The white city of Arequipa, its volcanoes and the Colca Canyon

by Virginia Crivelli
Travel Specialist in Trips SouthAmerica

The white city, a colonial city,
where its noble history can be felt in the air.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived in the beautiful city of Arequipa was the view of the three imposing volcanoes that protect it: Chachani volcano, Pichu Pichu and the highest, most important and still active, the Misti with 5820 meters above sea level.
The latter is also considered an “Apu” or “God of the mountain”.

When arriving by land, one is bordering the Chili river observing these giants as it approaches the gorgeous “white City”, call thus by the color of its constructions done with “sillar”, volcanic lava stone.

My Trip

This city is the second largest after Lima and is the legal and gastronomical capital of the country, which makes very easy to find good restaurants to try typical dishes such as “stuffed Rocoto” and the famous “chactado Guinea pig” ; this one isn’t apt for squeamish people and even less for those who have a cobay (Guinea pig) as a pet. I have tried it and, the truth, I felt a little guilty during and after the experience.

The best way to explore this land of volcanoes is on foot, as all the sights are very close to each other. Next I leave a list of which I consider most relevant:

Plaza de Armas

Arequipa’s main square is truly a dream. It has a fountain, benches to rest, trees and palm trees. In front, to the north, is the Cathedral, on its other 3 sides it is surrounded by arched galleries with excellent bars and restaurants that have balconies and terraces from which you can enjoy an exquisite dish or drink with the most incredible views.

Cathedral of Arequipa “Basilica of Santa Maria”

The cathedral from the 17th century, has a mixture of styles between neo-Renaissance and neo-Gothic. It was rebuilt after it caught fire in 1844; Furthermore, in 2001, it was hit by an earthquake that seriously affected its towers. Inside the imposing basilica are the main altar built in Carrara marble, the wooden pulpit carved by hand by the French artist Buisine -Rigot; and a huge organ of Belgian origin, one of the largest in South America.

Convent of Santa Catalina “A city within the city”

The convent of Santa Catalina was founded in 1579 by Doña Maria de Guzmán, a wealthy widow who donated all her goods to build the monastery and who decided to shut in there until the end of her days.
Originally, women from wealthy Creole families entered the convent with their maids, who had to give a dowry to cover their expenses. It was a tradition among these families to have a child dedicated to religious life to pray for the souls of their relatives and thus have the approval of “God” and be able to enter as soon as possible through the gates of heaven. It is said that this convent is “a city within the city” since it has 20,000 m2 and has different streets of different colors, decorated with flowers that have names of Spanish cities; around these are the “cells”, rooms where the nuns lived.

During the tour you can see a large common kitchen, a laundry, different patios with their attractions (trees, flowers, fountains), kitchen utensils, furniture, decorations, clothing, personal hygiene items, even complete antique porcelain tableware sets and elements of self-flagellation, some of them really impressive! I don`t understand how a person can survive tremendous torture, much less that it is self-inflicted. Until 1970 the convent was completely isolated, but for economic reasons they decided to open their doors to tourism by outsourcing this service to a private company. Today nuns still live in the north wing of this place.

The mummy Juanita “The Ice Girl”

Juanita is the best preserved mummy in South America, since at the time of its discovery it was frozen, which kept not only its exterior, but also many of its internal organs in excellent condition.

It was found in 1995 at the mouth of the inactive volcano “Ampato” by the archaeologist Johan Reinhard and the mountaineer Miguel Zárate. When they found the “ice girl” next to her there were also different offerings, even gold statuettes!

After several studies the scientists came to the conclusion that Juanita died between the 1440 and 1450 AD during the mandate of the Inca Pachacútec, she was a slender and beautiful girl between 14 and 15 years old and, having been holding her umbilical cord when found, it is suspected that she was chosen for this sacrifice before she was born.

These rituals were common in Inca times since they believed that this way they would calm the anger of the gods of the mountains and prevent volcanic eruptions. Currently you can visit the “ice princess” at the “Museo de Santuarios Andinos” in Arequipa.

Mundo Alpaca

An ecotourism complex where they can see and feed different types of llamas and alpacas, learn about the shearing process, fiber selection and spinning. In the same place you can see women making traditional weavings using techniques and looms as in the pre-Inca times.

Also, it’s a great place to buy a beautiful pashmina or to sweater!

Yanahuara district viewpoint

Crossing the Chili River, also called Quilca, by the Bolognesi bridge (dating from the 17th century), is the Yanahuara district. This one is made up of cobbled slopes, small houses, a square and a viewpoint with incredible views of the Misti and the city.

The Misti Volcano

For lovers of adventure and sports, I cannot fail to recommend making the ascent to the guardian of the city, the Misti volcano.

This is a 2-day excursion for which you have to be physically prepared since during the first day the walk will be about 6 hours and, on the second day, it will be more than 10 hours at a very high altitude and with very little oxygen. Of course, this is an activity that no one should do on their own and you should always hire the service of a professional mountain guide.

Once in the city of Arequipa, it would be a waste not to take advantage and visit the famous Colca Canyon. This canyon with 4160 mts is the second deepest in the world and was declared   part of the World Network of Geoparks   by UNESCO in 2019.

Time to Visit
This activity can be done in a day round trip from Arequipa or staying overnight at least one night in one of the nearby towns.
Hire the service of a professional mountain guide.
To consider: I think it is important to clarify that I do not recommend visiting this place on a day trip, as the experience will end up being too exhausting.
You have to be physically prepared since during the first day the walk will be about 6 hours and, on the second day, it will be more than 10 hours at a very high altitude and with very little oxygen.

Normally, the pick-up time from hotels is between 2:30 and 3 a.m. to be able to arrive before 8 a.m. at  Cruz del Cóndor,   which is the best time to spot these wonderful creatures . Then, the return to Arequipa is around the 6 p.m. To be able to enjoy it better, I always recommend staying at least one night in Chivay or Cabaconde depending on what type of activity you decide to do.

As for my personal experience, I visited this amazing place staying for one night in Chivay, the capital of the area. In my case, I stayed in a very nice and cozy 3-star hotel since my budget was somewhat limited, but in the area there are hotels from 3 to 5 stars that are very luxurious and with all the services. Luckily, all the hotels have a very good heating! Very important detail since, at night, the temperatures usually are extremely low.

When you make this visit staying for one night in one of the towns, it is the next day that, early, you will go out to visit the Cruz del Cóndor to see these flying birds, the largest in the world, fly over the canyon. The Andean Condor can measure up to 142 cm high and 270-330 meters wide. Males can weigh between 11 and 15 kg and females between 8 and 11 kg.
They reach 7000 meters in height in flight and can glide for hundreds of kilometers with almost no movement of their wings. They are scavengers and can spend up to 2 days flying over their food.

After the sighting you can go to rest at your hotel, visit one of the nearby hot springs or start the return to the White City.

Throughout this area there are some mountain villages that don’t offer a great variety of services or restaurants, although the existing ones are very well prepared to receive tourists and the food is usually very good, but don’t expect dishes of the level of a restaurant that has been awarded with a Michelìn, rather they are traditional dishes of the area and many times they offer a  buffet service.

In my opinion, the most beautiful thing about this trip is the landscape. Being able to observe the small towns that seem frozen in time with their rustic houses, the locals who wear traditional clothes and who can be seen drying different varieties of Andean potatoes and corn in the sun, men harvesting the now very fashionable Quinoa, plains and mountains, cultivation terraces dating from the Inca era and still used, llamas, alpacas and vicuñas everywhere. It is very nice to see women carrying their babies with beautiful red cheeks in their colored “aguayos”, while they sell their handicrafts and handmade alpaca weavings in the different stalls that they set up, many times, by the side of the road.

It is also possible trek through this area, it can be done in two or three days. To be able to do it, one must stay in the town of Cabanaconde. Again, this is an activity that I don’t recommend doing on your own and, of course, anyone who ventures to do it must have some good physical condition since they will have to walk for many hours on sometimes steep roads and, as well as descend to the bottom of the canyon, then they will have to go up to return to the city. 


Tips and fun facts

What is a Geopark?  It is a defined area that presents geological features of special relevance, rarity or beauty.

Mate de coca: (tea made from coca leaves): It is said that the consumption of coca leaves helps to fight the symptoms of altitude sickness, although there are conflicting views on the matter. Anyway, it can’t hurt to have this super traditional tea from the Andes. In particular, chewing coca leaves has been somewhat unpleasant for me, but not the consumption of tea or coca tea which has a more delicate flavor.

Pisco Sour:  This drink made with pisco (schnapps), lemon, sugar and a beaten egg white is the national drink of Peru. There is a great controversy in this regard since the Chileans claim to be the creators of it, but the truth is that the original     Pisco Sour     is Peruvian and there is even documentation that proves it

Suggestions for restaurants in Arequipa

Zigzag: this is a very small and highly demanded restaurant so I recommend making your reservation in advance. It is practically in front of the church of San Francisco.

Chicha by Gastón Acurio:  Gastón Acurio is a Peruvian chef, writer and businessman who was educated at Le Cordon Blue in France, has been distinguished with many awards and his restaurant “Astrid y Gastón” in Lima has reached the number 1 position as the best restaurant in Latin America. Their plates are a mixture of tradition and refinement obtaining a perfect fusion of flavors.

His restaurant Chicha in Arequipa is located almost in front of the Santa Catalina Convent in the historic center.

Tanta: this is a chain also from Gastón Acurio,  a slightly cheaper option but also delicious.

Museo del Pisco:  this is a restaurant that I discovered walking around the corner of Zigzag since I could not enter it because I did not have a reservation and it was full. In this way I was lucky enough to come across this restaurant located in an old house with a beautiful patio, a kitchen open to the public and a first class cocktail menu. You can find simple and tasty dishes such as a tasting of mini burgers to elaborate alpaca tenderloin steaks with their sauce and garnish.

(schnapps), lemon, sugar and a beaten egg white is the national drink of Peru. There is a great controversy in this regard since the Chileans claim to be the creators of it, but the truth is that the original Pisco Sour is Peruvian and there is even documentation that proves it

In case that you need more info or alternative activities, do not hesitate to contact us!

We look forward to receiving you in South America!!

Virginia Crivelli
Travel Specialist, Trips SouthAmerica.


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The white city of Arequipa, its volcanoes and the Colca Canyon
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