San Fransisco Chronicle
By: Bonnie Wach
Photo: By Bonnie Wach, Special To The Chronicle
Photo Caption: A fruit vendor works in Mercado San Camilo, a bustling marketplace in Arequipa.
It can only be partly coincidence that the name Arequipa rolls over the tongue like a delicious treat. Peru’s second-largest city, a center of regional gastronomy, is where many of the country’s most iconic dishes originate. The word sounds so tasty that neighboring Columbia even adopted arequipe as its name for the sweet milk dessert dulce de leche.
While Lima may claim the lion’s share of restaurants on World’s Best lists, feisty Arequipa more than holds its own as a culinary — and a cultural — hotspot. Founded by conquistadors in 1540, it owes much of its spicy flavor to Spanish influence, deeply rooted in everything from the architecture to the adobo (though Arequipeños would argue that their version of the long-simmering pork stew is uniquely their own).
Adding to its tourist cachet: A Unesco World Heritage city center, a 500-year-old frozen mummy, an abundance of high-quality alpaca (wearable and edible), cobbled pedestrian streets lined with sidewalk cafes, and lively bars serving fresh-fruit pisco cocktails. Nestled like a dollop of cream at the base of three snow-capped volcanoes, the White City feels a little bit like picante Europe.
Start your morning at the massive Mercado San Camilo, a short walk from the central Plaza de Armas. The bustling marketplace offers everything from breads, pastries, and stalls overflowing with passion fruit, papaya, and citrus (juices squeezed to order), to lunch counters serving local specialties such as pig’s ear, lamb’s head, and cuy (guinea pig). Head upstairs to sample queso helada, which literally translates as cheese ice cream, but is actually a delectable frozen milk confection flavored with cinnamon and coconut.
Make your way back to the Plaza de Armas to see why Arequipa is known in Peru as la Cuidad Blanca (the White City). The postcard-perfect Spanish colonial town square is framed on three sides by arcaded balconies and elaborately carved baroque buildings made of shimmering white volcanic sillar. Grab a seat on a bench near the fountain or stroll the flower gardens and soak up the cacophony of local gossip, street vendors hawking lucuma ice cream (a Peruvian fruit that tastes like butterscotch), and Andean pan-flute ensembles playing endless refrains of El Condor Pasa.
Arequipa’s cathedral flanks one entire side of the plaza. For a small donation, the guard will give you a tour of the basilica, the small museum of religious artifacts and papal mementos (Arequipa is estimated to be 90 percent Catholic, the most of any Peruvian city), and the two bell towers where you can take in splendid views of El Misti, the city’s iconic volcano.
Walk up busy Calle San Francisco for lunch at stylish Zig Zag, which specializes in Alpandina, a fusion of Andean and alpine cuisine. The signature dish of lamb, beef and alpaca cooked on a volcanic slab comes with a variety of dipping sauces and sides of potatoes or quinoa. For something more traditional, head to one of the numerous picanterías, where local specialties — rocoto relleno, chupa de camerones, cuy chactado — are served in ample portions.
Around the corner, the Santa Catalina monastery is a labyrinthine city-within-a-city dating back to 1579 where nuns lived completely in silence and without contact to the outside world until 1970. The five-acre maze of cloistered walkways, gardens, and galleries is painted in vibrant hues of red and cobalt blue, a striking contrast to the stark life that existed here for centuries.
Stop for tea and a slice of the famed orange or passion fruit cake at the serene courtyard cafe before heading out to visit Juanita, the 500-year-old frozen Incan maiden who was discovered in 1995 near the summit of the Ampato volcano. Housed in the Museo Santuarios Andinos, Juanita is one of four young girls sacrificed to the gods — her body perfectly preserved in ice down to the contents of her stomach. If there’s time, hit Mundo Alpaca for some shopping before dinner. The combo museum/factory outlet features live alpacas and llamas, weaving demonstrations, and a store selling premium-quality alpaca clothing at very decent prices.
Make a reservation for Chi Cha, Peruvian celeb chef Gastón Acurio’s Arequipa outpost. The culinary superstar, whose empire extends to San Francisco’s La Mar on the Embarcadero, tailors the menu to regional tastes made with local ingredients. Try the chupe, a soup of river shrimp, potatoes, and fava beans; the pork adobo; or a traditional causa, a cold mashed-potato napoleon layered with tuna, egg, shrimp and avocado. Before or after (or both), sample one of the fresh fruit variations on the pisco sour, Peru’s national cocktail. A couple camu camu piscos later, Arequipa will likely have stolen your heart — especially if the way to your heart is through your stomach.
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San Fransisco Chronicle