We knew very little about Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Arequipa is surrounded by picturesque mountains and volcanoes, has pretty architecture (with buildings made out of white volcanic stone) and delicious food. As an added bonus, it also has a mild climate with beautiful warm sunny days and cooler nights. We spent six days exploring the city and hiking the nearby Colca Canyon.
We took an instant liking to Arequipa and were glad that we had a few days to explore (and also to relax). We began with a free walking tour of the city with Free Tour Downtown Arequipa. We always like a good walking tour when we arrive to a new city and whilst this tour was not particularly exceptional it was still definitely worth doing to get an overview of the city.
One of the main tourist sights in Arequipa is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina which is an active convent in the middle of the city. According to TripAdvisor it is the number one thing to do in the city and the Lonely Planet says it is not too be missed. At over $USD10 per ticket we hesitated but decided to visit. Whilst the Monastery’s grounds are indeed beautiful and there is religious art on display, I just didn’t get it and would have preferred to spend my $10+ on a good pisco sour (or two) instead.
However, I did love the Museo Santuarios Andinos and would go as far as saying that this tiny museum was one of the most interesting museums that I have ever been to. This is the place where you can see (most of the year) the Mummy Juanita. A preserved body of a young girl, around the age of 12, who was killed as an offering to the Inca gods and was found on top of Mount Ampato (which is about 6,000m high). As her body was frozen immediately after death and was wrapped up in cloths, it is in an incredible condition – for example you can see the actual skin on her hands and her fingernails. Unfortunately, due to an earthquake her body rolled partially down the mountain and her face was exposed to sun and thus was damaged. It is a bit morbid but Juanita’s story and the museum made me totally fascinated with the Inca culture. The Incas believed that earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters were an expression of the anger of the gods and to prevent such events made human offerings. Juanita was one of the children selected at birth from such offerings. The children were taken away from their parents and received specific education all leading up to the moment of offering. When they were chosen to be offered these children had to walk over 500km from Cusco and then hike up the incredibly high mountains (only to be killed at the top). I can’t even imagine how a small child could have made such a difficult journey but it was believed to be a great honour to be offered to the gods. A visit to the museum is by a guided tour only (our group size was less than 10) and starts with a short video, you are then taken through little rooms where you can see various Inca artefacts and finally Juanita herself. Maybe not everyone would enjoy it as much as we did, but we found it super interesting.
We also visited Yanahuara, a view point not far from town from which you can see the city below and also the Misti Volcano. It is a nice walk to the view point and you get to see some llamas on route – a sight that you never get sick of. At the top there there are also various vendors selling souvenirs and crafts. Finally, we briefly visited the San Camillo Market – a bustling market where you can purchase some fruit and snacks for your hiking trips.
You can’t come to Arequipa and not visit the Colca Canyon. The Colca Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world and is home to one of the biggest birds in the world, the mighty Andean condor. There are various tours on offer to the Canyon ranging from day trips to three day trips. We chose the 2 day / 1 night tour with Peru Andes. At 100 Soles (about $USD30) including all transfers, two breakfasts, lunch and dinner it was great value and we had a good guide. The food was simple and the portions were small but at that price our expectations weren’t particularly high. The overnight accommodation at the oasis (at the bottom of the Canyon) was very basic but Dale and I got a private room (at no extra charge) and there was a hot shower which was a nice bonus.
As with most other tours, our pick-up was at 3am. The Colca Canyon is a few hours drive from Arequipa and after a quick stop for breakfast we arrived at our first official stop around 8am. This is the viewing platform from which you can see the condors. We were lucky to see tens of condors flying above us and in the valley below but the next day there were none so apparently this is not guaranteed.
The two day hike of the Colca Canyon basically involves hiking all the way down to the bottom of the canyon and then hiking back up. So on the first day we walked down hill for about six hours before arriving at the oasis. We looked forward to jumping into a pool on our arrival and were enticed with views of a really nice pool (from above) which turned out not to be ours. Unfortunately, our pool was dirty and not inviting (I guess $30 really does only stretch so far!) but there was a bar, so we spent our evening drinking beers and chatting to all the French or French Canadians who were doing the tour – out of 20 plus people in two tour groups, Dale, Carla and I were the only non-French speakers.
The following morning we left our accommodation at 4.45am beginning our ascent in the dark. The hike up takes normally around two and a half to three hours and with greeted teeth we smashed it in under two. After waiting for our group, we walked to breakfast and then hopped back on our bus making. We made a few stops on the way back to Arequipa – at a beautiful view point where we could see the farming terraces below us; on the side of the road from where we had a great view of the grazing llamas and alpacas; and the most enjoyable stop of all, the hot springs. The hot springs really hit the spot after hours of hiking!
We stayed at Vallecito Backpackers a little bit out of town. The place was more of a guesthouse than a hostel but what it lacked in a social vibe it made up with very warm hospitality, clean shared bathrooms and yummy pancakes for breakfast. The lady who ran the place even gave us big hugs as we were leaving. Another bonus of Vallecito was that it was located just around the corner from a great coffee shop, Palacios Coffee which we visited almost daily. We later also discovered a good coffee place in town, Huayruro.
Another gem in Arequipa was the El Buda Profano, a vegan sushi restaurant. We went there three times and could have easily gone again time permitting – who knew vegan sushi could taste so good? We also liked (and ate a couple of times at) an Indian restaurant appropriately named India, and the tasty arepas at the hole in the wall, Arepa Fusion.
Next: we catch the night bus to Cusco.