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South America

Peru: The White City of Arequipa

by Dan Clarke

Nestling in the shadow of the snow-capped volcano of El Misti in Peru, lies the city of Arequipa. Known as the ‘White City’ because of the local sillar white volcanic rock, it is one of the jewels of Peru and a real favourite of peoples’ Peru holidays. Combining all the amenities of a modern city with an old-fashioned laid-back lifestyle, stunning scenery and gorgeous colonial architecture, it is somewhere everyone should try and visit as part of their holidays in Peru.

At the heart of the city is the picture-postcard main square, or Plaza de Armas. Palm trees and flowers
surround a lovely fountain gushing pure mountain water and the square itself is surrounded on three sides by Romanesque colonnaded arcades. The final side faces the elegant cathedral, which is flanked by large arches which lead you out of the square and into the surrounding cobbled streets. You can while away many happy hours of your Peru holidays just sitting in the square and watching the world go by.

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The architecture in the area around the square is no less impressive, with several lovely colonial churches and the former Jesuit cloisters of La Compañia, but what makes Arequipa so special is that everything is very walkable, and it’s a pleasure to just wander around. There’s no real need for a guided city tour here, even if that’s something you look to include on other parts of your Peru holidays, as in Arequipa you can just stroll about and enjoy having some time to yourself.

Probably the main attraction in Arequipa is the convent-city of Santa Catalina, 2 blocks from the Plaza. It really is like a town in miniature and was a closed convent housing over 200 nuns and 300 servants (many of the nuns were from an aristocratic background…) until it opened its doors to the public in 1970. It’s an amazing place that just oozes history and is somewhere you must visit on a Peru holiday in Arequipa.

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Apart from Santa Catalina, another big draw is the UNSA Museum, which is one of the best-curated museums you can visit on holidays in Peru. Although small, the exhibits are of a very high quality, covering both the Inca and pre-Inca periods. Chief among them is undoubtedly the mummy Juanita, sometimes known as the ice- maiden of Arequipa. Her mummified body was found on top of the nearby mountain of Chachani and today is kept in special atmospheric conditions which replicate the mountain-top so that you can see her in all her –slightly spooky – glory!

Outside the city itself, the Colca Canyon is the major reason many people visit Arequipa on their Peru holidays. It is twice as deep as the much more famous Grand Canyon and offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Peru. You need to allow at least 2 days to visit the Canyon properly, so that you can stay overnight in the canyon itself to give you the chance to see the famous giant Andean Condors. These enormous birds nest in Colca and set off early each morning on their days’ hunt, which can take them right down to the Pacific Ocean. The sight of these majestic creatures as they swoop from their nests on the Canyon sides to catch the morning thermals and soar higher and higher into the sky is something that will stay with you forever.

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Arequipa certainly isn’t the most famous of Peru’s cities, and it’s not always somewhere people think of
including in the itinerary for their Peru holidays, but in many ways it’s the perfect introduction to holidays in Peru – more historic than Lima but calmer than Cusco, and with great traditional cuisine and modern facilities,it’s well worth making part of any holiday to Peru!

Dan Clarke works for Real Peru Holidays – the UK specialists for tailormade holidays to Peru and has spent some of his happiest times in Arequipa, especially those long lunches on the Pasaje del Catedral!