Pacific Shores From Panama – La Villa Hermosa

The acting superintendent of the Southern Railways was there to greet us, and soon we were rattling, with him, in the dark of the early evening, over the cobblestones to the hotel.

How like Spain it all was—perhaps even more Spanish than Spain, for it lacked every taint of cosmopolitanism!

Suddenly we emerged into the plaza and a moment later stepped out upon our porch speechless at what lay before us. The great bell of the Compañia, just opposite, was tolling for vespers, and its deep, bass voice was answered by the jangling but sweet-toned chimes of the other churches and by the slow, irregular thud of the cathedral bell. We were standing on top of the Portales, or stone arcades of beautiful design, that completely surround the plaza on three of its sides. Below us lay flower-beds, palms, and broad, curving pathways whose glistening tile pavements, clean as mirrors, reflected the arc lights above. A quiet crowd was slowly moving about, for a military band was playing off in one corner.

Directly opposite loomed the long façade of the cathedral, above which we could faintly descry the shadowy forms of Misti, rising to its snow-capped cone in all the perfect symmetry of its pure volcanic outline, and of its rugged neighbour, Chachani, cut into a multitude of peaks and ice-fields and rocky pinnacles. “Where,” we asked ourselves, “could we find such another combination, a great metropolitan cathedral fronting a monumental plaza and backed by two such mountain giants?”

And the spell of this first impression did not wear off.

We dined that evening with friends at the Central —a good Spanish dinner—after which we were amused by an Indian flower-boy who, though ugly and ill-formed, danced by our table, and with rolling eyes recited quaint pensamientos of languishing themes.

As we walked about the streets next morning we were struck by the pretty, gay aspect of the town, and of its dwellings painted in pale pastel tones, rose, pale ochre, Nile green, and pearly grey, but most of all azul—those blues that shade from faint, cool white to the deep tones of the azure sky. In the open court-yards oleanders bloomed and the tessellated tufa pavements were shaded by fig, orange, and lemon trees.

I should call Arequipa the Silent City. No carts rattle on its thoroughfares, its donkeys’ feet are unshod, and even its little tram-cars fail to drown the murmur of the rushing rivulets that course down its open gutters.

It is the second city in size in Peru, and its founder, Garcia Manuel de Carvajal, called it La Villa Hermosa—the Beautiful City—and it well deserved its name. Its present appellation is Quichua in origin, and is said to have originated from the fact that a party of Inca soldiers once came upon this lovely valley of the Chili, hidden in the dreary Andean solitudes, and asked their commander to allow them to remain. His reply was, “Ari, quepai”; that in Quichua means “Yes, remain.”

Its elevation, some seventy-five hundred feet above the sea, gives it a delightful climate, quite spring-like in character, and of its forty thousand inhabitants a large proportion are gente decente, for it has long been recognised as a centre of culture and the residence of men of distinction.

The courtesy of the Arequipeñians is beyond question. Each time you stop to look into a courtyard some one has a pretty way of asking you to come in and “take a seat.” Then you are presented with flowers and apologies are made that the season is late and flowers not what they were a month or two ago. And what pretty, dark-eyed young women in lacy mantillas you meet coming home from church on Sunday morning !

Let me tell you of an Arequipenian Sunday, to complete the picture, for Arequipa is essentially a religious town and lives its full life on Sunday.

You are waked in the morning by the bells of the Compania, big and small, pealing forth in carillons; then, when their vibrant notes have died away, you distinguish the silvery distant chimes of other churches; then a sound of voices chanting, accompanied by slow martial music. You look out and see a procession making a tour of the plaza—a brotherhood bearing a great crucifix, followed by priests and the soldiers of the garrison.

By ten you are out and cross the plaza to the cathedral and watch the Indian small boys, barefoot and nimble, who noiselessly carry from each home the priedieu, or chair of their mistress, gradually filling all the carpeted nave with them. The great organ peals forth, and feminine Arequipa, in sober black, troops in for high mass.

After this morning function there is a lull till about two o’clock, when all the men of the town and some of the women wander down to the bull-ring, where Bomba or Segurito, according to the posters, will fight six “hermosos toros.” And splendid bulls they are, to be sure, or were the day we saw them. I have seen no such thrilling fights in Spain as we witnessed here, and would not care often to undergo such excitement. Here in Peru the picador is practically suppressed; in fact, often totally so. Hence there are none of the gory horse episodes, and the matador takes the great, long-horned animal while he is still quite fresh and untired.

The pluck of the two espadas that we saw that day was astounding. They knelt in the ring, vaulted the animal, or turned calmly from him so that he just grazed them in his infuriated rushes, playing all the tricks of their hazardous calling, cheered to the echo, until one was finally caught by the bull and severely wounded.

We returned to the plaza, where a military concert was now in full swing. If the women had presented a sober picture at the cathedral in the morning, not so now at this afternoon promenade. Decked in their smartest gowns and escorted by gay young officers and obsequious young men, they sauntered in groups of three or four round and round the glazed-tile walks among the flowers and palmettoes.

We went with two friends (one of them the American minister at La Paz) to the zarzuela that evening. A fairly good company was playing an old favourite, the melodramatic “Mancha que limpia,” and a good house was in attendance. The scene was certainly characteristic of a Latin play-house, the main floor occupied for the most part by the men, the three tiers of boxes filled with elaborately dressed women, and the peanut-galleries crowded to suffocation with the small trades-people.

The town reserves a number of picturesque corners for him who will ferret them out. There is the market; there are the old palaces and churches ornamented with those extravagant plateresque carvings done by the Indians under the guidance of their Spanish conquerors; there is the great stone bridge that spans the Chili, with its massive piers and buttresses that remind you of their prototypes at Toledo; there are the long street vistas, with Chachani or Misti ever framed at the far extremity.

And in the evening you may drive out over the rough country road to a bit of American soil—the observatory that Harvard University maintains here for the study of the southern heavens—and see the stars sit for their portraits taken by its wonderful photographic telescopes. It is strange, indeed, to find this astronomer’s home, so absolutely American in all its appointments, perched on the far flanks of El Misti, and there to pass an evening in the genial warmth of an enthusiastic young American’s fireside.