Trying to Think Like a Local: Studying Spanish in Arequipa

A loose collection of my experiences studying Spanish in Arequipa, Peru's more relaxed and pleasant city.

Studying Spanish at Llama Education: A Highly Enjoyable Experience

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Owen Lipsett on February 3, 2010

Although it's easily the most pleasant place I've spent time in Southern Peru, my purpose in coming to Arequipa was to improve my Spanish rather than to sightsee. Indeed, the two can be mutually exclusive to a certain degree. Cuzco attracts far more English-speakers visitors (a fair number of whom come to study Spanish) and as a result its economy revolves around tourism. It's quite easy to function there without speaking much if any Spanish. By contrast, while every other building in Central Arequipa appears to be a travel agency, its relative paucity of visitors and status as Southern Peru's economic capital means they're absorbed into a much more authentic milieu. I was aware of this phenomenon and it was one of the primary reasons I chose to study in Arequipa.

I'm very glad that I did as it's afforded me much more of an insight into Peruvian life and culture, especially middle class culture (since Arequipa has a more sizable middle class than other Peruvian cities) than I'd experience in a prior visit to Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, and Lima. Much of this has come directly from my classes at Llama Education, the Spanish school where I've lived and studied in a quiet area approximately 15 minutes by bus from the center of Arequipa. However a great deal of it has come from simply the experience of living here

The school itself has been an outstanding experience due to the efforts of the owner, Maria Huaman Enriquez, an economist who previously worked at a bank before opening the school and also a mystic travel agency (she's always happy to discuss and explain Andean religion to students). Her career change illustrates an important point about Peru's economy - tourism appears, even in Arequipa, to be the most consistently profitable business. Furthermore, tourist enterprises don't have to pay taxes, a far cry from the high hotel taxes that appear to be the norm throughout the rest of South America and the world. I specifically chose Llama Education because it offered more of a personal touch than others, which appear content simply to offer the four hours of daily classes and perhaps arrange a homestay, but not to offer advice or emergency assistance of any kind.

By contrast, Maria accompanied both me and other students for nearly every errand imaginable, regardless of whether they are staying at the school itself. (The school occupies one floor of her house, the student quarters another.) The quality of instruction has also been excellent, and when I felt that one teacher did not teach in a manner that fit with my particular learning style, Maria insisted on teaching me personally, which has been quite a pleasure in it as it's afforded me the opportunity to hear her considerable knowledge about various aspects of Peruvian life.

I couldn't recommend the school more highly, while Maria is extremely accomodating I would recommend booking far in advance if you'd like to stay in her home (at the school) as the rooms tend to fill up quickly. Also, in the spirit of Maria's helpfulness I'd like to close with two safety tips that she tells every student. First, only take radio taxis that have been called by phone in Arequipa - I know of both visitors and locals who have been kidnapped by unscrupulous cab drivers. Second, don't walk around the center of the city alone after dark.

A Brief Introduction to Peruvian Food

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Owen Lipsett on February 3, 2010

Although it's justifiably growing in popularity abroad, too often Peruvian food either calls to mind either inexpensive pollo a la brasa (spit roasted chicken) or expensive (outside of Peru) ceviche (raw fish "cooked" in lemon juice sometimes mixed with aji). In honor Arequipa's status as Peru's culinary capital (home to its best and most original food as opposed to most famous restaurants), here's a brief list of some typical Peruvian foods you may (or may not) have heard of.

Cuy: Okay, I'll get this one out of the way first. Peruvians eat guinea pigs. But keep in mind that they were dinner for thousands of years before they became pets, since they're easy to raise and relatively nutritious. The sight of one cooking, particularly the claws, isn't too appetizing and they're relatively expensive, particularly considering how difficult it is to get what little meat there is off their bones. As the saying goes, they taste like chicken.

Chancho asado: Chancho is the Peruvian word for pig (known elsewhere as porco, puerco, or cerdo) and like its smaller namesake it's easy to raise. I'm not usually fond of pork in the least, but unless you have religious or hygienic exceptions to eating pigs it's worth trying this dish, which is the flesh of a spit roasted pig cooked in spices. What are known as "pork rinds" (fried pork skin) in North America are sold here as the hugely popular chicharrones.

Rocotos rellenos: At its best, Peruvian food can be quite spicy and no dish is quite spicy as one involving rocoto peppers (which are also offered in slices to spice up soups). The best of them is this traditional Ariquipeñan delicacy which involves cleaning the peppers of their spicy seeds and filling them with seasoned chopped beef (and sometimes vegetables).

Arroz chaufa; Peru has a huge ethnic Chinese community, descended from laborers who came in the 19th century to build the railroads. (However, ex-President Alberto Fujimori is of Japanese, not Chinese descent, despite being nicknamed "El Chino.") While chifas (Peruvian Chinese restaurants) are more ubiquitous than their North American counterparts, their most famous dish, a Peruvian take on what's known as fried rice in North America has become so mainstream that many traditional Peruvian restaurant offer it as well. It' tastiest with a dab or two of aji (Peruvian hot pepper sauce.)

This is only a small selection of Peru's rich traditional cuisine that I've come across in Arequipa. If you'd like to try a range of these dishes at once, it's best to visit a picanteria (literally a "spicy spot") and order a doble, triple, or Americano platter which contains portions of several. Be sure to wash it down with a traditional Peruvian beverage such as chicha morada (a drink made by soaking purple corn in water with sugar and spices) or chica jora (a fermented version of chicha morada made with mashed corn and fruit). It'll set you up nicely for a nice of imbibing Pisco sours or Peru libres (Pisco and cola) - if this leaves you with a hangover, well that's what ceviche was (literally) invented for or you could try a spicy adobo soup for the same purpose!

Arequipa's Best Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Owen Lipsett on February 3, 2010

Over five hundred years ago, the Inca residents of the area around Arequipa were suffering from poor harvests. The reason, they believed, was that their gods were angry that they had no received the proper veneration. To appease them, the Incas brought a young girl of noble blood to the volcano of Ampato and sacrificed and buried her at its summit. This museum amply explains why the Incas made a sacrifice, why they chose a young girl (nicknamed Juanita), and why they chose to sacrifice her on a mountain.

While you should certainly visit if you're in Arequipa, the reasons are relatively easy to explain. The Incas believed that their gods, both the earth mother (Pachamama) and the mountains (known as apus) periodically required human sacrifices in order to guarantee good harvests. The Incas sacrificed children, usually (but not always) girls and typically of noble birth, because they were considered pure. While the concept of being forced to hike up a mountain in sandals, then being drugged and killed is unpleasant, it was supposedly considered an honor by the victims who then became immortal (although since the Incas didn't have a system of writing and the children didn't live to tell their side of the story this is something of a conjecture.) The sacrifice took place on top of a mountain because it was a sacrifice to the mountain.

There's much more to Inca religion than this bare recitation of facts, and through an introductory video and an hourlong guided tour (usually in English), this museum amply explains much of it. The guides do so by making reference to many objects found at Inca sacrificial sites in the area, including Juanita's garments. Pride of place goes to Juanita's corpse itself, although it is rotated with that of other child sacrificial victims found in the area in a specially cooled chamber. The corpses were only discovered in the late 1990s after volcanic eruptions near Arequipa caused the snow on nearby mountains to melt, which allowed archaelogical expeditions to ascend the peaks. Technically speaking, the corpses are not mummies since they were preserved by the cold rather than by binding or chemical techniques.

Regardless of whether you find the aforementioned summary fascinating or revolting, the museum itself is interesting, both for the story that it tells and the sheer beauty of many of the objects displayed. In particular, Juanita's coat is so well preserved that you can still see the blood spots from the single death blow that she received. On a slightly more pleasant note, the small precious sculptures of llamas buried with the victims are as exquisite as any I've seen in any of Peru's fine archaeological museums. I highly recommend a visit to this museum to get a sense not only of Inca religion, but also of the culture's relationship with the mountains that encircle Arequipa.

Museo Santury
Santa Catalina 210
Arequipa, Peru
+51 54 200345

A Spanish Ghost Town in the Middle of Arequipa

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Owen Lipsett on February 2, 2010

Vying with the Ice Maiden Juanita as Arequipa's most famous attraction, Santa Catalina is one of the colonial architectural highlights not just of Arequipa or Peru, but South America as a whole. It's often described as a city within a city, and while this is a slight exaggeration (it occupies a full city block so "town" would be men appropriate), it's otherwise fully worthy of its considerable fame. The only disappointment is that its citadel (the only of its kind inside a convent in the world) doesn't offer a view of much beyond the convent, but I suppose that in itself is singularly appropriate.

The convent was founded in 1579 and was fully cloistered for the following 391 years. That means that the nuns, once they had entered and spent the obligatory year in the novice's area, couldn't leave - they could only speak to visitors through wooden grilles that resembles confessionals and are among the first things you see when you enter. You also encounter guides, whose services I did not personally employ but whom friend said were excellent. The novice's quarters follow after which various courtyards lead into a series of streets named after cities in Southern Spain. The nuns themselves had to be of pure Spanish blood (an unfortunately typical example of colonial racism) although they were often attended by slaves, an appalling concept to begin with, but even more so since they'd nominally moved to the convent to participate in an austere religious life.

Some sources I've read (not the convent's own materials) have indicated that the life they lived was far from austere and contemplative, although unusually the nuns had a great degree of autonomy in running their own affairs without interference from the local bishop. Depending on whether you believe the convent's materials or those of its critics, he subsequently stepped in either to assert greater episcopal control or to rein in the nuns' sybartic behavior. In 1970, the convent became half-cloistered (meaning the nuns could leave and receive visitors) adn the nuns moved to a modern building, leaving the historic convent as a tourist attraction. Admission fees now support the convent, which in a prior era relied on the "dowries" brought by nuns who joined the convent.

While helpful, none of this history (which is contained in helpful wall plaques) is necessary to appreciate the convent's subtle and someone sensuous delights. It has the general feeling of an immaculately preserved deserted village in Southern Spain, complete with streets, houses, fountain, orchard, and church. This sense is enhanced on Tuesdays and Thursdays (when it remains open until 8 pm instead of the usual 5 pm) when the fires of its kitchens and the candles along its walls are lit. The best time to visit is in the afternoon, when the changing angles of the sun turn its blue and ochre painted walls a variety of subtle hues that seem to encourage contemplation. I think this feeling is entirely consistent with the convent's spiritual and contemplative message - I left with the feeling that its simplicity was its beauty and vice versa.

Convento de Santa Catalina
Calle Santa Catalina 301
Arequipa, Peru
+51 54 229798

Watch Your Head (For Altitude Sickness That Is!)

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Owen Lipsett on February 2, 2010

Arequipa doesn't have sheer number of the "must-sees" of Cusco and the Sacred Valley or Peru's Coast. (Personally, I'm not fond of the term since people's tastes vary and I don't think of travel as a competitive activity). However, next to the Monastery of Santa Catalina, the attraction that appears to be worthiest of the title (certainly in terms of popularity) is the nearby Colca Canyon. Nearby is a somewhat relative term, since it's approximately four hours away by road, the first hour over the smoothly paved thoroughfare that also runs to Cusco and Puno, the next over tortuous dirt roads, and the final two over a winding cliffside path that might be described as combination between the two.

It's theoretically possible to visit the Canyon's highlights in a single day via a tour from Arequipa. However, "day" might be stretching it slightly as you have to leave at around 3 am and arrive deep into the night, hours at both ends seemingly used only by airport departures and arrivals and nocturnal revelers. A more sensible approach, which I followed, is to take a two-day tour which picks you up around 8 am one morning and drops you off the next evening at 5 pm. The price isn't much higher (although it rarely includes any meals besides a rudimentary breakfast) and the pace is slightly more relaxed. If you're particularly physically fit and don't have problems at high altitudes, several friends of mine have spoken highly of a 2 or 3 day hike in the canyon - but while I'm an enthusiastic hiker the altitude (which can reach 4,500 meters in some places) was a bit much for me so I'll have to pass this along as hearsay. You can also go by public transportation, which is safe but only a little cheaper than if you arrange the trip through a tour agency and means you have to work out travel between the points of interest in the canyon which is difficult without your own vehicle since the only local taxis I saw were of the tricycle variety.

Regardless of how long you go for, your itinerary is likely to include some mixture of photo opportunities, hiking, watching wildlife, and seeking to appreciate local culture by visiting the valley's colonial churches and perhaps watching local dancers (who are often to be found outside said churches). If none of these appeals to you, I doubt the canyon would - but if any of the first three do it's well worth the effort of going. Before doing so, however, make absolutely sure you have spent time to get acclimated to the altitude in Arequipa and pack alcohol, cotton wool, and some altitude sickness pills. Any reputable tour agency will either have these or stop en route to pick them up, but I can't stress strongly enough how important they are since fully half of my tour group succumbed to altitude sickness in some form or other. The canyon is very cold at night and scorching in the day, so plan accordingly with a jacket, a good hat, and lotion.

In my opinion, the Canyon's two most emblematic animals are vicuñas (shy wild relatives of llamas and alpacas) and condors. Technically speaking, you won't see the vicuñas in the canyon but rather on the way. While shy they often stop photogenically by the road and their enormous black eyes and plaintive expressions are quite different from their more circumspect and aggressive domestic cousins. Their wool is the finest in the world and they were nearly hunted to extinction because of it - today they're recovering in numbers and are occasionally rounded up and sheared. Condors, which you'll likely see in the Canyon itself at the so-called "Cruz del Condor" (Cross of the Condor) are among the world's largest flying birds and have been used since time immemorial in South America as an important symbol of power. Other animals you may come across include vizcachas (long-whiskered rabbit-like rodents), flamingos (on the way to the canyon) and Andean ducks.

The extent of photo opportunities and hiking will depend on your trip and guide. At the least you'll have the chance to clamber along the canyon's side near the Cruz del Condor for an hour or so (as I did), while on a longer hiking specific trip you can go deep in the heart of the canyon itself. Despite the relatively dry climate in the canyon and around Arequipa generally, it has be farmed for centures by the Collagua and Cabana peoples. The brightly colored hats worn by their women serve to distinguish them from one another as the Collaguas wear one type and the Cabanas another - before the Spanish conquest this distinction was achieved by cranial deformation.

The churches that dominate the main square of every town in the valley are the most potent reminder of the Spanish presence. So too are the local dances, which you may well be treated to in front of these churches which were in many cases intended as subtle criticisms of Spanish rule. The presence of a single dancer who breaks free from the group and carries a pot to tourists in search of donations is a more recent innovation, as are women who have tamed hawks and eagles and will let you pose with them for a fee. Many of the towns in the canyon, especially Chivay, the capital (which is actually just outside it) have nightly performances of these dances where you make payment a bit more directly and beforehand.

For many years, Colca's claim to fame was as the world's deepest canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, although scientists have since found that the nearby (but difficult to access) Cotohuasi Canyon is actually slightly deeper. Stripped of this superlative, Colca is a pleasant enough place to visit, and an agreeable place for a change of pace from Arequipa. While the presence of wildlife that I had not previously seen was a highlight for me, I was not as impressed by the scenery as I was by the Sacred Valley near Cuzco and I would personally hesitate to label Colca one of Peru's natural highlights. It's certainly worth seeing if you're near Arequipa, but I don't think it's worth going out of your way (or risking altitude sickness if you're susceptible to it) for.

Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon
Arequipa, Peru

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