Visiting the Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa

Visiting the Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa

The main attraction in Arequipa, the “White City” of Peru, is the Santa Catalina convent.  It’s an enormous complex located in the heart of the historic city centre.  

Numerous buildings and rooms are connected by small streets named after famous Spanish cities.  The convent is one of the most important religious structures in Peru, and is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend an afternoon.

Santa Catalina Convent is run by an order of Dominican nuns.

It was established in 1579, only shortly after the Spanish conquest of Peru.

The convent was expanded in the 17th century.

The interior of one of the chapels.

This is one of the historic kitchens in the convent.

The buildings are constructed from sillar, a volcanic stone from the volcanoes that surround Arequipa.

Most of the exterior walls are brightly-painted.

Carla was my wonderful tour guide; a friend I met through Couchsurfing.

The daughters of many wealthy Spanish families entered the convent, and had to pay a dowry to do so.

The perfect time to visit the convent is in the late hours of the afternoon, just as the sun begins to set.

Things to Do in Arequipa, Peru

Things to Do in Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa, Peru.  Haven’t heard of it?  While it may not be as widely known as Lima, Cuzco, or Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is a major Peruvian city with a lot to offer travelers.  Located in the south of the country (a few hours from the famous Nazca lines), Arequipa is home to close to a million inhabitants.

It’s known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), a nod to the stunning white architecture that fills the city centre.  These buildings were constructed with sillar, white volcanic stone from the three volcanoes that loom over the city — the most prominent being “El Misti”, which is pictured above.  Partially because of the colour of the stone, but also because of the colonial and heavy Catholic influence in the architecture, Peruvians consider Arequipa to be one of the most Spanish or Mestizo cities in the country.  There is much less outright indigenous influence than in a place like Cuzco, for example.

That may sound nice, but what is there to actually see and do in Arequipa?

I arrived in Arequipa on a bus straight from La Paz, Bolivia, a city that had overwhelmed me with its chaos.  I have to sheepishly admit that I completely embraced Arequipa for its modernity, and tourist-friendly atmosphere.  Arequipa is a city fit for tourists of all types and budgets, not just hippy backpackers.  It has luxurious hotels, high-class restaurants, and even plenty of air-conditioned malls with western-style gyms.  However, you’ll still find plenty of local eateries, budget hotels and hostels, and family-run businesses.

Here are some of my recommendations on how to spend your time in Arequipa:

1. Walk the City Centre: The historic centre occupies roughly a five-block diameter of the city.  It’s easily accessible, and safe to walk around in.  There are plenty of small museums, and some converted mansions which you can view.  It’s great to just wander the streets, and observe the activity.  The hub of the centre is the Plaza de Armas, the main square.  In true colonial tradition, the square is dominated by the cathedral, but it’s also filled with hawkers, and promotion people who work for various tourism companies.  Most will try to sell you packaged tours to the Colca Canyon, Cusco, or Lake Titicaca.  Try to avoid them by sticking to the side streets, which are almost equally beautiful and full of small shops.Arequipa

2. See a Frozen Inca Princess: Ever seen a mummy?  How about an Inca mummy?  Although the Museo Santuarios Andinos may seem a bit pricey, (20 soles), it’s a worthwhile experience.   “Juanita” is the name given to the frozen, preserved body of a young sacrificial victim, who was found by an anthropologist in 1995.  Her corpse was discovered high on the volcano Ampato, and now resides in this museum.  Watch a short documentary, see some of the artifacts that were buried with her, and learn a bit more about Inca history.

3. Tour the Santa Catalina Convent:  One of the best pieces of advice I got about Arequipa was from Carlita, a local who I met through Couchsurfing.  She told me that I should visit the convent in the late afternoon, about an hour and a half before sunset.  This way, I could take photos and see the site both in daylight, and during the magnificent sunset.   Established in 1579 (only a few decades after the Spanish conquest), the entire complex was built out of sillar.  (Most of it has been painted a beautiful blue or reddish-pink.)  Although part of it is still in use, the majority of the convent was opened to the public in 1970.  Don’t forget to climb up the stairs onto the roof to view the sunset!  (Give yourself lots of time here; there’s plenty to see).

4. Have a Rooftop Drink: If you visited the convent earlier in the day, you can always catch the sunset at one of the many rooftop bars in the Plaza de Armas.  One of the best views is from the restaurants in the upper-right corner of the plaza, if you’re facing the cathedral.

5.  Take a Cooking Course: Peruvian Cooking Experience is a fantastic company that is located in Hotel Casa Avila, just a six or seven minute walk from the main plaza.  The class I took cost 45 soles, and was some of the best money I spent on my entire trip.  There are a few different menus you can choose from (classic, Andean, and seafood), and they also cater to vegetarian students.  In my class, we cooked the Andean Menu: Soltero de Queso, (a cheese and corn salad), Rocoto Relleno (see below), and Pastel de Papas (potato pie).  My class began at 11 AM, and ended at 2.  Book ahead of time, here.

Try your hand at some typical Peruvian dishes.
Try your hand at some typical Peruvian dishes.

6. Eat and Drink!: Arequipa is home to some very popular Peruvian dishes, such as Rocoto Relleno, Rocoto hot peppers stuffed with a mixture of beef, raisins, eggs, cheese, peas, carrots, milk, and potatoes.  These have a real kick to them, but are probably my favourite Peruvian dish!  Soltero de Queso is another popular dish here.  It’s a  tasty, brightly-coloured salad, with lots of cheese, corn, lima beans, onions, tomatoes, carrots, all tossed with a lime dressing.  (For more Peruvian food, see my list of some of my favourites.)  When you’ve had your fill, wash everything down with some Pisco Sour, a famous cocktail made with egg whites, lime, and Pisco alcohol.  If you’re looking for a mid-range restaurant and want something less traditional, visit Crepisimo (right by the convent).  It has a beautiful courtyard, so eat outside.

7. Couchsurf: Arequipa has some great couchsurfers, and this is one city where it’s nice to go out and meet people.  I met up with Carla and Carlos during my stay here, and both were eager hosts who were more than willing to show me the city.  Carlita also introduced me to spicy versions of Pisco Sours — the best way to cool off on a warm afternoon! 😉

8. Hike the Colca Canyon or El Misti Volcano: The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, and is home to the Andean Condors, which can be spotted from the Cruz del Condor lookout point.  El Misti is the volcano that towers over Arequipa.  I did not do these myself, because I had to hurry over to Cuzco for the start of my Inca Trail trek, but all of my friends who have done it, loved them.  Give yourself a couple of days for either of these excursions, and make sure you compare prices before booking.  You can do the Colca Canyon on your own, but you need a guide for the volcano.  Expect to pay around 150 soles for a 3-day (2-night) Colca Canyon tour.

 

There are many, many more things to do in Arequipa, whether you’re looking for culture, history, or adventure tourism.  Get out there, and explore.  Give yourself at least two or three days in the city, and two or three more for nearby excursions.

Where to Stay: I stayed at the Arequipay Backpackers’ Hostel, and loved it.  It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the main plaza, and right down the street from the Peruvian Cooking Experience.

“Deadmontitis” – The Plague of The Second-Coldest Place on Earth

“Deadmontitis” – The Plague of The Second-Coldest Place on Earth

In Edmonton, there are only two seasons: winter and construction.  That’s what we like to say, as we clutch double-doubles in hands clad with Walmart stretchy gloves.  We grumble about the early-October snowfall, but later brag about it when we’re abroad — “Did you know that one day in 2009, Edmonton was the second-coldest place on the planet? Only somewhere in Siberia was colder.”

We say it like it’s an accomplishment, but it’s really just to boost our morale.  We like to think that we’ve chosen to live there, and that we’re tough because of it.

But that’s a lie.  Surviving a tongue-stuck-to-a-pole and a lack of snow days may have hardened us as children, but we’re still not immune to “Deadmontitis.”

 

Overview:

Deadmontitis is a contagious endemic that targets Edmontonians and long-term visitors to the city.  In the eyes of the victim, the city loses its charm and begins to conform to its unfortunate moniker, “Deadmonton.”  Primarily winter-related, Deadmontitis is most prominent when temperatures dip below -15°C.  It brings an onset of mild depression, an unwillingness to get up in the morning, and a strong urge to be anywhere but Edmonton.

 

Edmonton Snow
Typical scene from the Edmonton area. This was taken in MAY!

Causes:

 Deadmontitis has a variety of causes.  Top risk factors include:

  • Too many hours spent hunched over a laptop in Rutherford library or the corner Starbucks
  • A Reading Week filled with lab write-ups or endless overtime leading up to the long weekend.
  • Multiple hours stuck in traffic on the Yellowhead or Henday
  • Returning to Edmonton after a period of extended travel abroad
  • A morning commute along the desolate industrial roads of North Edmonton
  • Aimlessly searching for a parking spot at the mall before Christmas

 

Symptoms:

 After initial infection, you may notice:

  • Increased complaining: about the weather, snow-clearance, bad drivers, lack of exciting Jasper Avenue nightspots – you name it.
  • Decreased support for the Edmonton Oilers.  That Hemsky jersey may spend more time on the hanger than it does on your back.
  • An increased tendency to hit “sleep” on the alarm clock.  Who wants to get up when it’s -20 and still dark?
  • More mornings spent in the Timmy’s line.  Maybe a Boston Cream donut will warm the spirit.
  • Work hours wasted on Expedia hunting for last-minute Puerto Vallarta deals.

These symptoms will worsen without immediate treatment.

 

Prevention:

Because Deadmontitis plagues Edmontonians between October and April, the illness can be prevented by taken full advantage of the summer months.  With over 2,300 annual hours of sunshine and the most extensive urban park space on the continent (reputedly 22 times larger than Central Park), there is no excuse to complain at this time of year.  Go play outside!

Proven prevention methods include:

 

Heritage Festival Edmonton
Food + Dancing + Beautiful Weather = Edmonton Heritage Festival

Most importantly, spend the last night of August watching the sun set over the river valley.  Remind yourself: while winters may be tough to get through, there is always another spectacular Edmonton summer around the bend.

Treatment:

If you succumb to Deadmontitis, don’t panic – there is a cure.  Just as prevention requires an intensive winter exposure, the best remedy is a full-on winter immersion:

1. Indulge in winter sports: Kick off a Saturday with a heavenly cinnamon bun from the Sugarbowl, which should give you the energy for an active day.  Edmonton area offers plenty of winter activity options: spend the day cross-country skiing through the river valley’s extensive trail system, or hit the slopes and terrain park at either Snow Valley, Rabbit Hill, Tawatinaw, or Sunridge ski hill.  For a classic Canadian experience, lace up your skates, grab a stick, and head down to one of the local school skating rinks.  If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, snowshoe, snowmobile, sled, or curl – Edmonton has it all.

2. Celebrate a classic Christmas:  Nothing says Christmas like snow, and Edmonton usually has no shortage of it.  Enhance your white Christmas with a wander down Candy Cane Lane (a ten-block stretch of houses with over-the-top lights displays), or a visit to the Festival of Trees (a display of 100+ Christmas trees at the Shaw Conference Centre).  Round out a festive day by taking in the annual rendition of A Christmas Carol at the Citadel Theatre, or the Nutcracker Ballet at the Jubilee Auditorium.  Top it all off with a Second Cup candy cane hot chocolate and a stroll past the lights of the Legislature grounds.

Candycane Lane — one of Edmonton’s best Christmas activities

3. Embrace Edmonton’s concert culture:  Edmonton was dubbed “Canada’s Culture Capital” for the year 2007, a reference to the city’s dedication to arts, theatre, and music.  Rexall place attracts big-name artists like Rihanna, Paul McCartney, and Bon Jovi, while smaller venues such as the Jubilee, Shaw Conference Centre, and Winspear have hosted everything from electronic DJs to folk artists to symphonies.  Whatever your taste, you’re sure to find a setting to distract you from the harsh winter weather.

4. Travel Beyond the Resorts: If you feel you must — leave.  While the glamour of an exotic setting may relieve some symptoms, the real cure comes when you linger in a foreign city.  After a couple weeks, Lima traffic jams make the Yellowhead commute seem pleasant; the clouds of smoke in Parisian cafes will leave you grateful for fresh, Alberta air; and sky-high New York prices will crumple your savings.  Soon, you will realize: the grass in Edmonton may be dead all winter, but it doesn’t mean that things are always greener on the other side.  At any time of year, Edmonton is alive and flourishing.

Canada’s Top Ten See-Before-You-Die Spots

Canada’s Top Ten See-Before-You-Die Spots

International Business Times Traveler has just published their list of “10 Places in Canada Every Canadian Should See Before They Die.”  It’s definitely worth taking a look at for some travel inspiration.  I’m impressed by how many Albertan spots they feature!

How many places have you been to on their list?

 

 

Mexico – Tropical Paradise or Violent Hell?

Mexico – Tropical Paradise or Violent Hell?

Mexico is a topic I touch on a lot.  After studying in Guadalajara last summer, I became addicted to Mexican culture, food, music, and people.  Because of the shared border between Mexico and the U.S., the country receives a lot of press coverage in Canadian and American news.  And most of the news we hear about Mexico ranges from the questionable to the bad to the downright shocking.

But how true are the stories?  Do travelers to Mexico really have a lot to worry about?

When I was preparing to leave for Guadalajara last spring, a number of friends and acquaintances were surprised to hear that I would want to go study in inland Mexico.  “Be careful; don’t get yourself killed!”  Sure, most of these comments were made lightheartedly, but the message behind them was clear: Mexico isn’t safe.

After spending some time in “real” Mexico (not the tourist-dotted resort towns), my perspective on the country shifted.  I’m no longer willing to laugh off the comments about getting kidnapped or caught up in Mexico’s drug wars. I find them exaggerated and unfair.

To see what I mean about the negative reputation that Mexico has garnered, take a look at some of the reader comments posted on a typical CBC news article about Mexico’s latest drug-related activity:

“Just another Canadian casualty in Mexico. Why anyone would travel there is beyond comprehension.”

“I think it’s safer to vacation in Afghanistan.”

“Even if it’s free, no way would I go on vacation in Mexico. The last few years it seems there’s always a story about a Canadian being arrested, blown up or beheaded.”

For me, these types of comments are ignorant and infuriating.  Yes, problems exist in Mexico — I’ll be the first to admit that.  The country’s government and justice system are corrupt and questionable, and there is an incredible amount of drug-related violence in certain areas.  But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a fantastic, relatively-secure travel destination.  I came across an article today that will help put things into perspective:

“Here’s the fact that I feel is most relevant — for travelers — and most often ignored: Mexico is big. It’s the 11th most populous country in the world, with 112 million citizens. It’s roughly the size of the American Midwest.

Given that, is it fair to regard the country as one homogenous war zone? Should travelers be advised to avoid the country as a whole?To me, that’s like telling someone not to visit Mt. Rushmore because Detroit has a problem with violent crime.” 

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico


While Mexico does have a lot of violence, most of this is restricted to the Northern border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.  Granted, recently there has been an increase in violent activity further south.  The week before Pam and I traveled to Guadalajara this February, some one set off a grenade in a club in Guadalajara, killing six people.  I have to admit, this made me a little uneasy.  But last year I went to Jakarta in Indonesia, where, the previous summer, a suicide bomber had set off bombs at two upscale hotels, killing seven tourists.  I’ve been to London, where the subways bombings killed 52 people in 2005.  Violent acts can happen anywhere.  Just look at the gang-related violence that took place a few weeks ago in Kelowna, B.C.  If that had taken place in Mexico, people would have used it as another excuse “never to travel to the country.”  Yet, I highly doubt that people will stay away from B.C. because it’s “full of gang-violence.”

Mexico is not a first world country, and as such, it has more problems than we are used to in Canada and the United States.  But compare it to most other “developing nations” and you will see a similar set of problems.  We just happen to hear a lot more about Mexico’s problems because of our proximity (physically, culturally and economically) to it.   

My conclusion?  Mexico is not a perfect country to live in.  But no country is.  If you are smart and careful while you’re traveling, you’re no more likely to run into trouble than you are in most other countries.

“I SURVIVED a Week in Mexico.” – with all body parts intact

“I SURVIVED a Week in Mexico.” – with all body parts intact

Here is yet another great article that challenges North Americans’ negative attitude towards Mexican travel.  In The Globe and Mail, Marni Jackson, a well-known Canadian non-fiction writer, recounts a tale of survival – her trip to Huatulco, Mexico.  This is an amusing, satirical account of the “obstacles” she faced on her trip, which she jots down in a handy list for us:

“All the things that did not happen to us while on vacation in Huatulco:”

  • I was not murdered on a beach after agreeing to take a midnight ride on a Jet Ski
  • We were not overcharged or robbed.
  • We were not mugged or dumped in the trunk of a car.
  • We did not get sick
  • We did not feel patronized or resented by the locals.

And, my personal favourite…

  • I was not decapitated, nor was my severed head used as a bowling ball to send a message to drug lords

She elaborates on each point: 

“While it’s fair to say my brain was flatlining from beach torpor and the shock of encountering bright colours after an interminably grey winter, my head remained on my shoulders for the entire week. We also weren’t caught in a hail of bullets while strolling across the zocalo of La Crucecita . . . I see more crack addicts three blocks from my “safe” Toronto neighbourhood, and more homeless people in the heart of our financial district.”

If an article like this doesn’t bring home the message that Mexico is a fantastic place to visit, I’m not sure what will.  Sadly, once again, I still find the comment thread filled with “Mexico-haters” complaining about how they will never go near the country.  At least each one of them signifies one less tacky tourist that I have to worry about crowding the Mexican beaches. 🙂

To see my previous posts on Mexico, see here and here.