded a pleasant view of shaded lawns, sweet bursts of hydrangea colour, and the sillar arches of the mirador, constructed in Arequipa’s famous volcanic stone.

We also soon learn why so many stalls have been set up upon the mirador; coach-loads of tourists begin to swoop into the plaza, belching out crowds of visitors for a quick look at the view. I'm partially envious of the little pots of ice cream that are handed out to them by their guides and partially relieved that we can sit on our quiet little bench in the shade for as along as we like whilst they're herded past. From there, we take a downhill stroll to the Monasterio de la Recoleta which is a decidedly less frequented spot (although undeservedly so). From the street, a large tomato coloured church overshadows the comparatively plain monastery. We pay for our tickets and spend a little while chatting in an Italian/Spanish hybrid with the lively young man on the desk who points out the route to follow around the monastery and then around the city itself, with a particular focus on the pizzerie owned by his Italian friends. 

Like the Franciscan monastery of the day before, the entire place is deserted, giving us a fairly decent idea of what it would have been like to live here in total silence. And there's something else about this Monasterio that gives you a feeling of being in total, raw contact with the past. Perhaps it's the countless museum exhibits which look as though they were put there at least 70 years ago, perhaps it's the black and white photos of the monks themselves that line some of the walls, perhaps it's the feeling that nothing has been updated or restructured or beautified for the visitors. We see startling mummies and broad alligator skins and a dark and intriguing nativity scene made up of thousands of little pieces. We visit a dimly-lit and densely-packed library with 20,000 books, some of which are centuries old. We climb the rickety stairs to the bell tower where the views are somehow more impressive than they were from Yanahuara.

In the afternoon, we cross back over the river in pursuit of more history. A leisurely wander around the gorgeous colonial home, Casa de Moral, results in serious house envy and an up-close encounter with a troop of hummingbirds, one of whom swoops in through the doorway of the dining room and begins to buzz from one end of the house to the other. Whilst my first impression of Arequipa's architecture had been that it was closed-off and uninviting, stepping through these light, airy rooms elucidates a whole other side to the city; one of tall windows and pleasant, cool courtyards to enjoy on a sunny day. We leave as the sky begins to tinge with pink and rush down to the Museo Santuarios Andinos to meet Juanita. The museum is only accessible with a guided tour and we're lucky enough to catch one of the last English tours of the day, which starts with a short film about the Andean ice maiden and the expedition which led to her discovery. Visitors are guided around exhibits of the artefacts found close to where her body was found before the final room reveals her petrified face from behind the glass walls of a cabinet, the rest of her body encased in ice to preserve her as well as possible. I'm surprised at the extent to which Juanita's story moves me - there is something so poignant about the tale of a girl who was raised to be a sacrifice to the Gods, who bravely made the journey on foot above the clouds to her death, who was left in a shallow grave on the mountain to appease the deities but who was then brought back down from her intended resting place with the Gods after hundreds of years. Her mission and destiny now seemingly undone.


It is here that our time in Arequipa draws to a close. We spend the evening walking around the white blocks of the city, marvelling at the sheer quantity of opticians (seriously, it's alarming) before ending up in the Victoria Picanteria Democratica for dinner in a courtyard aglow with fairylights. The atmosphere is strangely fraught as the waiters run around in silent stress but otherwise everything is wonderful, from the effort that goes into preparing me a vegetarian meal off-menu, to the complimentary drinks we receive after a slight delay in Michele's meal (which, given that it's guinea pig, is a blessing in disguise as it means I can finish my food in peace before his alarming dish arrives). And then, the head waiter whips out his guitar and begins to sing beautiful melodies into the night, bringing the history of this kind of establishment back to life.

The next morning we rise far too early for our bus to Colca Canyon. The breakfast at the hotel is still being prepared, so we sip on more coca tea in preparation for the day's altitude gain and wait. And then we hear the sound of a brass band on the wind, which begins to build and grow - slowly, the deserted piazza below begins to fill with men in military uniforms performing the week's exercises. And the sun peeks over the cathedral and chases away the blue light to start a fresh new day.