Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Top 5 Things to do in Arequipa | Arequipa Travel Guide

Arequipa, or as its colloquially known, the White City, gets its name from the fact that the entire city centre has white buildings, made from the volcanic stone that surrounds the city.

arequipa header

After returning from our Colca Canyon adventure, we spent a few nights in Arequipa. One of the most distinguishing features of the city is the fact that the city is surrounded by three volcanoes, Misti, Chachani and Pichupichu. For this reason, the entire city centre is made from white stone quarried from the surrounding volcanoes.

Without a doubt, Cuzco and Machu Picchu are Peru's most famous landmarks. Travellers with less time will most probably overlook other charming cities in Peru. But this doesn't make Arequipa any less interesting or important than the other famous cities in Peru. Personally, I found Arequipa charming and interesting, with the perfect mix of Spanish and Indigenous culture. Arequipa is pretty, the food is fantastic (and cheap!), and its the gateway to the Colca Canyon. I really liked the atmosphere here too, it was chilled and laid back, I didn't feel like there were vendors competing for my attention which I had felt in many other cities.

arequipa architecture white rock


We got a hotel near the Plaza De Armas, so everything was really easy and accessible for us. The buildings, with all their intricacies, have been well maintained and unspoilt for the throngs of locals and tourists who were enjoying their time in the square's park. Restaurants, shops and souvenirs also line the whole main square, so everything you need is in one spot. We found the restaurants here to be a bit pricey though, so if you are in money saving mode, its better to walk a few streets away from the Plaza and find a cheaper restaurant to eat at.

plaza de armas arequipa garden


We spent a few hours of the first day walking around the Monastery of Santa Catalina. This Monastery is almost like a city, complete with roads, markets, individual houses and even a public bath. It is distinguished by its unique colours, like blue, red, yellow and white. The history isn't so bright though. Our tour guide told us that originally the girls that were admitted to the monastery were put there by force from the age of 14 and lived a life of solitude "serving God". Typically they were from rich families who paid the covenant to take in the girls. It was considered an honour for the family to have a member in this covenant.

monastery of santa catalina yellow blue room

Although you're free to wander the monastery alone, its best to get a tour guide. The monastery is over 20,000 square meters, and like I mentioned before, its more like a city within a city, and its really easy to get lost. Our tour guide took us to the most important rooms and gave us a little history about each corner, which is a lot more convenient than trying to do it on your own.

monastery of santa catalina red wall
monastery of santa catalina blue wall


When you see a church on every corner in South America, it makes me feel like I've seen enough churches for a lifetime. Do I really need to see another church towering over the main square of whatever city I'm in?! I was going to give the Cathedral of Arequipa a miss this time because I've already seen so many! But my aunt, who I was travelling with, and had been to Arequipa before, recommended me to give it a go, its better than most other Cathedrals. I had a few hours to kill, sure, why not. It cost a few dollars to get in, and you could only see the interior with a tour guide. The tour isn't just for the church, but a combined museum as well.

cathedral of arequipa front

The museum/Cathedral has an array of interesting pieces, such as the black Jesus, and the wooden altar (which was a gift from France) of the Holy Spirit trampling the devil. The museum (which we were not allowed to take any pictures inside) had some awesome gold and silver relics. A lot of the stuff there is pretty priceless, which is why I suspect they don't let people inside without a guide. The best part of the tour was visiting the bell tower on top of the church and getting a clear view over Arequipa.

cathedral of arequipa black jesus


Arequipa is all about gastronomy. Traditional eateries in Arequipa are called Picanterias. They are only open during lunchtime and every picanteria in the city serves a set lunch menu with two dishes. Today, picanterias are disappearing, but you can still find them if you look hard enough, along with restaurants which serve the food that is served in a traditional picanteria. We never ate in a traditional picanteria, but we had the traditional dishes, such as cuy chactado and chupa de camarones in the many restaurants around the city. My favourite favourite restaurant was one a little way outside the CBD called Sol de Mayo. The restaurant is hidden behind large metal gates in a lush green courtyard. The food is first class, and Peruvian music and dance was performed throughout the whole lunch session.

sol de mayo restaurant arequipa


If you hang around long enough in the Plaza de Armas you can find many girls like this one dressed in native Andean costume. Usually they are holding a baby animal like a llama or lamb and you can pay $1 for a photo with them.

native girl with lamb in costume

On the way back to our hotel one night we saw a gang of dogs hanging around one of the street corners, it was very strange! They were just sitting their minding their own business and when the "leader" stood up the rest stood up too and followed. Sooooo cute!

dogs in arequipa


But what about Arequipa? It's probably now my favourite city in Peru. Not as famous as Lima and Cusco, it is big enough with plenty to see, but still has a small town charm. And like Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu, Arequipa is the gateway to the Colca Canyon. Volcanoes, a city within a city, and a bright white historical centre, what is there not to like about Arequipa?!

volcano in arequipa

Image attribution:
"now thats what I call architecture" by twak // CC BY 2.0 *
* changes were made to the original materials

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