It’s often difficult for first time visitors to Peru to truly comprehend just how large the country is. Encompassing 496,200 square miles (1.285 million km²), there is much to do and see. Because it’s impossible to see everything in just a couple weeks, it is crucial to prioritize.
Many people only pass through Arequipa on their way to and from Colca Canyon. This is a shame because the city — Peru’s second largest — is a marvelous place to stop, relax and absorb another side of the country’s rich and diverse personality.
Compared to Lima and Cusco, Arequipa feels more like a European city, as it’s full of Colonial-era architecture and impressive religious and civil buildings. Additionally, the city’s residents, known as Arequipeños, have fostered a distinctive character over the generations that sets them apart from the rest of the country. Arequipa prides itself on its refinement and sophistication, descended from the Spanish gentry that established the city, followed by the wealthier Peruvian landowners who preferred life in Arequipa to the anarchic Lima. This division between Arequipa and Lima, as well as a fierce sense of independence (and even superiority) over the capital lingers to this day. In fact, some of the most popular souvenirs are Arequipeño passports and currency, manufactured only half in jest.
That being said, the real draw to Arequipa is its architecture. Drawing its nickname, the White City, from the dazzling white silar stone from which the historical center was constructed, Arequipa is home to the best examples of Colonial architecture in Peru: Enormous plazas, domineering Cathedrals, sweeping colonnades and one of the most impressive Monasteries in Latin America: Santa Catalina.
Founded in the 1500s and gradually expanded over the centuries, Santa Catalina now occupies several city blocks, essentially forming a walled city within a city. Originally accessible to only the most pious of Dominican nuns, much of the monastery is now open to the public, although it is still very much a working institution and visitors will see plenty of nuns going about their daily business. A tour of the monastery offers fascinating insight into a form of life that has gone largely unchanged for centuries.
One of Arequipa’s other major attractions is its distinct culinary tradition. Arequipa is a great place to sample the regional specialties, including cuy (guinea pig) and rocoto relleno (spicy stuffed chillies). The best place to savor these and other delicacies is in one of the many picanterias, restaurants specializing in Arequipa’s spicy cuisine.
The main plaza is a pleasant place to have a coffee where one can leisurely sit and people watch. Just walking around and taking in the lovely old Colonial buildings is an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon. Near to the plaza on Calle San Francisco you’ll find the Casa Tristán del Pozo, which houses a small art collection. If art is an interest of yours, you can also pay a visit to the small but worth appreciating Museum of Contemporary Art.
For those people wanting a more active holiday, there are a number of treks and activities in the mountains nearby, including at Misti, the volcano that looms over the city, and the world famous Colca Canyon.
One of the best ways to experience this part of Peru is on our Classic Machu Picchu, Arequipa, and the Colca Canyon tour.