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.

Arequipeña delicacies

Arequipa’s restaurants are famous across Peru for a range of delicious dishes that make use of local food resources such as rocoto (an indigenous type of pepper), guinea pig, peanuts, maize, potatoes, chillis and river shrimps. The city is particularly well known for the following dishes:

  • Adobo

    Typically eaten for breakfast In Arequipa. This is a pork dish where the meat and bones are soaked and cooked in maize-beer sediment or vinegar, onions, garlic, boiled small rocotos and chillis.

  • Cuy chactado

    The name comes from the flat, round stone – or chaqueria – which is placed on top of a gutted and hung guinea pig to splay it out flat in a large frying pan, while cooking it in ample olive oil; it is usually served with toasted maize and a sauce made from chillis and the herb huacatay (black Andean mint)

  • Chupe de camarones

    River shrimp casserole incorporating squashes, cheeses, chillis and potatoes.

  • Ocopa

    A cold appetizer that originated in this city but can be found on menus across Peru. iIt is made with potatoes, eggs, olives and a fairly spicy yellow chilli sauce, usually with ground peanuts added.

  • Rocoto relleno

    A spicy Andean pepper usually stuffed with minced pork meat and blended with garlic, tomato paste, eggs and mozzarella.

Monasterio de Santa Catalina

Two blocks north of the Plaza de Armas the vast walls of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina shelter a convent that housed almost two hundred secluded nuns and three hundred servants from the late sixteenth century until 1970, when it opened some of its outer doors to the public. The most important and prestigious religious building in Peru, its enormous complex of rooms, cloisters and tiny plazas takes an hour or two to explore. Some thirty nuns who still live here today, worship in the main chapel only outside of opening hours.

Originally the concept of Gaspar Baez in 1570, though only granted official licence five years later, the convent was funded by the Viceroy Toledo and the wealthy María de Guzmán, who later entered the convent with one of her sisters and donated all her riches to the community. The most striking feature is its predominantly Mudéjar style, adapted by the Spanish from the Moors, but which rarely found its way into their colonial buildings. The quality of the design is emphasized and harmonized by a superb interplay between the white stone and brilliant colours in the ceilings, the strong sunlight and deep-blue sky above the maze of narrow interior streets.

Los locutorios

Once you enter, you file left along the first corridor to a high vaulted room with a ceiling of opaque huamanga stone imported from the Ayacucho Valley. Beside here are los locutorios – little cells where on holy days the nuns could talk, unseen, to visitors.

The Novices Cloister and Orange Tree Cloister

The Novices Cloister, beyond the locutorios, is built in solid sillar-block columns, with antique wall paintings depicting the various qualities to which the devotees were expected to aspire and the Litanies of the Rosary. Off to the right, the Orange Tree Cloister (Claustro Naranjal), painted a beautiful blue with birds and flowers over the vaulted arches, is surrounded by a series of paintings showing the soul evolving from a state of sin to the achievement of God’s grace. In one of the side rooms, dead nuns were mourned, before being interred within the monastic confines.

La lavandería

Calle Cordoba runs from the Orange Tree Cloister past a new convent, where the nuns now live. The road continues as Calle Toledo, a long, very narrow street that’s the oldest part of the monastery and connects the main dwelling areas with la lavandería, or communal washing sector, is brought to life with permanently flowering geraniums. There are several rooms off here worth exploring, including small chapels, prayer rooms and a kitchen. The lavandería itself, perhaps more than any other area, offers a captivating insight into what life must have been like for the closeted nuns; open to the skies and city sounds yet bounded by high walls. Twenty halved earthenware jars stand alongside a water channel, and it also has a swimming pool with sunken steps and a papaya tree in the lovely garden.

Plaza Socodobe and Sor Ana’s rooms

Broad Calle Granada brings you from la lavandería to the Plaza Socodobe, a fountain courtyard to the side of which is la bañera, where the nuns used to bathe. Around the corner, down the next little street, are Sor Ana’s rooms. By the time of her death in 1686, 90-year-old Sor Ana was something of a phenomenon, leaving behind her a trail of prophecies and cures. Her own destiny in Santa Catalina, like that of many of her sisters, was to castigate herself in order to offer up her torments for the salvation of other souls – mostly wealthy Arequipan patrons who paid handsomely for the privilege. Sor Ana was beatified by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.

The refectory and main chapel

The refectory, immediately before the main cloisters, is deceptively plain – its exceptional star-shaped stained-glass windows shedding dapples of sunlight through the empty space. Nearby, confessional windows look into the main chapel, but the best view of its majestic cupola is from the top of the staircase beside the cloisters. A small room underneath these stairs has an intricately painted wall niche with a Sacred Heart centrepiece. The ceiling is also curious, illustrated with three dice, a crown of thorns and some other, less recognizable items. Within the quite grand and lavishly decorated main chapel itself, but not part of the tour these days, are the lower choir room and the tomb of Sor Ana.

The main cloisters

The main cloisters themselves are covered with murals on an intense ochre base with cornices and other architectural elements in white stone; the murals follow the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Although they were originally a communal dormitory, their superb acoustics now make them popular venues for classical concerts and weddings and the space can absorb up to 750 people standing or 350 seated around tables.

Religious art museum

Before exiting the monastery, there’s a rather dark religious art museum full of obscure seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings. The best of these are in the final outer chamber, lined mainly with works from the Cusqueña school. One eye-catching canvas, the first on the left as you enter this room, is of Mary Magdalene. Painted by an anonymous nineteenth-century Arequipan, it’s remarkably modern in its treatment of Mary and the near-Cubist style of its rocky background.

Traditional folk music in Arequipa

Arequipa has a very strong tradition of folk singing and poetry, and folk musicians will wander from peña to peña. They often perform the region’s most authentic music, yaraví, which involves lamenting vocalists accompanied by a guitar. In recent years the youth of Arequipa have developed a preference for Latin- and Cuban-style ballads (troubador singing) accompanied by electric guitars, drums and sometimes keyboards, so the choice at weekends can be quite extensive.

Around Arequipa

The spectacular countryside around Arequipa rewards a few days’ exploration, with some exciting and adventurous possibilities for trips from the city. Most people visit these sites on an organized trip with one of the tour companies in Arequipa. If you are prepared to put up with the extra hassle, you can visit many of the sites by much cheaper public transport.

The attractive village of Sabandia and the historic Casa del Fundador are both within 20km of the city centre; further afield the Inca ruins of Paucarpata at the foot of El Misti volcano offer excellent scenery, great views and a fine place for a picnic. Climbing El Misti is a very demanding but rewarding trek, but should not be attempted without a professional guide. The attractive village of Chapi makes a good day-trip, while the Cuevas de Sumbay, just a few hours’ drive from Arequipa on the road towards Caylloma, contain hundreds of unique prehistoric paintings.

Yet the greatest attraction here is easily the Colca Canyon, some 200km to the north of Arequipa, usually accessed via the quaint town of Chivay and second only to Machu Picchu in its ability to attract tourists, it is developing fast as a trekking and canoeing destination (best in the dry season, May–Sept). On route to Colca, the road passes through the Reserva Nacional de Aguada Blanca, a good place for wildlife. One of the canyon’s pulls is the Mirador Cruz del Condor, where several condors, symbols of the Andes, can be seen flying most days. Called the “Valley of Marvels” by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, it is in places nearly twice the depth of Arizona’s Grand Canyon and one of the country’s most extraordinary natural sights.

Around 120km west of Arequipa, you can also see the amazing Toro Muerto petroglyphs and perhaps go on to hike amid the craters and cones of the Valley of the Volcanoes, roughly 25km to the northeast. A little further north is the Cotahuasi Canyon, which some people believe could usurp Colca’s claim to being the deepest canyon in the world.

Chivay and around

Surrounded by some of the most impressive and intensive ancient terracing in South America, CHIVAY, 163km north of Arequipa and just four hours by bus from there, lies at the heart of fantastic hiking/mountain-biking country. Although notable as a market town, it is not actually a good place from which to observe the canyon. Chivay is nevertheless bustling with gringos using the town as a base for exploring the Colca Canyon region.

The market itself is located along Avenida Salaverry, where you’ll also find a slew of artesanía shops. The town has a growing range of accommodation, restaurants and bus services for these visitors, making it a reasonable place to stay while you acclimatize to the high altitude. Serious trekkers will soon want to move on to one of the other canyon towns, likely Cabanaconde.

La Calera

Just 5km east of Chivay, slightly further up the Colca Canyon, the road passes mainly through cultivated fields until it reaches the tiny settlement of LA CALERA, which boasts one of Chivay’s main attractions – a wonderful series of hot spring pools, fed by the bubbling, boiling brooks that emerge from the mountain sides all around at an average natural temperature of 85°C. Said to be good for curing arthritis and rheumatism these clean and well-kept thermal baths are not to be missed. There’s also a small museum on site with models and artefacts demonstrating local customs, such as making an offering to the pacha mama, Mother Earth.

Valley of the Volcanoes

Following some 65km of the Río Andagua’s course, the VALLEY OF THE VOLCANOES (Valle de los Volcanes) skirts along the presently dormant volcano Mount Coropuna, the highest volcano in Peru (6425m) and the highest peak in southern Peru. At first sight just a pleasant Andean valley, this is in fact one of the strangest geological formations you’re ever likely to see. A stunning lunar landscape, the valley is studded with extinct craters varying in size and height from 200 to 300m. About 200,000 years ago, these small volcanoes erupted when the lava fields were degassed (a natural release of volcanic gas through soil, volcanic lakes and volcanoes) – at the time of one of Coropuna’s major eruptions.

The best overall view of the valley can be had from Anaro Mountain (4800m), looking southeast towards the Chipchane and Puca Maura cones. The highest of the volcanoes, known as Los Gemelos (The Twins), are about 10km from Andagua. To the south, the Andomarca volcano has a pre-Inca ruined settlement around its base.

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written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 26.04.2021

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