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 of the White City. It is Peru’s second largest city and is also the base for treks to Colca Canyon & surrounding volcanoes including El Misti and Chachani. Arequipa’s location makes it a great stop off between Cusco and Lima and perfect for backpackers. I spent a couple of days here either side of my Colca trek, and felt quite at home in the city. Read on for more tips for backpacking Arequipa Peru!
How to Get to Arequipa
You can choose to fly from Lima or Cuzco to Arequipa; the flight from Lima to Arequipa takes around an hour and a half, and it’s under an hour from Cusco. From Cusco to Arequipa, there aren’t really any stops along the way (unless you choose to go via Lake Titicaca), but between Lima & Arequipa there are several places worth a visit for unique activities, like sandboarding in Huacachina or flying over the Nazca Lines, so if you have the time I recommend a bus journey for that (long) leg.
Peru Hop is a great option for taking the bus from Lima to Cusco, as their buses stop off at all the key destinations along the way, including Arequipa. If you are backpacking Peru on a low budget though, bus companies like Cruz del Sur, Oltursa or Tepsa also run that route. I travelled with Peru Hop, and loved it!
Where to Stay in Arequipa
There are tons of hotels in Arequipa, but for backpackers, I highly recommend Friendly AQP as a great Arequipa hostel – I stayed there & felt at home. The hostel was around 10 minutes walk from the Plaza de Armas main square & was quiet but friendly, with great wifi and pancakes for breakfast!
I arrived from Cusco by bus at around 5.30am, and was dropped off at the Friendly AQP 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!
Trying Guinea Pig in Arequipa
When my room was ready I got set up & went to investigate lunch options with my new room-mate. That’s the great thing about backpacking & staying in hostels, you get to meet so many new people! 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.
Things to do in Arequipa Peru
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. If you’re backpacking Arequipa, or are able to spend any time in the city, don’t miss these two spots!
Juanita the Ice Maiden Mummy in Arequipa
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.
Where to get great views in Arequipa
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.
Other Things to do in Arequipa
Many people use Arequipa as a base for the Colca Canyon hike, one of the best hikes in Peru. Every hotel and hostel in Arequipa will be able to arrange a tour to the Colca Canyon for you, or you could choose to visit independently. I advise the 3-day Colca Canyon hike if you have time, which is less stress on your knees. After the trek to Machu Picchu I couldn’t handle any more hiking, and even had to take a mule up from the bottom of the canyon! It is worth the effort though, and it is one of the few places in the world you can see the Andean Condor in the wild.
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.
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