Starting January 2015, I am starting the Visit South America series, a monthly contribution of guest posts about traveling to South America, contributed by travelers who are there or who have just been there. I can’t wait to start my own backpacking trip in South America this year!
This month’s guest post is written by Kach Medina and Jonathan Howe.
Peru is probably best known for the incredible Inca city of Machu Picchu, the Amazon rainforest, and Alpacas, but probe a little deeper and you’ll find that it’s a rich, culturally diverse melting pot of history and traditions that are as varied as the landscapes and climates spread across it.
With 24 different languages actually in daily use throughout the country, it’s clear that the Spanish conquests and globalization have never managed to permanently stifle the native cultures here.
Most tourists and travelers are familiar with Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu, but there is so much more on offer in this awesome country. Just a short flight, or a 15-hour bus ride away, is Peru’s second city—the Cuidad Blanca (White City) of the south, Arequipa.
With a population of only about one million, Arequipa is a lot smaller and less crowded than Lima, with outstanding architecture and historical monuments. It’s a great place to hang out and just soak up the atmosphere.
Here’s our top ten reasons why you should visit Arequipa, Peru!
1. El Cuidad Blanca
Arequipa is almost completely built out of sillar, a kind of white volcanic stone which exploded from deep inside the Earth during a huge volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago. This unique building material gives the city its distinctive character and earned it the nickname, The White City.
2. A truly authentic city
While Cusco is certainly beautiful and brimming with culture and history, its proximity to Machu Picchu makes it a central hub for tourists which can be a little overwhelming at times. High prices, tour agencies and constant offers of, ‘Masaje señor(a)?’ make it feel a bit like a cattle market at times.
Walking around Arequipa however, you get the distinct impression that you’re not the main focal point of the city. The local residents are not sitting around, anxiously awaiting your arrival. You’re simply passing through, observing a community thriving under its own steam and that’s something really refreshing.
3. Strategic Location
Arequipa is located in South Peru, close to the borders of Bolivia and Chile, making it an ideal stopping point for many travelers heading south from Lima and Cusco or north from lower South America. It’s also only 4 hours away from the Pacific Ocean, with amazing surf beaches that are practically deserted.
Three hours in the other direction is the Colca Canyon, with active, snow-capped volcanoes and days of amazing trekking in all directions. Not only is it a hub for most major bus routes in Peru, Arequipa also has its own airport, which offers both local and international flights within South America.
4. Mountains and Volcanoes
Arequipa sits in something of a giant geological bowl, surrounded by volcanoes, some extinct, some dormant, and some still active! Misti, Chchani, and Picchu Picchu are the attraction for hikers and climbers from all over the world.
The climb to the summit of Misti will push you to your limits at nearly 6,000 meters. This is the ultimate challenge of Arequipa; many attempt the two-day hike, only to be forced to retreat back to down by the nausea, dizziness, and nose-bleeds caused by the altitude.
If you’re looking for something a little less intense then you can always take advantage of one of the many gentler day treks around Arequipa, like the Chilina Valley outside of Yanahuara.
5. The Food
Arequipa has some of the best cuisine in South America, from rocoto relleno and adobo, to ceviche and camarones. The best places to try the local food are the small picanterias—local restaurants that usually serve a limited selection of great food, freshly cooked to order.
They’re cheap too, with one hoy menu (daily menu) usually costing around 6 soles (less than $2). Can you believe that?
6. The Plaza de Armas
The original city center and focal point of all activities and celebrations in Arequipa, the twin-towered Cathedral of course takes pride of place at the head of the square.
The historic center itself was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000; the white, volcanic rock buildings are a unique blend of European colonial, native-American and Baroque architectural styles and characteristics.
You don’t have to be an architect or historian to appreciate it, the feeling and atmosphere created by the vaulted archways, thick stone walls, and intricate decorations will do it all for you.
7. The Ice Maiden
Discovered in 1995 on Mount Ampato, the Ice Maiden, aka Momia Juanita, is the body of a young Inca girl thought to have been sacrificed as a ritual offering to the gods sometime between 1450 and 1480. Her body is extremely well-preserved due to being frozen and naturally mummified.
The Ice Maiden can be seen on display at the Museo Santuarios Andinos in Arequipa. Named by Time Magazine as one of the World’s Top Ten Discoveries of all time, this is too interesting to miss.
8. Gateway to Colca Canyon
Only 100 miles northwest of Arequipa, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, lies the Colca Canyon. People tend to assume that the Grand Canyon is the deepest canyon in the world, but it’s actually just the 3rd.
At 4,160 meters, Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world, only surpassed by its big Peruvian brother, Cotahuasi. Here you’ll find incredible scenery, invigorating mountain air, giant condors, and volcanic hot springs, all within easy reach from Arequipa. Check out our DIY guide to Colca Canyon.
9. Molina de Sabandía (Sabandia Mill)
Within walking distance from the Plaza de Armas, this historic mill dates back to 1622, eventually falling into disrepair and being lovingly restored in the 1970’s.
The buildings and grounds have been transformed into a hidden Eden for tourists and locals alike to explore and relax in the shade of Weeping Willows. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic and to escape the heat and activity of the city.
10. The local transport
The public transportation system in Arequipa is hapless at best. Countless private companies run smoky, overcrowded buses (or combis) on dozens of incomprehensible routes around the city. As a visitor, however, these buses are great fun if you like a bit of a challenge and they only cost about 70 centimos.
You’ll need to enlist the help of locals to figure out which bus to take as there is no written record anywhere of what bus goes where. Just sit back and enjoy the Chaos!
Arequipa is also host to the cutest taxis in the entire world – the tico. These tiny little cars cruise around the city like over-sized Matchbox toys. Don’t be fooled though, they are surprisingly strong and rarely break down or die.
I got into one and looked around me to find that it actually been rolled over on its roof and then, according to the driver, ‘re-adjusted’ back into shape with the help of a big hammer and put straight back into service.
Their owners are very proud of their little machines and love to decorate and modify them bits of plastic chrome, shiny wheels, loud exhausts and racing accessories, all of which make them loads faster. Honest!
Does this post make you want to visit Arequipa, Peru? It has certainly made me all the more excited about my backpacking South America trip!
About the Authors
Kach Medina and Jonathan Howe are the couple behind Two Monkeys Travel Group. They are Tantra Yoga Teachers, Ayurveda Massage Therapists and TEFL Teachers – working wherever and whenever they want. Traveling status: 18 months on the road and currently based in Arequipa, Peru. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram.