What To Do In Arequipa, Peru?

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What to do in Arequipa, Peru

The archetype of Latin American colonialist architecture, Arequipa. Peru’s most charming city pulls you in, and between her white washed walls you won’t feel much like leaving. The chalky buildings are constructed using volcanic rock from the imposing El Misti who looms over the city, and look like they could have been pulled out of a small Spanish town. European in appearance, but Peruvian in culture and in life, Arequipa was my favourite city in all of Peru.

It lacks the kitschy tourist traps that plague every corner of Cusco, but is far more insular and homey than the massive capital, Lima. With more personality than Ica or Puno, yet less wild than the jungle city of Iquitos, Arequipa was the best blend that I found in the country. Safe, calm, but still full of character and full of opportunities for a great party, if that’s what you happen to be after.

The city is also home to plenty of interesting colonial history, with conquistadors and their descendants preferring the warmth and lower altitude of Arequipa to the Inca capital in Cusco. Being rather detached from other Peruvian cities, Arequipa was also less susceptible to secession movements, which left it to be a faithful servant to the Spanish crown long after the liberation of Peru had begun. A crossroads between the Pacific ports and the silver mines of Potosí, Arequipa was in an important and privileged position financially, making it important both to the Spaniards and to the liberators. It’s also one of the reasons that the city is so beautiful to this day. They had money and relative influence, which contributed towards maintaining their reputation as one of the most beautiful places in all of Peru.

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa may be my favourite in all of South America. If you travel around the Latin world you’ll quickly come to realise that no city, town or village is complete without a church and some type of plaza in front of it. The cathedral in Arequipa might just out-do them all.

Though many backpackers just travel through Arequipa, passing through on the way to Cusco or stopping off to visit the Colca Canyon, it’s definitely a city that’s worth more than a day. I only stayed here for 2 weeks, but I met so many people from around the world that had found their way here and never left. It’s beautiful and welcoming, and the food is pretty cracking too.

Things to do

1. The free walking tour

The free walking tour is something that’s come to be a bit of a staple when it comes to both travelling, and blogging, for me. I promise that this is justified, though. If you’re a penny pinching backpacker like me, you’re looking to get to know the city, find your way around, learn some history, and not fork out half a week’s budget for a fancy tour. Thus, the free walking tour steps in to fill all your needs. I did have a bit of a gripe with the free tour in Arequipa, only that there were so many people that attended the walking tour. It’s a popular city and a popular tourist destination, but it never really felt like it when I was wandering the streets in the day time. It was only when everyone seemed to be congregated together that it felt a little stifling. The tour was great in spite of the difficulty of managing such a large group, and ended with a free shot of pisco, which I’ll never turn down.

2. La Plaza de Armas

I’ve already mentioned it, but the Plaza in Arequipa is often considered the most beautiful in all of South America. Drink fresh juices made from fruits you’ve never even heard of, watch street performers outwitting tour groups and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the Arequipeños.

3. The cathedral

The most iconic feature of the square is the cathedral of Arequipa. Massive and imposing, the church is very reminiscent of those you may encounter in southern Europe. Extremely intricate design paired with the grandiose architecture characteristic of European Catholic construction. You can enjoy the view from the steps of the church, go inside to marvel at the artwork (making sure to cover your arms, legs and neckline as they won’t let you in underdressed), or eat in one of the many restaurants that line the upper level of the square, where you can get an unimpeded view of the cathedral.

4. Santa Catalina Monastery

The Santa Catalina monastery, which is actually a nunnery rather than a monastery, is a ginormous and beautiful complex in the centre of Arequipa. Rich families sent their daughters here for centuries, and recently it’s been opened up to the public to gain more funds. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t have quite enough funds to be making the desired donation, and didn’t actually go. It costs 35 Peruvian soles per person, which is more than I was willing to pay to see a monastery, but if you’re not on quite so tight a budget I was told my many visitors that it was beautiful and worth the money. The entrance fee also includes a guided tour, giving you a history of the complex and of Catholicism in the city.

5. See a mummy up close

There are only 2 places in South America with well preserved evidence of ritualistic child sacrifice within the Inca empire, Arequipa, Peru and Salta, Argentina. Juanita, Arequipa’s mummy, is the most famous. Guides in other parts of Peru were adamant that Incas were far too sophisticated and dignified to have believed in sacrifice, and that this behaviour was only practised by those barbarous Mexicans and Guatemalans. This clearly being bullshit, Juanita was recovered almost perfectly preserved from her icy tomb, thought to have been scarified to the gods in the 15th century. The teenager was buried alongside her shoes, clothes and tools, which are all on display in the museum, giving insight to the communities that once lived in this land.

6. Party

I would be remiss not to mention that Arequipa is one of the best party towns in Peru. Make the most of your access to cheap pisco sours and bars that are full every night of the week. I was a bit of a serial figure at the Wild Rover hostels, which is one of the best chains of gringo party hostels that you’ll find around, so if you’re looking for some unabashed Western raucous I’d strongly recommend you try them out.

7. Hike the Colca Canyon

The main reason that people come to Arequipa is as a base point for trekking the Colca Canyon. Available as a 1 or 2 day hike, the canyon is the best place to spot Andean condors up close (but if you spend enough time in South America you’ll come to realise that condors are literally everywhere and get a bit less exciting). The 2 day hike is a little more strenuous, and the canyon is at very high altitude, so you should be aware of how you cope with altitude sickness before trying to take it on.

8. Eat

Arequipa has more local dishes than any other city in Peru, and Peru itself is one of the most prominent players on the global cuisine scene these days. Take yourself to a picantería, grab a table outside and indulge in local delicacies like stuffed peppers and spicy stews. Or, you can try out the queso helado. Your Spanish isn’t failing you, it’s cheese ice cream. It’s actually made from neither cheese nor ice cream, and is a churned mix of milk and egg, that is something of a rite of passage in Arequipa. A friendly cholita will always be trying to offer a free sample, for when you’re feeling brave.

9. Alpaca Mundo

Because who can resist a place called ‘Alpaca World’. Entry is free, and you can wander through a little garden with pens housing alpacas, llamas and vicunas. You can feed them, pose for selfies with them, generally hang with some super sweet and docile animals. Get that classic ft. llama shot that’s basically the only real proof that you actually made it to Peru.

I can’t help but indulge bitterly generic travel blogger tripe about winding, cobbled streets every now and then, but don’t let that put you off. Take time to enjoy this blend of Spanish and Peruvian architecture and culture, and don’t make the mistake of skipping over this special little city.

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