Arequipa, Arequipa, Arequipaaaa! We had heard this plaintiff cry many times at bus terminals as spruikers from various companies touted for fares. It had subliminally given us a bad impression of the city before we even saw it. How wrong we were! Arequipa was one of the pleasant surprises of our travels in South America.

The use of white / pale grey sillar stone (compressed volcanic ash) as the main building material gives Arequipa its unique character and its nick-name of the "white city". The large central plaza (with more pigeons than Trafalgar Square), surrounded by colonades and the cathedral, and the many other colonial buildings and churches make the old centre of Arequipa a facinating place to spend a day or two wandering about. It was also a welcome relief not to be constantly harassed by street venders and restauranteurs as we had been in the more tourist-dependent Cuzco.

Central plaza of Arequipa

Typical architecture of the "white city"

Classic sillar stone building

Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Arequipa Cathedral

Looking across the rooves of Monasterio Santa Catalina to 6075m Volcan Chachani

The classic cone of 5822m Misti Volcano over the roof-tops of Arequipa

The most amazing place of all though is the Monasterio Santa Catalina, a city within a city. This convent was founded in 1580 as a place for rich spaniards to send their daughters. Apparently their life styles did not change much behind the walls of the convent. The convent remained shut to the outside world and shrouded in mystery for almost 400 years, when in 1970 it was forced by the local government to modernise and open up to tourism. Only 30 nuns still live here, many less than the 450 in its heyday, but it is quite amazing to wander through the narrow alleys, plazas and courtyards. Normally I wouldn't include photos of a city in what is essentially a trekking website, but the colours and geometry of this place are so fascinating that they deserve a spot. See for yourself!

The all-enveloping redness of Calle Burgos

Blue arches of the Claustro de los Naranjos

The white street of the residental area

Looking back to the dome of the Iglesia

Claustro Mayor

One of many magnificent frescos

A peaceful courtyard

There are two other must-sees in Arequipa:

- the Museo Santuarios Andinos, housing the frozen mummy of "Juanita - the ice princess", an Inca princess sacrificed over 500 years ago on the top of nearby 6000+m Nevado Ampato (and only discovered recently when the ice-cap was melted by a nearby volcanic eruption). A fascinating insight into the life and times of a child born and raised to one day be a sacrifice to appease the mountain-gods (and proudly so). She died believing she would achieve immortality and, in a curious way, she has.

- the Monasterio de la Recoleta, built by the Franciscan monks; it has an incredible library of old books and manuscripts dating back to the 16th century housed in a classic musty "this is a real library" style of building, plus some more beautiful courtyards and cloisters in natural sillar stone, fascinating to compare with the pastel painted cloisters of Monasterio Santa Catalina.

Courtyard in La Recoleta Monastery

Cloister de los Naranjos - Santa Catalina

Saint Francis Cloister - La Recoleta

Alcantarino Cloister - La Recoleta

Cloister Mayor - Santa Catalina

See Arequipa while you can - it sits near the joint of the Nazca and Suramericana Plates and beneath three volcanoes and has already been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt several times in its history - a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.