Things to Do in Arequipa
Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, gets its nickname “La Ciudad Blana,” or “The White City,” from its central historic district built almost entirely from a porous, white volcanic stone known as sillar. The UNESCO-listed Historic Centre of Arequipa, founded in 1540 by a group of Spanish conquistadores, is dotted with colonial churches, plazas and mansions that blend European and indigenous architectural styles.
At the heart of the district is Plaza de Armas, considered one of Peru’s most beautiful plazas and the site of the city’s most important buildings, including City Hall, the old Jesuit Iglesia de la Compañía and the neo-renaissance Cathedral. The Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a Dominican convent founded in 1579 and one of Arequipa’s most worthwhile sites, is also located in the historic centre.
Inaugurated on October 2, 1580, 40 years after the city was founded, the Monastery of Saint Catherine has grown to become a city in itself. In fact, its over 215,285-foot-square design resembles the original city streets of Arequipa. Arequipa is often called the “White City” due to the fact that many of the buildings are made of volcanic white sillar, and this structure is no exception. It’s also made of ashlar, or petrified volcanic ash, coming from Volcan Chachani which overlooks Arequipa.
Visitors are able to explore the monastery on their own, wandering through narrow streets, ambient courtyards, peaceful plazas and ancient churches. Along with the historical churches and chapels, check out some of the cloisters. There is the Main Cloister, the largest in the monastery with paintings and confessionals, and the Cloister of the Oranges, which features three beautiful crosses residing amongst vibrant orange trees.
Plaza de Armas is the main square in Arequipa, featuring vibrant gardens, lush palm trees, bird fountains and colonial architecture. The first thing you will notice is how immaculately clean and symmetrical it is. Additionally, you’ll be in the best location to explore some of the city’s history and important buildings, like government offices, prisons and police stations. On the north side, you’ll see the twin-towered Cathedral. Founded in 1612, it was reconstructed numerous times in the 19th century due to earthquakes and fire damage.
If you’re looking to relax, chill out at one of the cafes or rooftop bars surrounding the square with a coca tea or Pisco Sour. These rooftop venues are also great for photographers who want a variety of shots, and the mountains set behind the provincial buildings make for an interesting contrast.
Within walking distance of Arequipa city center, the quiet Yanahuara neighborhood is most famous for El Mirador e Iglesia de Yanahuara, a scenic lookout point with sweeping views over Arequipa and the volcanoes in the distance. Much like the historic city center, Yanahuara’s architecture is dominated by sillar, a white volcanic rock, and the streets of the largely middle class residential neighborhood are dotted with pretty Spanish Colonial churches.
Apart from the main square with its mirador, there aren’t many out and out attractions in Yanahuara, but a visit to the neighborhood does offer a glimpse at what daily life is like for a typical middle class Peruvian. Set aside some time to wander the streets and duck into a tucked away restaurant for a local meal.
While there are many notable museums in Arequipa, Museo Santury is known as being one of the best. Its focus is on Andes Mountain archeology and history. Visitors can see exhibits like the famous preserved mummy of ‘Ice Princess’ Juanita, a young Inca girl who was sacrificed over 500 years ago as part of the Capac Cocha ceremony. This is where children were sacrificed to appease mountain gods. The child is thought to have been about 11 to 15 years old, and the body is so well-preserved it has been mentioned numerous times as one of the world’s top discoveries.
Give yourself at least an hour to see everything, as there is also a short informational video to watch before you explore. Additionally, you’ll see impressive grave tombs, with other mummies found atop Peru’s volcanoes and burial artifacts.
Sharing the Plaza de Armas with the imposing Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa, it’s easy to overlook the small Jesuit church known as Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, but doing so would be a mistake. This churrigueresque-style building features an intricately decorated front façade and an equally impressive gold-leafed alter.
The original church was built in 1573 and destroyed in an earthquake a decade later. The structure as it stands today dates back to 1650. The Chapel of San Ignacio, located inside the church just to the left of the altar, is adorned with a collection of exotic murals depicting colorful birds and animals.
The former cloisters of the church, called the Claustros de la Compania, have been converted into an upscale shopping area with a few nice courtyard cafes, alpaca wool stores and an ice cream parlor.
The Sachaca District, located about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from downtown Arequipa, is home to some of the city’s oldest homes as well as the Mirador de Sachaca, a five story tower offering spectacular 360-degree views of the city below.
While the view is certainly with a visit, the food in Sachaca makes a journey there even more worthwhile. The neighborhood has earned a reputation for its picanterías, traditional restaurants serving local dishes, often to the sounds of live Creole tunes and with great views. La Lucila, one of Arequipa’s best known picanterías, is located in Sachaca.
Also known as Guagua-Putina, this stratovolcano is located in southern Peru, 11 miles from Arequipa, and stands at 19,101 feet above sea level. The volcano features a symmetric conical shape, characteristic of rotating layers of lava and debris from eruptions. El Misti’s last eruption was in 1985, and is now a popular climbing attraction.
There are two main routes, including the Pastores route and the Aguada Blanca route. Pastores is the more popular choice, as it’s closer to Arequipa. It starts at 10,800 feet, with an overnight stop usually being made at Nido de Aguilas around 14,800 feet. The Aguada Blanca route begins at Monte Blanco camp at 15,700 feet. At the top, you’ll find a large iron cross standing 33 feet tall, which was erected in 1901. While neither climb is particularly technical, both require peak fitness due to the steep sand slopes. These excursions are best done between July and November when the climate is most favorable for climbing.
The history of Founder’s Mansion dates back to the early days when the Spanish first occupied Peru. Originally owned by Arequipa’s founder, Garcí Manuel de Carbajal, it was purchased by Spaniard Juan Crisóstomo de Goyeneche y Aguerreverre and used as a country estate for ecclesiastical and civil dignitaries of the era. As the years passed, the building became dilapidated, until 1981 when it was purchased by a group passionate about Arequipa’s heritage. Visitors can still take in 16th-century architecture, and the mansion is predominantly composed of ashlar stone and thick walls with artwork, numerous vaults, antique furniture and colonial-style rooms.
Located four miles southeast of Arequipa is Sabandia Mill, the area’s first stone mill. Built in 1785, the structure fell into a dilapidated state until it was restored in 1973 by architect Luis Felipe Calle. In fact, Calle was so proud of his work that he purchased the building and opened it to visitors. The site provides an excellent example of sillar stone architecture, which is typical of Arequipa. Moreover, visitors can view stone grinding wheel techniques used to process wheat. Most people come here to picnic in a relaxing atmosphere amongst pristine gardens and the Paucarpata countryside. A pool, hiking trails, horseback riding, a petting zoo, a cafe and clear views of El Misti are also featured.
More Things to Do in Arequipa
Towering over Arequipa’s main plaza, Plaza de Armas, is the Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa. The history of this great cathedral dates back to 1544 when the first church was built on the square, and over the years, fire, earthquakes and volcanic activity have partially destroyed the structure. The latest disaster happened in 2001, when an earthquake completely toppled one tower.
Today, the fully restored basilica looks as good as new. Besides serving as the seat of the Archbishop, the neo-renaissance structure is also notable for being the only cathedral in Peru that stretches for the entire length of its plaza and is said to house the largest organ in South America, an import from Belgium. The Museum of the Cathedral, one of the most important of Arequipa’s museums, displays a collection of liturgical objects, vestments and religious paintings that help paint a picture of the city’s 400-year history.
Founded in 1648, this Franciscan Convent features four cloisters and 11 rooms. The structure represents a range of architectural styles, from Romanesque to Neo-Gothic. Moreover, a visit to Recoleta Convent is an all-in-one pass to check out the collections of the Archaeological and Anthropological Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Religious Arts Museum. Along with religious works, visitors can explore pre-Columbian and Amazonian art, as well as paintings showing Cusco and Arequipa influence.
If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge, the library houses more than 20,000 books, with the oldest volume dating back to 1494. Some points of interest in the convent include Porter Cloister, which features a brick vault, 17th-century furniture, a spacious courtyard and the Cloister of San Francisco, embodying a Franciscan atmosphere through its architecture.
Built around 1730, this large ancestral house is an excellent well-preserved example of baroque-mestizo architecture. The name of the house has nothing to do with ethics, but instead derives from the ancient mulberry (“moras”) tree in the central courtyard. Visitors will enter through a white sillar arch adorned with precisely detailed carvings of figures and symbols. For instance, one of the them is a coat of arms made of smaller carvings including a puma, bird, castle and two crossed keys, held up by two angels, while a crown floats above.
Inside, you’ll find sculptures, furniture, embellishments and artwork, including pieces from the Cusco School of Painting, one of the most important in American Art. Immersing yourself in this world will make you feel like a wealthy Peruvian during the 16th century. Out back, you can stroll through a small but well-manicured garden that is nice for taking pictures.
Located about 100 miles northwest of Arequipa, Colca Canyon is a canyon of the Colca River. Its main claim to fame is being touted as the “world’s deepest canyon,” with a depth of 13,650 feet. Colca Canyon can be explored in many ways, like hiking, biking, kayaking, horseback riding and rafting. Not only is this vibrant Andean valley great for adventure-enthusiasts, it also offers pre-Incan history and is still home to Collagua and the Cabana cultures, who still retain their heritage from 800 BC. Visitors can find archeological sites such as the caves of Mollepunko above Callalli, where 6,000-year-old rock art shows the domestication of the alpaca.
There are also ruins of pre-Hispanic settlements throughout the valley, as well as Chimpa, a pre-Inca fortress where you can see hanging tombs. Adventure, heritage and the ability to easily spot Andean condors make this Peru’s third most popular tourist attraction.
Outdoor adventurers who escape to Peru should save at least two ot three days to explore the incredible trails, terrain and views of Chachani Volcano. This 6,075-meter-tall active volcano located near the city of Arequipa is known for its intermediate climbs and technical ascents. Travelers who want to experience the wonder of world-class views without all the work can hire a car to drop them at the 5,000 meter level and maneuver the final 1,075 meters on their won. Experienced hikers warn travelers should be prepared for cold temperatures, potential altitude sickness and an very early morning start, since most hikes kick off around 3 a.m.
Travelers heading to Peru’s spectacular Colca Canyon will almost certainly spend some time in the town of Chivay, 100 miles (60 kilometers) outside of Arequipa. As the first main tourist town in the valley, Chivay has many hotels, hostels, restaurants and shops selling high-quality Alpaca wool handicrafts. At the center of the city sits Plaza de Armas, a charming little plaza housing Our Lady of Assumption church and a market at its corner selling a little bit of everything (including lots of cheap and tasty eats).
A few minutes outside of Arequipa, the Termas La Calera (La Calera Hot Springs) have a series of indoor and outdoor heated pools perfect for a soak after a day of sightseeing, as well as lockers and showers for post-soak refreshment.
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