Arequipa – the white city surrounded by volcanoes

Arequipa is the second biggest city in Peru. It is surrounded by 6000m high volcanoes and is often called the white city, as most of the buildings are made from white volcanic rock. It is also home to one of the largest and most beautiful convents in the world.

After spending some eventful days in Cuzco, with excursions both to Machu Picchu and to the Rainbow Mountain, the next stop on our itinerary was Arequipa. Arequipa lies in the south of Peru and it is the country’s second biggest city. The city is surrounded by three large volcanoes: El Misti (5822m), Chachani (6057m) and Picchu Picchu  (5664m), and most of the city is actually built from white volcanic rock (called sillar) from these volcanoes. This has given the city the nickname Ciudad Blanca (the white city), and the center of Arequipa is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral of Arequipa

The main city square of the city, Plaza de Armas is flanked by a beautiful and enormous white cathedral. It is actually 84m wide and it covers the entire width of the plaza. Behind the cathedral, the large volcano El Misti rises up into the sky.

The lookout of El Mirador de Yanahuara with the volcano El Misti in the background

Arequipa is famous for some of the best food in Peru. Some local dishes include rocoto relleno (stuffed Peruvian chili peppers), adobo arequipeño (pork loin marinated in vinegar and spices) and chupe de camarones (a soup made of fresh seafood). There are lots of good picanterías (traditional, communal restaurants) scattered around the city.

You can also find a large and very beautiful convent here: the Monastery of Santa Catalina. It is actually a 20.000 square meter complex with walls around it – almost like an entire city inside the city. It was founded in 1580 by the rich widow Doña María de Guzmán. The nuns that lived here spent the rest of their lives in the convent and they never went outside the walls of the complex. All its buildings are painted in red, blue or white and they are decorated with beautiful flowers and ceramics. We spent an entire afternoon here just wandering around and taking photos.

Santa Catalina Monastery
Santa Catalina Monastery
Santa Catalina Monastery
Santa Catalina Monastery

We were lucky enough to have a friend in Arequipa, who showed us around in the city and he also took us to some very nice scenic spots and restaurants. One of these is the Mirador de Yanahuara, which offers great views over the city and the surrounding volcanoes through its arches. We also walked around in the Claustros de la Compañia, which is a beautiful courtyard made up of white sillar stones full of arabic-style and very detailed carvings. The area is surrounded by chic cafes, restaurants and alpaca-wool shops.

Dinner with a view at Ascai 360, with a panoramic view to Plaza de Armas and the cathedral
The rooftop at Ascai 360 before dawn. You can see the cathedral and El Misti in the background

On our first evening, our friend had booked a table at Ascai 360, which is a rooftop restaurant where you can see the sunset and enjoy a panoramic view over Plaza de Armas, the cathedral and most of Arequipa. We enjoyed a barbeque dinner with skewers of llama and alpaca meat along with chicken, beef and traditional Peruvian hot sauces such as ají and salsa de rocoto.

Lunch with our friend Aldo at the traditional picantería called La Nueva Palomino

The next day we had lunch at La Nueva Palomino, a famous picantería that serves enormous portions of traditional, Arequipan dishes. For a night snack, we went for anticuchos, the famous Peruvian street food, which consists of grilled beaf hearts on a skewer.

The courtyard of Los Claustros de la Compañia made of white sillar rock with arabic carvings

At our final day in Arequipa, we took part in the free city tour, which is a free guided tour that leaves every day from Plaza de Armas. The guides work only for a voluntary tip, and they show you and explain the history about the city and its most famous attractions. They also took us for a chicha (a very typical drink made of fermented corn) at another one of the city’s rooftop bars. We visited Mundo Alpaca, which is a local textile company with lots of llamas and alpacas onsite, where can you witness how the fiber from llamas, alpacas and vicuñas are sorted, treated and finally woven into traditional Peruvian clothes. Before leaving the city, we also went for a short visit to the quarries of sillar, where you can see how the white volcanic rock is extracted, cut and carved.

Before leaving, we went out to have drinks with our friend at a great bar called La Cachona near the Santa Catalina Monastery, where the bar disk is made by a Volkswagen Transporter cut in half. They offer a wide selection of delicious drinks (their own inventions) and the whole interior is decorated with vintage items such as old radios, telephones, bicycles and road signs.

Trying delicious drinks with our friend Aldo at the bar La Cachona

Next up is Máncora, that lies in the north of Peru and has a more tropical climate, where we will spend our last few days in Peru at the beach. Hasta luego!

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