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, which deservedly is considered on of the jewels of all of South America.
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.
Arequipa 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.
Take A Mountain Biking Trip To El Misti Volcano
There are several different ways in which you can explore the countryside around Arequipa, and one of the most popular ways of doing this is on the back of a bicycle. Arequipa has several companies that arrange guides and bicycles for these trips, and also arrange the transport out to the volcano.
El Misti is a stratovolcano that is nearly six thousand meters high, although mountain bikers will not usually go too close to the summit. Once the downhill section of the cycling is done, there are also the trails around the rural area surrounding the volcano to explore.
This is a great trip that is well worth taking if you are visiting Arequipa, and are looking for a good way to spend an afternoon.
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.
Get Your Pulse Racing On The Río Chili
The areas around Arequipa are well suited to outdoor activities, and where there are mountains there are also rivers bringing the water back down to the plains. In this instance, it is the water of the Río Chili that provides the white water for this activity.
It is just a quick drive of around 20 minutes to get to the river, and once there you can start to enjoy the surroundings and the beautiful scenery of the river valley.
The rafting experience itself is very good, with some routes that are relatively calm and suitable for families, while other edge into the grade IV rapids that really require teamwork. A rafting trip in Arequipa is not only a great way to get an adrenaline buzz, but it also gives you a good opportunity to enjoy the scenery when the waters get a little quieter.
From time to time trips in February may not be possible, as this is when there is the greatest rainfall. Trips can be organized from the city, and you can either organize as a group or join others and make new friends amidst the paddling!
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.
See The Beautiful Andean Scenery On Horseback
Peruvians are particularly proud of their horses, so one of the ways to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the area is by saddling up and seeing the area from the back of a horse.
There are several stables around the city that will offer horse trekking trips, and they will collect you from your hotel and take you up into the hills above the city. The movement of the horses is relaxing, and you can enjoy some fabulous views as you explore with your guide.
These trips will usually be a half day, so can include around 2-3 hours of riding. If you are travelling solo you will usually need to join a group trek, while those bringing the family can hire a guide and ride in a private group.
Take a Wander to the Peaceful Neighbourhood of Yanahuara
Yanahuara is an easy stroll from the center of the city and is perfect for a self-guided walking tour. 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 and it is easy to locate it, right off the main square in town.
See The Petroglyphs Of Toro Muerto
This small but interesting site is a short drive from Arequipa, and features a series of around 3,000 petroglyphs in total, that are believed to have been carved by the Wari people. They are believed to have been carved around 1,500 years ago.
The Toro Muerto area is actually quite a dry and arid location, so make sure that you take plenty of water with you. As you explore you will see some of the carvings depicting people and the animals. However, there are other carvings that are more mysterious, and appear to depict people with round helmets. This has led to some people wildly speculating that the Wari people were actually in contact with an alien civilization.
There are also dinosaur footprints that are located near the site, and these are actually believed to be nearly 150 million years old!
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 a Colca Canyon trek 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.
Get A Taste For The Pisco Sour
One of the most distinctive and popular drinks in Peru is Pisco, which is a grape brandy that originated in this part of the country. There are a wide range of different bars and restaurants where you can taste and enjoy the brandy, and the Pisco Sour which is a cocktail made with the brandy.
While you could try this in a bar, another option to try pisco is to visit the Museo del Pisco, which is a museum dedicated to the drink. However, there are few museums that will have a large bar with over 100 different varieties of the drink to try.
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.