Arequipa --Convents, Canyons & Condors

Peru's second largest city, Arequipa, is first in many intriguing ways that include an extraordinary religious site, and nearby canyons that are the world's deepest.

Because Arequipa's major buildings are built of gleaming blocks of white sillar volcanic lava stone this historic metropolis of one million inhabitants is known as "The White City."

First Impressions

Founded in 1541, today's arrivals quickly appreciate why the Spanish chose to settle here, for Arequipa lies at the base of the majestic, perfectly-coned El Misti Volcano and neighboring Nevada Chachani, both soaring over 19,000 ft., and both eternally snow covered.

Arequipa boasts an exceptionally crystal clear atmosphere, and a pleasant year 'round, mild, dry climate. The city's 7,800 ft. elevation, plus cooling winds from the nearby high Andes, ensure even the warmest days are refreshing.

Heart of the city is the spectacular Plaza de Armas where there's always something happening. If not a parade or ceremony there's usually a political rally or protest. Here the white sillar cathedral is one of Latin America's largest. The comfortable Sonesta Posada del Inca is right on the plaza, as is the Qosqo Inn with shared bath rooms for under US$5.

Also in the heart of the city at the Santuarios Andinos Museum one may inspect the famed Ice Maiden, popularly called "Juanita," who was a teen-age Inca girl apparently sacrificed in a religious ceremony 550 years ago in the wind-swept Andean ice fields of Nevado Ampato. The mummy is the first frozen pre-Colombian body ever found in the Andes. Displayed today in a refrigerated case one can learn the full story of her discovery from a documentary video shown hourly.

Shopping is popular in new mall, and with ever-present street vendors. Check out the new downtown tourist mall Patio del Ekeko where you can get a free coupon to use the fastest internet connection in town. Top buys here, and in many shops and markets, are alpaca and vicuna wear plus a wide assortment of artisan crafts. A great many restaurants offer truly exotic food (see below).

Santa Catalina Convent

Arequipa's main visitor attractions are unique. A visit to world-renown Santa Catalina Convent, in the very heart of the city's old quarter, is like stepping back into the 16th century. Often called Peru's most important religious construction the sprawling, high, thick walled complex was founded in 1574 under the patronage of Saint Catherine of Sienna, and its doors remained closed to the outside world until 1970.

The convent's narrow, winding streets that link over 80 cells remind one of Spain with names like Seville, Toledo and Granada. Here one may inspect where widely venerated Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo, a Santa Catalina Mother Superior lived in the 1600s. Her cell still contains furnishings and utensils she used over 300 years ago.

There is also a large collection of religious art now on display including over 400 paintings. Daily visiting hours are 9am-5pm. Admission is approx. US$7.

Colca Canyon

There's a second world-class attraction that draws travelers to Arequipa that's located four hours from town by car. It's the 11,179 ft. deep Colca Canyon where watching huge condors (10 ft. wing span) in flight is the most popular visitor activity. The local tour guide gag is that if you don't spot one quickly just lie down and play dead. These giant members of the vulture family will find you in a hurry.

Here the active traveler may also easily purchase locally sold trekking and hiking tours, plus white water rafting expeditions. There are a great many tour operators in the downtown area.

Colca and the condors may be seen in a full day excursion from Arequipa, but a two day/one night visit is recommended. There are several small hotels like the 10.650 ft. high Colca Lodge ( where overnights are arranged. Be prepared for cold, cold often windy nights.

Colca has long enjoyed fame as the world's deepest canyon, but there's an even deeper one nearby. Five hundred feet deeper than Colca is Cotahuasi Canyon where hiking tours are popular. Gastronomy If you travel to sample exotic food, one will quickly discover the menus here are some of the most intriguing in all Latin America. Get ready for rocoto relleno (stuffed red hot pepper), ocopa (potatoes in unripened cheese sauce), cuy (roasted guinea pig), adobo (marinated pork), pebre (cured llama soup), escribano (spicy, colorful salad), and plenty more! Wash it all down with chicha morada (scarlet-colored corn drink) or the local beer Arequipeña which is excellent. The popular tour restaurant is the 104 year-old Sol de Mayo, a five minute taxi ride from the center of town.

-- Jim Woodman

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