Arequipa, My Least Favorite City in Peru

Arequipa, the One City in Peru I Could Have Skipped

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Peru

I tried to like Arequipa. Really, I did. But try as I might, I just couldn’t get past the feeling of boredom in Peru‘s second largest city, despite the fact that the historic city center, known as the “White City” due to the many buildings constructed from a white volcanic rock known as sillar, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Inside the Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa

Inside the Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa

One of the few highlights was the Santa Catalina Monastery. Built in the mid-1500’s, the monastery covered nearly five acres and functioned like a city within a city. Wealthy families often sent one of their daughters to be initiates, paying large sums to support them. As a result, many nuns lived in conditions that were far better than the commoners of the day. Today the convent is still occupied by nuns wearing pale blue and green habits who go about their daily business behind the cloistered walls. Walking through the site with a guide I was amazed by its immense size, the brilliant cobalt blue and rich salmon walls, and most of all by the serenity that pervades the complex.

Sampling queso helado (cheese ice cream) at the Mirador de Yanahuara, a neighborhood not far from the center of Arequipa

Sampling queso helado (cheese ice cream) at the Mirador de Yanahuara, a neighborhood not far from the center of Arequipa

Aside from the convent, my visit was somewhat lackluster. Smoggy gray skies obscured views of volcanoes Misti, Pichu Pichu, and Chachani at both the Mirador de Carmen Alto and Mirador de Yanahuara. At the latter I stopped to try queso helado, cheese ice cream, named not because it is made with cheese but because the block into which it is formed resembles a giant round of cheese. To me it tasted overly sweet and terribly grainy.

I tried several different restaurants around the Plaza de Armas but never really found any that served what I would call good food, and though I made every effort to ferret out local music, every place I was directed to either had no performances or was closed. Frankly, Arequipa bored me. Had it not been the ideal jumping off place for my tour to Colca Canyon I could have easily bypassed this city.

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On my final day in Arequipa I sat down on a bench in the Plaza de Armas, happy to bask in a sun that had finally emerged after several gray days. Thousands of pigeons bobbed and waddled around the plaza, diving for roasted corn kernels tossed out by visitors. When a mass of pigeons swarmed in front of my bench, the twenty-something man sitting next to me raised both arms straight out in front of his body. Before long, half a dozen pigeons had roosted on his long arms. Laughing delightedly, he displayed his menagerie to me to; the moment he spoke I realized he suffered from a mental disability, most likely some form of Downs syndrome. He insisted I try, so I stuck out both my arms but the pigeons had no interest in me. Instead, more of them landed on the young man’s shoulders and one even perched on top of his head.

The Basilica Cathedral, built of pearly white volcanic rock that gave Arequipa its nickname of the "White City," is backdrop for the central Plaza de Armas, where pigeons roam by the thousands

The Basilica Cathedral, built of pearly white volcanic rock that gave Arequipa its nickname of the "White City," is backdrop for the central Plaza de Armas, where pigeons roam by the thousands

I rushed over to a vendor, bought a bag of corn feed, and poured it into the man’s open palms. The birds flocked to his cupped hands, jostling one another as they competed for the kernels. “You too!” he insisted. I poured corn into my own hand and held it out tenuously; within moments my arms and legs were covered with the birds and we were both laughing uproariously. I doled out the corn until it was gone and my reward – surely the best part of my visit to Arequipa – was the smile on that young man’s face. But for my interaction with him, my visit to the White City would have remained unremarkable and unmemorable.

Series NavigationCondors of Colca Canyon Survive on a Wing and a PrayerThe Most Fun You Can Have in Lima, Peru for the Least Amount of Money

17 Comments on “Arequipa, the One City in Peru I Could Have Skipped

  1. You didn’t go see Juanita the Ice Maiden??? This was one of the highlights of our trip around South America. That and Colca Canyon (where we saw the condors) were the primary reasons we stopped there. While I agree that the city itself is somewhat ordinary (much like Piura), it seems like you missed out on two awesome things.

    • Hi Karis: I couldn’t see Juanita because the museum was closed for some reason. I was really disappointed. But I did do Colca Canyon and it was the the best part of being in Arequipa.

  2. Arequipa being named as Peru’s most beautiful city isn’t really saying much to be honest. I too did not feel the vibe and energy of Arequipa. I walked around the town for 2 hours and got bored.

  3. Hi there, great stories! I was wondering if you had any tips from your travels to Peru about traveling overland through Peru? Did you buy bus/train tickets as you went along or did you buy a county pass? I will be traveling alone as a single girl on a budget so want to save the pennies but also be safe. Thanks in advance!

    • Hi RM: I rarely schedule my travel. Instead, I stay in one place until I am ready to move on and l arrange for transport and accommodations in the next place the day before I depart. In Peru (and most places) I relied mostly on local buses. There are few trains in Peru, with the exception of the train to Machu Picchu from Cusco, I thing you will find the buses to be much more convenient and economical.Many offer overnight sleeper configurations for long trips, and some even have on-board wifi.

  4. Arequipa is often voted as the most beautiful city in Peru, with fabulous views of the volcanoes on the horizon. Also worth visiting in Arequipa is the museum near the plaza with the famous Juanita mummy.

    Also Arequipa is famous all over Peru for its fabulous cuisine! Rocoto rellena a favourite!

    It is a shame you didn’t like it. I agree that Santa Catalina is amazing.

  5. I only had two days in Arequipa and it was one of the highlights (of several) of Peru for me. I loved the colours and serneity of the convent, the spirit, activity and energy of the people in the main square and the museum with the sacrificied Incan girl. The whole city had a wonderfful European feel to it with an pervading feel of peacefulness not present in the other Peruvian cities I visited. I agree on the food front – I never discovered anything too special in that area either.

    • Hi Mark: Funny how two people who are probably a great deal alike where travel is concerned, can have entirely different experiences in the same place. Arequipa was OK, but no great shakes for me but so many told me ahead of time how much they liked it. I’m writing off my lukewarm experience to the fact that I was still suffering from altitude sickness, and the lack of decent food I found there.

  6. I can understand how you feel.  Even when we travel, we have off days.  You can enjoy the worst place and be bored in the best.  Sometimes I think I love a problem…it just gets my mind going!

  7. That is too bad Barbara, ….very peaceful to me.  Sorry you did not enjoy it.  I am surprised though since reading your articles, I see us thinking a lot alike.  Guess that is why God made us all
    different.  Do know, you enjoyed Peru, in General……………….

  8. boring arequipa??? give me a break, I found it very European, as french I have to say that I enjoyed this city much more than Cusco, where everything is done for tourists. People in Arequipa are more indifferent, so you can melt with them easily. You should have contacted some people before you go there.

  9. I’ll have to agree…Arequipa was a jumping off point for Colca Canyon for me but not much more. I was only there for a few days…maybe if I stayed longer I would have found more that I liked.

  10. Thats a shame about your experience of Arequipa, we are due to pass through it on our trip this year but haven’t decided how long to go for.  Appreciate your honest guidance here, and will check out a few other blogs to see other peoples experiences!  Keep up the good work, I enjoy reading your articles.  

    • Thanks Barry. It’s really a lovely city, so don’t want to dissuade anyone. Some of it may have been that I was still suffering from altitude sickness, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there just wasn’t much going on in Arequipa.

  11. Interesting article. I was able to only spend one day in Arequipa last July and it was one place that I actually wished I could have spent more time. While the town itself and the monastery really don’t take a whole lot of time to see, there is the option to visit and climb the surrounding peaks that you mentioned if you’re into that sort of thing.

    This is one of the great things about travel. Everyone sees things differently.

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