Viva indeed! Arequipa, Peru

August 31, 2010 at 12:29 am Leave a comment

It’s 6pm on August 15th in Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa. On the street below our window a small Cassanova in a cream three piece suit twirls his six-year-old seňorita. Her colourful skirt billows out around her and for a moment her partner is lost in a cloud of pinks and blues. When he re-emerges it is on bent knee, a pristine hanky clutched in his waving hand. The crowd goes wild and one enthused fan leaps out of her roadside seat and rushes onto the tarmac. Like the consumate professionals that they are, the minature dancers pose gracefully for photos before the brass band starts up again and they tango their way onto the next block.

Just as we started to regret their departure a deafening sound rounded the bend of the parade route. Were Santa and his reindeers making that racket? In August? Line by line the street started to fill up and the brass band were shoved out of our eyeline by a huge crowd of peacocks. Strutting about with a dozen tiny bells stuck on each boot were three dozen handsome Peruvian men in matador-esque costumes. Bejewelled to the hilt they somehow managed to come off as pure, bottled testosterone, stamping, air-punching and shouting like the All Blacks mid-haka. Scattered in their midst were a few girls in similar outfits and caps but who was really watching them twirl their sticks while their male counterparts were executing backflips in the middle of the street. Women swooned, men made grunty noises within minutes no-one was thinking of Cassanova anymore.

From 1pm until around 9.15pm the party raged on Arequipa’s streets. Aztecs, Indian warriors, hula girls and beauty queens danced, drove, waved and floated along the 5km parade route. It seemed like the whole world had shown up to the city’s 470th birthday party. Local business competed with corporate giants like Coca-Cola for who had the bigest and loudest float, who could dress their beautiful dancers in the least clothes and who could throw out the most fliers, sweets, t-shirts and… potatoes? Despite the chaos there was a strange symmetry in the proceedings, loaned by the fact that every band, every hi-fi system and every truck was pumping the same three-note song. Do do do do do do do, bam bam bam bam bam…HEY.

But it wasn’t the floats and dancers that made the day. It was the audience. Ferociously proud of their beautiful, glittering, sunny city to the point that they would seek independence from the rest of Peru, the Arequipiňos were giving it socks on their city’s birthday. For days beforehand they had gamely lined the streets to watch the troupes practice for the big day, the pinnacle of which had come the day before when a few of the more… rural… floats had done a few laps of the block. Pity the organisers had forgotten about the cattle grid on the edge of the square. Never mind, not even two bulls tied together rushing headfirst into the path lined with children could ruin their spirits. “Viva Arequipa!” screamed one little girl on her Daddy’s shoulders to a hearty response by the gathered crowd. Viva Arequipa indeed.

So come Sunday the Arequipiňos were rearing for a party. They came out in force, filling the tens of thousands of plastic seats that lined the parade route hours before the festivities began. Three or four generations of families came along, colonising sections of the narrow paths for themselves and buying just about everything that went past – ice-creams, whistles, paper hats, and inflatable toys. For the next eight and a quarter hours they got soaked in pisco fired out of a cannon, they got covered in glitter, they jumped up and down to catch the badges and sweets thrown out by beauty queens, they swooned, they rushed onto the road to embrace and photograph the paraders and they got up and danced on the streets – showing the tango dancers exactly how things were done.

By the end of the day, exhausted and full of borrowed emotions, Gary and I were about ready to sign up as citizens of wonderful Arequipa. We had encountered the friendliness and spirit of its inhabitants on another occasion – when we met Sophie and Min for an emotional, booze-filled farewell party. By the time the Brits left to get their 2.30am bus to La Paz they were well-oiled and we had expanded our party hugely to include two giggling local teenage boys who Sophie and I had dragged onto the dance floor, a bi-lingual lawyer and the most beautiful young Peruvian Mum to whom Gary was confessing his undying love. Thankfully she hadn’t a word of english and after so many Cusqueňos, Gary’s limited spanish wasn’t serving him so well.

The city’s appeal wasn’t limited to its citizens and celebrations though (which, by the way, put Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day party to shame). According to the locals (and my dated Lonely Planet), “When God seperated the moon from the earth he forgot about Arequipa.” Built mostly out of silica, Arequipa is another ‘White City’ although this one is far more enchanting than even lovely Sucre. The main attraction is the central square where a huge cathedral looms, surrounded eternally by a flock of pigeons and the odd condor that it has bankrolled to flap endlessly around the steeples. And there is plenty to do – a gigantic monastary/city to be explored and the Ice Maiden, a woman who was sacrificed to El Misti volcano thousands of years ago and was unearthed recently by archeologists and laid to rest in a glass cabinet in the university museum, to be visited. Not that we had any time for that. We were busy rejoicing in finally, after nearly a month in Bolivia, finding some real, healthy, guilt-free food, the highlight of which was Fez on Av. San Francisco which serves the most incredibly falafel that has ever passed my lips.

A lot of it must have been the novelty factor too. Having spent the last 10 months travelling three continents only to always show up the week after a huge festival or the morning after a life-shaping party, we were thrilled to finally be in the right place at the right time. In fact, so far we have had 9 months of winter. Maybe lovely, sunny, crazy Arequipa would change our fortunes.

There are more photos from Arequipa are available in the gallery

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