Arequipa: The Soul of Southern Peru

Arequipa: a place bursting at the seams with culture and steeped in such awe-inspiring history that it’s impossible not to be impressed.  The city touched my heart with its soul and charisma, earning its place (in my opinion) as one of the most interesting destinations in Peru. Famously set at the feet of two active volcanoes, and with the majority of the buildings being made from their white volcanic rock, its nickname ‘The White City’ seems appropriately-designated.

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The signatory volcanic rock that makes up most of the buildings in Arequipa

Lima to Arequipa by Bus

After a 22-hour long (but extremely comfortable) bus ride from Lima we neared Arequipa. It’s worth noting – without exaggeration – that the long-distance buses in Peru are some of the best in the world. They’re luxurious, with reclining ‘bed’ seats; free meals; wifi; movies; and not to mention being a really affordable way to travel between cities, even across borders. I traveled with Tepsa but there are many bus companies, all of similar standard and competitive prices. I’d definitely recommend taking the bus over plane travel, if not for the gorgeous views alone, and time-permitting of course.

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Stunning views of the famous volcano peaks

The closer we got, the more nagging the altitude tension in my temples was. As the bus plodded through the surrounding rural farmlands, the landscape opened up to rich pastures and crop fields: ‘easy on the eye’ to say the least. I’d eaten and slept so soundly on the journey that by the time we got close to the city itself I was feeling well-rested. Oh, but the headache… the dull throbbing was turning into a relentless drum-beat. Why didn’t I take the advice about the coca leaves from that nice Dutch couple I’d met at the hostel back in Lima? (Actually, meeting nice Dutch couples seems to be our habit… but that’s another story.) Upon drawing closer to the hustle and bustle of Arequipa city, I could see the two majestic volcano peaks in the backdrop – magnificent!

The Best Free Breakfast Ever

In Arequipa, I found an excellent hostel: Friendly AQP. The rooms were clean and comfortable, with excellent beds, and you could draw the curtains all the way around your bed for maximum privacy. It’s got great facilities including a pool table, widescreen TV with movies to watch, a garden with a BBQ and hammocks, a lovely rooftop terrace, and the best free breakfast of any hostel, hands-down (an omelette or banana-chocolate pancake, with tea and coffee). All that for 20 Soles which is less than 5 British pounds.

Friendly by name, friendly by nature. The staff there were so helpful and polite; I was greeted with a warm smile at reception and ended up staying for two weeks and making good friends with the family who run it. Lady (the wife) was nine months’ pregnant when I arrived there and went into hospital just before I left, I was a little heartbroken when I had to return to Lima for work and didn’t get to meet her baby. I promised myself I’d go back and surprise them, taking my husband with me. In any case, Arequipa is not a city that fills you up with only one visit so perhaps next time we go, it will be with a baby of our own.

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Me after 3 days trekking in the Colca Canyon, you can’t see it but I saved the Twix until I reached the top

Whilst there, I met a group of backpackers – one English, and two French – who’d turned up in Arequipa with the confident purpose of ‘conquering’ El Misti, the 5000-metre-plus volcano. They set off from the hostel purposefully, almost fist-pumping the air, but then arrived back 2 days later, unsuccessful in their scaling of the beast. The trek had proven too ambitious for them. Maybe the altitude had really aggravated them, or perhaps it was the fact that they had spent the entire time arguing: a clash of nationalities with the French convinced that they were right about the best course of action and the English not standing for any of it. This last part tickled me as I remembered something I had read once in a satirical online newspaper: something like ‘the relationship that England has to France is much like that of  an older to a younger sibling: whilst at times they really annoy you, you love to hate each other and quarrel frequently, you certainly wouldn’t allow anybody else to bully them and would definitely miss them if they weren’t around.’ – amusingly appropriate although I didn’t share.

Anyway, I digress… Whilst there are plenty of serious excursionists who own crampons and thrive on maximum-altitude mountaineering but I prefer slightly less hair-raising missions so, I opted for the gradual three-day trek through the Colca Canyon, which turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. At 3,720m deep, the canyon is twice as high as The Grand Canyon in the USA and the climb up on day three was even more challenging than I could’ve imagined.

Things to Do in Arequipa

The huge variety of ‘real’ Peruvian restaurants, architecture, churches, museums, stunning views and exciting excursions is enough to keep any culture-seeker on cloud nine for weeks. Inside the city itself, there are multitudes of eateries serving quality Peruvian cuisine; it’s easy to see why Peru is famous for its food. Various cultural treasures are dotted generously throughout the city; you can appreciate the cathedrals and monuments for their profound religious/historical aspect whilst also marvelling at their impressive architecture. There is an endless choice of other activities as well, including a chocolate-making tour, river-rafting, volunteering activities and Spanish courses. It’s hard not to fall in love with the place.

The entire city can be seen from the vantage point in the popular Yanahuara district

The entire city can be seen from the vantage point in the popular Yanahuara district

One of the emotional highlights for me was getting to grips with the incredible story of Juanita the Ice-Maiden, the most well-preserved mummy in history (oxymoronically). Recently discovered in the summits of the Southern Andes and now kept preserved in the Andean Sanctuaries Museum just off the Plaza de Armas, Time magazine accredited the discovery of the mummy as one of the top ten most important in the world.

As I listened to the story and looked at her stillness through the glass case, being close enough to touch her left me feeling overwhelmed with sentiment. I started to think of my experience of Peru as a whole: what a privilege to be so close to a culture so ancient and intriguing yet, I felt like there was much more still to discover. This was the reason I’d come to Peru after all: to discover. Would I ever be able to leave this behind and return to a ‘normal’ life back in England? Well, two years later and we’re still here… I really must go back to that hostel.

Always smiling: relaxed and friendly locals

Always smiling: relaxed and friendly locals

Arequipa really is a gorgeous city. Not only does the setting of this place look distinctive, but I came to understand that there is a quality of individualism about the people too. There are even some long-running jokes about how Arequipans consider themselves independent from the rest of Peru. They are proud of how their way of life and characteristic culture of the region differs from other cities (similarly, to the Catalonians we met in Spain). I can see why. Definitely, I find the people to be more relaxed than their fellow countrymen in Lima. The city itself is less polluted than the capital, with a much smaller population (although still the second largest city in Peru). It’s also about 20% cheaper, with year-round sunshine. For me, there’s simply no competition.

2 thoughts on “Arequipa: The Soul of Southern Peru

  1. My wife is from Arequipa but has lived in UK for 40 years we visit often and I always feel as if I am coming home when I arrive. But it has changed so much I can remember the Plaza dear Armas with no people and a quite town which is now teaming with people. But I still love the excitement I feel when I arrive at my second home and I am hopeful of returning again next month.

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    • Thank you for your input Jeff, how lovely to know that somebody else appreciates its charm as much as I do. It’s very easy to fall in love with the White City. Many people tell me the same thing about over-congested Lima where I’m based; apparently, packed streets and the sound of angry car horns were almost non-existent a few decades ago! Such development is a little bit of a shame in Lima’s case. I hope you and your wife had a lovely trip, I must say that I’m rather jealous! Take care!

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