Arequipa in Peru: A place where the past is not another country

They honour the Spanish conquistadors and still pray to the spirits for a good harvest.

Through the thick glass of a museum case, I stared into the sightless eyes of the Ampato Maiden. For 500 years this Inca mummy had lain buried beneath the summit ice of Nevado Ampato volcano in southern Peru. Then, in 1995, the nearby Sabancaya volcano began to erupt. Black ash covered the summit of Ampato and absorbed the sun's heat, causing the ice to melt. The mummy was released from her icy tomb and fell down the mountainside, where it was found by the archaeologist Johann Reinhard who brought her to the Catholic University in Arequipa.

Through the thick glass of a museum case, I stared into the sightless eyes of the Ampato Maiden. For 500 years this Inca mummy had lain buried beneath the summit ice of Nevado Ampato volcano in southern Peru. Then, in 1995, the nearby Sabancaya volcano began to erupt. Black ash covered the summit of Ampato and absorbed the sun's heat, causing the ice to melt. The mummy was released from her icy tomb and fell down the mountainside, where it was found by the archaeologist Johann Reinhard who brought her to the Catholic University in Arequipa.

Juanita, as she is nicknamed, was the daughter of a noble Inca family. She was just 14 when she was selected to be sacrificed to the Inca gods. Dressed in fine robes, she was led to the 20,700ft summit of Nevado Ampato. A blow from a priest's ceremonial axe despatched her on her final journey to join the gods, taking with her the prayers of the Incas for relief from drought.

Juanita provides a link with the past that you could miss in modern Arequipa. Outside the museum, the streets of Peru's second city bustle with students and tourists. I made my way to the Plaza de Armas, one of the grandest and most beautiful of any city in South America. The twin-towered cathedral dominates one side of the plaza. Elegant colonial arcades complete the square. Look up and you see the ice-covered cone of El Misti, a volcano towering over the city.

Little remains of the original Inca city, but it is still gorgeous. The colonial architecture is a heady blend of Spanish, Moorish and mestizo influences. Francisco Pizarro, leader of the conquistadors, called Arequipa Villa Hermosa (Beautiful City). With its ornate buildings and perfect climate – 360 days of sunshine per year – it is not hard to see why.

I arrived on the eve of Arequipa Day, the anniversary to celebrate the re-founding of the city by the Spaniards in 1540. The festivities had already begun and the Plaza was lined with cheering crowds. After two days of parades, fireworks and parties, the last of the revellers staggered happily homewards and the city returned to its normal tranquillity.

Arequipa's most remarkable building is the Santa Catalina Convent. Inside its buttressed walls, 200 nuns and their servants lived in seclusion, praying for the souls of their families and their patrons. It is a city within a city, two acres of narrow cobbled streets, cloisters and tiny plazas. I wandered through the maze of alleys, entranced by the colours: ochre walls against blue sky; blue walls against white colonnades. The details are exquisite: carved wooden doorways, elaborate murals lining the cloisters. The atmosphere was utterly serene.

Arequipa is a city to savour at leisure. There are plenty of quiet places to escape the heat of the day: I sat drinking pisco sours at pavement cafés, read in the cool of shaded cloisters, and looked out across the terraced fields of the Chili Valley towards El Misti from hills on the fringe of the city. There's a lot to do at night, too: bars and restaurants ranging from disco pubs to traditional penas with wandering folk musicians playing Andean music.

I drove out of the city and up a rough dirt road over the shoulder of Chachani Volcano on to the barren altiplano, bound for the Colca Canyon, which claims to be the deepest canyon in the world. The Colca Canyon is the antithesis of Arequipa. In place of the elegant mansions, this is a rural idyll stuck in a time warp. Indian peasants till tiny plots with ox-drawn ploughs. Every available inch of ground has been terraced. Many date back more than 1,500 years.

Driving into a village, I found women sitting in the square spinning wool, dressed traditionally in embroidered waistcoats, full skirts and thick shawls. Behind them stretched lines of brown thatched houses, built of stone and mudbrick.

I based myself at the Colca Lodge, a comfortable hotel by a hot spring on the banks of the Colca river. In the early morning I met villagers on their way out to the fields, driving small flocks of sheep or carrying their ploughs. As the days warmed up the valley came alive: ant-like figures beavered away in the fields. Overhead, condors soared on the thermals.

Both Incas and Spanish conquistadors subjugated the people of the Colca Canyon, each leaving their mark. In the village of Maca, I witnessed a local fiesta. Dancers dressed as Inca warriors led a procession to the church where a priest held mass. Afterwards, plaster statues of Jesus were borne in a ceremony that epitomised the extraordinary juxtaposition of Catholic and animistic religion.

Men from each village in the canyon make an annual pilgrimage to the high snows to pray to the mountain spirits for water for the growing season. For many, this trek takes them up to the summit of Nevado Ampato. No longer are maidens offered as human sacrifices, but the belief in the spirit world is still strong.

John Warburton-Lee travelled to Peru with Roxton Bailey Robinson Worldwide (01488 689701; www.rbrww.com). It has bespoke itineraries to Peru from £3,450 per person, based on two sharing, including flights, accommodation and some meals.

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