Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Visit to Arequipa

Arequipa has the nickname White City because either a few, most, or all of its buildings (depending on which source you read) are built of sillar; a white volcanic rock, however viewed from a window of a LAN Airbus 320 the city of Arequipa looks like any other major Peruvian city, with a central core of fairly attractive multi-level buildings surrounded by large areas of raw, brown dwellings typical of the residences of the poorer members of a community.

With a population of 860,000 Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city. Founded in 1540 the city from its very beginnings has attitudinally walked a different path, with its residents maintaining a somewhat aloof posture toward other Peruvians. Tourist shops sell diplomatic passports issued by the “Independent Republic of Arequipa.”  The same shops sell t-shirts that read (in Spanish), “Peruvian?...ha ha ha - No, I am Arequipeño.” And it’s not just a tourist thing. Though I don’t know how deep or widespread it is, we actually saw and experienced a display of Arequipeño ‘superiority.’

A visit to Arequipa should start in the main park, which has a well deserved reputation as one of the most beautiful in Peru. The park is surrounded by multi-level buildings containing many varieties of service and retail businesses and restaurants. It reminded me very much of Cusco’s main park. Having arrived at dinner time we were hungry and asked two members of the tourist police for suggestions on a good restaurant. They recommended El Gaucho, and we're glad they did. Maribel ordered Picaña (top sirloin) while I went overboard on a 19oz Certified Angus Beef t-bone steak. I ordered it medium rare – it was served medium well but that’s okay… the flavor and texture was out of this world.

There are a variety of hotels in various price ranges to choose from. We stayed at the Hotel Arequipa Center located on Ave. Alvarez Thomas two blocks from the main park. For $29 per night including a decent continental breakfast it was okay. Though the bedroom and bathroom were small as is usual for all but the four star hotels in Peru, everything worked and it was quiet and comfortable. The staff were friendly and attentive.

On our first full day we visited in the morning with a former classmate of Maribel’s who has lived in Arequipa for the past twelve years, and then took a four hour city bus tour that included stops at the Carmen Alto and Yanahuara overlooks; the Incalpaca TPX clothing factory; a very nice tourist restaurant for lunch (cost not included), and the historic Sabandia Mill which we did not tour but instead rode horses at the site (again cost not included). The photo was taken at the Carmen Alto overlook. In the background is the famous Misty volcano, which is visible from almost everywhere in and out of the city.

The tour service we used for the city tour and the Colca Canyon tour the next day was Tours Panoràmico Servicio VIP. We were happy with them…their vehicles were modern and comfortable, and they delivered everything they promised. They have an office across from the main park as do dozens of other tour operators. Beware the ‘casual’ tour operator whose office is a park bench or a restaurant. Their prices are lower but you may not see them again after they’ve got your money.

The Colca Canyon tour started at our hotel door where we were picked up at 3:00am. At 6:30 as the sun was just starting to touch the mountain tops we were eating breakfast at a restaurant in the village of Chivay. The temperature in that restaurant was about 40F and even those who had been smart enough to bring ski parkas shivered as they ate. Later in the day on our return we ate lunch at that same restaurant and it was still cold. Anyone taking the early morning Colca Canyon tour would be well advised to overdress. Coats, hats and backpacks can be safely kept on the tour bus during mid day when not needed.

There are several stops made on the tour but the main attraction is the Cross of the Condor, which overlooks the deepest part of Colca Canyon and is where the Andean Condors can be seen. It was still cold when we arrived, but we and the one or two hundred other tourists were there in time to view the early morning flights of dozens of condors along with several eagles.

Peruvians feel a special attachment to Colca Canyon and Andean condors. Maribel took photo after photo of these magnificent birds flying either above, level with or below us. This one is her favorite. It was taken at about 8:30am with the moon still visible.

During our return to Arequipa we stopped several times to watch herds of wild Alpacas, Llamas and Vicuñas. This herd has all three types. They didn’t seem too concerned about our presence but ran when we tried to get off the bus to take photos.

When we returned to the city we found that the streets surrounding the main park had been closed to traffic to allow various groups of people to produce art celebrating the annual Corpus Christi competition of carpet flowers. By noon of the next day everything was gone and cars once again ruled the streets.

And speaking of streets, in my opinion Arequipa's streets are not pedestrian friendly. There are traffic lights in only one corner of the main park. Trying to cross at one of the other three corners is an adventure, and the same can be said for any corner within ten blocks of the main park. 

Probably our most enjoyable experience was walking around and exploring the city by ourselves. There are many churches and mansions worth looking at; some free and others for a small fee. There are four or five museums open Monday through Saturday. One of those museums… the one I was looking forward to most turned out to be a major disappointment. The Andean Sanctuaries Museum of the Santa Maria Catholic University is the home of Mummy Juanita, also known as the Inca Ice Maiden. Before entering you need to check your camera and cell phone. The price of admission is $7.20 and for that you are shown three small rooms very dimly lit where a guide talks about a hand full of artifacts associated with Juanita. The third room contains the body of Juanita. She is in some sort of refrigerated transparent container that is so cloudy and dimly lit that if you were not told, you would not know what you were looking at. There is literally only a very vague outline of some ‘thing’ with absolutely no detail visible. Save your money for….. 

…..the Santa Catalina Monastery which was by far the highlight of our visit. It will cost you $12.58 to get in and an optional guide will add $5.38 per person but it is well worth it. A guided tour takes about an hour. We used the map provided to guide ourselves and spent three enjoyable hours touring every nook and cranny of the entire site. The monastery was a self-contained city, and one can almost feel what life was like for the nuns who lived there as you view their bedrooms (referred to as “cells”), kitchens, laundries, bathing facilities and communal halls. The artwork on the walls and ceilings; the immaculately maintained grounds plus the antique furniture commands your attention. This is an attraction I could visit again and again.

Part of our four and one-half day visit was spent with Maribel’s former Chiclayo classmate Edinson who was celebrating his 50th birthday and the baptism of his children on the same day. We attended church in the morning and then went to a restaurant where the second floor had been reserved for the party. Dinner consisted of a choice of beef, pork or chicken with salad and French fries. Seconds and thirds could be had for the asking. Following dinner there was live music and dancing, and the wine flowed freely. Edinson, his family and friends are quality people and some of the finest I have met in Peru.

We enjoyed our visit to Arequipa. We both had head colds prior to arriving and that combined with the altitude had us wheezing with every step but it was bearable. There are some museums we didn’t get to see and a large portion of the city remains for us unexplored, but there’s always next time.


  1. Next time you are there, try some queso
    helado Arequipeño.

  2. I did...several times. It is delicious.