Volcanoes, nuns, and condors: The natural and historic wonders of Arequipa

For travelers to South America, the past and present influence of religious life is evident everywhere, particularly in architecture and culture.
El Misti Volcano is a looming presence in the Arequipa skyline. Photo Credit: Matthew Barker, Latin America For Less.

One of the highlights of a visit to Arequipa is Santa Catalina Monastery, which was founded in 1540 and received countless women throughout the colonial period. In fact, it was tradition for upper-class families to send their second-born daughters into religious service. To enter the convent a dowry of 2,400 silver coins was required, today equivalent to the astounding sum of $150,000.

The cloistered community grew to such a size that it became a walled city within the city and covered approximately 65,616 ft2 (20,000 m2) of land, including gardens, streets, alleys, stairways, a central square, and a church. Nuns comprised only about a third of the convent’s population; also residing within the citadel were wealthy widows who sought to isolate themselves from society, small children that were to be educated by the nuns, and numerous servants, usually poor indigenous women, who cleaned, cooked, and attended the nuns.

A street inside the walls of Santa Catalina Monastery, offering a glimpse into the past of this richly historical city.

A street inside the walls of Santa Catalina Monastery, offering a glimpse into the past of this richly historical city.

In 2000, Arequipa’s historic center (including Santa Catalina) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its beautiful architectural monuments, crafted from Spanish designs by creole and indigenous masons. Many of the city’s buildings, including houses, churches, and government buildings were constructed of sillar, a volcanic stone that is soft and light and whose pearl color has given Arequipa is other name: “The White City.”

Arequipa’s Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas

Arequipa’s Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas is a typical example of the style of architecture known as mestizo barroco. Photo Credit: Matthew Barker, Latin America For Less.

Apart from its historic treasures, Arequipa features a distinctive geography that creates exciting options for adventure travelers. The nearby El Misti Volcano rises to 19,101 feet (5,822 meters) above sea level and forms a looming presence that has understandably marked the local psyche. In the celebrated phrasing of author Jorge Polar Vargas and in reference to the fiery temperament of Arequipeños, “No se nace en vano al pie de un volcán;” roughly translated: “Not for nothing is one born at the foot of a volcano.” Today, travelers interested in climbing the volcano and camping along its steep sandy slopes can take one of two routes, Pastores or Aguada Blanca.

Arequipa is also the access point for visits to Colca Canyon, one of Peru’s top destinations located approximately 100 miles (160 km) northeast of the city. This canyon drops down to 13,650 feet (4,160 meters) – twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Travelers come here to see the agricultural terraces and ancient villages such as Chivay that have been inhabited since pre-Inca times, to embark on single or multi-day treks through the canyon, and to admire magnificent Andean condors as they glide gracefully on warm air currents. Another option for trekking is Cotahuasi Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world reaching a maximum depth of 3535 meters, 335 more than Colca Canyon.

Condor in Colca Canyon, Arequipa tours, Peru For Less

A condor gliding on a thermal current in the Colca Canyon.

To learn more about travel to Arequipa, visit the Peru For Less destination guide or contact one of our expert travel advisors.