Poor Arequipa! In any other country, it would top every traveller’s bucket list. After all, its attractions are numerous and distinctive. Other cities must look with envy at its stunning colonial centre. Possessing unique food traditions that are famous throughout Peru, it should be on every foodie’s to-do list. Also, viewing the flight of the iconic condor in Colca Canyon must be one of the most memorable experiences in South America. To add insult to injury, this is the region that produces many of the high-quality alpaca products that fill the boutiques in Cusco. However, in the mad rush to visit Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, travellers often ignore Arequipa. Shaped by volcanoes, including the iconic El Misti, Arequipa and its region deserve a place on your Peruvian travel itinerary.
Due to typical BA incompetence, I arrived in Arequipa without any luggage. The staff at Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima had assured me that I would be reunited with my possessions as soon as I arrived there. After a three-day separation, I was looking forward to having basic items such as underwear and socks. Upon my arrival, I located the iPeru counter, where I expected to find my bag. However, the lady at the desk informed me that she had sent it to my hotel by taxi…
Panic ensued. Was my bag now doing a taxi tour of Arequipa? What would happen if the hotel didn’t accept it? I really shouldn’t have worried. A chatty taxi ride later, I bounded up the steps of the hotel, opened the door and there was the bag standing right in front of me. A few days later, I went to the downtown iPeru office to find out where to get a Peruvian SIM for my phone. ‘Did you get your bag?’, the lady asked. It was the same woman from the airport who had forwarded my bag on to my hotel!
The experience encapsulates a feeling that I got in Arequipa more than any other place in Peru- genuine warmth and friendliness.
Highlights of Arequipa
Food and Coffee
It is worth getting to know the foodie scene in the city. Although this deserves a post in itself, let’s start with the most important thing of all- the COFFEE!
Surprisingly, getting a decent cup of coffee is not always a given in South America. Even coffee producing countries like Peru can be a challenge. Therefore, don’t be surprised if the coffee served at breakfast is a sachet of Nescafé. However, 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. The main café area is on the second floor, but the shape and layout of the space lend 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 the first port of call when visiting Arequipa. Travellers can expect to pay about 10 soles for a cup of coffee and there are good value food menus for those who want to eat.
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? Wood dominates the stylish interior and there is even a cool balcony area to hang out on a warm day. Chaqchao 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. If only 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 translates into English as ‘cheese ice cream’, it has more of cinnamon flavour.
More Food Tips in Arequipa
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 passageway behind the cathedral).
For those who enjoy a drink, Farron’s is an Irish bar with a Peruvian feel. Relax on a sofa inside or sit on the street and soak up the sound of the panpipes. Lunch is served from 1 pm to 2 pm. Otherwise, this is a spot to chill with a coffee or sink a beer. Its location on Pasaje de la Cathedral is unbeatable.
The Colonial Centre
Arequipa is justly famous for its colonial architecture and this earned the city 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 Spanish founded the modern city 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 remained the same for almost four centuries. Note that it wasn’t until the 19th century that they added the second floors that provide those memorable views of the main plaza.
All tours of the cathedral require a guide. These tours take you through the main building, the museum and up to the roof where you will enjoy some of the best views of the city. As beautiful as the building is by day, the floodlighting gives it a real air of magic when night falls.
20 soles entrance fee includes guide but tips are appreciated. Tours can be given in Spanish or English.
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 of the Andes. This must surely be the best spot in the centre for travellers looking for some minutes of quiet reflection. 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 (see above).
Free Walking Tour
Starting in the courtyard of Chaqchao (see above), 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. In fact, they are the best way of getting to know Arequipa when you first arrive. Lasting about three hours, expect to take in all the main sights, important shops (alpaca clothing) and some of the more secret places in the city. Each tour ends with a traditional Peruvian pisco sour. Tips are more than appreciated.
Monasterio de Santa Catalina
Another building of note is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Despite repeated questioning, I haven’t been able to figure out why it’s called a monastery. After all, it has been the exclusive haunt of generations of upper-class nuns. Therefore, any male presence there over the years might not have been for religious purposes, if some of the stories are to be believed… This place is a confection of pastel colours and it is so large that it even has its own streets. Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a magical place to spend a few free hours.
40 soles entrance fee and guides cost extra. Night tours from 17:00 to 20:00 on Tuesday and Thursday
A visit to Arequipa would not be complete without a trip to Colca Canyon (Cañón del Colca). Unsurprisingly, 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 organise all-inclusive two-day tours for as little as 45 USD. The 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, there is also 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.
Haunts for Coffee Drinkers in Chivay
Despite being a little off the beaten track, coffee drinkers need not despair. Aromas Coffee retails speciality coffees and it is a great place to warm up on a cold evening. With a central location in the main square, it would be hard to miss this place. After all, Chivay is hardly a teeming metropolis. Despite its size, Chivay is no one-trick pony! Many travellers also have excellent reports about One Coffee (Avenida Salaverry 21). The coffee is apparently excellent. People say that the owner is friendly and knowledgeable. Also, they are said to have an excellent Wi-fi connection. What more could a coffee drinker want on a cold night?
Getting There and Away
Arequipa has excellent transport links with the rest of the country. There are regular flights to and from Lima. In addition to this, there are plenty of buses for onward travel. Travellers intending travelling to Bolivia can take the regular Cruz del Sur or Econociva buses to Puno. From there it is easy to arrange onward travel to Bolivia. As the border can be tricky at times, Peru Hop buses to La Paz with a stop in either Puno or Copacabana in Bolivia are also an excellent choice. Those who wish to travel to the Sacred Valley should consider the high-end Cruz del Sur buses to Cusco. This is like travelling by airplane in terms of quality of service.
Accommodation in Arequipa
Being Peru’s second city, there are plenty of accommodation options. Travellers might want to choose an option near the centre. After all, it is the distinctive architecture of the area draws tourists to the city. Park Hostel at Calle Dean Valdivia 238A offers rooms with private bathrooms for 20USD per night. They have an onsite travel agency where you can buy tickets and organise trips to Colca Canyon.
iPeru information about Arequipa
Pirwa Hostels– information about Park Hostel and a variety of quality hostels in Peru
The bare minimum- two days
Two days is the minimum time needed for those in a rush. Take the walking tour. Visit the colonial centre and the cafés. Make sure to visit Monasterio de Santa Catalina.
More time- 4 days
Arrive in Arequipa. Do the walking tour and book a two-day trip to Colca Canyon. On your return, set a morning or an afternoon aside for Monasterio de Santa Catalina.
A week or more
There will be plenty to do. Take a longer trip to Colca Canyon. Do the walking tour and revisit the important sights at your leisure.
Onward travel to Bolivia, Lake Titicaca and Cusco is easy to organise. For those who need to return to Lima, Peru Hop has a tour that also covers travel highlights such as Nazca, Paracas and Huacachina.