A wealthy city with a population of almost 800,000, AREQUIPA maintains a rather aloof attitude towards the rest of Peru. Most Arequipans feel themselves distinct, if not culturally superior, and resent the idea of the nation revolving around Lima. This confident image arose in the nineteenth century when the city found itself wealthy on the back of the wool trade with England.

Situated at the foot of an ice-capped volcano – El Misti (5821m) – and close to four other prominent volcanoes, Arequipa has long been famous for having one of the most beautiful settings and pleasant climates of all Peru’s cities. Despite a disastrous earthquake in 1687, it’s still endowed with some of the country’s finest colonial churches and mansions, many of which were constructed from white volcanic sillar, cut from the surrounding mountains and often flecked with black ash.

Characterized by arched interior ceilings, Arequipa’s architectural beauty comes mainly from the colonial period. In general, the style is stark and almost clinical, except where Baroque and mestizo influences combine, as seen on many of the fine sixteenth- to eighteenth-century facades. A huge number of religious buildings are spread about the old colonial centre. The architectural design of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a convent complex enclosing a complete world within its thick walls, constitutes perhaps the city’s main appeal to travellers. Further out, but still within walking distance, you can visit the attractive suburbs of San Lázaro, Yanahuara and Cayma, the latter being particularly renowned for its dramatic views of the valley.

Brief history

Arrowheads and rock art have proven human occupation around Arequipa for over ten thousand years. This began with early groups of hunter-gatherers arriving here on a seasonal basis for several millennia from 8000 BC to around 1000 BC when horticulture and ceramic technology began to appear in small settlements along streams and rivers. Initially influenced by the Paracas culture and later by the Tiahuanaco-Huari, two major local tribes emerged sharing the area: the Churajone living in the far northwest section of the Arequipa region, and the Chuquibamba who thrived higher up in the Andean plateaus above Arequipa until the arrival of the Incas.

The name Arequipa is derived from the Quechua phrase “ari quepay”, meaning “let’s stop here”, which, according to local legend, is exactly what the fourth Inca emperor, Mayta Capac, said to his generals on the way through the area following one of his conquest trips.

Colonial development

The Incas were not alone in finding Arequipa to their liking. When Pizarro officially “founded” the city in 1540, he was moved enough to call it Villa Hermosa, or Beautiful Town, and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes extolled the city’s virtues, saying that it enjoyed an eternal springtime. The lovely white stone lent itself to extravagant buildings and attracted master architects to the city.

The wool trade

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this mountainous region became an important source of sheep and alpaca wool exports, largely to the UK. Connected to the rest of Peru only by mule track until 1870, Arequipa was slow to become the provincial capital it is today. Money made mainly from exports kept the economy growing enough to establish an electric urban tramway in 1913 and then a road up to Puno in 1928.

Political upheaval

Having acquired a reputation as the centre of right-wing political power, while populist movements have tended to emerge around Trujillo in the north, Arequipa has traditionally represented the solid interests of the oligarchy. Important politicos, like Francisco Javier de Luna Pizarro, who was president of Congress on many occasions in the nineteenth century, came from Arequipa. Sanchez Cerro and Odria both began their coups here, in 1930 and 1948 respectively, and Belaunde, one of the most important presidents in pre- and post-military coup years, sprang into politics from one of the wealthy Arequipa families. By 1972 the city’s population had reached 350,000. Twenty years later it passed half a million, with many people arriving from the Andean hinterland to escape the violence of Peru’s civil war.

The social extremes are quite clear today; despite the tastefully ostentatious architecture and generally well-heeled appearance of most townsfolk, there is much poverty in the region and there’s been a huge increase in the number of street beggars in Arequipa. Social polarization came to a head in 2002, when the city’s streets were ripped up in political protest against President Toledo’s plans to sell off the local electric utility.