Arequipa, Peru. Haven’t heard of it? While it may not be as widely known as Lima, Cuzco, or Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is a major Peruvian city with a lot to offer travelers. Located in the south of the country (a few hours from the famous Nazca lines), Arequipa is home to close to a million inhabitants.
It’s known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), a nod to the stunning white architecture that fills the city centre. These buildings were constructed with sillar, white volcanic stone from the three volcanoes that loom over the city — the most prominent being “El Misti”, which is pictured above. Partially because of the colour of the stone, but also because of the colonial and heavy Catholic influence in the architecture, Peruvians consider Arequipa to be one of the most Spanish or Mestizo cities in the country. There is much less outright indigenous influence than in a place like Cuzco, for example.
That may sound nice, but what is there to actually see and do in Arequipa?
I arrived in Arequipa on a bus straight from La Paz, Bolivia, a city that had overwhelmed me with its chaos. I have to sheepishly admit that I completely embraced Arequipa for its modernity, and tourist-friendly atmosphere. Arequipa is a city fit for tourists of all types and budgets, not just hippy backpackers. It has luxurious hotels, high-class restaurants, and even plenty of air-conditioned malls with western-style gyms. However, you’ll still find plenty of local eateries, budget hotels and hostels, and family-run businesses.
Here are some of my recommendations on how to spend your time in Arequipa:
1. Walk the City Centre: The historic centre occupies roughly a five-block diameter of the city. It’s easily accessible, and safe to walk around in. There are plenty of small museums, and some converted mansions which you can view. It’s great to just wander the streets, and observe the activity. The hub of the centre is the Plaza de Armas, the main square. In true colonial tradition, the square is dominated by the cathedral, but it’s also filled with hawkers, and promotion people who work for various tourism companies. Most will try to sell you packaged tours to the Colca Canyon, Cusco, or Lake Titicaca. Try to avoid them by sticking to the side streets, which are almost equally beautiful and full of small shops.
2. See a Frozen Inca Princess: Ever seen a mummy? How about an Inca mummy? Although the Museo Santuarios Andinos may seem a bit pricey, (20 soles), it’s a worthwhile experience. “Juanita” is the name given to the frozen, preserved body of a young sacrificial victim, who was found by an anthropologist in 1995. Her corpse was discovered high on the volcano Ampato, and now resides in this museum. Watch a short documentary, see some of the artifacts that were buried with her, and learn a bit more about Inca history.
3. Tour the Santa Catalina Convent: One of the best pieces of advice I got about Arequipa was from Carlita, a local who I met through Couchsurfing. She told me that I should visit the convent in the late afternoon, about an hour and a half before sunset. This way, I could take photos and see the site both in daylight, and during the magnificent sunset. Established in 1579 (only a few decades after the Spanish conquest), the entire complex was built out of sillar. (Most of it has been painted a beautiful blue or reddish-pink.) Although part of it is still in use, the majority of the convent was opened to the public in 1970. Don’t forget to climb up the stairs onto the roof to view the sunset! (Give yourself lots of time here; there’s plenty to see).
4. Have a Rooftop Drink: If you visited the convent earlier in the day, you can always catch the sunset at one of the many rooftop bars in the Plaza de Armas. One of the best views is from the restaurants in the upper-right corner of the plaza, if you’re facing the cathedral.
5. Take a Cooking Course: Peruvian Cooking Experience is a fantastic company that is located in Hotel Casa Avila, just a six or seven minute walk from the main plaza. The class I took cost 45 soles, and was some of the best money I spent on my entire trip. There are a few different menus you can choose from (classic, Andean, and seafood), and they also cater to vegetarian students. In my class, we cooked the Andean Menu: Soltero de Queso, (a cheese and corn salad), Rocoto Relleno (see below), and Pastel de Papas (potato pie). My class began at 11 AM, and ended at 2. Book ahead of time, here.
Try your hand at some typical Peruvian dishes.
6. Eat and Drink!: Arequipa is home to some very popular Peruvian dishes, such as Rocoto Relleno, Rocoto hot peppers stuffed with a mixture of beef, raisins, eggs, cheese, peas, carrots, milk, and potatoes. These have a real kick to them, but are probably my favourite Peruvian dish! Soltero de Queso is another popular dish here. It’s a tasty, brightly-coloured salad, with lots of cheese, corn, lima beans, onions, tomatoes, carrots, all tossed with a lime dressing. (For more Peruvian food, see my list of some of my favourites.) When you’ve had your fill, wash everything down with some Pisco Sour, a famous cocktail made with egg whites, lime, and Pisco alcohol. If you’re looking for a mid-range restaurant and want something less traditional, visit Crepisimo (right by the convent). It has a beautiful courtyard, so eat outside.
7. Couchsurf: Arequipa has some great couchsurfers, and this is one city where it’s nice to go out and meet people. I met up with Carla and Carlos during my stay here, and both were eager hosts who were more than willing to show me the city. Carlita also introduced me to spicy versions of Pisco Sours — the best way to cool off on a warm afternoon! 😉
8. Hike the Colca Canyon or El Misti Volcano: The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, and is home to the Andean Condors, which can be spotted from the Cruz del Condor lookout point. El Misti is the volcano that towers over Arequipa. I did not do these myself, because I had to hurry over to Cuzco for the start of my Inca Trail trek, but all of my friends who have done it, loved them. Give yourself a couple of days for either of these excursions, and make sure you compare prices before booking. You can do the Colca Canyon on your own, but you need a guide for the volcano. Expect to pay around 150 soles for a 3-day (2-night) Colca Canyon tour.
There are many, many more things to do in Arequipa, whether you’re looking for culture, history, or adventure tourism. Get out there, and explore. Give yourself at least two or three days in the city, and two or three more for nearby excursions.
Where to Stay: I stayed at the Arequipay Backpackers’ Hostel, and loved it. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the main plaza, and right down the street from the Peruvian Cooking Experience.