The city’s architecture, an ensemble of baroque buildings grafted out of the local sillar (white volcanic rock), shows its resilience by thus far withstanding most of the seismic activity thrown at it. Colonial sillar churches around the city center include Iglesia de San Francisco, Iglesia de San Agustín, Iglesia de La Merced and Iglesia de Santo Domingo.
Arequipa is the center for a slew of outdoor activities dotted around the high country to the north and east of the city. Trekking, mountaineering and river running are the big three, but there are plenty more.
Trekking & Mountaineering
The spectacular canyons and mountains around Arequipa offer many excellent hiking options. Trekking agencies can arrange off-the-beaten-track routes to suit your timeline and fitness level.
The Association of Mountain Guides of Peru warns that many guides are uncertified and untrained, so climbers are advised to go well informed about medical and wilderness-survival issues. Most agencies sell climbs as packages that include transport, so prices vary widely depending on the size of the group and the mountain, but the cost for a guide alone is around US$85 per day.
Trekking solo in the well-traveled Cañón del Colca area is popular and easy, but if you’re nervous about hiking without guides or want to tackle more untrammeled routes, there are dozens of tour companies based in Arequipa that can arrange guided treks.
When to Go
Although you can trek year-round, the best (ie driest) time is from April to December. Adequate acclimatization for this area is essential and it’s best to have spent some time in Cuzco or Puno immediately before a high-altitude expedition.
Maps of the area can be obtained from Colca Trek in Arequipa or the Instituto Geográfico Nacional and South American Explorers Club in Lima.
Arequipa is one of Peru’s premier bases for river running and kayaking. Many trips are unavailable during the rainy season (between December and March), when water levels can be dangerously high. For more information and advice, consult www.peruwhitewater.com.
The Río Chili, about 7km from Arequipa, is the most frequently run local river, with a half-day trip suitable for beginners leaving almost daily from April to November (from US$40). Further afield, you can also do relatively easy trips on the Río Majes, into which the Río Colca flows. The most commonly run stretches include class II and III rapids.
A more off-the-beaten-track possibility is the remote Río Cotahuasi, an adventure not for the fainthearted that reaches into the deepest sections of what is perhaps the world’s deepest known canyon. Expeditions here are infrequent and only for the experienced, usually taking nine days and including class IV and V rapids. The Río Colca was first run back in 1981, but this is a dangerous, difficult trip, not to be undertaken lightly. A few outfitters will do infrequent and expensive river-running trips, and easier sections can be found upriver from the canyon.
The Arequipa area has numerous mountain-biking possibilities. Many of the same companies that offer trekking or mountain-climbing trips also organize downhill volcano mountain-biking trips at Chachani and El Misti or can arrange tailor-made tours. If you have the experience and wherewithal, these agencies can also rent you high-end bikes and offer expert trip-planning advice to help get you started on your own. Peru Adventures Tours organizes cycling tours around El Misti for US$50 (half day) including transport, big-name bikes, helmet, gloves and snacks, with oxygen and first-aid available.
Dozens of travel agencies line Santa Catalina and Jerusalén offering near-identical excursions to the canyon country, most with daily departures; ho-hum city tours are also pushed. While some agencies are professional, there are also plenty of carpetbaggers muscling in on the action, so shop carefully. Never accept tours from street touts and, where possible, tours should be paid for in cash, as occasional credit-card fraud is reported.
The standard two-day tour of the Cañón del Colca costs S65 to S225 per person, depending on the season, group size and the comfort level of the hotel you stay at in Chivay. Different agencies may sell you tickets for the same tours, so shop around. All tours leave Arequipa between 7am and 9am. Stops include the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, Chivay, La Calera hot springs, an evening peña (bar or club featuring live folkloric music; at an additional fee) trip plus a visit to the Cruz del Cóndor.
While a one-day tour of the Cañón del Colca (really mainly Cruz del Cóndor) is heavily touted, you will spend most of your time cooped up in a van, missing out on spending significant time in any of the canyon towns and wind up exhausted by the time you return to Arequipa the same day. Departures are at the unholy hour of around 2am.
Want to learn to speak Spanish? Immersion is the best way and Arequipa provides plenty of opportunities for class time, while practicing with the locals in the evenings. Book with a recommended agency and you’ll be reading Arequipa-born novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in the original before you know it.
If you recognize the name Gastón Acurio and concur that Peru is the gastronomical capital of Latin America, you may be inspired to enroll in an Arequipa cooking course.
Stay near Plaza de Armas for convenience, though away from the bars of San Francisco on weekends if you want quiet. Many accommodations inhabit attractive sillar (white volcanic rock) buildings, whose thick walls often weaken wireless signals. Cable TV and free wi-fi are pretty much a given, as is breakfast – usually merely bread, jam and coffee at cheaper joints. Prices can fluctuate greatly even during high season (June to August).
Arequipa has a reputation for tasty local dishes like rocoto relleno (stuffed spicy red peppers), best enjoyed in the traditional, communal picantería restaurants. Trendy upscale spots line San Francisco north of the Plaza de Armas, while touristy outdoor cafes huddle together on Pasaje Catedral. Good, local eateries are in the busy Mercado on San Camilo southeast of the plaza.
chicha de jora – fermented corn beer
chupe de camarones – prawn chowder
cuy chactado – spiced, fried guinea pig
ocopa – boiled potato in a creamy, spicy sauce
pastel de papa – baked layers of potato slices and cheese
rocoto relleno – stuffed spicy red peppers
Drinking & Nightlife
The nocturnal scene in Arequipa is pretty slow midweek but takes off on weekends, when anyone who’s anyone can be seen joining the throng on the corner of San Francisco and Ugarte sometime after 9pm. Many of the bars there offer happy-hour specials worth enjoying. The 300 block has the highest concentration of places to compare fashion notes.
Salsa and cumbia (a Colombian salsa-like dance and musical style) music and dancing predominate on Av Dolores, 2km southeast of the center (a taxi costs around S5 one way).
Arequipa overflows with antique and artisan shops, especially on the streets around Monasterio de Santa Catalina. High-quality leather, alpaca and vicuña (a threatened, wild relative of the alpaca) goods, and other handmade items, are what you’ll most often see being sold.