Once upon a time, the Chachani volcano threw up a light but durable stone called sillar that also happened to be white. Someone then came along and created an entire city out of it. That city was Arequipa, and it’s pretty and white.
You might’ve not heard of Arequipa, but it’s actually the second most populated city in Peru after its capital, Lima, and the seat of the Constitutional Court, so it’s pretty major. That said, it is less ready for tourists than Cusco, which is not even half the size of Arequipa.
The city sits 2,300 m (7,600 ft) above sea level. Another whopping 3,400 m (11,400 ft) above it is the summit of one of the many volcanoes, El Misti, that’s always looming in the background. The trek up the volcano is one of the highlights in the area.
You’ll find yourself charmed with Arequipa especially at sunset, where the white façades of the historical buildings are lit up, the pink sky highlights El Misti in the distance and locals and tourists alike crowd Plaza de Armas and enjoy a chilled beer or wine in a relaxed atmosphere.
It’s easy to spend a day wandering around the center, and then adding a couple more to explore the scenery surrounding the city.
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Here are the best things to do in Arequipa according to yours truly:
The Mundo Alpaca is a museum where you can meet lamas and alpacas and learn about the differences between them. Because I know I couldn’t tell one from the other before this visit! Trying to spot the ones with the furrier faces and calling them alpacas doesn’t always work that well.
Not only that, but you’ll truly immerse yourself into the textile industry that inevitably comes with these animals, and see loads of colorful fabrics and clothing articles on display. To really appreciate the complexity and craftmanship that goes into creating the clothing, there is a display and presentation about each step of the process. Just look at that pile of wool!
Alpaca wool is 5x warmer and stronger than sheep’s wool, and it’s incredibly soft. It also comes in over 20 different natural shades.
Once you’re convinced that alpaca wool is the best thing since sliced bread, you conveniently exit through the gift shop. We loaded up on sweaters and coats that I’m sure will last a lifetime, plus the price was fantastic compared to what items of this quality would cost in Europe.
Just to vent a personal annoyance—tourists that buy the typically touristy hats and ponchos in crazy colors end up looking silly. Most of the time these aren’t even things that Peruvians themselves wear, so do yourself a favor and buy something sensible. It’ll still get the job done and you can wear it when you get home, too, without looking like a total dork.
You’ll be happy to know that alpacas are very well cared for and have, for the most part, loving owners. So wear that sweater with a light heart!
Free entrance (but you’ll leave cash at the store, I promise!)
Our top tips for visiting Arequipa:
You’ll be struck by the whiteness and cleanliness (possibly a side-effect of the whiteness) of Arequipa from the moment you get there. It’s just pretty. Add a huge, symmetrical volcano in the background and you’ve got yourself a winner.
The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa is the nicest I’ve seen in all of Latin America. For clarification—the main squares in most cities are named Plaza de Armas.
The main square in Arequipa is big, full of palm trees and manicured bushes in the center, lined by the impressive Arequipa Basilica Cathedral and tons of shops and cafes on all sides. Those, too, are hidden behind the arch-covered walkways. All white, naturally.
La Iglesia de la Compañía, a church with an intricately carved entrance is located just off the Plaza de Armas in the southern corner. It seemed more ready for worshippers than tourists, but no harm just taking a peek, if only at the exterior.
Overall, the center of Arequipa is really inviting and has a pleasant energy. It reminded me of Puebla in Mexico, which is one of my favorites in the world.
This massive cathedral is impressive from the outside, so really take it all in (especially from the rooftop!). Like almost everything in Arequipa, the cathedral is made of sillar, making it a bright white color Also because the inside is nothing that amazing, though it does have some interesting bits and bobs in there.
You are only allowed to visit with a guide and the visit includes the inside area, the museum and the rooftop views.
Our guide was amazing and made the visit totally worthwhile. He told us about the cathedral’s organ, which is the largest organ in South America. Only 3 people know how to play it!
Another unique thing at the Arequipa Cathedral is the big devil depicted on the bottom of the wooden pulpit. Seeing the devil being given such a large representation in a church isn’t something you see every day. That said, he is being effectively crushed by the church under the feet of the pastor, so it’s not like they’re celebrating him.
The museum is interesting with religious artifacts, wooden sculptures and liturgical objects made of or enhanced with metal and precious stones.
Finally, you walk up the stairs to the bell tower and get some fantastic views not only of the city, but also of El Misti in the background.
You can take photos in the cathedral and on the roof but not in the museum.
Make sure to dress appropriately, you don’t want to end up being frowned upon and crushed like the poor devil. No knees and shoulders visible or else!
The guides are freelancers, so if you get a good one, make sure to reward them with an extra nice tip!
Rafting on Rio Chili was so much fun! This isn’t a mellow river ride, but rather class 2–4 rapids the entire time, so you rarely get a second to relax.
This adventure is good for beginners, but not for couch potatoes. You will work for your fun and get wet while you’re at it.
The crystal clear water of the river is very cold, like 8°C (46°F) cold, so it’s not something you do to splash around and giggle while you fall in. You will be wearing a wetsuit and helmet and holding on for dear life as you hope you don’t pop out while your raft plummets down a waterfall. But in a fun way.
You’ll be on an organized tour out of Arequipa, so your experience will typically start with a minibus picking you up in your hotel in Arequipa followed by either a drive to a gear house close to the river where you’ll change into wetsuits, or get changed in Arequipa and then embark on the drive. That depends on which tour company you take.
You drive 20 minutes to the Chapi Charcani Sanctuary where your river ride starts. After a short tutorial by your guide, you’ll head off on a roughly 1,5-hour adventure on the river. The rapids get wilder the further you go, so you have time to get used to being on your raft. There is an option to get out and walk the wildest part of the river, but I think that by the time you get there you’ll be feeling like an Olympian ready to take on anything.
In one section, our tour stopped so people could jump into the water from the cliffs. You’ll be wet already anyway, so give it a shot!
The river takes you right back to Arequipa, so the drive to your hotel is only a very short one.
The tour takes a total of 3 hours, and most companies have 2–3 departures a day. Prices from USD 25.
The Santa Catalina Monastery is a city within a city, with streets, squares and passages, it even has four distinct neighborhoods!
Just like everything else in Arequipa, the monastery buildings are made of the white volcanic stone called sillar. Unlike everything else though, the monastery is colorfully painted! Some areas are all red, some all blue, and so on. Very nice!
You might think of nuns as humble women with no worldly possessions and need nothing but love and basic food to happily live until they are called to the heavens by God himself.
Well, the Santa Catalina Monastery was like the Monaco of monasteries! Founded in 1579 by Doña María de Guzmán, a beautiful rich widow of a previously rich but now dead Spaniard, she really set the tone for the next 300 years.
The monastery was pimped out! They only accepted upper-class Spanish ladies who had to pay a hefty dowry to get in (an equivalent of USD 150k), as well as bring along a nice list of things with them, like paintings, lamps and statues.
The nuns also had slaves and servants, so basically living their extra life in style and comfort, just without men. There was 450 of them there.
It wasn’t until the 19th century when the Pope himself decided that this monastery needs a serious reform. The riches were sent away and the slaves were freed, getting the option to either stay and be a real nun or leave. I’d imagine that gettin’ down to real nun business probably wasn’t accepted very well by the fancy nuns living there.
It is easy to see the monastery on your own since there are plenty of informative signs. There are guides available too.
You will easily spend 2 hours here. We spent longer due to my obsession of reading each sign to the last letter and seeing every nook and cranny.
Kind of like a Big Brother who is always watching, the active El Misti Volcano dominates calmy above Arequipa. You’ll be able to see it standing there all stately and mighty no matter where you are in the city.
With an altitude of 5,800 m (19,000 ft), a hike up to the summit is not for beginners, though if it weren’t for the cold and altitude, it would be relatively easy. Novice hikers do attempt to conquer El Misti, since it is one of the most accessible high summits in the world, but about half of most tour groups turn back without reaching the cross at the top due to exhaustion and altitude sickness. This is not an easy hike.
Most often, El Misti is trekked up over two days, with one night in base camp. You will be carrying a very heavy backpack the first day with all the overnight supplies and at least 5 liters of water. On the second day, you go with a smaller, lighter pack, but since you are dealing with the altitude by then, you still feel like you’re carrying 20 kg.
Stock up and chew coca leaves to help with the altitude at El Misti. We like them in the chocolate-covered variety. Definitely only try to go on this trek if you have had time to acclimatize for a few days before. Altitude sickness is a thing. Spend a couple nights at Colca Canyon for example or hang out in Cusco and Sacred Valley before doing the El Misti hike.
Tip: Cusco has some great hotels, like the Monasterio, A Belmond Hotel or Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel. If you prefer staying outside of the city, check out the luxury resorts in Sacred Valley, like Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba or Tambo del Inka, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Valle Sagrado promises.
You can read all about our hike to Rainbow Mountain and the trouble with the altitude we had there. And that was 600 m (2000 ft) lower than El Misti!
No special climbing gear is needed, you can simply trek all the way to the top, just make sure you have proper clothing because it does get very cold up there. And by cold, I mean literally freezing. Obviously, proper hiking boots are necessary. Trekking poles are optional but can be a huge help.
If you’re going in the colder months (May through October), crampons and ice picks may be necessary and can be rented in Arequipa. Clothing can also be rented, but I advise you to go with an agency only after reading the reviews properly. Some don’t even have proper clothes for rent and people end up hiking in sneakers and dealing with frostbite. You won’t reach the summit in sneakers.
Expect to be walking on sand and scree. When there is wind, all that sand and volcanic ash is in your face, too. Usually, there is no snow or not much and it shouldn’t cause major problems if there is.
The El Misti hike is most often done over two days. The trailhead is a one hour drive out of Arequipa.
On the first day you hike uphill for about 6 hours (like I mentioned, with a heavy pack on your back) until you reach base camp at 4,600 m (15,000 ft). Go to bed early because you’ll be woken up around 1 am to set out on the most difficult part of the hike.
On the second day you will walk in darkness for a large part of the 5–7 hours it takes most people to reach the summit of El Misti.
The way down is much faster since you will basically be sliding down in the sand the whole way. In general it takes 2 hours down to base camp and 2 more hours down to where you started from.
Like I mentioned before, really read the reviews before choosing your tour operator, there are shady ones out there, with inexperienced guides that make promises they can’t keep. You can read travelers’ experiences on tripadvisor.com.
Ask questions about the clothes and shoes you will need or will be renting, the overnight gear that is provided and the food you will be given. There are too many stories of hungry hikers that were given one barely edible meal the entire time.
No matter who you go with, always take your own snacks just in case, because you will be exhausted and even the good companies won’t carry energy bars. 5 liters of water is the bare minimum you want to have with you.
You can see a frozen sacrificed child at this museum. Not for the faint of heart, just like learning about the sacrifices, which you will be doing a lot of at Museo Santuario Andino.
The Incas worshipped the mountains as gods. To keep those gods happy, they’d give them the children. It sounds terrible but taking high-class citizens’ kids (as opposed to those of slaves), drugging them and mashing them over the head with a club-like thing was pretty humane compared to some other societies‘ practices. We won’t get into that here though.
If they were male, they’d get left on the mountain with a metal pole, causing them to get hit by lightning, which is not exactly rated G, and it also didn’t do much for preserving their bodies for us to study.
Girls didn’t get fried by the heavens since they held ceramics after their last trip up the mountain. For this reason they’re also the only ones that froze in the high altitudes of the mountains with their skin and even their organs intact, allowing modern-day scientists to learn a ton about the Incas.
The Santuario Andino Museum in Arequipa is one of the most morbid museums I’ve ever been to, second only to the Museum of Egypt in Turin, Italy. Go there if you like mummies, even though they don’t have Juanita in their freezer.
The museum is right next to Plaza de Armas in central Arequipa.
Ruta del Sillar is a quarry with a bunch of white statues in it. Are you excited yet? They’re actually pretty nice, and it’s a cheap and easy stop in Arequipa, so why not. Nothing to write home about though.
From central Arequipa, Ruta del Sillar is an easy 30-minute drive. It is located on the northwest of town with parking spots available right where Google Maps takes you to.
Sillar is a type of volcanic rock that, in the Arequipa area, contains andesite crystals, giving the rock a pretty white color. It makes for some pretty nice statues.
The area with the statues is quite small and has a wide path leading you through it. You’ll see columns carved directly into the rock that towers above you, and then you’ll see everything from fighting bulls to child-pleasing cars, everything as white as chalk. Some of the statues are more kitsch than others, just take it as it is.
You’ll need to climb up a few stairs to get to the heart, and there’s even a ferrata-esque situation if you want to take a selfie with Arequipa’s flag.
To get close to some of the pieces you will need to pay a small extra fee on top of the s/5 entrance fee.
Tip: The toilets are shaped like little igloos and, naturally, are made of sillar. They are free to use and located at the exit.
All in all, you’ll be done in 20 minutes unless you’re there with a guide that’ll tell you more about life of the workers at the quarry.
Colca Canyon is the reason many people come to Arequipa in the first place, but I’m here to tell you that if this is your thinking and it’s the only thing you plan on seeing while there, maybe reconsider. Add on at least Salinas Lagoon or else face possible disappointment, because just the tiring drive to Colca Canyon will have your expectations soaring and hard meet.
Side note: I promise I’m not biased because of the food poisoning that I was dealing with while taking this trip.
Don’t get me wrong, Colca Canyon is the second-deepest canyon in the world, surpassed only by the massive Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon in Tibet, so it does warrant a visit. It’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and stretches for 100 km, cutting 3,400 m deep into the surrounding mountains. So not lame by any account.
And there are condors.
But even though the Grand Canyon is a baby compared to Colca, it somehow feels more like a canyon. This is because Colca Canyon is very narrow, so it just looks like…mountains. High, majestic mountains, but since this is Peru, those are everywhere.
We might’ve had a more amazing experience had we taken one of the many available overnight treks in Colca Canyon, but we didn’t, instead opting for a day trip out of Arequipa. We had our own car, as always, and there was no reason other than my food poisoning (you can tell I’m still bitter about it) for Colca Canyon to not be considered the highlight of our trip to the region. But it didn’t wow us as much as it should’ve.
From Arequipa, drive towards a town called Chivay, and then turn towards Cabanaconde to reach the lookout point, which is where many of the treks start from. It’ll be a cruel 4 hours on bumpy, winding roads, so come in high spirits and mentally prepared for it to be a long day.
Use Google Maps as your GPS and put “Mirador Cruz del Cóndor” as your destination. There is a parking lot on your right right before you get there. You can do a bit of walking on the paths there and take photos at several wooden viewing areas and try to spot condors. This is the best spot to see them in flight.
You can keep going to Cabanaconde if you want to see some more of the same views. It’ll be another 45 minutes or so to drive there. Mirador de Achachihua or Mirador de San Miguel are good places to stop.
We were lucky enough to see one flying condor and one just sitting there chilling while in Colca Canyon. Big, ugly-headed birds with a wingspan of 3 m (10 ft)! Wouldn’t want to be on their dinner menu.
You’ll pay s/70 to feast your eyes on Colca Canyon. Bring cash! Have your passport on you. It’s called the Colca Tourist Ticket and the s/70 gets you into Colca Canyon and to the Salinas Lagoon and Nature Reserve. You can buy the ticket right before Chivay town, and there are ticket-checkers at all the major tourist stops, so no need to find them, they’ll find you.
Alternatively, get picked up at 3 am if you opt for an organized tour. You’re looking at USD 40 for the simple 1-day tour with no trek. Overnight trips start at USD 100.
Should you worry about altitude sickness? Well, the Cruz del Condor viewpoint is at 3,700 m (12,000 ft) above sea level, so it isn’t completely terrible, but it isn’t the Netherlands either. As a reference point, consider that Machu Picchu is at 2,400 m (8,000 ft), similar to Arequipa, and Cusco is at 3,400 m (11,000 ft).
You will possibly experience shortness of breath, especially if you do one of the hikes, but you probably won’t be wanting to cut your own head off while barfing out your brain like you might on a trip to Rainbow Mountain (which was totally worth it, if you’re wondering!). Just stock up on coca leaves.
The Laguna de Salinas is part of Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve, and I’m going to say it: it’s the most beautiful nature reserve I’ve ever seen! It’s epic and absolutely awe-inspiring. The mix of wetlands with tons of lamas, alpacas and flamingos and the snow-covered peaks of the mountains above, with multiple volcanos towering above you, makes for a landscape like no other.
The lagoon itself does that thing where it perfectly mirrors the nature above it on its surface. Unless you visit in Peru’s dry months, which are May to November. With no rain to feed the lake, the mirror evaporates and leaves behind tons of salt and no water to be seen, turning into one big salt mine. Don’t expect too much bird life when it’s dry though. The flamingos and other birds enjoy the water, not the salt.
The drive to Laguna de Salinas is about 60 km (38 miles) from Arequipa and takes 2 hours to complete. The road is straightforward, though in no way straight. You can bet your boots you won’t be driving on asphalt most of the time, instead dodging oncoming racing trucks rocky dirt roads.
You’ll twist and turn, doubling your altitude from Arequipas‘ 2,300 m (7,000 ft) above sea level to Laguna de Salinas‘ 4,300 m (14,000 ft). It takes some effort to get there, that’s for sure. And you might have a little trouble catching your breath once you get there, but nothing major.
Fun fact: The flamingos that hang out at the lagoon during the day can freeze inside the lake on the cold nights. I mean, they’re be standing on one leg anyway while resting, they just have to wait until morning comes to be able to move again. That must suck.
As always, I am going to recommend getting your own wheels when visiting Peru, but if you don’t want to do that, you can always take an organized group tour (USD 50) to Laguna de Salinas, or a private one (USD 90) in case you don’t like strangers or can’t find a group to go with. You’ll be asked for s/5 at a ticket booth on arrival to the lagoon. Alternatively, if you also went or plan on going to Colca Canyon, know that Salinas is part of the Colca Tourist Ticket.
With your own car (or car and driver), you can also make as many stops as you want and drive to different vantage points, positioning yourself for that perfect shot with El Misti right in the background.
The Salinas Lagoon isn’t exactly tourist central, so it is possible you’ll get there and have the place to yourself.
Once you’re at the lagoon, take a walk among the flamingos, enjoy the peace and quiet, pimp up your Instagram and you can be on your way. Budget one to two hours for ogling the nature at Salinas Lagoon. You still have to face the road back to Arequipa when you’re done.
Absolutely! We thought Arequipa was great. I mean I never spend more than a day in any city, and Arequipa is no exception, but there are great things to do around the city that warrant at least two more nights there. Don’t leave out Salinas Lagoon and the whitewater rafting, those were our favorite side trips out of Arequipa.
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If you only have 3 days for Sacred Valley and Cusco, you’ll be missing out on some good places. But, I’ll try to be a silver-lining kind of guy this time and smash as much as possible into those 3 days in Cusco.
Peruvians are some of the kindest, most helpful and courteous people I’ve met during my travels. Until you put them in the driver’s seat. Then they turn into aggressive, angry, idiotic monsters. Especially in Lima.