“Arequipa! Arequipa!” We heard the chant in every Peruvian bus stop we visited, as ticket sellers vied for the attention of locals and travelers. Peru’s second largest city – a stopover point for those traveling north to Cusco or south to the Chilean border – is hard to miss.
And miss it, you definitely should not. With its baroque buildings constructed of volcanic stone, bustling Plaza de Armas and surrounding snow-capped volcanoes, Peru’s “White City” is arguably the country’s most beautiful.
We spent just four days and four nights there, but we could have stayed longer, had we not been so eager to cross into summery Chile. We explored the entire city on foot, taking a colectivo only from the bus station to our hostel in the heart of downtown. Here are a few of our favorite sights along the way. (Even better, we visited them all for free!)
Plaza de Armas. You can tell a lot about a South American city by visiting its Plaza de Armas. We stopped here first in Arequipa to get a pulse on the pace of daily life, people watch and stroll down side streets. Coming from the magical main square of Cusco and the unremarkable main square of Puno (sorry, Puno!) we were immediately struck by the large scale and white palette of Arequipa’s historic center. Children roller skated through its paved walkways and fed crumbs to flocks of pigeons, while locals and a few tourists relaxed on park benches and the steps of the Basílica Catedral, one of Peru’s most famous colonial cathedrals since the Spanish conquest. The center fountain was a draw during the day, but it was during dusk that the buildings lit up beautifully and came to life. With several balcony restaurants offering happy hour and affordable eateries along the side streets, it was easy to spend hours in this laid-back yet energetic place.
Mercado San Camilo. After enough time spent backpacking the world, it can seem like markets all run together – but that’s not the case with Mercado San Camilo. Located just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, this bustling market has been a mainstay in Arequipa’s historic center since 1881. Downstairs are rows upon rows of the essentials – fruit, cheese, bread, eggs and more varieties of meat and potatoes than one ever thought possible. There are also several stalls of cevicherías, where the refreshing dish is served with lime, onion, peppers, cilantro and thinly sliced sweet potato. We paired ours with a plate of ricoto relleno y pastel de papa, a spicy-sweet pepper stuffed with a savory meet filling, and garnished with a “cake” made of thinly sliced potato, lots of cheese and aromatic anise. Also impressive is the long aisle of women blending every type of juice imaginable. On the second floor are dozens of food stalls where hawkers and cooks serve up the classics – lomo saltado, arroz con huevos and various caldos for breakfast – and traditional two-course meals for lunch. (Confession: we ate almost every meal here during our time in Arequipa. Why mess with a good thing?)
Mundo Alpaca. Two words: baby alpaca! We walked just 10 minutes from the Plaza de Armas to Mundo Alpaca (“Alpaca World”), an eco-tourism complex featuring six types of llamas and alpacas. Admission was free, and we were immediately greeted by a friendly English-speaking docent. He led us to the animals’ habitat, where he gave us handfuls of verdant medicago sativa (“alfalfa”). The llamas and alpacas hurried over and began nibbling away through the natural branch fence. We couldn’t help but laugh as they chomped and chewed, their split upper lips almost fingerlike, their teeth protruding from their long jaws. From there, we entered an exhibit where a woman was manually separating and classifying fibers by origin, quality, color and length – a process that cannot be mechanized. Through another doorway, a skilled weaver was using a waist loom to create a scarf, a technique used since pre-Inca times. We were told that the beautiful textile would take 20 days to complete. After a quick loop through the textile museum and the gift shop, we were on our way.
Yanahuara District. Just a 20-minute walk beyond Mundo Alpaca (or 25 minutes from Plaza de Armas), we reached Mirador de Yanahuara, a scenic overlook in a picturesque residential neighborhood. We couldn’t get enough of the narrow streets, unique old houses, gorgeous wood doors and charming details, like mounted potted plants and handcrafted address plaques. The incline was gradual, and when we reached the lookout, we were rewarded with sweeping views of Arequipa and El Misti, a perfectly conical active volcano located just 10 miles (17 kilometers) from the city’s center. Once a few tourist buses left, we posed for photos beneath the arches and in the small manicured square. If we were hungry, we would have enjoyed some of Arequipa’s famed helado queso (“ice cream cheese”) or eaten lunch in one of the modest picanterías.
Mirador de Carmen Alto. This was the farthest outside the city we trekked on foot, but we were so glad we did. About 1.5 miles from the Yanahuara overlook (or 2.5 miles from the Plaza de Armas), we reached Mirador de Carmen Alto, a unique overlook comprised of old pathways, stone walls, grassy platforms, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the view. The owner, Mrs. Miriam Cáceres, runs a small business of natural products and traditional juices, plus a bar that serves craft beer, pisco and liqueurs. After our hike up the hill, past terraced crop fields and beautiful homes, we were tempted by the bottles of 7 Vidas craft beer (who doesn’t love a good cat theme?!), but instead, we opted for a delightfully ice cold can of Tres Cruces for half the price. We sat overlooking the Chile River, San Felix Valley, volcanoes El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu, and what seemed like the entire Arequipa countryside.