Arequipa & the Colca Canyon

Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca,” Peru’s number-two city is a gleaming white confection built in the shadow of El Misti, the snow-topped volcano that looms on the horizon. Those who visit inevitably rave about its colonial architecture—which includes a stunning plaza de armas and cathedral—but it’s Arequipa’s mysteries that are its greatest attraction.

Chief among those mysteries is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a 16th-century convent whose labyrinthine cloisters still evoke the whispered prayers of the nuns who once meditated within its walls. Seen by moonlight, with only candles to illuminate the cells, it’s a haunting, unforgettable experience. No less enigmatic is “Juanita,” the Inca ice maiden whose mummy is enshrined at the city’s Museo Santuarios Andinos. Discovered in 1995, her perfectly preserved remains shed a macabre light on human sacrifice in Peru.

Arequipa also enjoys a reputation as a sociable, intellectual town. In the many picanterías that dot the traditional Yanahuara district, you’ll find families and friends laughing or talking politics over famous local dishes such as rocoto relleno (stuffed spicy peppers) and adobo de cerdo (pork stew). At night, the downtown streets swarm with revelers enjoying piscos in the many rustic taverns, or dancing in the all-night discos.

But Arequipa is more than just a city. Step outside its limits, and you’ll find landscapes that are among the most scenic in Peru. Here the star attraction is Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest, where adventure travelers can enjoy hiking, trekking, whitewater rafting, and mountain climbing amidst towering volcanoes and Inca agricultural terraces. At the Cruz del Condor, Andean raptors float gently on the early-morning breezes; at the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, friendly alpacas eat from visitors’ hands.

Local legend says that Arequipa’s name derives from “Ari, quepay,” the phrase spoken by a visiting Inca ruler who was so charmed by the landscape that he gave orders to “stop here.” When you visit, you’ll no doubt feel the same.

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