Also known as Peru’s White City; Arequipa is filled with beautiful architecture & surrounded by spectacular scenery. White volcanic rock called sillar was used to construct most of the buildings here, and so earned Arequipa its nickname. Peru’s second largest city is also the base for treks to Colca Canyon & surrounding volcanoes including El Misti and Chachani, and is a great stop off between Cusco and Lima. I spent a couple of days here either side of my Colca trek, and felt quite at home in the city.
I arrived from Cusco by bus at around 5.30am, and was dropped off at my hostel, as promised by Peru Hop. At that time, of course my bed wasn’t ready, so I was offered a blanket and pointed to the common room, where a couple of others were already sleeping on the sofa. I settled into a chair & made myself as comfy as I could, using a table to stretch out my legs and dozed for another couple of hours. After the bus ride I was used to curling up and was so exhausted I could have slept anywhere! My hostel, Friendly AQP, was around 10 minutes walk from the Plaza de Armas main square & was quiet with great wifi and pancakes for breakfast so I was happy there.
Trying Guinea Pig in Arequipa
When my room was ready I got set up & went to investigate lunch options with my new room-mate. We wandered down to the main square – la Plaza de Armas (apparently the name of every main square in Peru). Every restaurant around the square has terraces overlooking the plaza, and touts outside trying to lure you inside for guinea pig and pisco sours. For lack of imagination & growling stomachs we picked one & had suitably average food. We decided to try guinea pig, or cuy as it is called here as it is one of the most famous dishes in Peru, but I couldn’t bear the thought of eating an old pet – so ordered it without the head. It still came out guinea pig-shaped and made me feel queasy. It tasted like bad fried chicken, so I definitely won’t be trying it again! After lunch we found an awesome dessert place and ordered some chocolate cake to go, so we could sit in the plaza & enjoy the people watching – that was much better than the main course! After eating we went our separate ways & set of to explore the city.
The top attractions in Arequipa include the Santa Catalina Monastery and the Museo Santuarios Andinos UCSM (Sanctuaries Andean Museum) which houses the famous Juanita Ice Maiden Mummy.
Juanita the Ice Maiden Mummy
I decided on the museum first, as I’d heard the monastery was interesting to visit in the evenings. The museum visit begins with a 20 minute video about the discovery of Dr Johan Reinhard and his expeditions to the peak of Ampato volcano where he discovered, by accident, the frozen remains of a young girl, sacrificed by the Incas centuries before.
Following that, a guide takes you through the exhibits; various artefacts from Juanita (named after her discoverer Johan), and other sacrificed ice mummies. The climax is Juanita herself, still remarkably preserved in her frozen state. As Juanita is kept below freezing the museum itself is also very cold, so take a jacket even if it is warm outside! You also have to check in your handbag & rucksacks, and staff there were also loaning out small blankets for chilly visitors! I read that sometimes Juanita goes on tour to other museums, so ask your hostel to check for information before you go. No photography is allowed inside, but here’s a sneak peak of the maiden, who now looks slightly past her best – but still not bad for several hundred years old!
Santa Catalina Monastery
I waited until Thursday evening to visit the monastery, currently it is only open late on Tuesdays & Thursdays, so I decided it was worth hanging on for the evening visit. It is not cheap, at 40 soles entry, but it is fascinating to explore. I meant to get there at 5pm to see it in the daylight, but fell asleep and only got there at 6pm, so it was already turning to twilight when I arrived. By night it is actually quite spooky, with some rooms only being lit by candlelight and a fire in the hearth. There are some electric lights along the ‘streets’ of the huge monastery, which covers over 20,000 m2, but the rest is eerily dark. A torch is useful for poking around the nooks and crannies, and watching your step in the dark.
It is also worth noting that I chose not to hire a guide, which was an optional extra. From what I heard from passing guides they seemed to rush their visitors around, and I got to see a lot more while they were whizzed past. Most of the interesting parts have plaques in various languages explaining their purpose, and with the free map I don’t feel I missed out from not having a guide. If you do go during the day there are benches dotted around where one could rest and simply enjoy the cloisters, perhaps take a book and get some peace and quiet for a while!
For more information on the monastery, see their website here.
Arequipa – on Peru’s Ring of Fire
Arequipa is also known for its location on Peru’s ‘Ring of Fire’, nestled among the volcanoes and subject to frequent eruptions and earthquakes. While walking down the street you’ll suddenly catch a glimpse of El Misti or Chachani towering above the skyline and be reminded of where you are. Some spots to get great views of the surrounding volcanoes include Yanahuara (a 20 minute walk from Plaza de Armas), and some of the restaurants and bars dotted around town have rooftop terraces so keep your eyes peeled for those.
Arequipa felt a lot less touristy than Cusco, although it still receives plenty of visitors it has managed to retain much of its charm, and made for a very pleasant few days.
Learn more about things to do in Arequipa
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