Arequipa, the white-painted colonial city we stayed in either side of our three day Colca Canyon trek, was a beautiful, relaxed place with loads of pretty architecture.
The whole city centre doesn’t stand much taller than two storeys, and almost every building is painted white, giving it a very small-town feel, in spite of how big the city actually is.
In the distance, the huge grey shape of El Misti Volcano, a mountain sacred to the town, can be seen brooding over the town, sometimes smoking ominously.
Arequipa Downton Walking Tour
The best way to explore the city was with the free city tour. Unfortunately, Free Walking Tour Peru – who’d shown us around Cusco – were not running on the day we decided to do the tour.
So we went with Arequipa Downtown Walking Tour instead, who were also really cool. Our guide, whose name I never caught because he introduced himself so quickly, was the most enthusiastic tour guide I’ve had yet, and threw so many facts at us that I’m surprised I’m not a qualified expert on Arequipa now.
As per usual, though, I forgot almost everything and only retained the most outstanding or humorous facts; for example that Arequipa is known as the White City not because of all the pretty white buildings, but because of the number of white people that made a home there in Colonial times.
Main Plaza and Arequipa Cathedral
We started in the main plaza, where we were able to view the impressive, bright white cathedral from the outside, and learnt about one of Arequipa’s most precious relics, the Black Jesus
Apparently, this statue of Christ was the only thing to survive a fire in the cathedral, albeit badly burnt and blackened, so the locals decided it must be a sacred artefact, and worship it proudly.
We also viewed the nearby Jesuit church, again brilliantly white and with an ornately decorated façade which contains one of the best examples of Baroque architecture mixed with Inca symbolism; our guide pointed out the jaguar faces, maize, and snakes lurking amongst the Christian carvings.
This mixture continued inside, where a huge sun – the main god of the Inca people – can be seen at the centre of the golden alter, proving to the Incas that their god was inside the Jesuit church, and half tricking them into conversion.
The baroque-Inca hybrid continued throughout the city; in a nearby courtyard with a pretty central fountain, we found still more Inca symbols and faces worked in amongst the carvings around the walls.
Exploring Downtown Arequipa
There were so many stops on the city tour. The old university, now a language school, which has a nice, quiet, garden filled courtyard. The Catholic Museum, where Juanita’s ‘mummy’ (that’s a nickname, it’s actually a corpse preserved in a glacier) is usually on display except in January-May.
A traditional colonial house, built around a central courtyard, with huge high doors and impossible-to-reach door knockers designed to be knocked by visitors on horses, and where the first-floor windows were the colonials’ daughters’ “version of Facebook”, their only outlet to the outside world because they were locked in all day for protection.
Next we visited the convent, and the Mario Vargas Llosa library, to which the author himself had donated thousands of books.
Alpaca Farm arequipa
We also toured a small alpaca farm attached to a shop selling high-quality alpaca wool goods, where we saw alpacas and lamas, felt the high-quality vicuna wool, and watched two Andean women in traditional dress weave colourful products from alpaca wool.
Apparently, the women are from a small Andean village in the area, and take turns working at the ‘farm’ for tourists to raise extra money for their families, so I happily donated a coin each to them in exchange for a photo.
We finished on the roof terrace of a nice bar, where we learnt how to make the perfect pisco sour (the recipe calls for glucose syrup and a lot of sugar, as well as lemons, pisco and an egg white), and sampled a small one, before tipping our guide and saying goodbye.
As always, now that I’m writing this I wish I could remember more of the interesting facts I learnt during the tour, because Arequipa had a really rich and interesting history, a vibrant culture and a lot of beautiful buildings.
Free Arequipa Walking Tour
The free Downtown Arequipa Walking Tour starts in the tourist information office on the main plaza at 3pm Monday – Friday.