Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa's Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas, photo by Ivan Mlinaric.

Why visit Arequipa?

Halfway up the Andes mountains in south Peru at 2, 400m (7, 800 ft) is the dazzling, colonial ‘White City’ (La Ciudad Blanca) of Arequipa where festivities are frequent as are sightings of tourists (this is the third most popular urban tourist destination in Peru) and high plains drifters – or more correctly, people of the Altiplano – among the grand structures.
Be aware that there also lurk a sufficiency of rateros, petty thieves cruising for tourist pockets. The bugcrew experienced two unsuccessful attempts in Arequipa.

San Agustin, a typically elaborate white church in Arequipa, Peru

San Agustin, a typically elaborate white church. Photo by RapFever.

• The White City is home to plenty of magnificent Spanish colonial architecture that is, incidentally, cut out of solidified, white, pyroclastic ash from El Misti volcano.
Arequipa’s historic centre has UNESCO World Heritage status but no Inca remnants at all. We especially enjoyed the lively and spacious Plaza de Armas, the elaborate white frontage of various religious buildings and the strangely bright but tranqilising colours of the Santa Catalina Monastery.

• Arequipa is conveniently situated on the Tourist Corridor running from Nazca (low altitude) to Arequipa (mid-altitude) to Puno/Lake Titicaca (high but basically horizontal, naturally) to Cuzco (high and getting higher), so it’s the perfect place for altitude acclimatisation on the way up from Lima’s international landing zone.
A few days allows the blood to thin out and avoids the unpleasantness of altitude sickness when arriving suddenly in a high altitude destination (e. g. travelling directly by plane Lima-Cuzco. Oooh, nasty) whether it’s just a thumping headache or full-on pulmonary edema, trust me, with all this amazing culture and environment around travellers need to be in peak condition, not sick and sleepless.

• Arequipa is a city that loves festivals, be they formal such as Independence Day, or touristy but wonderful such as La Tuna Spanish Music Festival.

• Outside Arequipa lies El Misti volcano that may be of interest to a few masochistic climbers but the biggest draw is day trips – 2 or 3 day guided tours also on offer – out to beautiful Colca Canyon and the massive condors that cruise there. Yes, the birthplace of El Condor Pasa!

El Misti Volcano, near Arequipa

El Misti is a live volcano that smokes tentatively near Arequipa, Peru

El Misti is a live volcano that smokes with some dedication near Arequipa.

Misti is 5, 822 metres (19, 101 ft) above sea level and last erupted in 1985. Arequipa is Peru’s ‘White City’ because much of the building stone was quarried from ‘Sillar’, solidified pyroclastic flow (i. e. a volcanic eruption product), which is in El Misti’s case was white.

Sillar rock is white or pink in color, freely available in huge quantities, easy-to-work, light, thermally efficient, aesthetically pleasing and weatherproof, in other words a miracle material for building

Climbersdiscovered Inca mummies and artifacts in El Misti’s inner crater in 1998. These are now on display in Arequipa’s Museo de Santuarios Andinos.

There are two climbing routes up El Misti, both requiring a camp at 4, 500m+. The routes are technically easy but strenuous due to the combination of altitude and loose scree surface.

Best Sights in Arequipa

• Monasterio de Santa Catalina (with guide is worthwhile, photos below).

• a Colca Canyon visit and/or hiking, a good place to train for the Inca Trail.

• Climbing Misti volcano but it’s very hard, very cold and guides need to be chosen with extreme care.

• The buzzing life and beautiful buildings in Plaza de Armas & Arequipa’s historic centre.

• Casa Museo Villalobos (a rich family’s house, stuffed with exquisite artefacts, furniture etc).

• Arequipa Cathedral and Museum, guide mandatory.

• Salinas y Aguada Blanca Reserve for offworld landscapes, lake and local fauna – llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, flamingoes in season. It’s on the road to Colca Canyon.

• La Compania de Jesus church, especially the cloisters (photo above), Chapel of San Ignacio and altarpiece. Free apart from the chapel.

Arequipa is the place to find a peña (folk club), order a pisco sour (don’t ask) and listen to Andean music played for real, none of that busking in London/Tokyo/Venice Beach stuff, not that the buskers are necessarily bad, but. . . location, location, location.

Plaza de Armas fountain, Arequipa, Peru

Plaza de Armas fountain and much social interaction. Photo by Jim.

The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa, Peru

The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa which only opens at 7am and 5pm. Photo by SirJoseMaria.

Arequpa Cathedral- a wooden devil breaking through the floor, Peru

The cathedral interior is not so special but does have a wooden devil breaking through the floor below the pulpit. The epitome of wickedness is being held down by a) the weight of Christian prayer b) a truck tyre c) an Amazonian Boa Constrictor. Take your pick. Photo by Jim.

Santa Catalina Monastery

Santa Catalina red entrance, Arequipa, Peru

Santa Catalina entrance, photo by Jim Stevenson.

This monastery (I always thought a nunnery was an institution for females? ) is massive, a town within a city dedicated to nuns supported by wealthy families and encompassing gardens, paths, houses (with servants) and streets, even a cemetery and a room specifically for nuns who had petitioned to become saints. The nuns were very comfortable and didn’t spend a lot of time on their knees. Art, cookery and socialising were their main interests though men couldn’t even see them let alone talk to them.
Santa Catalina is packed with superb artwork throughout – paintings, religious objets d’art and sculptures to match any church in Peru and well worth a tour of a couple of hours.

Santa Catalina monastery cloister, Arequipa, Peru

Santa Catalina cloisters. Photo by Jim Stevenson.

Book of Human Skin

If you like tough historical thrillers check out the Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric. Set partly in Venice and partly in Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery, it weaves a sensational tale with fascinating descriptions of bizarre life, love and psycopathic murder in Santa Catalina – by nuns, no males permitted in this retreat!

Getting to Arequipa

We suggest taking a route, Lima-Nazca-Arequipa-Puno-Cusco, where you save the best sights for last, you have time to adjust slowly to the altitude and things just get weirder as the journey progresses. You could then fly back to Lima after Machu Picchu. Which is what we did.

Nazca – Arequipa: 566 kms, 8 hours.
Arequipa – Puno: 292 kms, 4. 5 hours.
Arequipa – Cusco: 480 kms, 7 hours.
Puno – Cusco: 389 kms, 5. 5 hours by bus but the train is a lovely and popular option.