One of the highlights of any trip to South America is exploring centuries old Spanish colonial cities. These little pieces of Europe are scattered all over this wild continent, and Arequipa is one of the nicest. We spent a few days relaxing in Arequipa before and after our trip to Colca Canyon (make sure you go there!). If you’re planning on spending two days in Arequipa the list of things to do below is a great place to start, but if you want to relax and spend some time in a picturesque little city I’d recommend dedicating some extra time there.
Walking the Old Town Streets
White houses, made from the rocks of volcanoes which tower of the city, line the cobblestone streets of the old town. We walked around most of this historic area during our time in Arequipa and there was always something new to see. On one occasion we walked all the way from the central plaza to a lookout point above town. There are some really nice little streets and lanes all over that part of the city and it’s worth spending a few hours wandering around. Use caution of course — cities in South America are known for their high crime rates. I never carried my camera around my neck while out and about and always tried to avoid walking down quiet streets at night time.
Arequipa has the perfect mix of colonial grandeur and natural beauty. El Misti, the massive volcano which towers of Arequipa, is visible from many parts of town, but for the best views head to Yanahuara. We walked there but a lot of people go by taxi or as part of a tour. There’s a small church up there as well as a cafe. The views are awesome — the snow-capped mountains and volcanoes remind you of how high up you are. Arequipa sits at 2300 metres about sea leavel — if you’re heading to Colca Canyon (which at places is over 4000 metres above sea level) it’d be a good idea to adjust to the altitude by walking as much as you can in and around Arequipa. You can also hike to the top of El Misti if you’re feeling like a challenge!
Plaza de Armas
One of the features you can rely on seeing in a Spanish colonial city is a central plaza. Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas is one of the nicest in Latin America. The massive square is lined with old white buildings containing shops and restaurants. It gets pretty busy, especially at night when locals come out to eat ice-creams and hang out. It’s worth heading to the upper levels of one of the buildings to see the plaza from above. We went to an art gallery (which was free) — the art was average but the views were great!
Santa Catalina Monastery
This has to be the ultimate colonial monastery and is Arequipa’s must-see sight. It’s more like a small town than any monastery I’ve seen. There are rows of colourful houses spread along narrow lanes and the whole thing takes a good couple of hours to explore. I wrote a full post about Santa Catalina Monastery (click the link below to read it), so I won’t go into too much detail here.
FURTHER READING: Walking the Streets of the Santa Catalina Monastery
Two Days in Arequipa: Tips
- Where to stay: There are lots of hotels and guesthouses in Arequipa. We stayed in two different ones, both close to Santa Catalina Monastery, and they were decent enough for the price (around 50 soles). We didn’t book ahead but it might be worth it, especially if you’re arriving on an overnight bus like we did.
- What to eat in Arequipa: We stumbled on a small food court featuring McDonald’s and KFC close to Plaza de Armas. After months of eating less than inspiring food in Central America, Colombia and Ecuador we were happy to have some home comforts. Peruvian food is pretty good though and there are some nice looking restaurants in the old town. We ate Chifa (Chinese food) a lot in Peru and it’s actually really good — definitely seek it out if you’re craving good Asian food.
- Getting to Arequipa: We travelled around most of Peru with Peru Hop, a hop on hop off bus service. It’s kind of halfway between an organised tour and independent travel. It makes it easy to meet people and organise accommodation / tours, but it also gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace and customise your experience. The Peru Hop overnight bus from Huacachina (via Nasca) was pretty comfortable and the roads were fairly straight. We arrived at around 4 am which wasn’t ideal, but the bus stops at a well lit hostel which you can hang out at even if you’re not staying there.
- Booking a Colca Canyon trek: Most people visiting Arequipa also do a trek or tour of Colca Canyon. Travel agents all over town sell these tours so it’s a good idea to shop around. We booked a two day trek for 90 soles per person, which included transport, food and a night in a guesthouse. It’d be hard to do it independently for much less — we don’t usually opt for tours but it was worth it (it’s definitely not easy though!).
Spending two days in Arequipa will allow you to see most of the city’s sights, but if you’re looking to slow down and spend a few quiet days in a picturesque city then this is the perfect place to do it.
Have you been to South America? Which was your favourite colonial city? Let me know in the comments below!
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