Peru’s second city, Arequipa, is well known for its beautiful surroundings and its lovely climate.
It is a physically beautiful place, once you get past the outskirts, as the whole central area is built from sillar, a white volcanic rock.
This gives the city its nickname ‘La Ciudad Blanca’ or ‘The White City’.
The city itself is at 2,300m above sea level which invariably means warm sunny days and pleasantly cool evenings.
The city is surrounded by three perennially snowcapped volcanoes of between 5,500 and 6,000m.
The Incas highly respected these volcanoes since the melt water from their snow-capped peaks are said to form the headwaters of the Amazon.
Arequipa is a lovely place to spend a few days, wandering, eating, shopping and visiting museums.
Plaza de Armas
Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful in Peru.
On the north side of the Plaza is the impressive, twin-towered Cathedral, founded in 1612 and largely rebuilt in the 19th Century having been repeatedly damaged by earthquakes and fire.
Inside is fine Belgian organ and elaborately-carved wooden pulpit. The Plaza is surrounded on its other three sides by colonial arcaded buildings with many cafes and restaurants.
The area behind the Cathedral to the left is a pretty back street with many handicraft shops and cafes.
To the right hand side of the cathedral façade is a busier, less promising looking street (Mercaderes) but at the end on the left hand corner is a sort of artisan shopping centre which is worth a peek.
Santa Catalina convent
Santa Catalina Convent is the most famous site in Arequipa. It was opened to the public in 1970 after 400 years as a cloister.
The convent has been refurbished with period furniture and paintings and is very well worth a visit.
It is probably helpful not to think of it as a convent but as a walled village within a town.
There are flower filled gardens, spacious patios, granite fountains as well as arches and narrow streets.
The sprawling complex is a beautiful and vibrant mix of colourful walls and nuns ‘cells’.
In truth, behind closed doors the nuns, usually daughters of aristocrats, paid little heed to the vows of poverty and silence.
Each had her own servant and dined with porcelain plates, fine tablecloths and silver cutlery.
About 20 nuns still live in a section of the convent.
The convent is open daily 9am – 5pm, last admission 4pm.
Expect to pay around US$7.50 entrance.
Guides gather just beyond the ticket booth and you will find the whole experience much more interesting if you take on the services of a guide for an hour or two.
Museo Santuarios Andinos, usually known as the Juanita museum as this is where the famous mummy is housed.
Essentially, the volcanoes surrounding Arequipa were considered sacred by the Inca.
At certain points during their rule, they sacrificed young women/girls up on the summits of these volcanoes.
Their bodies remained frozen in the ice, perfectly preserved, they are referred to as mummies but in fact they were not mummified, simply deep-frozen.
As a result they have perfectly preserved hands, teeth and hair which makes them very human.
When the El Misti volcano erupted in 1995, the ice cap on the summit began to melt and the mummies emerged from the snow.
Juanita, the most perfectly preserved, is only on display from May to November. From December to April Sarita takes her place.
Besides the mummies, there is also a collection of the artifacts laid with the sacrificial victims.
These are made of the finest materials known to the Inca including bronze and silver figures, cloths woven from the finest yarn and macaw feathers. Everything still vibrantly coloured despite being 500 years old.
The museum is small but wonderfully well done. The entrance fee includes a guide in English which makes a huge difference.
Open Monday – Saturday 9am-7pm and Sunday 9am-3pm. Entrance fee $5 includes guide in English (a tip is expected).
The Colca Canyon is one of the world’s deepest canyons formed by a huge seismic fault between the Coropuna (6,425m) and Ampato (6,325m) volcanoes.
From Arequipa it is a three-hour drive or so. It can be done in a day if you set of very early but to be honest, an overnight or two in the canyon is a much more relaxing way to see it.
Along the way you have great views of the smoking Sabancaya volcano, one of the Americas’ most active.
Beautiful unspoiled Andean villages line both sides of the canyon as well seeing the many traditional pre-Inca agricultural terraces which line the steep valley sides.
The high point of a trip to the canyon is an early morning visit to La Cruz del Cóndor (3,320m), a two-hour drive from the town of Chivay.
From this natural ledge you can see down into the deepest part of the canyon.
Condors rise up from beneath your feet as they ride the morning thermals