Most of the times I recommend to my client-travelers that one way or the other they must spend some days in Arequipa with the intention of getting gradually acclimatized to the elevation, and for instance, to minimize the altitude sickness. The feedback I get is normally their appreciation for my concern about their health, but overall, in the end, they mention it was one of their favorite destinations.
Even when Arequipa does not count with the same level of recognition by the tourism industry as the city of Cusco, I have to admit it is also one of my favorite places.
Average annual temperature 71°F to 44°F
Average humidity 75%
Elevation 7660 ft
Rainy season from December to April
Flight time from Lima 1:28 h
Road-crossings and contrasts
Arequipa was the country’s capital during part of the colony until Lima took its place after the independence from the Spaniards. It is the second largest city and thanks to its strategic location it is also a place where people from the coast, as well as from the Andes, and from neighboring countries like Bolivia and Chile find their home.
If you get to Arequipa by plane you will be surprised by the enormous desert surroundings, the green valleys watered by the Chili River, and the 3 impressive volcanoes: Misti, Pichupichu and Chachani, visible during most part of the year either snowcapped or smoking. Moreover, Arequipa has one of the most pleasant weathers of all Peru and a blue sky that has inspired painters like Ricardo Córdova.
The originality of Arequipa’s architecture comes from a mixture of colonial, republican and indigenous influences. The city’s downtown was declared World Heritage by UNESCO. Many of its buildings are made of white ashlar which gives it its unique style; this rock is actually a combination of different chemical compounds that solidified about 1 million years ago, after the volcanic eruptions. Arequipa has many quarries around the city that can be visited.
Santa Catalina Monastery
For many travelers it might sound boring to visit a monastery, especially if coming from Europe, but nothing further from the reality, and I say this coming from Spain, where monasteries are all over. What I personally love is that it has ashlar foundations and its hallways are painted coral red and deep blue making of it a very Instagram-able subject.
Its founder, Lady María de Guzmán, considered very beautiful and wealthy, but incapable of having offspring, decided to enclose herself in the monastery and to donate all its yards to the complex, and that is how Lady María Guzmán was declared “first inhabitant and prior of the monastery”.
Juanita the ice-maiden
The corpse of Juanita created a big scientific revolt when discovered by two climbers looking to reach the summit of the Ampato Volcano that stumbled upon an almost perfectly preserved feminine body. The autopsy revealed that Juanita was ritually sacrificed, demonstrating that the Incas used to kill to please their god.
You can visit Juanita at the Museo Santuarios Andinos, only a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, and being sure that your money will be well invested in a good exhibition and guides.
These traditional restaurants evolved from the simpler chicherías –chicha is a beverage made of fermented corn that in time started getting accompanied by spicy (picantes) dishes. The always ongoing cultural mix led to a combination of products from different regions and gave pass to identitarian gastronomy. Nowadays, a picantería is a mandatory stop for all travelers.
The culinary critic Ignacio Medina comments about one of the most recognized picanterías by cook Mónica Huerta: “…if you visit Arequipa and do not stop over La Nueva Palomino you have thrown away more than half of your trip.”
Medina recommends: almendrado de pato or chuño negro molido con carne de res, ocopa, panceta macerada en chicha de guiñapo, loros (licca) con cau cau de huevera, or zarza de lapas.
On the road to the Colca Canyon
I remember when looking at my guidebook while planning my visit to the Colca Canyon, as it said it was twice the depth compared to the Colorado Canyon and the second deepest after Cotahuasi. Something that the rankings lovers might find interesting as this last record-breaking canyon is also located in Arequipa.
I have had the luck of visiting the canyon many times, first as a tourist, and then to work with the communities of Coporaque, Yanque, and Sibayo, with whom we keep a stretch relationship of collaboration. To visit the Colca Valley communities is a wonderful experience.
Coporaque is located at the high section of the canyon and its inhabitants descend from the Collagua, who had bounds with the Aymara who practiced the tradition of banding the babies’ skulls to give them elongated forms, it is believed it had the intention to resemble the shape of the Collagua volcano. The Cabanas, on their side, lived at the more fertile low section of the valley and spoke Quechua, they gave to the skulls a more flat and broad shape. There is evidence that the Incas and the Collaguas got to an agreement and the local customs were respected by the great empire as long as tributes were paid.
The Spaniards under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro arrived in 1540 and relocated the populations in the settlements we nowadays know as the main towns.
What to do?
Better to ask: What cannot be done? This wonderful valley offers all kinds of activities for the outdoorsy: mountain bike for all levels, horseback riding, soft or hard hikes, rafting, etc. But you can also just relax at the hot springs or enjoy watching the rural activities at the crop fields or the corrals.
Cruz del Cóndor (The Condor’s Cross)
The rule is to wake up early to visit the Cruz del Cóndor. At arrival, you might experience the feeling of having difficulties to focus only on one thing or to appreciate the greatness of the site as a whole, and not to get too distracted by the crowds, especially during high season (June to September). Having the canyon at sight you just have to lift your eyesight to see the majestic condor soaring above your head and to feel envy about its power. Its size makes of it the unbeatable largest land bird of the world, a sacred animal for many cultures even for coastal ones, like the Nazca, who left a gigantic geoglyph as evidence.
When to go?
The best season to go to the Colca can vary according to the interests, but to avoid the rain is a wise choice, even though they are less predictable, between December and April is when there is a higher probability of it raining. The rest of the year the weather is very nice and stable. The fields and grasslands will gradually change from intense colors to golden as the end of the rainy season progresses, so if you are looking to have a view of the landscape based on that variable, keep count of it.
To me, the perfect combination is to overnight at homestays for two or three days, and if the budget allows it I like to get spoiled at Casitas del Colca or at Colca Lodge, and enjoy the hot springs.
You can also check our Blog and find a very complete post of recommended hotels between Arequipa and the Colca Valley, but you can definitively count on my assistance to help you out in designing your trip to Arequipa and Peru 100% tailor-made, fitting all your wishes, needs, and budget.
This post was originally published in December 2018 and last updated in November 2021.