Many travelers consider Arequipa the most beautiful city in Peru. Though you’ll have to judge that for yourself, we thought we’d give you an idea of what you can expect from the second largest Peruvian city. Just be sure to bring your camera, appetite, and sense of adventure!
Sightseeing in Arequipa
When it comes to scenic views and impressive architecture, it’s hard to beat Arequipa. This colonial city lies in the shadow of three towering volcanoes, including picturesque El Misti, and its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Much of Old Arequipa was built from sillar, a white volcanic rock that makes each building appear even more striking. As you stroll through this district’s streets, you’ll notice Baroque architecture — but you’ll want to keep an eye out for indigenous influences, too.
There’s no better place to begin your sightseeing tour of Arequipa than at the Plaza das Armas. This massive square is the heart of the “White City,” offering a fantastic vantage point of nearby buildings and surrounding volcanoes. It’s a great place to relax, and while the plaza is beautiful all day long, it looks absolutely magical during Blue Hour and Golden Hour.
Next, be sure to stop by the Catedral de Arequipa, which bounds the plaza’s northern side. Recognizable for its two iconic towers, it’s the largest cathedral in Peru, and it’s even home to the biggest organ in South America.
The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is another picture-perfect stop for your sightseeing itinerary. The huge complex dates all the way back to 1579, but frequent earthquakes have necessitated the monastery’s equally frequent reconstruction. Wander through the structure’s many narrow paths, and pause to take photos of the bright-red and deep-blue walls.
When you’ve had your fill of colonial architecture, make your way to the mirador (viewpoint) of Yanahuara. Located a short distance outside the city center, Yanahuara offers jaw-dropping views of nearby volcanoes through pearly-white sillar arches. Just remember to take your sunglasses — the sun can be blinding when it reflects off the stone, especially at midday and during the early afternoon.
Eating in Arequipa
Arequipa has gained a reputation as a gastronomic destination, so get ready to order a few new dishes during your visit!
Rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers) is a regional specialty that you won’t want to miss out on, and so is ocopa (a heavy peanut sauce that’s usually served over potatoes). Since Arequipa isn’t far from the coast, the city also boasts plenty of fresh seafood on its menus and in its markets — just order a dish like chupe de camarones (shrimp chowder) to get your fill!
Other local specialties include estofado de res (beef served with sauce and rice) and pastel de papa (sliced potatoes with melted cheese). And, on Sundays, most families in Arequipa chow down on adobo (pork chop soup). Although some restaurants in touristy areas serve the dish throughout the week, you’re guaranteed to find a more authentic version near the Plaza de Armas on a Sunday afternoon.
Adventurous foodies might also want to try cuy chactado (pan-fried guinea pig served with gravy), a popular Peruvian dish that originated in Arequipa. If you’re interested in trying it out, be sure to stop in a cuyeria, or restaurant that specializes in the dish.
No matter what you choose to eat during your stay, remember that food is usually pretty spicy in Arequipa. Portions are also large, and you’ll often have the option to order the Americano (either a double- or triple-dish sampler) — which is handy if you’d like to try several dishes in one sitting.
Exploring near Arequipa
Finally, Arequipa is just a stone’s throw from some of Peru’s prime adventure destinations. Whether you choose to scale El Misti or explore the world’s deepest canyons, you’re in for a treat!
El Misti is scenic, but consider yourself warned — it’s extremely tall! The volcano’s elevation reaches a staggering 19,101 feet (5,822 meters), so hikers should give themselves plenty of time to acclimate in Arequipa before attempting the ascent. It takes roughly two days to make it to the top of El Misti, so you’ll want to plan accordingly.
As the closest major city to Colca Canyon, Arequipa is the ideal launchpad for anyone hoping to explore this iconic natural feature, which is often referred to as Peru’s Grand Canyon. That said, Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as its American counterpart, so it’s sure to please even the most seasoned and worldly adventurers. While you’re there, try to catch a glimpse of Andean condors at Cruz del Condór lookout, and venture to the canyon’s hot springs, trails, small villages, and astronomical observatory. It takes a while to experience everything the canyon has to offer, so you might want to allocate a few days to your adventure.
Many Arequipa-based tour operators take clients into Colca Canyon, so you can easily find a guide — or at least transportation — that will help you make the most of your visit.
Interestingly, Colca Canyon is the second-deepest canyon in the world, but the world’s deepest — Cotahuasi Canyon — is only a few miles miles farther from Arequipa. Even so, Cotahuasi Canyon is much less accessible, so if you do go, you’ll want to stay for several days to justify the long trip. Luckily, there’s plenty to do: whitewater rafting, bird-watching, hiking, camping, and spotting petroglyphs.
Although you won’t want to leave Arequipa, once you venture out of the city and into the nearby wilderness, you won’t want to leave that area either. The city and its surroundings are excellent additions to your Peruvian itinerary — enjoy!
Cover photo by Mary Salas