It is a grey day in Arequipa. Sitting on a terrace overlooking Plaza de Armas, I watch people feeding pigeons or just sat chatting on benches in the square. Children run and play as their parents keep a watchful eye and the ever present street vendors continue on their rounds. In the background a group of musicians provide an Andean soundtrack, complete with obligatory percussion and panpipes. I am sniffling, coughing, hacking and flashes of pain and soreness course through my bones. As for the headache, let’s not even talk about it- how will I ever get through the night trip to Cusco? Truth be told, I have every reason to hate Arequipa, but instead it has provided a charming introduction to Peru.
What makes Arequipa so cool?
Arequipa is justly famous for its colonial architecture and this earned it UNESCO World Heritage status in 2000. Let’s start with Plaza de Armas, the main square described above. Although there was an Inca city on this site, the modern city was founded by the Spanish at this exact spot in 1540. Construction of the cathedral and the arched portals of the surrounding buildings commenced with them and this has been the city centre ever since. Apart from destruction and reconstruction due to seismic activity, the buildings have been the same for almost four centuries. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that they added the second storeys where I enjoy watching the world pass by.
It is possible to take a guided tour of the cathedral and in fact every visit must be guided. These tours take you through the main building, the museum and up to the roof where you may enjoy some of the best views of the city. As beautiful as the building is by day, it acquires its own magic when night falls and it is illuminated.
20 soles entrance fee includes guide but tips are appreciated. Tours can be given in Spanish or English.
40 soles entrance fee and guides cost extra. Night tours from 17:00 to 20:00 on Tuesday and Thursday
Another highly recommended building is Iglesia de la Compañía. After the grandiose style of the main Cathedral, this church at the corner of the square stands in stark contrast. Look carefully and you will see plenty of Inca symbols that demonstrate the syncretic religious culture often found throughout the Andean region. Should you require some minutes of quiet reflection, this is undoubtedly the best spot. In keeping with the best traditions of the Catholic Church, the adjacent cloisters house an upmarket shopping area. With a fountain in the centre, this may be the place to stop for a coffee or a light lunch (more on this later).
Free Walking Tour
Starting in the courtyard of Chaqchao (see below), these free tours leave at 10:00 and 15:00. Started by local students three years ago, the tours provide a comprehensive overview of the city and serve as a good means of getting to know Arequipa. Lasting about three hours, you can expect to take in all the main sights, important shops (alpaca clothing) and some of the more secret places in the city. You will end your tour with a traditional Peruvian pisco sour. Tips are more than appreciated.
Food and Coffee
With its stellar reputation, even in Peru, it is worth getting to know the foodie scene in the city. Indeed, this could easily merit a post in itself, but here is a rundown of the basics.
Let’s start with the most important thing of all- the COFFEE!
Surprisingly, getting in decent cup of coffee is not always a given in South America. Even coffee producing countries like Peru can be a challenge and don’t be surprised if the coffee served at breakfast is a sachet of Nescafé. With a bit of effort, you can find some places to satisfy your coffee cravings.
Open from 8:00 to 21:45, this café has its own exchange booth in the entrance and it also retails high quality coffee beans. Although on the second floor, the shape and layout of the space lends it somewhat of a cellar-like feel. Looking around your eyes will be drawn to the old photos on the wall, all of which combine to create a sense of tradition. As for the coffee, this should be your first port of call when visiting Arequipa. Expect to pay about 10 soles for your cup of coffee and you can also try the menus if you want to eat as well.
Address: Calle Moran 114
Housed in the colonial surroundings of the Alliance Française building, this café does excellent French crêpes and serves the smoothest cappuccino in Arequipa. Free Wi-Fi is available and the outside terrace area is a choice spot to chillax.
Address: Santa Catalina 208
This shop retails speciality chocolate, coffee and craft beers. The coffee is generally of quite a good quality and who can resist the chocolate/ coffee combination? The stylish interior is dominated by wood and there is a cool balcony area to hang out on a warm day. This should be a stop on your coffee tour of Arequipa.
Address: Santa Catalina 204
With an excellent location on the second storey of the cloisters of Iglesia de la Compañía, Ecobar is a place with potential. Great views and helpful staff make this a good place to pass a lazy afternoon, even if the coffee could be a little tastier.
Arequipa is renowned for its specialities and you should try at least some of them on your trip. La Bendita, located on the ground floor of the cloisters of Iglesias de la Compañía, offers excellent Rocoto Relleno (spicy meat-filled peppers), as well as tasty Queso Helado. Although the name of the latter may translate as ‘cheese ice cream’, it has more of cinnamon taste. The colonial centre of Arequipa is full of food options. If none of the places mentioned above really grabs your interest, you might also try the balcony restaurants in Plaza de Armas or any of the places in Pasaje de la Catedral (a pedestrian passage way behind the cathedral).
Colca Canyon Tour
A visit to Arequipa would not be complete without a trip to Colca Canyon (Cañón del Colca) and there are many possible trips including one day, two day tours and multi day treks. Cesar, the tour agent in Park Hostel, is able to organize all inclusive two day tours for as little as 45 USD. This trip includes all the transport, lodging and you will stop at numerous places on your way to Chivay, the main tourist town in the Colca Canyon area. In Chivay you will attend a traditional music and dance show in the evening. The following morning you will see the condors glide on warm air currents, visit the traditional villages of Yanque and Maca and have lunch in Chivay before returning to Arequipa. This tour deserves and will receive a post all of its own- watch this space.
Park Hostel at Calle Dean Valdivia offer rooms with private bathrooms for 20USD per night. They have an onsite travel agency where you can buy tickets and organize trips to Colca Canyon.
Address: Dean Valdivia 238 A