City breaks in Peru aren’t all about the big-hitters, Lima and Cusco. Head further south and you’ll discover the White City – Arequipa – a beautiful confection of colonial architecture, jostling markets and laidback eateries, where dramatic volcanoes stand guard in the background, blue skies match cobalt buildings and the sun glistens off white walls (hence the nickname). The locals, or Arequipeños, are a proud people who will tell you that theirs is the best city in Peru. There’s lip-smacking food to sample, a monastery to marvel at and much more – so read on to find out why Peru’s second city merits a stop on your next South America trip.
History and geography of Arequipa
Peru’s southerly city teeters at 7,550ft above sea level at the foot of the Andes, in the Valley of the Volcanoes – in fact, Arequipa is ringed by three in particular: Chachani, Pichupichu and Misti, the tallest of all at over 19,000ft. These snow-topped peaks serve as a picturesque backdrop for Arequipa, which was inhabited long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in 1540. The Inca used the town as a base along their trading route between Cusco and the coast, though it was the Aymara who left their traces in the city’s name, which translates as ‘the place that lies behind the peak’.
Architecture in Arequipa
If gazing in wonder at exquisite architecture is on your agenda, you’ll find yourself in heaven here. Arequipa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is brimming with baroque buildings, ornate facades, centuries-old churches, a tranquil monastery and the spectacular Cathedral, all intact despite volcanic eruptions over the centuries. Your best bet is to head to the Plaza de Armas, an expansive square in the heart of town punctuated with palm trees and surrounded on all sides by beautiful remnants of the colonial era, making this a great place to start. From here, the Arequipa Cathedral is impossible to miss, soaring into the sky with its intricately-hewn, golden façade, taking up a whole side of the square. Sculpted from sillar volcanic rock, the Cathedral is one of many buildings in Arequipa flaunting an attractive, light hue, which is why it is lovingly referred to as the White City.
Arequipa monastery and churches
As well as the impressive Cathedral, Arequipa is home to a collection of churches that are delightful to witness. There’s the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, also found on the Plaza de Armas with its captivating exterior, and the churches of Yanahuara, a district awash with winding lanes and arches – plus great viewpoints looking out over the surrounding countryside. Another must-see stop in Arequipa is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina – it would be sacrilege to visit the White City and not experience this extraordinary place. Still in use to this day, Santa Catalina is a serene, 16th century religious site that feels like its own town, what with all the terracotta-hued alleyways, leafy squares, chapels and living quarters that make up the monastery. See white-clad nuns going about their day to day, and be sure to bring your camera – this is a very photogenic place indeed.
Cuisine in Arequipa
A lot is said about the superb gastronomical scene in Lima, but Arequipa has long been a culinary capital in Peru. The city’s creative cuisine is best enjoyed in one of the picanterias, rubbing shoulders with the locals, or in markets like San Camilo, for the chance to savour seriously mouth-watering fare. Some Arequipa staples are: the rocoto relleno, a spicy red pepper filled with beef and cheese; pastel de papa, a favoured accompaniment of layered cheese, potatoes and eggs; adobo, a cumin-spiced pork stew that is the dish of choice on Sundays, and is said to seriously cure hangovers! Finally, finish up with helado queso – an ice cream made from cheese!
Where to stay
The best places to stay in Arequipa are those occupying restored colonial buildings, such as the Casa Andina Private Collection Hotel which is housed in the former mint. Upon renovating the building, an amazing assortment of frescoes, reliefs and a chapel were unveiled, emphasizing the incredible heritage to be found here. Sleep beneath vaulted stone ceilings, sit back with a chilled glass of wine in the courtyard, and admire the view from Casa Andina’s rooftop terrace. Otherwise, if you prefer modern amenities like swimming pools, saunas and Jacuzzis, opt for the Libertador Hotel Arequipa instead, with its volcano views, gardens and decidedly contemporary feel.
There’s much to do beyond the city – starting with a visit to the Colca Canyon, which is said to be deeper than the USA’s Grand Canyon! This stunning destination is peppered with rural villages like Chivay, Macca and Yanque, their charming markets and colonial churches offering an insight into life in rural Peru. However, the highlight has to be the Condor Cross lookout point, where you can watch these mighty birds – the national emblem of Peru – swooping above the valley, a truly unforgettable sight. As well as the Colca Canyon, you can head from Arequipa to Puno and Lake Titicaca, or the Desert Coast in the other direction, exploring such wonders as the Nazca Lines and Ballestas Islands.
Visit Arequipa on a trip to Peru with Surtrek – you can build your vacation to suit your tastes and interests on our Discover Your South America platform, by clicking here. Otherwise, call us on 1 866 978 7398 (Canada and USA) or 080 8189 0438 (UK) to talk to an expert, and Discover Your South America with Surtrek!