Discover Arequipa, an Architectural Surprise on Your Peruvian Vacation

People & Culture

Cathedral of Arequipa and Volcano in Background, Arequipa, Peru

So you have possibly arranged or are considering a trip to Peru, and your first choices of destinations more than likely include Machu Picchu and Cusco. Good choices! However, here’s another destination you might want to think about adding to your Peruvian vacation which might come as a pleasant surprise… Arequipa.

Machu PIcchu, Peru
Machu Picchu

Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city after Lima, is located on the southern Peruvian coastal plain at an altitude of 2380 metres/7735 feet above sea level. It may not be as high as Machu Picchu and Cusco, but it’s a city which has a striking atmosphere created by the mixture of Spanish colonial and indigenous influences. Founded in 1540, Arequipa is a blend of European and native characteristics and is definitely a contrast to the Inca-oriented Peruvian cities. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its buildings and architecture.

Physically, Arequipa lies under the shadow of three volcanoes which surround the city – the best known being El Misti, the only active one of the three. Many of the buildings are made from rock quarried from the volcanoes, called sillar, a white stone. In fact, Arequipa is nicknamed “The White City.”

El Misti Volcano Near Arequipa, Peru
El Misti volcano

Getting Around Arequipa

Plaza de Armas
You will probably start off your exploration of Arequipa at the Plaza de Armas, the heart of the city. This main plaza is unchanged from colonial times, and to just stand there and look around will reveal to you the typical architecture of white stone buildings. On three sides, the plaza is lined with impressive colonnaded balconies, cafes, and restaurants. From the plaza, the El Misti volcano is highly visible. You can visit the San Camilo Market, the oldest one here, located in the centre of the city three blocks away from the main plaza.

The Cathedral of Arequipa
On the entire north side of the Plaza de Armas is the huge and magnificent Cathedral of Arequipa, the main church of the city, dating back to 1656. It suffered much damage from fires and earthquakes and was largely rebuilt in the 19th century. Its style is Neo Renaissance – featuring Gothic influences – and the facade is composed of seventy columns. Inside is a fine organ provided by Belgium and said to be the largest organ in South America.

Church and convent of San Francisco
Originally built in the 16th century, this church also has been badly damaged by several earthquakes. The sculptures here are from the 17th century and are among the most beautiful in Arequipa. The library contains 20,000 books and there is an art gallery.

Cathedral of Arequipa in the Evening, with El Misti Volcano in Background, Arequipa, Peru
Cathedral of Arequipa in the evening, with El Misti volcano in the background

The Santa Catalina Convent
The Santa Catalina Convent is one of the most fascinating religious buildings you will find on your Peruvian vacation. It is more than a religious edifice. It is a citadel within the city. Founded in 1580, it was closed for 400 years before it was opened to the public. You could describe it as a miniature walled colonial city, with its narrow streets, gardens, patios, and fountains. There is even a street with a cafe which serves freshly baked pastries and espressos! It is possible to get lost inside, but there are guided tours available. You will also find many paintings and period furniture in the buildings.

The Andean Sanctuaries Museum
This Andean Sanctuaries Museum contains the famous “Mummy Juanita,” known as the “Ice Princess,” who was discovered in 1995 just below the peak of a local mountain. Juanita had been well preserved in ice for more than 500 years before volcanic activity melted the surrounding snow. It is said this Inca girl must have been ritually sacrificed and buried on the mountain peak.

Santa Teresa Convent
Santa Teresa Convent is a beautiful, 17th Century colonial-era convent, and a living museum. It is famous for its decorative walls and priceless objets d’art. It has a 300 strong collection of colonial era paintings, plus many sculptures, murals, and gold and silver work.

Courtyard in the Monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru
Courtyard in the Monastery of Santa Catalina

Outside Arequipa

La Mansion del Fundador
La Mansion del Fundador is a 17th Century Spanish Colonial mansion, and is well worth visiting on your Peruvian vacation. It has been renovated and restored with its original furniture and paintings. It is located in a village 9 kilometres/6 miles outside the city.

El Misti
If you really want to, you can climb any of the three volcanoes. El Misti is the hardest to climb, even though it is the lowest in altitude. It is not a technical mountain. You can also rent a 4 wheel drive to take you up to somewhere near the summit.

Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is a well known river canyon and is considered one of the world’s deepest. It is also the habitat for the giant Andean condor. The canyon landscape comprises of a green valley and remote traditional villages and features terraced agriculture that predates the Incas. Animals can be spotted in the valley itself, including herds of vicunas (a wild relative of llamas and alpacas), along with a variety of birds, including giant hummingbird, eagles, Andean geese, flamingos, and of course, the mighty Andean condor.

Colca Canyon, Peru
Colca Canyon

If including something a bit different on your Peruvian vacation sounds ideal, do consider a visit to Arequipa.