Introduction to Arequipa
Although overshadowed by the more famous Cusco, Arequipa is one of Peru’s top destinations. Located in Southern Andes, Arequipa is a beautiful city with a picturesque architecture and unique places to visit. One of world’s deepest canyons, for example, twice as deep as Grand Canyon, or spectacular Andean terraced landscapes.
Getting to Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, is easy – the city has an airport with regular flights to Lima. Another option are long-distance buses – overnight cama buses with partially or fully reclining seats are the best choice. They depart from Nazca (10 hours), Cusco (10 hours), and Lima (16 hours).
Going by bus instead of taking a plane has one big advantage – it gives you time to acclimatize to higher altitudes (Arequipa lies at 7,600 feet), especially if you’re traveling afterwards to Cusco or Lake Titicaca.
Things to see and do
Arequipa is one of Peru’s most beautiful and sunny cities – it has 300 days of sunshine a year. Dominated by Andean volcanoes, Arequipa sits at the foot of the active volcano El Misti, a perfect snow-capped cone, flanked by the extinct volcanos of Chachani and Pichu Pichu.
The city was founded in 1540 on orders from the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro to establish a stronghold in the region. Having no Inca or pre-Inca ruins, the city represents an example of pristine Spanish colonial architecture developed in Peru.
Arequipa is nicknamed the ‘White City,’ because many of its buildings are built from sillar, a local white volcanic stone. Sillar is an exceptionally soft, lightweight and weatherproof stone used as an earthquake-resistant construction material.
Another typical feature of local architecture is the ashlar masonry technique that uses large, square-cut blocks of stone to construct walls and buildings. The Inca architecture of Cusco and Machu Picchu is particularly famous for it.
A long history of eruptions from the nearby volcanoes has caused the local soil to be extremely fertile, making the area one of the most agriculturally productive in Peru.
The city’s supply of drinking water comes largely from glacier-fed reservoirs and aqueducts.
The Plaza de Armas is the main square. It is a typical Spanish-style plaza with a park, palm trees and a fountain in the middle, surrounded by arcades with restaurants and rooftop bars. Most of the buildings were built in the 19th century on the site of earlier colonial structures, destroyed in 1868 by an earthquake.
The most dominant structure is the cathedral, that takes up one side of the plaza. It has been completely or partially destroyed by earthquakes several times, the last one happening in 2001. Built of sillar, it has a neo-classical façade with Corinthian columns and arches. It is free to visit between 5-7 PM. Behind the cathedral, there is a popular alley with many handicraft shops and cafés.
Located in the historical center of Arequipa is Santa Catalina Monastery, one of the most impressive religious establishments in South America.
Santa Catalina Monastery is a nun Dominican convent founded in 1540’s by a local rich widow.
Extending over an area of about 20,000 sq. m (2 hectares), and built from the white volcanic sillar in ashlar masonry, the whole complex is known as the ‘city within a city.’ It has been extensively enlarged and modified over the centuries until it literally became a small town with parks, streets, houses, laundry areas, a church and a cemetery.
Only women from noble Spanish families who had to pay a dowry for their daughter’s admission were accepted into Santa Catalina. The girls came to live here at the age of 12. The wealthiest ones brought servants, fine china, silk curtains and lace sheets, and lived as they had before. At its peak, the monastery housed about 450 people (nuns and their lay servants).
While the world around modernized, the nuns continued living as they had for centuries. With no funds to comply with the 1970’s civil codes requiring installing electricity and a water system, the nuns were forced to open the monastery to public to pay for the work. Nowadays, there are about 20 nuns occupying a small complex off-limits to visitors.
A stroll through the monastery closed off from the city by high walls, with its many colorful plazas, cobbled streets, arched colonnades, shaded courtyards, and cloistered gardens with fountains and trees, feels like a trip into history. In a peaceful, quiet place off the busy center, walls of vibrant blues alternate with vermilion reds.
Accessible to visitors are the original living quarters of the nuns, their cells with small patios, kitchens and separate accommo-dations for their private servants.
From the roofs, there are great views of the city and the Andean volcanoes and glaciers around.
The entrance fee is S/40 ($12) plus S/20 ($6) for the guide, if you take a tour (seems like the catholic church, the wealthiest institution in the world, don’t pay their staff).
Two nights a week, the monastery opens at night.
Juanita museum (Museo Santuarios Andinos) is another of Arequipa’s top attractions.
It contains the famous, perfectly well-preserved frozen body of an Inca girl known as the Ice Maiden, or Mummy Juanita. Juanita was killed as an offering to the Inca gods by Inca priests sometime between 1450 and 1480 when she was approximately 12-15 years old. He death was caused by a blunt trauma to the head.
The 500-year-old mummy was found in 1995 in the crater of Mt. Ampato where it had fallen from an Inca burial site on the summit. Other items left as offerings include Inca statues and food products.
The fine textiles Juanita was clothed in, and the evidence of excellent health suggest she may have come from a noble Cuzco family.
Twelve more mummies were discovered in subsequent years. All of them are displayed in glass containers at -4 Fahrenheit (-20ºC) in the museum.
The visit to the museum is only possible on a guided tour which starts with a 20-minute introductory video. The entry fee is S/25($8). No photos are allowed. For obvious reasons, it’s cold inside, so bring a sweater.
Situated within a walking distance from the plaza is the Central Market (Mercado Central San Camilo).
The Market is a good place to get lunch, or try some of the local specialties like queso helado, an ice cream made of condensed milk, coconut and cinnamon, or rocoto relleno, chicharron, ceviche and other local classics.
For sale is an abundance of fresh produce, ranging from local fruits and vegetab-les to cheeses, fish, meats, and textiles; even local healers offer their services here. All that makes it a photo-grapher’s paradise.
Travelling too quickly to higher altitudes can result in altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness happens when the body doesn’t have enough time to adjust to low air pressure and low amounts of oxygen (whose levels decrease as the altitude increases).
It typically occurs above 8,000 feet. Symptoms include a headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness. Being physically fit doesn’t decrease the risk.
Severe altitude sickness can be a life-threatening emergency, in which case the affected person must be immediately taken to a lower altitude.
In thinner atmosphere water evaporates faster, which can lead to dehydration. Thin air fails to block the sunlight and to reduce the UV radiation, which can cause sunburns. (So, no, it’s not because you’re closer to the sun.) To avoid that, it is recommended to drink a lot of water, and use sunblock.
Since Arequipa isn’t at an especially high altitude as compared to Cuzco or Lake Titicaca, it is a good place to ease into it. Going by bus instead of taking a plane helps, since it gives you time to acclimatize.
The percentage of oxygen at sea level is 21 %, at 16,000 feet 11 %, and at the death zone of 29,000 feet (Mt. Everest) only 7 %.
To survive above the death zone is almost impossible, though there have been several cases of people surviving flights at these altitudes.
At least, ten people who have stowed away in the wheel bay of long-haul airplanes, didn’t die. This was only possible because the extreme cold and unconsciousness they went through produced a condition, that could be best described as hibernation, which greatly reduced their body’s demand for oxygen.
According to estimates, between 50 % and 80 % of wheel-bay stowaways don’t survive.