Colonial Arequipa really earns its nickname of ‘white town’. Reminding the traveler of the beauty of Sucre in Bolivia, the streets of the centre are lined with whitewashed XVIIth century houses and countless churches. But if you sneak into its patios, you can be welcomed by a range of striking colours. Our essentials guide will help you plan the things to do in Arequipa.
History of Arequipa
The history of Arequipa is very similar to that of most colonial towns in the region: originally inhabited by several indigenous populations, it was first peacefully conquered in the XIIth century by the Incas (whose trick was the ‘mitma‘, the forceful resettlement of people from their home territory to lands recently conquered by the Incas, in order to gain control of the existing population), then less peacefully “founded” by the Spanish conquistadors in 1540, and finally violently liberated through a civil war during the movement of independence.
Since then, Arequipa has grown to become the 2nd city of Peru demographically and economically, often in conflict throughout its history with the centralism of Lima. This marked regionalism is a strong feature of the city and its citizens, so much so that the historian Jorge Basadre declared: “Arequipa is a gun pointed at the heart of Lima”.
This reminds us again of the position of Sucre towards La Paz.
The best things to do in Arequipa
This good sizeable town will leave you with plenty of things to do if you are there for a few days. We spent there 4 days and didn’t feel that the amount of things to see and do are too daunting.
Architecture of Arequipa
The striking appearance of the historic centre comes from its peculiar architecture, labeled “Escuela Arequipeña“, a distinctive mix of European and native styles, and the use of ‘sillar‘, a white volcanic stone characteristic of the region. These peculiarities have led the UNESCO to declare it World Heritage in 2000. A stroll in these historic streets are a pure delight, and one would only wish there would be less traffic.
Walk the sights in Arequipa center
An unmissable attraction in Arequipa center has to be the Monastery of Santa Catalina, large and beautiful, a city within the city. It was founded in 1580 for women from upper class Spanish families. Their wealth can still be seen in the spaciousness of the cells and the furniture remaining in some of them, really far from the image we (or the Catholic Church for that matter) have of monastic life. The brightness of the colours is a paradise for photographers!
Here are several courtyards inside the Santa Catalina monastery:
Have a walk through the oldest streets and passages of the San Lázaro neighbourhood to the district of Yanahuara and its mirador. The other two nearby viewpoints of Sachaca and Carmen Alto are not really worth the trip to the outskirts and their entrance fee.
The city background is dominated by the presence of the 3 volcanoes Misti, Pichu Pichu & Chachani, the former still very active (it last erupted in 1985). It is possible to climb them with a little experience in mountaineering and a sizeable wallet.
Visit the Colca Canyon
Another natural attraction in the region is the Colca canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world (but considering the variations in data found on the internet, it is not easy to measure a canyon’s depth). No need for an organised tour, just take a (very early) bus to Cabanaconde via Chivay. Bus times are not always helpful so it might be wise to spend a night there. Remember that the entrance to the canyon costs 70 soles, payable at any checkpoint. Unfortunately at the time of our visit the weather wasn’t great, so it would have been too dangerous to hike the Colca Canyon. We should come back for this, as it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Arequipa!
Let us finish with a quote from Mario Vargas Llosa, son of the city and Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010:
Literature is dangerous: it awakens a rebellious attitude in us.
Don’t you think so?
(P.S.: Anna was wearing such a colourful top, she had to be on every picture!)
Do you usually travel more in towns or in the nature? Have you ever climbed a volcano? Share your stories in the comments!