You can feel the rumble of Arequipa before you get there. It’s like walking towards a thunderstorm. As you drive closer, the power of the active volcanoes and city comes in clearer, but you are still surrounded by the silence of the desert. You are stuck between emptiness and everything. It’s hard to describe.
Once you step out into the cobblestone streets, you will feel a ubiquitous force that whisks itself around the city. You will find it in the streets, in the basements of monasteries, in the bites of ceviche. Maybe it’s that the walls of the city are made of the same material that hovers above them; the rock from the volcanoes have been repurposed to make a different kind of juggernaut.
Maybe it’s the fusion of colonial Spanish, ancient indigenous, and modern influences condensed into one area. There is so much life in a such a small space, surrounded by extreme nothingness. The energy is trapped, like a frantic bee in a Mason jar.
Or maybe Arequipa is special because we are always reminded of our existence. The volcanoes are always in sight, a constant reminder of their magnitude and your minutness.
We can sense the lava flowing beneath the buildings and our bodies. It’s a place that reminds us we are alive and to not waste such an unlikely possibility.
Whatever it is, Arequipa is an experience not replicated elsewhere.
1. Architecture + Heritage
1.1. Plaza del Armas
You can’t help but run into Plaza del Armas. It is the heart of Arequipa; all life passes through and circulates to the rest of the city. You will typically find a Plaza del Armas in most Peruvian cities. The repetitiveness of this name is not due to lack of creativity but for literal reasons. Plaza del Armas translates to “Weapons Square” and was designated as the middle of the city for people to congregate in case of an attack. Nowadays, since pillaging and plundering of a place’s resources have become much more corporate, we also use the translation “Parade Square” where people congregate for national holidays or protests.
The Plaza del Armas is a crowning expose of Arequipa’s architecture. Its design came over with the conquistadors, along with horses and smallpox. The perfect square is made of three colonnaded balconies on top of republican arches that shield walkers from the blasting afternoon sun. These arches line the circumference of Las Plaza del Armas. Most of the city is made of silliar, a type of volcanic rock that has been brought over from the surrounding mountains. The white volcanic rock tries to cool the city down.
The plaza is large but walkable and if you’re lucky, you might get to pass by people guiding their pet alpacas under the arches, or walk into a protest (of which there are many).
Within the plaza’s walls are shops and some of the best restaurants in Arequipa tucked into every layer. You can go underground to find authentic Peruvian gifts or head to the rooftop for pisco sours and panoramas of the tops of buildings, volcanos, and palm trees, overlapping each other like in a pop-up picture book.
The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa completes the square. Arequipa Cathedral is Peru’s widest cathedral with two towers that attempt to present the same magnitude and height as the volcanos behind them.
However, the Peruvians have still not lost touch with their pre-Spanish history. Several of the buildings and churches have still managed to incorporate Inca religious symbols and gods in the design, like in Arequipa Cathedral.
The center of the Plaza holds a giant fountain with plenty of benches to sit on and is lined with towering palm trees. You can sit in the center of the city and watch the life move about it.
1.2. Monastery de Santa Catalina
The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is located right in the center of the city. However, once you step inside it feels like you are isolated from the world. It was built in 1579, but it has been reconstructed and expanded throughout the years due to volcanic eruptions.
The monastery architecture is an example of the Mudejar style, which is a blending of Spanish Catholic architecture and Islamic art. These two styles cohabited in Spain and were brought in the sketch pads of the conquistadors across the Atlantic. The walls enclose are vividly painted like the blazing colors of a sunset. Walls of vibrant blues, reds, and oranges are anomalies to the rest of the city like a rainbow spilled on a blank canvas.
At its peak the monastery held roughly 450 nuns; today there are about 20. Envision small groups of women, cloaked in heavy beige cloth shielding themselves from the blasting desert sun, walking at a pace so slow it is evident that they have no concept of the word “hurry.”
However, this monastery filled with pious women is not as innocuous as it seems. Stories still float around about irreverent women who inhabited these holy quarters. In the beginning, the women who attended only came from wealthy families and grew up in more lavish lifestyles.
Stories have suggested that it was hard to take the party out of the girls. Legend has it, they would throw secret parties in their quarters, and somewhere in the monastery, there are tunnels that connected to monks quarters in other parts of the city. Some of these nuns would pull an “immaculate conception” and fall pregnant. There is even one rumor about finding the skeleton of a baby in the walls of the monastery.
As much as the church tried to suppress these rumors, the stories of naughty nuns have lived on outside of the monastery’s walls. It is hard to seclude this world inside a secluded city.
2. Markets + Streets
2.1. Fundo el Fierro
Alice had no idea of the world she was entering when she first stepped into the seemingly innocuous rabbit hole and neither do the individuals who stumble into Fundo el Feirro for the first time.
Besides the San Francisco Church is an open-air checkered courtyard that will lead you towards a walk-in treasure chest overflowing with unique and iconic souvenirs.
There are stands to purchase all the handmade crafts, turquoise and onyx artisan jewelry, and alpaca relics in every form from giant fluffy toys to tiny bejeweled sculptures to be reminders of your time lapse into the white desert city. You will walk out there in what feels like ten minutes but was actually 2 hours with a heavier suitcase and a lighter wallet.
2.2. Mercado San Camilo
If you are looking to try all of the bounties Peru has to offer, you must go to Mercado San Camilo. It’s an experience that calls for a time and a hunger you have never experienced but have always yearned for.
The market takes up an entire city block with tall yellow columns that suspend a metal red roof. This giant open-air structure blends and tempers the pleasant and pungent aromas of a Peruvian market.
This market has everything: rainbows of familiar and unfamiliar fruits and vegetables next to the unblinking eyes of future ceviche. There are rows of thick avocados the size of newborns. Baskets of potatoes ranging in size from tiny pearly purples to baseball beige sit under dried frogs hung like tiny Christmas lights. Bags of pearl-like quinoa line the floors, to sprinkle in soupy yogurt or savory broths.
Vendors will churn and mash pyramids of crunchy purple corn into the violet elixir once drunk by the Incas. You can walk between the towering stalks of every type of flower, and for a moment feel like you’re hidden in a secret garden until your daydream is interrupted by the arguments of haggling sellers and buyers.
There are raw naked chickens freshly plucked and plotted on the counter waiting to be stuffed and sit beside soft hockey pucks of cheese. The pomegranates are so large and juicy you can understand why goddesses would fight over them. You can eat the food raw, get a freshly squeezed juice, or saddle up at one of the food vendors tucked away underground.
You can feel your pants buckle just by looking around.
3. Adventure: Arequipa Tours
There are adventures at every altitude.
3.1. Volcano + Mountain Hikes
There is something about climbing mountains that ignites the human spirit. It could be a desire to be challenged and conquered. Or it is a need to feel alive and push against something larger than ourselves. Or sometimes, we just want to feel tiny. Fortunately, there is a mountain for every type of internal struggle or challenge you are aching to overcome in the region around Arequipa.
A word of caution before attempting any of these hikes. Arequipa is at a higher elevation and most visitors experience some unpleasant form of altitude sickness. It is best to get yourself acclimated to the altitude before climbing any higher.
Fortunately, the Peruvians have remedies for altitude sickness (Arequipa altitude is 2335m), the most popular is coca tea, which they guzzle down on the hottest days for its ability to quell nausea, vertigo, or shortness of breath. The tea stems from the same plant that becomes cocaine and can NOT be brought back into the United States or Europe. So drink up.
3.1.1. El Misti ( The Gentleman or Great One)
The name might sound like a misnomer to our English ears because the air around the mountain looks quite clear.
The name is translated from Quechua, the language of the Incas and still one of the official languages of Peru today. The translation is closer to “the Great Lord” or “the Great One,” which makes way more sense since there is hardly any mist coming from this volcano. It stands proudly behind the city. The mountain can be seen from all points in the city. It pops out at the end of alleyways and intimidates you from the highest rooftops in the city. It is beckoning you to climb it. You can still feel its force when you can’t see it.
If you decide to climb this living volcano, you can hire a guide and do a 2-3 day hike to the summit that includes all of the equipment necessary. After overcoming it, you will be able to peer down from the apex of the volcano at tiny Arequipa.
This volcano has an ice cap that extends and reseeds during the year, so it is best to go during the dry season of July and November when there is little snow and you have a clear canvas of the world below you. Since there is little snow, the hike is on ashy barren land, with a sulfurous yellow crater that sputters and hisses that makes you feel like you landed on a planet from Lost in Space.
3.1.2. Chachani Volcano (the Beloved)
If an alien asked you to draw a volcano, Chachani’s outline would be a perfect trace.
Its name translates to skirt or the beloved in Quechua (because they are synonyms?) and typically represents a female identity. In ancient legends, Chachani is known for having the power to choose the gender of unborn children, like the doctors in Brave New World.
Although it casts long shadows across Arequipa, this volcano is an easier trek than its brother El Misti. It is a 6000-meter climb which is typically done in 2- 4 days. The inside of the volcano is made up of domes that are older than the last ice age formed by the crystallization of syrupy andesitic lava flowing throughout, like walking around her postmenopausal fallopian tubes.
This climb – one of the best hikes in Peru – isn’t as touristy as El Misti but is slightly less challenging. While you won’t need ice picks to get through the trek, it’s still a hike that has you compartmentalize the ease of our everyday walking. You never thought taking a step could be so challenging and won’t complain about sitting on a couch and having your phone be slightly out of reach ever again. But once you have reached the top, you will have plenty of space to flop down on the rock that makes up the city beneath your sore and stinging feet.
Careful once you reach the top for skulls and scattered bones. Archaeological studies have found evidence of human sacrifices at the summit of Chachani or mistook them for trekkers who didn’t bring enough granola bars.
This volcano is still thought to be active.
3.1.3. Pichu Pichu
Pichu Pichu is an inactive volcano speckled with eroded craters just like the moon that hangs closely above it. From rooftops, it looks like lions sleeping under rumpled blankets. You can drive and hike the range, which expands for about 12 miles and has 7 summits and is by far the easiest trek out of the three.
Archaeologists have found stone structures and high rising staircase that was used by indigenous people. They have even stumbled across mummies and potential human sacrifices. Little is known about these blood myths and legends, so it’s best to stay away from the ledge.
3.1.4. Colca Canyon Tours from Arequipa
The adventure begins at 4 am where buses will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and begin the long journey up through the world largest mountain range to bring you down to the deepest canyon on earth and valle del Colca.
Don’t try to sleep on the way there, for you will miss the unearthly scene (and the driving is often too rough and bumpy to even worth an attempt). If you stay awake during the early hours of the morning, you will watch the landscape turn from an arid desert to a land of snow and ice. They often stop at the top of Chichani, one of the mountains that have been mocking you since you first arrived in Arequipa, and give you some time to walk around the volcano.
If you choose to explore, you will have a full panoramic view and will be greeted with a cold so unfamiliar it will open your nostrils and glue your eyes back, an experience a little too breathtaking. They have stops along the way on the volcano for you to eat and drink up on coca tea to thwart altitude sickness and warm your internal body temperature.
There are several types of trips you can take based on how much time or energy you have.
The one-day excursion gives you a nice sampling of Colca Canyon and will have you back in Arequipa for dinner. This is the express journey and gives you the highlights of the Canyon.
The highlight of the one day tour typically brings you to a ledge where you can sit and peacefully gaze at Peru’s most vicious condors gracefully glide around the sky with an elegance that will have you aching to fly up there with them.
The Incas believed contours to be immortal messengers from God and are one of the three totems of an Inca trinity: the puma is the earth and snake is the underworld and the contour is the sky. There is something ethereal watching these massive monsters of the sky gracefully suspend themselves in the air. It’s a shame we can’t join them.
If you have the strength and stamina for it, I suggest staying for several days. Multi-day trips have you sleep over and allow you to go further into a canyon so deep if you dropped a penny you would have to count the minutes before hearing its plunk onto the bottom of the basin.
3.2. Salinas Salt Lagoon
If you are unable to visit the salt flats in Bolivia, this is a close second. Salinas Salt Lagoon demonstrates how strange it is when multiple temperats are stacked on top of each other in such close proximity. Wetlands are fenced around the aride Arequipa landscape by the Tacune mountains and Pichu Pichu volcano range. It’s almost unfathomable anything can live here.
Llamas, alpacas, and other high altitude animals sprinkle themselves along the landscape like candies on an ice cream.
The panoramic view looks like is the stacked, bold strokes of a paintbrush. The red Tacune mountains rest on top of streaks of white salt pouring into the blue lagoon, all boldly standing in front of the crisp blue backdrop.
The reflection of the red mountains surrounding the lagoon sometimes paints the water in shades of terracotta pink, making you feel like you are walking on Mars if it ever held life. Pink flamingos balancing on one foot in the middle of the lagoon to add to the oddity of the whole experience.
3.3. Whitewater rafting
Local tour guides will offer whitewater rafting excursions if you are looking for a more cooling adventure than sweating up a storm while hiking a mountain.
Whitewater rafting experts will take groups outside of the city for a nice afternoon adventure. Groups toss and tumble down the Chili River, which gently flows between Misti and Chachani in Arequipa. The river ventures down from the peaks of the Andes near Arequipa. It is a good river for beginners or those who just want to get closer to the nearby volcanoes without stepping on them.
Although Peruvians may seem more quaint with their pet alpacas and sacks of potatoes, they know how to get down.
The nightlife in Arequipa is fueled on egg white cocktails, Latino pop music, and downing a little too much coca tea. There is a good mix of clubs, cocktail bars, late-night cafes, and microbreweries that will give you a real sense of what it is like to live here. Avoid the drunken expat layer of Wild Rover and get down with the locals.
For a mix of electronic music, pop music, or salsa dancing close to the city center, sidestep your way from Split and Cascada Forum, both of which offer multiple dancing floors and genres- with GREAT happy hour specials.
End your night at Deja Vu on their rooftop bar with views of the church spirals and volcanic backdrop. While you are bopping to modern beats, the reminders of the oldness of the city is always around you.
For a country that knows only how to consume potatoes, it’s surprising to find that Peruvians are knee deep into microbrewing. Fortunately, they are making no attempt to grow handlebar mustaches or tattooing themselves.
The craft has been bubbling up all throughout Peru for the past 6 years and has produced some stellar brews. If you find that your craving a cold beer to quench yourself from the heat stroke of a city, then go out of your way to find a Belgian style beer Nuevo Mundo and Barbarian from Lima, classic ales such as Sierra Andina from Huaraz, IPAs and dark beers from Valle Sacrado, and Cerveza Zenith from Cusco.
Places to go stalk out these affordable and up and coming brews ( easily $10 in the states) is Chelawasi Public House, ChaqChao Chocolate Shop ( not a misnomer and I will explain later) or Las Gringas Pizza shop.
4.4. Museo del Pisco
Pisco is as sacrosanct in Peru as much as the Irish over their whiskey. Museo del Pisco, located near the city center, will offer you an extensive selection and a history lesson to go behind their pisco menu.
You can cozy up in this dimly lit, stone and slab cocktail bar and pair your pisco drink with regional food and celebrate one of the greatest accomplishments of Peruvian culture.
4.5. Late night cafes
If you would rather spend your evening a little more calmly, surrounded by chocolate and art instead of watching people create their own art vomit on the streets, there are a handful of places for you to cozy up with a drink and dessert.
Two places that come to mind that are close to the city center are Le Café Art Montreal, which is an intimate ambiance and live music, if you are feeling nostalgic for Zig Zag restaurant which hosts live music and traditional Peruvian cuisine, and ChaqChao a chocolate shop that turns into a late night cafe and has an impressive selection of regional beers on tap and in bottles. Sit out on their patio, they host frequent live music events, Peruvian Beer week, and make your own chocolate bar classes.
5.1. Yanahuara park
Nothing ends a great trip than an encapsulating view of the city. Head west and cross the river to Yanahuara park. It is a twenty-minute walk out of the city center in a residential area.
It is an open courtyard encircled by Roman arches, which frame the view of the city and El Misti like they are already in a kitchy photobook. From this angle, you can see how nature still encroaches upon the city from houses covered with red and purple flowers to singular palm trees scaling over the buildings like they are watchtowers over the city.
As active and lively as the city is, it feels irenic resting at the feet of a volcanic giant. It is so spectacular that you might mistake it for a desktop background.
5.2. Sachaca view
Sachaca is a drive away from the city but will give you a panorama view of the all the volcanoes. You can watch the sunset cast a shadow over the volcanos, turning them lavender and grey. For a moment, you might envision what it would look like to stand there and watch the whole city shake and tumble to the ground.
What a precarious a life these people are living. But they would rebuild, for this is a city that endures.
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