Arequipa is a serene metropolis graced with 300 days of sunshine per year, streets full of pearly white volcanic stone architecture, and regional cuisine traditions that are the pride of Peru. Situated beneath the towering gaze of the snow-capped Misti volcano, and within easy reach of the Colca Canyon, Peru's second most populous city offers the perfect blend of enticements, including great food, fantastic weather, and nature’s wonders.
The historic center of La Ciudad Blanca (White City) is one of the largest in the country, filled with colonial-era casonas, churches, and convents displaying baroque-mestizo designs unique to Peru. Outside of the city, thousand-year-old terraces add beauty to the region’s rolling green hills and create arable lands from steep canyon walls. Most extraordinary of all is the chance to visit the Colca Canyon to see the majestic Andean Condor soar over its depths and to rest beneath one of the brightest nighttime skies in all the Andes. All tours are fully customizable.
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The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa typifies the timeless charm of Peru's second largest city. On one side of the square, the massive neoclassical facade of the Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa, built in the 17th century, shimmers under the light of the sun. The remaining three sides are lined by Spanish arcades, and are filled with cafes and restaurants serving Arequipa's most famous dishes.
Locals sit on benches to talk books and politics, while children toss coins into the beloved Tuturutu fountain and ambulant vendors hawk sweets, snacks, and souvenirs. Look north to the low horizon and you'll see the symmetrical cone peak of El Misti last erupted in 1985 and currently dormant.
Venture beyond the city core and you'll find yourself in Arequipa's splendid countryside. Small villages and stately colonial haciendas dot a sublime landscape of gentle green hills that extend to the snow-covered flanks of El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu, Arequipa's trio of volcanoes. Two important landmarks, the Founder's Mansion in Sabandia and El Molino (The Mill) in Socabaya, are treasured relics that bring Peru's viceregal period to life.
Arequipa is the principal hub for travelers en route to visit the Colca and the Cotahuasi canyons, which are among the deepest ravines on earth, located a half-day drive from the city. From its highest point, Cotahuasi carves a narrow path 3,535 meters (11,560 feet) into the earth, just 135 meters (405 feet) deeper than Colca. However, the Colca Canyon's greater accessibility, paired with abundant natural hot springs and a condor observatory, make it much more popular as a destination for overnight tours from Arequipa.
Historical and architectural treasures, gastronomic delights, and amazing natural attractions are the highlights of a visit to Arequipa and the Colca Canyon.
When Spanish settlers declared the foundation of Arequipa in 1540, a cross was laid to mark the place where the town’s Catholic church would be built. Church building began. But in subsequent decades, Arequipa suffered earthquakes, fires, and volcanic eruptions and the Basilica bore the damage of these incidents, requiring almost continual projects to rebuild, repair, and renovate the structure. As a result, the church is a mélange of architectural styles and influences, but all the more fascinating for it. Inside the church, you’ll find a neo-Gothic pulpit, a Belgian organ (which remains the largest organ to ever cross the ocean to South America), and an outstanding collection of art representing the Cusco School. Be sure to visit the attached Museo de la Basilica Catedral during the day, and at night, go to the Plaza for photos of the Basilica’s illuminated facade.
The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a 65,615-square-foot walled citadel complete with plazas, water fountains, colorful alleys, and rooms full of religious art. Founded in 1579, the convent was home to hundreds of nuns as well as the unmarried daughters of Arequipa’s wealthy families and their servants. Today, only a handful of nuns live in a sectioned-off area. The rest of the complex is open to visitors. The convent’s interior walls, arches, and facades are expertly carved from sillar stone in the Arequipa style. Some walls are painted in earthy red tones and royal blues. Potted geraniums and cast iron lamps accent the narrow passageways. Visit the rooftop terrace at sunset for inspiring views of the city skyline.
If you’re in the market for sweaters, scarves, gloves, and coats made from fine alpaca or vicuña wool be sure to set aside some time for shopping in Arequipa. Visit Mundo Alpaca in the San Lazaro neighborhood to see how these products are made from shearing of camelids to sorting of fibers to weaving on traditional handlooms. Admission is free of charge and includes access to the textile museum, art gallery, and boutique shop.
The road north from the city leads to one of Peru’s natural wonders, a deep valley of staggering beauty known as the Colca Canyon. Compared to the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep, but its incline is less abrupt. The Colca Canyon’s beauty derives from its terraced agricultural fields, which were constructed in pre-Columbian times and are still in use by local communities. Adventure-seeking travelers can hike down to the Colca River and spend a peaceful night in the canyon’s depths. Because of the altitude and unrelenting steepness of the hiking trail, only travelers who have a reasonable level of fitness should attempt the Colca Canyon trek. For a more restful alternative, transportation is available to and from Chivay and other valley towns.
Best time to visit Arequipa and Colca Canyon: As a “city of eternal spring,” Arequipa is a year round destination. February is the rainiest month of the rainy season (December to March). The best time to visit the Colca Canyon is just after the rainy season, when the valley’s slopes are lush and green. Colca Canyon is arid for much of the rest of the year, but remains a top destination for trekking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and more. June to September are the best months to visit el Cañon del Colca for condor-spotting.
Arriving to Arequipa: The Rodriguez Ballon International Airport (airport code: AQP) is the fastest way to get to Arequipa from Peru’s major destinations, including Lima (1 hour 25 minutes), Juliaca (less than 1 hour), and Cusco (1 hour). The airlines LAN, Peruvian Airlines, TACA, and Star Peru serve these routes. The Arequipa Plaza de Armas is located 8 kilometers (5.5 miles) from the airport.
Fiestas de Arequipa: Every August, the city celebrates the anniversary of its foundation in 1540 with a month-long calendar of cultural events, culminating with the Semana de Arequipa. The festivities include bull-fighting, competitions to climb El Misti, and on the 15th of August, an 8-hour block party at the intersection of Independencia and Goyenche avenues to which the whole city is invited.
Colca Canyon Trek: If you’d love to trek in Peru, but can’t fathom the idea of hiking alongside 500 others on the Inca Trail, the trekking routes of the Colca Canyon offer an excellent alternative. The number of visitors to the Colca Canyon is increasing every year (from 103,858 in 2005 to 233,072 in 2013; MINCETUR), but on the whole, it remains a much less visited site with greater interaction in local village life.
Where to stay in the Colca Canyon: There are about a dozen villages in the Colca Canyon all dating to the 16th century and boasting elegantly decorated churches. Not all towns, however, offer the same range of accommodation. The town of Chivay, located 160 kilometers (100 miles) northwest of Arequipa city, is situated at 3,569 meters (11,925 feet) above sea level and has a market, hot springs, an Inca bridge, and a growing number of lodges to accommodate travelers. Seven kilometers (4 miles) further down the road, the town of Yanque is home to Aranwa Pueblito Encantado del Colca, an excellent luxury resort. Cabanaconde is another town popular among trekkers for its easy access to the canyon’s hiking routes.
Trip Extensions: One of the most popular Peru travel routes is Lima to Arequipa/Colca Canyon to Puno/Lake Titicaca to Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Travelers who don’t have time to detour to Lake Titicaca often return from Colca to Arequipa and catch a flight to Cusco.
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The region that encompasses modern Arequipa and the Colca Canyon has been a center for Peruvian settlements going back thousands of years. Samples of lithic tools and cave paintings dating back to 6,000 BC tell the story of hunters and foragers who arrived in pursuit of camelids. The Mollepunco cave paintings also illustrate the first attempts to domesticate livestock and the initial transition to agriculture.
These early wanderers were the precursors of three main groups that flourished in the area: the Collaguas and Cabanas, and Ccaccatapay. These populations reached their cultural peak by around 600 A.D. Thereafter, they were colonized by pan-Andean polities beginning with the Wari and then the Inca, and much later, by Spanish settlers. Remarkably, the descendants of these groups still maintain unique forms of dress and ancestral traditions.
It bears mentioning that although the Incas are frequently credited for the development of highly advanced agricultural techniques in Andes, it seems indisputable that much of this knowledge came from contact with the populations of the Colca Canyon, who themselves acquired techniques from long periods of exchange among Andean societies.
In 1540, Garci Manuel de Carbajal, who battled against the Incas under Francisco Pizarro, founded the city of Arequipa in the Chili River valley. The historic core of Arequipa is laid out in the grid pattern typical of Spanish colonial settlements. A massive earthquake in 1582 leveled the nascent town’s adobe buildings and prompted a switch to volcanic sillar stone, which is relatively lightweight, thermic, and seismic-resistant. Arequipa’s elegant stone architecture is today’s one of its most recognizable features.
Meanwhile, the Colca region remained pivotal in the period of Spanish colonization. Indigenous populations were reorganized and lands distributed in accordance with conquest practices. Today, the Colca Canyon is dotted with 16 villages that date to this period, each of which has its own chapel. Locals in this area are descended from the Cabanas and the Collaguas.
Arequipa played a key economic role as a producer of grapes and olives and also as a crossroads for regional trade, first in silver and then in wool. Prosperity gave rise to a solid middle class of merchants, intellectuals, professionals, and bureaucrats, who collectively nurtured a strong sense of local identity that set them apart from the rest of Peru, and often in direct opposition to Lima. Arequipa’s history as the center of political uprisings have earned it the name “Lion of the South.” Today, other Peruvians joke that even they need passports to visit Arequipa.
Throughout its 20th century history, and despite the periods of political turmoil that affected the country, Arequipa maintained its position as an economic leader and as a center for services, commerce, agriculture, and industry. This has also accounted for the city’s steady growth in population, which today places metropolitan Arequipa in second position after Lima.
In recent years, Arequipa has also experienced a steady growth in tourism. The well-preserved historic center was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, while the Colca Canyon came into the spotlight as a nominee for the New 7 Wonders of the World initiative.
Arequipa and the Colca Canyon occupy a unique archaeological zone bordered by coastal desert to the south and west and Andean highland plateaus to the north and east. The city of Arequipa is situated amidst fertile valleys irrigated by melt waters from surrounding mountain peaks. Travel further south toward the border with Chile and you’re on the edge of the driest desert in the world, the Atacama Desert, which receives less than 6 inches of rain per year.
Arequipa sits an altitude of 2,335 meters (7,661 feet -- on par with Machu Picchu at 2,430 meters (7,972 feet)) and is bisected by the Rio Chili. Three grand volcanoes stand guard over the city. Listed by height, they are: Chachani at 6,075 meters (19,939 feet), El Misti at 5,822 meters (19,101 feet), and Pichu Pichu at 5,669 meters (18,599 feet). Chachani and Pichu Pichu are extinct, while Misti Volcano is currently dormant.
A few hundred kilometers from the city, in the Cotahuasi area, altitudes range from 1,000 meters to 6,000 meters (and above) and encompass 19 ecological zones, including the stunning Valley of Volcanoes, where more than 20 craters attest to the region’s violent tectonic formation. At its greatest depth, the Cotahuasi Canyon measures 3,354 meters -- that’s more than 11,000 feet, or about twice as deep as the Grand Canyon! The Colca Canyon is slightly less deep than Cotahuasi, but is better established as a destination for sightseeing and trekking.
Arequipa’s proximity to the desert comes with one traveler-friendly perk: an average of 300 days per year of clear blue skies with a record 4,000 hours of sun exposure per year. Altitude and lots of sun combine to produce high risk for sunburn, so be sure to pack a high SPF sunscreen.
Arequipa and the Colca Canyon experience temperate daytime weather and cold nights. In Arequipa, temperatures average around 20C (68F) during the day and range between 7-10F (45-50F) in the evening. Nighttime temperatures in the Colca Canyon are much lower, often near freezing. The Andean rainy season extends from December to March. During these months, Arequipa experiences light cloud cover and occasional evening showers. The highest rainfall is during the months of January and February.
If you travel for the gastronomical experience, Arequipa will be your favorite destination in Peru -- although Lima is also a strong contender. It is safe to say that in a country that loves to eat, Arequipa’s traditional dishes are legendary. Platos tipicos (typical dishes) include rocoto relleno (large red chili pepper stuffed with minced meat and baked with a layer of cheese on top), chupe de camarones (crawfish stew), and adobo (pork stew). The latter two are typically served on weekends only and the best place to sample traditional versions of these dishes is at one of Arequipa’s famous picanterias. La Nueva Palomino and Sol de Mayo, both in the Yanahuara suburb, are two popular options that are often packed with locals.
Arequipa boasts an extensive dining scene beyond its picanterias. Top restaurants include:
Zig Zag Restaurant on Calle Zela 210 in front of Plaza San Francisco; http://www.zigzagrestaurant.com
Chicha Arequipa on Calle Santa Catalina 210; http://www.chicha.com.pe
Zingaro Restaurant on Calle San Francisco 309; http://www.zingaro-restaurant.blogspot.com
Arthur Restaurant on Pasaje Violin 210 (San Lazaro); http://arthurestaurant.com.pe/menu.html
These restaurants stand out for two reasons. First, they are situated within magnificently restored casonas that beautifully display local history. Second, they match their setting with excellent menus that do justice to Peru’s reputation as a top culinary destination.
We use the following hotels as our preferred choice in Arequipa. Calle Ugarte 403, Arequipa This Casa Andina Private Collection hotel maintains the highest standards of service and quality, overseeing every delicate detail. Just 3 blocks from Arequipa’s Main Square, this hotel is housed in a beautiful white sillar stone 17th century colonial mansion, formerly the Mint House and now a national historic monument. Two colonial-style courtyards are found at the heart of the building which also holds a small mint museum, a bar, and gourmet restaurant serving exquisite Novoandina cuisine.
Casa Andina Private Collection Arequipa
Calle Ugarte 403, Arequipa
This Casa Andina Private Collection hotel maintains the highest standards of service and quality, overseeing every delicate detail. Just 3 blocks from Arequipa’s Main Square, this hotel is housed in a beautiful white sillar stone 17th century colonial mansion, formerly the Mint House and now a national historic monument. Two colonial-style courtyards are found at the heart of the building which also holds a small mint museum, a bar, and gourmet restaurant serving exquisite Novoandina cuisine.
Portal de Flores 116, Arequipa
This Spanish colonial-style hotel is centrally located along the Main Square's arched passageways and next to the beautiful Cathedral. It is widely recognized as one of the best accommodations in Arequipa and arguably boasts the premier location in the city as it overlooks the plaza. It is just steps away from the city's main shopping and financial area. Equipped with the best modern amenities, this hotel provides a comfortable and luxurious atmosphere combined with excellent service. This ideal location allows easy access to Arequipa's main attractions, such as the fascinating Santa Catalina Convent, the Museum of La Dama de Ampato (Juanita the Mummy) and other exciting points of interest. Built out of the typical sillar stone that gave Arequipa its nickname as the “White City”, this beautiful hotel meets any international standard and also features an excellent restaurant.
Calle Jerusalén 603, Arequipa
Casa Andina Classic Arequipa is a charming hotel located in the heart of the historic center that abounds with traditional architectural details. Built from the volcanic sillar stone typical of Arequipa’s architecture, Casa Andina provides a comfortable setting for major events and conventions, paying special attention to travelers. All 105 guestrooms are warmly decorated, following the theme established throughout the hotel of clean crisp whites and warm reddish hues. Deliciously soft down comforters bestow a luxurious touch onto each and every room.
Calle Jerusalén 606, Arequipa
This picturesque family-run hotel is a tranquil sanctuary close to the city center. In a break from the typical hotel mold, La Casa de Mi Abuela boasts a unique personality built over 2 decades of hosting guests from all over the world. The hotel has been designed as a little town within the city. Ample and beautiful gardens are adorned with swings, hammocks, and benches, and the guestrooms are distributed throughout the property. Each area has a different layout and unique rooms with comfortable facilities. In addition to the standard single and double rooms, there are triples, quadruples, and one quintuple for larger groups. Located directly across the gardens and the pool is the excellent restaurant La Bóveda, housed in a colonial stone structure with an archway façade.
We use the following hotels as our preferred choice in Colca Canyon. Fundo Puye s/n, Yanque, Caylloma Affiliated with the renowned Hotel Libertador chain and located on the banks of the Colca River, Colca Lodge is a cozy eco-friendly hotel architecturally inspired by the Incas. Built into the landscape, the hotel harmoniously blends in with the spectacular Colca Canyon environment. Each room offers an outdoor terrace with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. A spacious common room with a fireplace and a charming bar provide ideal places for guests to relax. In addition to its tranquil atmosphere, the lodge boasts naturally heated hot springs, great personalized service, and one of the best spas in the country. Enjoy the astonishing views while soaking in the swimming pool directly overlooking the valley. If you are looking forward to pampering yourself, stay in one of the luxurious suites equipped with a private jacuzzi.
Fundo Puye s/n, Yanque, Caylloma
Affiliated with the renowned Hotel Libertador chain and located on the banks of the Colca River, Colca Lodge is a cozy eco-friendly hotel architecturally inspired by the Incas. Built into the landscape, the hotel harmoniously blends in with the spectacular Colca Canyon environment. Each room offers an outdoor terrace with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. A spacious common room with a fireplace and a charming bar provide ideal places for guests to relax. In addition to its tranquil atmosphere, the lodge boasts naturally heated hot springs, great personalized service, and one of the best spas in the country. Enjoy the astonishing views while soaking in the swimming pool directly overlooking the valley. If you are looking forward to pampering yourself, stay in one of the luxurious suites equipped with a private jacuzzi.
Pueblo de Coporaque
Deep amidst the vast and stunning green scenery of the Colca Canyon, this quaint lodge is located in the tiny village of Coporaque. A unique destination, this charming town is the oldest village in the area and still retains many of its traditions and customs. La Casa de Mama Yacchi was constructed entirely with native materials from the surrounding area and offers an authentic Colca Canyon experience complete with a traditional restaurant that serves excellent, locally-inspired cuisine. The lodge offers simple but inviting and comfortable rooms, remarkable views, and a cozy fireplace lounge.
What is the altitude of Arequipa? Arequipa is located at a comfortable altitude of 2,330 meters (6,737 feet). This is about the same as Machu Picchu, but much lower than Cusco, Lake Titicaca, and even the town of Chivay 3,635 meters (11,926 feet) in the Colca Canyon.
What is the population of Arequipa? Metropolitan Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru. The last census in 2007 counted 1,184,761 inhabitants in Arequipa’s 19 districts. The inhabitants of Arequipa are called the Arequipeños. Population growth in Arequipa has been ongoing since the 20th century and is tied to local economic policies that favor development and also to a high concentration of educational institutions.
What are the best bus companies to travel to/from Arequipa? Bus travel is a popular mode of transport to and from Arequipa. The following bus companies are well-reputed for their safety and punctuality:
Bus terminal charge a departure tax of a few soles, and a staff member is usually stationed at the entrance of the departure platform to check your ticket and ensure you have paid. Generally departure tax stalls are found next to or in front of the boarding exit within the main terminal.
The city of Arequipa provides an array of fantastic dining options to fit any budget.
Located in southern Peru, the city of Arequipa is filled with beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, delicious food, and proud and friendly citizens.
Peru's Colca Canyon is not only the second-deepest canyon in the world, but also one of the best locations in South America for close-range viewings of the endangered Andean Condors.