Arequipa city

Arequipa city

The development of the city of Arequipa has never entirely followed that of the rest of Peru, and its inhabitants have an air of distinctiveness that reflects history, ethnicity and isolation. The town attractive to the visitor, and a useful place both at which to charge your batteries and from which to branch off to a range of local attractions. Volcanoes dominate the local landscape. They stand as huge snow-peaks on the horizon, a present threat of destruction through eruption and earthquake. They are also the source of much that is of value: as the key local building material, as the source of great fertility of the local soil and, passively, as the medium through which the neighbouring cañón complexes of Colca and Cotahuasi have been cut. Arequipa is designated as a UNESCO cultural heritage site, one of ten in the country.

Arequipa is Perú's second city. It is the departmental capital, managing the affairs of eight provinces. The rural areas speak Quechua, yielding to Aymara as one travels towards Puno. The town is set in irrigated landscape at around 2350m. A railway and several major roads feed the city, and it has an international airport. The climate follows the seasons of Perú, with rains in December to March. Daily highs in summer hit the mid-twenties Centigrade, and nights in Winter seldom deliver a frost.


The area was settled around 6000 years ago, but organised life appears to have begun with the Tiahuanaco-Wari civilisations, which created some of the region's ruins in the period 900-1200AD. The Inca were, however, responsible for creating the site of the town. Mayta Cápac brought his army past the Misti volcano and, on finding the fertile soil around what is now the town, declared "ari quepay", or 'yes, we shall stay'. The name Arequipa is said to be descended from that decision.

The Inca were in place for a relatively short time, and their town was completely obliterated by an eruption and earthquake in 1500. The first new settlers on the site were Spanish Dominican friars, soon supplemented in 1540 by Spanish civilians under Garcia Manuel Carvajal, who name the visitor will see widely repeated on local monuments. The town grew as a stopping-point on the route to Cuzco, then the colonial capital, and the white heart of it was constructed from the revenues so gained. The white building material is called "sillar", which is a locally-unique a light gray volcanic mudstone.

Click here to see a series of images Major earthquakes struck in 1687 and 1868, each destroying almost every building in the city. However, the layout and major architecture has been conserved in subsequent renovation. One consequence of this repeated rebuilding is that the encrustations of offerings and candle-soot that darken and complicate the interiors of other Latin churches is almost completely absent in Arequipa.

The local temperament has been described as both "independent" and "peppery". Arequipa was in the forefront of the independence movement and was amongst the first to proclaim the Republic during the war of independence. It was strongly affected by the break-up of the Vice-regency - and particularly by the loss of Bolivia - and by hostilities with Chile. Its effective autonomy in governance was, however, ended by the arrival of the railway in 1870.

The region around Arequipa was heavily affected by the revolutionary movements of both the Tupac Amaru and Sendero Luminoso. Many villages were transplanted to the coast and are only now returning. Tourism was effectively eradicated for a decade, and is only now recovering.

Contemporary Arequipa relies chiefly on agriculture, mining, tourism and freight to supplement its earnings as provincial capital. The major mines are Cerro Verde (copper), Ocoña (gold) and Acarí (iron.) Over a hundred thousand hectares of land is irrigated, producing the usual range of crops and vegetables. The cattle industry is, however, particularly well-developed and both cheese and other dairy products are famous. Arequipa is also a major beer producer, an exporter of textiles. It has some heavy industry. Horse breeding and the production of the unique Ariquipeño fighting bulls are an important interest. Local rivers yield crayfish.

The citizens of Arequipa are effectively living at the economic national average for Perú, but probably enjoying a higher quality of life. There are, however, major variations across the region, with La Union province by far the poorest. Visitors to the Valley of the Volcanoes park will pass through this area: around a quarter are still illiterate, versus a national average of only 5%.


Arequipa is served by a network of major roads, by a railway that comes up from Mollendo on the coast and connects to puna and Cuzco and by an international airport. Travel in from Lima by road passes many interesting sites, but does involve over 1000 km of driving, taking at least 14 hours by bus. Air travel takes around an hour from Lima, and half an hour from Cuzco.

Local vehicle hire is possible, and there are many taxis and buses for intra-urban travel. Bus services also penetrate into the furthest reaches of the hinterland. Roads quickly degenerate, and a 4x4 vehicle is essential if you want to explore for yourself.

Other communications - telephone, Internet, post - are up to international standards in Arequipa itself, but lessen dramatically elsewhere. General facilities - medical, banking - behave in much the same way. This is particularly true of travel agencies, and if you wish to do anything complex away from Arequipa, then you should set out to organise it - and hope to buy whatever you need - in the city itself.

Arequipa and its regions are now safe by national standards. In the event of an incident, however, you can reach the English-speaking Policía de Turismo on (54) 20-1258 or (54) 23-9888.

City attractions

The centre of the city is built of white stone, and offers a fine square around which are arranged equally fine buildings. The most spectacular of these is, arguably, the Cathedral. This was completed in the Seventeenth century, but subsequently damaged by two earthquakes and restored faithfully. It has a vast altar made of Carrara marble (from Italy!) and a baroque organ from Italy. The towers were chopped off by an earthquake in 2001, but have been exactly restored.

Click here to see a series of images

Less grand, but more appealing to many visitors for its human scale and clean lines, is the monastery of Santa Catalina. This was built in the 1580s as a monastery, housing 450 nuns. It developed into a religious school and a place to sequester, educate and otherwise shelter the daughters of the best families before their marriage. Its total isolation from the city of Arequipa gave rise to centuries of urban myth and steamy speculation as to what went on behind its walls. It remained in purda until 1970, when social change and economic events opened it to the visitor. What one sees is a small-scale closed city, based around three cloistered squares, each backed by hundreds of cells, little streets and a central square. There is a remarkable library and a small museum.

The Iglesia de la Compañía was constructed by Jesuits in the seventeenth century. It has withstood earthquake better than most and is largely of original construction. It has an elaborate façade, decorated in the twining, twisting Arequipan style, and inside with baroque barley-sugar columns, to which foliage has been added.

The Barrio de San Lázaro is found between the General Morán and Álvaro Tomás streets. It is an area of tiny streets and alleys wound around each other like a ball of string, little squares and sudden grand houses. It may well represent a relict of the original city.

The museum of the Universidad Católica de Santa María contains a wide range of archaeological material, including the famous Juantina ice-mummy.

near the city

Yanahuara was once a separate village that has been absorbed by the city, lying 2 km from the centre. It offers narrow streets and private courtyards and orchards. There is a rather fine church (San Juan de Yanahuara) which is worth a visit. The lookout (Mirador) of Yanahuara was built in the Nineteenth century. The edifice itself is made of "arcs" of sillar, decorated with plaques showing eminent Ariquipeños. The reason that travellers will visit is the view over the city and the Misti volcano. This is particularly good at dawn and dusk

Click here to see a series of images Another viewpoint is available at Cayma, another kilometre beyond Yanahuara on the right bank of the Chili river. This gives a fine view of the city itself, and offers a further fine church with and altarpiece given by King Carlos V of Spain. Local people call this lookout "Arequipa's balcony", a place where one can lean and look, and a huge number of "picanterías" have sprung up, selling the characteristic local food.

The district of Sachaca is about five kilometres out from the centre. It must once have been a separate village, and is largely untouched by change. Its ancient houses are set in green irrigated farmland, and are backed remarkable views. The Goyeneche Palace is built in the neoclassic style, but has medieval touches which include massively thick walls and a moat. The area is, however, chiefly famous for its "picanterías," restaurants which serve the characteristic local food.

One more site close to the town is Chilina, which said to capture some of the best aspects of the scenery around Arequipa. Irrigated fields are backed by two volcanoes, and a misty pink dawn presents a fine sight. It is a good place to begin walks, perhaps wending one's way back to the city in an hour or so.

Click here to see a series of images

Many of the outlying villages are atmospheric and interesting, without having any particular focus for the visitor in a hurry. This means that they are virtually deserted by tourists. Ten kilometres from the town is Socabaya, which has extremely fine landscape. It also offers the Las Peñas caves. Tiabaya is home to pear orchards, good food and rather fine countryside. Sabandia has the Mansión del Fundador complex, as well as an attractive atmosphere.


Further away - 30 km - Yura offers volcanic hot springs, widely believed to have curative properties. This is, however, a highly developed therapeutic complex and not to all tastes. Half an hour away is Socasani, which offers less developed springs, although there is a bottling plant. However, there is a fine waterfall and slight hills which make it an excellent place to strike out for walks. Other, more distant attractions, include the Misti volcano and the Salinas nature reserve, the Colca and Cotahuasi cañónes, the major volcanoes such as Hualca Hualca and Ampato, the valley of the miniature volcanoes. There are discussed elsewhere - please see the trek list.

Arequipa and the volcanoes El Misti and Pichu Pichu, as seen from space.

Arequipeña culture

Arequipeña culture

Arequipa developed in some isolation from the rest of the country and as a result, its food, music and arts are distinctive.

Arequipeña food

The general run of food in Perú is not particularly hot, in the sense of using a great deal of chilli. Arequipeña food is, however, exceptional which is, perhaps, why the restaurants are called " picanterías". Here are some of the "platos typicos."

Crayfish soup Chupe de camarones, is made with shallots, cream, fresh water crayfish from the local lagoons and rivers, special waxy potatoes and two kinds of maize - the flour and choclo, or an eating maize analogoius to sweetcorn but with a distinctive taste. The whole thing is usually sprinkled with coriander leaves.

Adobo is chiefly eaten on special occasions, such as fiestas. It consists of pork that has been roasted in an earthen oven and then marinated in maize beer, vinegar, milled red garlic, cumin and chili. Chopped onion is added just before re-heating the marinade.

Ocopa arequipeña is made by heating up a mixture of dry biscuits, peanuts, yellow chilis, olive oil and milk. This is poured over boiled potato slices which have been coated in egg batter and deep fried in olive oil.

Rocoto relleno is a baked, stuffed chili pepper. The hot chili is soaked in salty water before cooking - which allegedly abates its bite - and then stuffed with choped meat, peanuts, boiled eggs and currants before being baked in a hot oven.

Solterito ("little batchelor") is a salad made with white cheese, onions, beans olives and rocoto chiles.

El Escribano is another salad made from potatoes, rocoto chilli, tomatoes and parsley, dressed in olive oil and vinegar.

Arequipa also specialises in sweet things - marzipans, "tejas", which are made from caramelised sugar and reduced milk and various sweet chilled cheeses analogous to iced cream: iced cheese?

Arequipa imports wine and pisco brandy from the coast, and s its own beers and anís. Country people tend to drink maize beer, or chicha de jora. This has been known to contained added ingredients to spice it up, like - for example but by no means limited to - insecticide. The fermentation conditions are uncontrolled and the bacteria and yeasts involved are live when you drink this brew, so you are advised not to experiment before a long bus journey. Or, indeed, any bookings on your social calendar.


The sierra is noted for its harp music, and Arequipa is known for its manufacturers of harps. Other traditional factories make violins and guitars, flutes and drums.

The yaraví is the root form of local music. It is a sad slow song, accompanied on the guitar. Modern composers have taken modest liberties withthe rather fixed form of such tunes, but the traditional structure still endures.

A parallel influence are less formal country songs, reflecting farming tasks and the handling of cattle. (If you have not hummed a simple tune to a horse or cow when handling them, try it.)

Band music is chiefly used to accompany dances such as the wititi and the pampiña, as well as processions and festival events (see below.)


Arequipa offers a range of unique artefacts. The least portable but in many ways most attractive is stone work, where the unique sillar rock is shaped into everything from mantelpieces to ashtrays. Pieces are made to order for export, following local styles and your specifications of size and ornamentation.

The strength of the local cattle industry makes leatherwork important. Everything from suitcases to shoes, belts and jackets can be made to order. Spanish-style saddlery and bridles are also available, but their studded and angular appearance is not to the taste of every rider. Or horse.

Alpaca and wool are used to create light, fine fabrics that local tailors can make up for you into jackets, skirts and the like. Artesanal weaving uses lesser quality fibres to make rugs and mats in traditional patterns. Look for those which have used natural, rather than synthetic dyes, as these weather gracefully and are usually more pleasing to the eye in climates where the light is less bright. (Harsh colours, by contrast, often look coarse under Northern skies.)

The silver mines of Bolivia once sent their plenty through Arequipa, and the tradition of silversmithing persists. The work involves filigree and complex designs, but you can specify work to your taste if you have the time available.


The calendar is full of festivals - every district, every church, every army detachment will have its patronal. Here are the main events.

Patronal de Caravelí 1-4 February

A wide range of processions, bull fights, cock fights and caballo de paso events mark this fiesta, honouring La Virgen del Buen Paso, who is the patroness of Caravelí.

Easter (Semana Santa.) Late March or early April

This is a major event all across the country, and is celebrated in Arequipa in its own particular manner. Each day of the week is marked with a different procession and by penitential visits to particular locations and saints. The Good Friday procession has penitents dressed in encapuchados, the hooded garments that you can see in engravings of the inquisition and on the streets in Seville during Holy Week.

Yanahuara district (see above) has a particular event in which they "burn Judas" in a fireworks display, and then read a satirical "last testament" of Judas, in which local authority figures are ridiculed.

Fiesta de la Virgen de Chapi 1st of May

The sanctuary of Chapi is located 45 km from Arequipa, and every year a column of devotees make the pilgrimage across the desert to the image of la Virgen de la Purificación. Many pilgrims come from celebrations that have lasted the entire night. Some come from as far away as Bolivia and Chile. The force of the image comes from a story that the priest responsible for the parish, Juan de Dios José Tamayo, tried to move the image to another location, but was unable to do so because its weight mysteriously increased whenever he managed to lift it. The Virgin did not want to be moved from her community.

The disciples collect rocks of a certain size on their walk dropping these at their first halt, called Tres Cruces. These are called the "apachetas" and are supposed to represent the weariness and sin that they are casting off. This ceremony is repeated twice more, at Alto de Hornilla and Siete Toldos. On the following day, the Virgin - now light as required - is processed around Chapi, crossing tapestries of flowers which have been carefully laid on the pavement. (This is an Andes-wide tradition, in which literally tonnes weight of flower petals are laid out in representative scenes.) Night in the town involves a massive fireworks display, and huge amounts of traditional foods, including the local "Omate bread". A feature of the processions are huge hand-made candles with elaborate designs on them.

This pilgrimage is repeated three times in a year, one on 8th September, the other on 8th December, the date of the Virgin's birth. This is also known as the "miner's festival" and, as the name suggests, attracts many from that profession.

Corpus Christi (1 to 3 June)

Arequipa cathedral emits many processions over this period into the streets of the city. Many are preceded by the image of San Pedro, and lead to dance festivals and other events.

Arequipa's foundation date (15 August) and

Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

This is a semi-secular, organised event. There are parallel events in sport, exhibitions, street processions and dancing. The range of events are limited only by sponsorship and the ingenuity of the official mind.

The festival of the Virgen de la Asunción, who is the patroness of Arequipa, coincides with the anniversary and gives it a religious angle. The image of the Virgin is processed through the streets.

Fiesta de la Virgen de las Peñas (8 September)

This festival is limited to Aplao, which you will encounter if you visit the Toto Muerto petrogylphs. The fiesta entails processions, burning wooden castles and an abundance of fireworks. People come from large distances, and the event has an air of astonished innocence to it. The event marks the handing on of the rods of power of the local elders (mayordomos, more here.) They do this on the porch of the church, passing on their elaborately carved rods.

Fiesta de la Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción (8 December.)

Click here to see a series of images This is another country ceremony, not celebrated universally but certainly more widely that the Aplao event above. The wititi dancing schools come out in force, however, to offer remarkable images of country people who have spent perhaps half a year's income on their costumes and half a year's leisure on getting their paces right. The dances have specific pagan meaning, such as the seduction of a sacred virgin princess by a commoner, through guile and transvestism. Dark stuff.

Bullfighting is very important across the South of Perú. We describe the issues in detail elsewhere, but suffice it to say that an unusual feature is that the bulls fight other bulls, not humans. In country festivals, the protagonists tend to be ringed in by hundreds of people, rather than by a ring or wall. The caballo de paso - dressage, Peruvian style - is a major interest in the region, and particularly for the wealth in the city itself.