Arequipa is Peru's second most populated city. It is known as the White City and, in my humble opinion, is the most beautiful city in Peru. Many of the buildings are constructed with Sillar. This white volcanic stone gives Arequipa a unique, pearly appearance.
With so much to do around Cusco, Arequipa is often an afterthought on travel itineraries. However, Arequipa is a destination in its own right. There are plenty of adventure activities as well as historical and cultural gems.
The city has a relaxed vibe with beautiful architecture and good food. Many a nomad has been charmed into staying weeks beyond their initial plans.
Don't miss the chance to discover Arequipa's appeal for yourself. Here are my 10 favourite things to do in Arequipa - making them 10 reasons not to miss spending time in The White City.
How To Get to Arequipa
Arequipa is located about 500km / 310 miles south of Cusco. You can fly into Arequipa from either Lima or Cusco. If you have more time or are on a tight budget, you can take the bus. Multiple bus companies run routes between these major cities.
The 10 Best Things to do In Arequipa
1. Trek Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is the number one reason tourists end up in Arequipa. This huge canyon is around 3,400m / 11,155 ft at its deepest point. It may surprise you to know that this is twice as deep as the world-famous Grand Canyon.
Daily sightseeing tours depart from Arequipa to the canyon. Feeling more adventurous? Trekkers can spend two or three days hiking the Colca Canyon trails.
Viewpoints over the canyon are a good opportunity to see Condors. You can also soak in natural hot springs or go ziplining over this massive ravine.
2. Get Your Adrenaline Fix White Water Rafting
When I first saw whitewater rafting advertised in Arequipa, I didn’t have any expectations. The tours were cheap and I doubted that decent rapids existed in this dry landscape. Boy was I wrong!
You can choose from morning or afternoon tours. The company picks you up from your hostel and takes you to their office. Here, you will put on a wetsuit, life jacket, booties, and a splash jacket. When everyone's dressed, you will get back on the bus and drive 10 minutes up the river.
The inflatable boats take four people each, plus a guide. I received a short but sufficient briefing on safety. I also learned some signals which we’d need on the rapids. Then we were off!
This turned out to be much less of a Mickey-Mouse excursion than anticipated. Most of the rapids are fairly easy (level 1 or 2) but there are some hair-raising level 3’s and even a level 4 rapid or two.
At times, I thought the little boat was a goner. Luckily, the guides are professionals at ‘guiding gringos down white water’. If you are not an overly anxious person, this is a super fun experience!
Please Note: It’s well worth paying the additional 10 soles for photographs. The photographer will get ahead of the rapids, and you will get the best shots of you looking thrilled and/or terrified.
Almost every tour office sells 3-hour rafting tours for 40 soles. With a little Spanish, you can immediately get a small discount.
3. People watch in Arequipa Plaza De Armas or Mirador Yanahuara
Plaza de Armas and Mirador Yanahuara are two of Arequipas most popular plazas. There is always a fascinating blend of locals and tourists under the palm trees in these squares.
Appreciate the simplicity that comes with sipping coffee and making small talk on a park bench. Children blow bubbles and play around the fountains. Street musicians provide the perfect background music.
Plaza de Armas is the heart of Arequipa's historic and tourist area. The plaza is surrounded by classic white architecture. Most magnificent of all buildings is the renowned spired Basilica.
The Yanahuara viewpoint is a much smaller park. You will find it in the Yanahuara neighborhood, a 15-minute walk across the river from Plaza de Armas. This is a popular spot to take a picture under white stone arches with the El Misti Volcano in the background.
4. Meet a Mummy
Jaunita is probably the most famous 14-year-old in Peru. Sadly, she has been dead for over 500 years. The girl was a citizen of the Incan empire and sacrificed sometime between 1440 and 1480.
Child sacrifices were a common Incan practice. These rituals were done to appease Pachamama and avoid natural disasters.
The mummy is also known as the Lady of Ampato as she was discovered on Mount Ampato. This dormant volcano can be seen from Arequipa. The ice on top of the volcano preserved the body particularly well.
You can find Juanita at Museo Santuarios Andinos. For an entrance fee of 20 soles ($6), you will get a guided tour of the museum. You will also be shown some artifacts that were discovered alongside the mummy in 1995.
Please Note: You are strictly forbidden from taking photos of Juanita. You will have to leave your camera or phone in lockers at the entrance.
5. Tour A Nunnery - Monastario de Santa Catalina
The Santa Catalina Monastery is like exploring a hidden city within the city. Maria de Guzman founded this establishment in 1579. She was, by all accounts, a very wealthy widow.
Back then, it was a great privilege to join the monastery. Families paid a high price for their daughters to get in. Only nuns entered the monastery for almost 400 years. Back in the day, around 400 nuns were residents. Today, only 20 nuns live here.
In 1970, their doors were opened to the public. Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a photographer's heaven. When you enter, you are immediately taken aback by the beauty of the rough, painted walls and terracotta flowerpots. You can spend hours in this maze of narrow streets.
The monastery is open from Monday-Sunday between 9am to 6pm. On Thursdays, the gates are open until 8:30 for evening tours.
The entrance fee costs 45 soles. This is pretty steep as far as historical attractions go. However, I do think it is worth it. Plus, you will get an interesting guided tour.
6. Eat your way through the city
Arequipa is often referred to as the Foodie Capital of Peru. Here, you will find a blend of local specialties together with typical Peruvian and international dishes.
As far as restaurants go, Paprika is a good choice for traditional meals prepared to high standards. If you are craving something spicy, India Indian Cuisine does a good curry. Prana Vegan Club is unbeatable value with its 12-15 soles lunch menu.
Don’t miss a chance to try some of Peru’s most famous street food. Look out for small carts beside the streets with the following Peruvian favourites:
These are potato pockets stuffed with minced beef, vegetables, and egg.
A sandwich filled with a slice of deep-fried pork.
These are savory, steamed corn pockets. Arequipa’s specialty is to stuff these snacks with Rocota rellena (red pepper) sauce.
Queso Helado (cheese ice cream)
Despite its name, this is a delicious dessert made of coconut, condensed milk, eggs and evaporated milk. You will find ladies selling queso helado from wooden barrels around the plazas.
7. Visit Salinas de Aguada Blanca National Reserve
Aguada Blanca National Reserve is just under 100km / 62 miles outside of Arequipa. Sadly, most people only stop here for 20 minutes on their way to the Colca Canyon.
Nature enthusiasts will find it worthwhile to spend at least one full day here. There are several hiking trails available to explore the reserve and look for wildlife.
Peru has its own salt flats. You can access them in the park and take some fun pictures. There are also natural hot springs to soak in during your visit.
Not many people know it, but you can see cave paintings in Salinas de Aguada Blanca. There are animal figures on the rock in Sumbay Caves. These paintings are some of the oldest and best preserved in all of Latin America.
8. Trek to the Summit Of El Misti Volcano
El Misti is the standout, conical volcano hovering over Arequipa. The Gentleman has a maximum altitude of 5,822m / 19,101 ft. Most people are content to take pictures of this impressive feature. Others are going to find themselves itching to reach the top.
This is not your average, touristy trek though. El Misti Volcano is a proper challenge with two days of hard ascent. Many people who attempt to summit the volcano don't make it.
If you are up for the challenge, you will be rewarded with an isolated campsite high above the sparkling city of Arequipa. The 360-degree view from the smouldering volcano crater is quite breathtaking.
9. Hang Out with the 4-legged Gang at Mundo Alpaca
Alpaca Mundo’s goal is to educate the public about the history of Peru’s textiles. The best part is that you get to feed and interact with the resident herd of Alpacas and Llamas.
Mundo Alpaca is within walking distance from the main square in Arequipa. If you are traveling with your family, this is the perfect place to take your kids. And quite honestly, who doesn’t love an alpaca cuddle?
There’s no pressure to buy anything, but the onsite shop does sell good quality wool products. There is also a small museum featuring different machinery and ancient textiles.
The entrance to Mundo is absolutely free!
10. Visit A Sillar Quarry
Most of Arequipa’s architecture is built from white volcanic stone. This is mined at several quarries on the outskirts of town. Daily tours are available to these mine sites.
For around 35 soles / $9, you will be taken to some of the main quarries. You will get a brief intro on the history and process of carving sillar. You will also have the chance to walk around and pose for photos with elaborate and large sculptures.
I wouldn’t pick this as my first activity in Arequipa though. However, if you have some time, it’s a pretty unique thing to see in Peru before heading home.
If you have a car, it’s easy to drive yourself and pay the 5 sole quarry entrance fee. You can also get there by colectivo, but the hassle of figuring out where to get on and then swap minibuses is not worth it.