RealWorld Guide to Arequipa
Nestling in the shadow of the snow-capped El Misti volcano sits the city of Arequipa. Known as La Ciudad Blanca (‘the White City’) because of the local white volcanic rock used to build it, it is one of the jewels of Peru. Combining modern amenities with a laid-back lifestyle, stunning scenery and beautiful colonial architecture, it is one of our favourite places in Peru.
Although it's not terribly well-known outside of Peru, we always try and include Arequipa in people's holiday itineraries because we think it's a lovely introduction to Peru - just the perfect place to settle into things here in Peru. The historic centre is all easily walkable, and at 2,300m the altitude provides a perfect halfway-house between Lima on the coast, and the higher elevations around Cusco and Lake Titicaca so it's a great place to get acclimatised.
What to See and Do in Arequipa
The historic centre is very compact so unlike some Peruvian cities, we don't always think you need to take an organised tour of Arequipa. The Plaza de Armas is the heart of the city, surrounded on three sides by colonial arcades and on the fourth by the beautiful white cathedral. The cathedral itself is open to the public in the morning and the evening and is well worth a visit.
There are several other colonial-era churches close to the Plaza that are fine examples of the elegant mestizo style, notably the former Jesuit church and cloisters of La Compañia (5 on your map) and San Francisco. The cloisters in particular really showcase the white sillar stonework for which Arequipa is famous.
Santa Catalina Convent
Probably the main attraction in Arequipa, however, is the convent-city of Santa Catalina, just 2 blocks from the Plaza. It really is a city in miniature and housed over 200 nuns and 300 servants until it opened its doors to the public in 1970. It was a closed convent and today the nuns live in a small closed area while the miniature streets and houses which were previously the nuns’ cells are open from 9am-5pm. It’s an amazing place and you can really feel the history as you walk around, whether as part of a tour of Arequipa or on your own.
UCSM Museum and Juanita the Mummy
Also more than worth a visit is the museum of the Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria, just one block along La Merced from the Plaza. This is where the famous mummy Juanita is housed for 6 months of every year (the other 6 months she is removed for research purposes, and if you’re lucky you can see her stunningly-preserved remains and some other amazing Inca and pre-Inca artefacts here in one of Peru’s best museums.
Mundo Alpaca, or Alpaca World, is located at Óvalo San Lázaro and offers visitors the opportunity to meet llamas and alpacas close-up. Admission is free, and upon arrival a guide will greet guests and take them through the entire process of making clothing out of alpaca hair.
The first stop is the spacious, outdoor animal enclosure, followed by a sorting room and exhibit on different types of llama and alpaca hair, and then finally a traditional weaving demonstration.
If you fancy something a little further afield then a good idea is to walk or take a taxi to the Yanahuara mirador. This can be reached by walking along Avenida Santa Catalina from the Plaza and crossing the river over the Puente Grau. From there it’s about a 15 minute walk up the hill and then, turn right up Avenida Lima, just past the police station on the other side of the road. Head straight up here for another 15 minutes and there is a lovely little plaza with a pretty 16th-century church and what look like Moorish arches which provide a picture-postcard view of the city with El Misti in the background. If you don’t fancy the walk then a taxi should be no more than 5 soles.
Shopping in Arequipa
As well as the sights, Arequipa has an excellent central market located 2 blocks south of the church of Santo Domingo. The area specialises in leather goods so the market is a good place to pick these up and also sells good quality alpaca-wool clothing. As far as things like camera films and guidebooks go then there are plenty of places around the central plaza. There’s pretty fierce competition so one place is as good as another. There are also a variety of craft stands and stalls in a courtyard just off the Plaza Santa Domingo for those of you who are curiosity or souvenir-hunting.
Eating Out in Arequipa
The Plaza is a great setting in which to eat on your holiday in Arequipa and there are several restaurants on the second floor of the arcades, which all offer decent, if slightly pricey, examples of Arequipeña cuisine. The classics to try include Rocoto Relleno (Stuffed Andean peppers) and, for the brave, cuy – whole roast guinea pig... La Boveda, located on the plaza at Portal de San Augustin No. 127-129, has a homey, old-fashioned feel to it with pictures of old movie stars on the walls, and is a great place to stop for a coffee break.
If the sun is shining (which it always is here!) then there are some nice bars and restaurants in the Pasaje de la Catedral but the main area for eating and drinking is along San Francisco and Jerusalen, heading away from the Plaza, where Arequipa’s trendiest bars and some of its best restaurants are to be found. Honourable mentions go to Ary Quepay at Jerusalen 502 for Arequipeño specialities, and las Brujas (corner of San Francisco and Santa Martha) for good pizzas and cheap pitchers of Cristal and Cuzqueña. Jerusalen also has one of Peru’s few specialist vegetarian restaurants: Mandala. On that note, It’s also worth mentioning that one of the famous local specialities, ocopa (potato in a cheese and peanut sauce) is completely meat-free.
A few streets away from Jerusalen, a great modern Peruvian restaurant is Chicha, at Calle Santa Catalina 210 – it has an extensive menu of interesting dishes, and here we especially recommend the traditional adobo, a kind of pork stew. If you’ve got something to celebrate and are looking for a more fine dining experience, ask your hotel to make you a reservation at Zig Zag on Calle Zela 210 and when you get there order the Alpaca steak...
Flights To and From Arequipa
Arequipa's pocket-sized airport has several daily flights to and from Lima, and there are also daily direct flights to and from Puno, Cusco, and many other destinations in Peru.
Handily, there are also now direct flgihts from Arequipa to the Chilean capital Santiago.
At the Crossroads...
Arequipa is served well by Peru’s extensive coach routes, and most visitors travelling by land arrive after here visiting the Nazca Lines. There are also direct coaches up to Puno on Lake Titicaca, and services via the Desaguadero border crossing on to La Paz to continue your holidays in Bolivia.
Transport Within Arequipa
Once in Arequipa, it’s quite easy to walk just about everywhere you’re likely to want to go. If you’re travelling a bit further afield or just want a break, your hotel can order a taxi for you, or you can hail a Taxitel taxi, the only company we recommend to use if you’re going to flag down a cab from the street during your holiday in Arequipa.
Tours of Arequipa and Colca Canyon
As well as being a fantastic destination in itself, a trip to Arequipa also gives you the chance to tour the fantastic Colca Canyon. Just outside Arequipa, the Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and visually stunning. It's also home to many families of giant Andean condors - the largest bird on earth.
Did you know?
The name Arequipa supposedly comes from the Quechua "Ari Quepay", meaning "we'll stay here", which was apparently what the fourth Inca, Mayta Capac said after reaching this beautiful spot after a day's journey!