Despite no longer being in my twenties I still like to celebrate my birthday with the zealous excitement of a small child. I’ve always ensured I book at least a few days of annual leave at work for the dates surrounding the anniversary of my birth, and I have – with the exception of the marriage of one of my close friends to a girl who I now consider to also be a very good friend of mine, a ceremony at which I was asked to shoot the official wedding photographs – always celebrated this momentous occasion in a country other than that in which I was born (i.e England).
This is usually quite a tricky task logistically, as my mum’s birthday is the day before mine (yes, she spent her 29th birthday in hospital, in labour), and whilst I prefer to celebrate mine in sunnier climes, I also like to be at home to spend my mum’s birthday with her. This often involves celebrating my mum’s birthday early or mine late, but we manage it, and I don’t think she minds too much if her daughter is happy doing what she enjoys.
This year, however, I would be right in the middle of a long-term trip through South America at the end of June. Whilst I did feel a twinge of guilt that I would not be there to bestow some personal, well-thought out gifts upon my mum, or treat her to a meal at one of her favourite restaurants, I did surprise her with a telephone call (she hasn’t yet joined the Skype generation), a photo card I constructed with images from my Peruvian travels and a gift I’d posted a few weeks previously from Cusco, which, despite the fact that the post office clerk confessed would probably not arrive in time, fortunately did.
I’d spoken to my mum from the amazing rooftop terrace of Park Hostel in Arequipa, which was the city in which I’d chosen to spend my birthday.
Whilst I love off-the-beaten track adventures, I wanted to be in a town or city large enough to offer some quality culinary options, lively drinking haunts, and preferably a bit of live music to boot.
Arequipa provided me with the perfect combination of all of those things.
It’s the jumping off point for the fantastic Colca Canyon trek (which we decided to complete independently for a more authentic and unique experience), as well as being home to some beautiful colonial architecture, fascinating historic and cultural sights, and a vast array of inviting restaurants and bars.
On the morning of my birthday we enjoyed a lazy start at the Flying Dog hostel (which we’d moved to due to its location in a slightly nicer part of the city, and its potentially more lively and congenial vibe), and a filling breakfast of toasted bread and cheese, cereals, yoghurt and fruit, before venturing out into Arequipa’s sunny streets.
Frogs provided a welcome coffee and wifi fix before our arrival at el Monasterio de Santa Catalina around lunchtime. Now I appreciate that visiting a monastery is not an obvious choice of activity for one’s birthday, but bear with me, because Santa Catalina is something a little bit special.
Founded in 1580 by a rich widow, Doña María de Guzmán, the monastery was enlarged in the 17th century and now occupies an area of over 20,000 square metres. This city within a city is hidden behind imposing stone walls around 200 metres north of the city’s Plaza de Armas. Once occupied by approximately 450 people (a third of them were nuns whose families had to pay a dowry in order for them to enter; the remainder were servants), just 20 nuns remain in residency today in the northern quarter of the complex. The rest is open to the public.
I loved the bold colours within the monastery – the rich blues blended beautifully with the skies above us and the burnt orange hues reminded me of the mineral-rich waters at Pastoruri Glacier and the terracotta-tiled roofs of the Mediterranean. Clean whitewashed walls, attractive murals, lush plant life and decorative doorways only helped to further compliment the inviting maze of narrow cloisters, sunny courtyards, and cozy living quarters.
We spent the whole afternoon (in fact I think we were two of the last people to leave the grounds at just after 5pm) wandering through the grounds, in an attempt to explore every nook and cranny and to photograph every possible detail. I took so many photographs that I will be publishing a photo essay to properly document this fascinating place, but in the meantime I hope that the few shots I have included in this post will peak your interest enough to encourage you to add Santa Catalina Monastery to your Peruvian bucket list.
I’m very glad I did, and even more so that I decided to spend my birthday afternoon there.
For my birthday evening I wanted three vital ingredients: good food, live music and an abundant supply of mojitos.
For the good food, we decided to head to Zig Zag Restaurant. It came highly-rated in our guidebook, was Trip Advisor’s number one restaurant choice in Arequipa, and had received rave reviews from other travel bloggers. For these reasons I was expecting it to be ridiculously expensive, so I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that it wasn’t. Pricey yes, but affordable. And this was a special occasion, after all.
Zig Zag is located in a lovely old building with a cast iron spiral staircase, and overlooks the Plaza San Francisco. The food was all totally delicious, and I even had a dessert (I don’t normally eat desserts) because I was so impressed with the first two courses. My only regret was that I didn’t get a photo of my complimentary birthday cocktail before the sparklers burnt out…
Leaving Zig Zag, our next stop was the Che Guevara bar (identifiable by the life-sized model of the man himself sitting in the window) on San Francisco for some happy-hour mojitos.
Whilst it’s not going to win any awards for the best bar in Arequipa, it’s got a nice relaxed vibe, upstairs seating, and a big screen showing old Guns ‘n’ Roses videos (think all the tracks from the Illusion 1 and 2 albums combined; yes I may have been a bit of a fan in my younger years) on repeat. They also serve quality (and cheap!) mojitos with a very generous helping of mint leaves, which was the main reason we stopped by.
The evening wouldn’t have been complete without a bit of live music, and for that we headed straight to Café Art Montreal. It’s located within a labyrinth of colonial-age bodegas on Ugarte, and its inconspicuous entrance is very easy to miss. But to do so would be to overlook one of the best drinking haunts in Arequipa.
Think dark, intimate and smoky and you’ll have fairly good picture of one of Arequipa’s most popular student hang-outs, and its live music offerings are as eclectic as its clientele.
We listened to a beautiful acoustic set by a band I was so taken with I paid $20 soles for one of their CDs to take home to my parents. They were followed by a lively rock band who mixed powerful original tracks with classics by Thin Lizzy, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin.
Towards the end of the night, their infectious energy and evident musical talent and appeal had encouraged almost everyone within close proximity of the stage to leave their seats and create a dance floor between the tables.
It was Pride weekend in Arequipa (we’d missed the colourful street parades due to being enclosed within the walls of the Santa Catalina Monastery), so my final memories of the evening were bouncing around to Peruvian rock music with a couple of gay guys, with a mojito in one hand and a camera (which I failed to use since leaving Zig Zag) in the other.
Bearing in mind that Stu doesn’t ‘do’ dancing, the only thing that would’ve made my night complete would have been to have one of my favourite girl friends and fellow partying and dancing companion there by my side (Trinny Vickers, if you’re reading this, that’s you!). But all things considered, as birthdays go it was a pretty damn good one. Arequipa, you did me proud 🙂