Arequipa sits at a very manageable altitude, has over 300 days of sunshine a year and is a mecca for culture-, history- and food lovers.
1. The Weather, Altitude and Size of the City
Arequipa sits at a very manageable altitude of 7,600 feet (2,300 meters) right at the convergence zone between the Atacama Desert and the high Andes. The city boasts 300 days of sunshine a year on average, low humidity, and average daytime temperatures in the low 70’s—in other words, it’s an absolutely splendid climate.
For travellers who are worried about how the high altitude is going to affect them in Cusco (11,200 feet) or Lake Titicaca (12,500 feet), Arequipa makes a perfect acclimatization stop for a couple of nights before moving on to higher elevations. Also, if you like nice weather, consider that during the “high season” of tourism in Peru between June through August, Lima is cloaked in cold heavy fog those months while Arequipa is marvellous.
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, so flights from Lima (only 1:20 hrs. flight time) are leaving almost every half an hour from sunset to sundown, so you can pretty much connect right to Arequipa on arrival in Lima easily, and then fly directly on to Cusco from Arequipa. Also, if you want the culture and vibrancy that a city offers, but are turned off by traffic and total mass humanity of Lima, Arequipa is only about a million people vs the nine million of Lima. It’s a very manageable size and a joy to explore on foot or by short car trips. Combine the weather, elevation, size, and all there is to do in Arequipa, and it makes a great alternative to Lima for the right travellers.
2. The Variety of Things to Do
Being Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa offers visitors a huge variety of experiences. It’s also easily escaped, if you like cities but need some outdoor time as well. There is fantastic white-water rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding right around the city outskirts.
Arequipa is extremely picturesque on many levels. The city is ringed by three huge volcanoes which can be seen from the city centre (Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu) and are snow-capped during certain times of the year.
Due to these volcanoes, the entire city is built using a blocks of bright white volcanic stone called “sillar” which are often painted bright colours that give it an almost Portuguese flair of sophistication. The architecture in Arequipa is one-of-a-kind due to the use of this stone, and a joy to lay your eyes on.
The most visited attraction in Arequipa is the Santa Catalina Monastery which is a sprawling historical complex right in the city centre—a wonderful meditative experience is to just wander through this complex as you soak up the colours, textures, and serenity of this monastic oasis in the city centre.
For museums, Arequipa has a total jewel in the “Museum of Andean Sanctuaries.” This museum houses “Juanita the Ice Maiden;” the mummy of a young girl who was sacrificed during an Incan ritual on nearby Mount Ampato sometime between 1450-1480. She was discovered by mountain climbers in 1995. The high dry air kept her perfectly preserved—even her braided hair and the contents of her stomach were perfectly preserved. (In fact, most confirmed research that has been done on Incan ceremonial customs stems from Juanita.) The museum provides an incredible background in understanding the Incas connection with the earth.
There are lively markets to explore and to see the bounty of ingredients produced in Peru, and fantastic dining experiences throughout the city. Culturally, Arequipa is the Peruvian centre for art and literature and was the home of Peru’s most famous author and activist, Mario Vargas Llosa, who won a Nobel prize for literature. His home has been converted into a splendid interactive museum—well worth a visit.
Sitting in the lively Plaza de Armas at sunset, listening to children's laughter as they play tag between the towering date palms, watching the colours reflecting off the white sillar stone of the Cathedral, the perfect temperature enveloping you with a backdrop of Andean volcanoes…is simply an unforgettable experience. Simply put, a couple of days in Arequipa will leave you not wanting to leave. It’s the most pleasant atmosphere of a city in Peru, hands down.
3. Overland Trips from Arequipa
CIRQA, a new Relais & Chateaux property in Arequipa, was conceived as the sister property of Titilaka, another incredible property on Lake Titicaca. The properties are in sync and if combining them on the same trip, you can check in at one and check out at the other. The full day overland journey between Arequipa and Lake Titicaca is wonderful and well off the beaten path. The route takes you right through the middle of the close to one-million-acre “Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve.”
This reserve consists of large altiplano grasslands and massive volcanoes, the grasslands are brimming with massive herds of llama, alpaca, vicuna, and guanaco—all the species of Andean camelids. There also exist tranquil lagoons and wetlands, full of Andean flamingo and crested ducks. Many small indigenous communities are located along this route, whose inhabitants make a traditional living from the herding of Andean camelid species for wool and meat. It’s a rare corner of Peru that most visitors don’t get to see, undisturbed by the mass tourism of the Cusco and Machu Picchu areas.
Arequipa is also the gateway to the Colca Canyon, the second deepest river canyons in the world at 10,730 feet deep. It’s pre-Incan and pre-Colombian inhabitants, the Collagua and Cabana, have carved out a mesmerizing mosaic of terraces throughout the valley which still sustain them. A visit to the Colca Canyon usually consists of visiting the cute colonial towns, visits with the indigenous communities, soaking in natural hot springs, hikes along the canyon rim, and a visit to “Cruz del Condor”—arguably the best place in South America to witness the majestic Andean Condor soar.
The Andean Condor population has been well protected for many years and nest in the canyon walls. They begin soaring on their massive wingspans, which can reach up to 10 feet, mid-morning when the thermals build in the increasing warmth of the sun. The Colca Canyon can be visited to or from Arequipa for a couple of nights, or can be a stopover on the overland route to Lake Titicaca and Titilaka.