Sitting at the foot of the beautiful snow-capped volcano of El Misti, is the Peruvian city of Arequipa. Locally known as the ‘White City’ because historically all the buildings were made from the local sillar white rock, Arequipa is generally recognised as the most beautiful of all the cities in Peru and most people see it as a real highlight of their Peru holidays. Arequipa manages to combine all the facilities of a modern city with real old-fashioned charm, and it’s a place everyone should try and visit while on holiday in Peru.
Most people choose to stay in the colonial centre of the city, as this is where most of the better hotels and major attractions are located. Right at the heart of Arequipa is the beautiful main square, known as the Plaza de Armas. The square itself is surrounded on three sides by Romanesque colonnades, while the elegant Cathedral completes the fourth side. At each corner, entrances lead out of the square and into the surrounding cobbled streets. There are several restaurants on the upper story of the colonnades so that you can sit back with a coca tea and watch life unfold beneath you.
Walking out of the square itself, there are several lovely buildings to be seen within just a block. The former Jesuit church and cloisters of La Compañia are a particular favourite, with the latter now housing a lovely gallery and café. In the other direction, just two blocks from the Plaza is the sprawling former convent of Santa Catalina. Occupying the equivalent of several city blocks, it dates back to the early years of the Spanish conquest and it really is like a town in itself. Until it opened its doors to the public in 1970 it was a closed convent housing over 200 nuns as well as hundreds more staff and lay sisters. Today it is a remarkably tranquil place considering it’s in the middle of a city of over a million people and it’s always somewhere that people remember fondly from their Peru holidays.
Aside from Santa Catalina, another major attraction in Arequipa is the UNSA Museum, which again is just a couple of blocks from the main square. Although small, it’s one of the best-curated museums in Peru and all the exhibits are of very high quality. If you only visit one museum during your Peru holidays, it should definitely be this one. Although the whole museum is really interesting, the big draw here is the ‘Juanita’ mummy, sometimes called the “ice-maiden of Arequipa”. This mummified body was found on top of the nearby Mt. Chachani and is kept in a special atmospheric tank which replicates the dry, cold conditions of the mountain so that she remains perfectly preserved.
The other major reason many people visit Arequipa on their Peru holidays is because it acts as a base for trips into the nearby Colca Canyon. Twice as deep as the much more famous Grand Canyon, Colca offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the whole of Peru. You need to allow yourself at least two days to visit the Canyon properly, in order to overnight in the canyon itself. This will give you an opportunity to see the famous giant Andean Condors which nest in the heart of Colca Canyon. If you stay overnight in the small town of Chivay – and get up bright and early the next morning! – you can head further into the canyon and watch majestic creatures as they dive into the morning thermal up-draughts, soaring high into the Andean skies as they set off on their day’s hunting.
And after a couple of days in the Canyon, there’s nothing better than heading back to Arequipa to enjoy a lovely meal overlooking the main square, before your Peru holidays take you further up into the Andes. People always remember Arequipa very fondly, and in many ways it’s an ideal place to begin any holiday in Peru: less touristy than Cusco, calmer than Lima, but with some of the best aspects of both.
Dan Clarke works for Real Peru Holidays – the UK specialists for tailormade holidays to Peru. Arequipa is probably his favourite city in Peru, although Lima runs it pretty close…