Despite its picturesque location in the shadow of three dramatic volcanoes, its wealth of well-preserved colonial architecture, and vast array of accommodation options, quality restaurants, boutique shops and trendy bars, Arequipa, Peru, often gets overlooked in favor of its rival sibling, Cusco.
While Cusco is definitely a city not to be missed (and one that’s home to one of my favorite neighborhoods in the whole of Peru), this is a unique and fascinating city that’s packed with enough sights and attractions to keep you busy for at least a week — there are plenty of things to do in Arequipa to keep you enthralled for days.
It doesn’t see anywhere near the number of visitors that Cusco does, is not built at the kind of altitude that gives your lungs a work-out every time you leave your hostel, and has one of the most reliably pleasant climates in the country.
So if you manage to build Arequipa into your Peru travel itinerary (and I thoroughly recommend that you do), here are a few of my favorite things to do in the city:
Peek Inside the Walls of Santa Catalina Monastery
Santa Catalina Monastery was founded in 1580 by a rich widow, and subsequently enlarged so that it now occupies an area of over 20,000 square meters just north of the city’s Plaza de Armas.
The enormous complex was once home to 450 people (a combination of nuns and their servants), but now just 20 nuns reside in its northern quarter; the rest is open to the public.
I loved the bold colors within the monastery – the rich blues blended beautifully with the skies above us and the burnt orange hues reminded me of the mineral-rich waters at Pastoruri Glacier and the terracotta-tiled roofs of the Mediterranean.
Wandering through its inviting maze of narrow cloisters, sunny courtyards, and cozy living quarters was the perfect way to spend my birthday afternoon in Arequipa.
Meet the Ice Maiden at Museo Santuarios Andinos
Museo Santuarios Andinos is a museum that’s primarily dedicated to the story of Juanita, a 12-year old girl who was killed as a sacrificial offering to the mountain Gods.
Her fate was made famous in 1995 (600 years later), when explorers discovered her body encased in ice and preserved by the freezing temperatures on the 6000-meter peak of the Nevado Ampato.
Although photos aren’t permitted inside the galleries (a rule that, as a blogger and budding photographer, does annoy me somewhat), there’s a beautifully-shot 20-minute film about how Juanita was unearthed, and the short compulsory guided tour culminates with a brief peek at the Ice Maiden herself.
Learn about the Origins of your Alpaca Jumper at Mundo Alpaca
I loved this place so much that I visited twice! It’s a modern, part open-air museum that illustrates and explains the processes of selecting and sorting wool, carding, yarn twisting and dying using plants.
A couple of traditionally-dressed women demonstrate the art of weaving designs using a backstrap loom, and on another level you’ll find all the modern-day machines that perform the same task.
There’s an art gallery, cafe and shop on-site, and don’t miss the llamas and alpacas grazing in the garden. If you’re lucky, they may even pose for a shot or two.
Take a Wander to the Peaceful Neighbourhood of Yanahuara
Yanahuara is an easy stroll from the center of the city. There’s a pretty 18th-century church here, a small plaza, and a spectacular viewpoint from where you can gaze down on to Arequipa and one of its three volcanoes, El Misti.
There are also numerous ice-cream vendors in Yanahuara selling the local speciality, queso helado. Although its literal translation is “cheese ice-cream,” this lovely artisanal ice-cream is actually made from coconut, cinnamon and cloves, and is totally worth parting with a few soles for.
Enjoy a Unique Dining Experience at Hatunpa
This tiny (there are just four tables!) little restaurant has become famous in Arequipa due to the fact that the main ingredient in all its dishes is the common garden spud.
Potatoes originate in Peru and the country claims to have over 4000 varieties of native potatoes, mostly found in the Andes. They don’t serve quite this many at Hatunpa, but the ones they do serve, they know how to spice up with imaginative sauces and toppings.
Hike Through the World’s Second Deepest Canyon
Although there are plenty of fun things to do in Arequipa, close by is Colca Canyon, just a few hours by road. Most hikers start and finish their trips in the city, as it’s the nearest transport hub from the villages in and around the canyon itself.
It is possible to book an organised hike through one of the many tour agents in Arequipa. However I would personally recommend hiking the canyon independently, as it gives you a much greater sense of freedom and isolation, and you might even be lucky enough to find a loyal four-legged friend to share the adventure with you.
Explore the Ancient Streets of Arequipa’s Historical Core
This part of the city earned itself a well-deserved Unesco World Heritage listing in the year 2000, and a wander through its streets will enlighten you as to why.
Arequipa’s historical core is a living, breathing museum of the city’s sillar (local white volcanic rock) architecture. Don’t miss stopping at the Plaza de Armas and its spectacular cathedral, and the Plaza San Francisco.
Check out my comprehensive guide of things to do and see in Arequipa for a more detailed itinerary of things, as well as my recommendations for some of the best places to eat, drink and sleep in the city.