After Cusco, Arequipa is an entirely different world. Situated in a vast, dusty plain, the city is warm and dry. So are the people: friendly, but infinitely practical in their interactions with us. There are no tourists, and the only assumption that comes with our foreign-ness is that we have no idea how to do anything around here. It starts as soon as we leave the bus terminal and board a city bus, a tiny van re-outfitted to seat twenty on slowly degrading sofas. We ask for the Plaza del Armas, and they nod. When our stop comes, they simply smile and motion at us to get off.
The same thing happens when we get off and look for a hostel, for a restaurant, for anything. The people we ask either apologize that they don’t know, or smile and point us in the right direction. No bubbling excitement, no sleight of hand, no staring at us. The Arequipeno personality is almost like an infinitely cool, seen-it-all attitude. And yet, they pull that coolness off without coming across as unfriendly.
The city itself alternates between intensely polished and raw. The Plaza de Armas is a wide, open square with places to sit and rest. Pedestrian-only walkways lead off of it to gleaming coffee shops, stores, and shopping malls. But travel over the bridge to the neighborhoods in the west and things get rougher. The smaller streets are unpaved dirt and the fine dust covers everything. Every tenth building appears under construction or renovation.
Though there are many stores, there are more restaurants and bakeries than anything else. In many places, we can’t walk more than a block without encountering one of each. They’re a tribute to the Ariquipeno love of food and cuisine.
In this world of food, adored above all is the picantería. A distinctly local phenomenon, they evolved from little grandma-run stands selling a local fermented corn drink, chicha. The story runs that to sell more chicha, grandma started selling spicy food as well, and the picantería was born.
These restaurants are practical and unpretentious. We walk into one and we’re offered a seat at long, low picnic benches beside several other lunching families. We scan the menu and find nothing familiar. We ask for some dishes, and the waitress tells us “no, you probably want these,” in a matter-of-fact voice. “Okay, we agree.” She disappears and returns ten minutes later with four delicious-looking, heavily-laden plates. There’s rich meat stew, a cheesy squash casserole, a sweet baked cheese and pasta, and a cold cheese and vegetable salad. We wash it down with a glass of chicha.
Arequipa also loves sculpture, and the city hall serves not only as a place of business but also as an art gallery. The open square inside the building exhibits sculptures of cherubic children slaying different dangerous animals, from wolves to snakes. Then there’s a room dedicated to the history and culture of Arequipa on the second floor of the building, where we find dozens of sculptures in metal, wood, and sillar, a chalky-white volcanic rock found in abundance here. The city hosts a competition every year where artists compete to carve the most ornate sculptures.
As dusk falls, the city comes alive with people rushing to get home. There’s the usual vehicle traffic jams and people spilling onto the sidewalks, waving down buses, rushing for the crosswalk. But there’s surprisingly little honking or shouting.
With nowhere to be in particular, we take our time walking along the street and encounter a mouse. It’s seemingly unafraid of us, and makes attempts to climb Stoytcho’s shoe and pant leg before we break off a piece of our bread for it.
After an ill-fated visit to a park (many are closed on weekdays because people don’t use them), we wander back to the Plaza de Armas. In the darkness of night, the bright-white sillar spires of Arequipa’s cathedral glow against the sky. The Plaza hums softly with couples talking, friends laughing, and families out for an evening stroll. “Come, stay a while.” says the humming noise, “Enjoy life.”