Palms loom over locals at the city’s central Plaza de Armas. (Photo: Renzo Tasso)
By Gail Harrington
Twice now during long winter stays in Lima, I escaped the city’s cloudy gray weather that’s nearly continuous from June through October by taking a 75-minute flight to Peru’s second most populous city. With year-round daytime temperatures between 68 and 78 degrees, endless blue skies, and 300 days of sunshine, Arequipa never disappoints.
Surprisingly, despite a population of nearly 900,000, the city feels less like a metropolis and more like a compact town, one that’s graced by magnificent Spanish Colonial and Moorish architecture, fancied up with baroque, rococo, and neoclassical embellishments. Located at roughly 7,500 feet above sea level in a lush valley between the Andes and coastal desert of southwestern Peru, Arequipa was founded in 1540 by those land-grabbing Spanish conquistadors. The city sits at the base of El Misti, a 19,000-foot volcano that’s bookended by slightly higher and lower volcanoes. But it’s the cone-shaped, seasonally snowcapped El Misti that symbolizes the spirit of the town, which was nicknamed the White City for its many buildings constructed from a pearly-hued volcanic stone called sillar.
inside Arequipa’s main cathedral. (Photo: Juan Manuel Olivera)
Easy to explore on foot, the UNESCO World Heritage district extends out from a beautiful Plaza de Armas that’s dominated by the twin-towered 16th-century cathedral whose impressive front façade features 70 Corinthian-style columns. Behind the cathedral, shops, and cafés with inviting umbrella-shaded dining line the pedestrianized Pasaje Catedral.
Even on Arequipa’s historic side streets, you’ll find beautiful old buildings with graceful arched colonnades, flowering courtyards, and trickling fountains. Out of 500 surviving casonas, half are listed buildings. Some of these period-furnished beauties now owned by private institutions are open to the public, such as Casa del Moral (Calle Moral 318), which holds a collection of 16th-century maps of America, and Casa Ricketts (San Francisco 108), a former archbishop’s palace that’s now a working bank with an art gallery.
Historic pieces at la Mansion del Fundador (Photo: Inés Menacho)
Arequipa is also a city of proud, outspoken politicians and intellectuals — Mario Vargas Llosa is both. A presidential candidate in 1990 and the 2010 Nobel Prize-winning novelist, he recently donated a literary collection to his birth town, 30,000 books from his homes in Lima, Madrid, and Paris, most of which contain his personal notes in the margins. Visit the regional public library (Calle San Francisco 308) where a new wing named for Vargas Llosa allows anyone, not just scholars, to read the author’s books, diaries, and letters.
Due to roadless isolation from the rest of the country during its first few centuries, Arequipa developed an independent character and unique cuisine that’s spicier than the food in other regions of Peru. Some favorite dishes include: rocoto relleno, a firey bell-shaped rocoto pepper stuffed with minced meat, cheese, eggs, raisins, peas, and carrots, served with pastel de papa (layers of thin-sliced potatoes with eggs and cheese); lechon al horno, baked baby pork; chupe de camarones, a hearty shrimp chowder; and adobo, a pork chop soup served only on Sundays. You’ll also find a good selection of international fare — French, Italian, Japanese, Moroccan, Swiss, and Turkish.
Zig Zag’s iron staircase was designed by Eiffel. Yes, THAT Eiffel. (Photo: Arim Almuelle)
Even as a jumping-off place for a 3½-hour drive northwest to Colca Canyon, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and home to the giant condor, Arequipa is worth three nights or more. So put some sunshine on your shoulders and enjoy this thinking man’s city that has long nurtured creativity and a cerebral mindset.
Sleep well: A short ride from the Plaza de Armas in the quiet Selva Alegre district, the 88-room Hotel Libertador is Arequipa’s most exclusive hotel; Plaza Bolivar, rates from $195. In an old home built in 1794, the 40-room Casa Andina Private Collection has national historic landmark status; from $150. A labyrinth of gardens, courtyards, and two 17th-century casonas with vaulted-ceiling guestrooms form La Casa de la Melgar, named for a famous Arequipan poet thought to have lived there briefly; from $68.
Volcanic stone-cooked fish at Zig Zag. (Photo: Arim Almuelle)
Clear your Mind: For serenity, explore narrow alleys, courtyards, and living quarters at the 65,000-square-foot 16th-century Monastery of Santa Catalina, which originally accepted only women from wealthy Spanish families that could afford the dowry equivalent of $150,000. Only 20 Dominican sisters still live inside the vibrantly colored walls. It’s worth hiring one of the scholarly English-speaking guides who know the history and every corner of the sprawling convent. There’s a small café for light snacks and a gift shop that sells soap handmade by the nuns.
Get out of downtown: Explore some of Arequipa’s 19 neighborhoods — San Lazaro for its winding lanes and small squares, and Yanahuara, known for large Colonial homes, picanterías with traditional spicy food, and the best views of El Misti and the city. In the countryside southeast of Arequipa in Huasacache lies La Mansion del Fundador, the rambling restored home of Arequipa’s founder. On the ride back, stop at El Mollecito (Via Paisajista; Km. 3; Huasacache) for a delicious, inexpensive countryside meal.
Take a wide-eyed look: Visit the Museo Santuarios Andinos (Calle La Merced 110) to see the well-preserved mummy of Juanita, a young Inca girl who was sacrificed and buried in ice near the 20,000-foot summit of volcanic Mount Ampato, and discovered in 1995.
Eat well and often: With a circular iron staircase designed by Gustav Eiffel, Zig Zag (Calle Zela 210) rates as a cool place for a fusion of Swiss and Peruvian fare—fondue, plus fish, alpaca, ostrich, and beef cooked and served on a sizzling volcanic slab. For chicken kebabs and veggies wrapped in Turkish bread, lamb meatballs, hummus, and baklava, try El Turko (locations at Calle San Francisco 216, 225, and 315). Off the courtyard of an old casona, Chicha (Calle Santa Catalina 210) puts an inventive spin on regional cuisine by Gastón Acurio, Peru’s most famous chef. The four-table Hatunpa (Calle Ugarte 208) keeps it simple and cheap — multiple varieties of the Peruvian potato embellished with a choice of beef/chicken/vegetable toppings and spicy sauces
Buy it here: For quality alpaca goods, check the shops in the 17th-century cloisters of the Church of La Compañia (Calle General Móran 118), Kuna (Calle Santa Catalina 210) and Anntarah (Calle San Francisco 115 and at Rodríguez Ballón Airport) whose ultra-soft baby alpaca weavings and fashionable knits are produced by hundreds of local families. Also in the cloisters, check out Carrasco for handmade Panamas and other straw hats.
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