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Living it up in Arequipa, Peru’s ‘White City’

When asked to name a place in Peru, most people probably first think of Machu Picchu, or if they remember their Paddington Bear particularly well, perhaps the capital, Lima. However, I’ve always liked to try and do things a little differently, so when I last had the chance to spend a solid month in Peru, I thought it would be good to base myself somewhere else. Being lucky enough to have some pretty good friends in Peru, I managed to find someone who knew someone, whose apartment was going to be vacant in the beautiful city of Arequipa, and so with bags packed, I set off for the foothills of the Andes!

Yanahuara, Arequipa, Peru

Located right in the south of Peru, down near the Chilean border, Arequipa has a long and proud history, supposedly being founded by an Inca emperor who, on reaching the crossing of the Rio Chili while touring around his empire, said “Are Quepay” – “We’ll stay here”. Reputable historians do tend to pooh-pooh this founding myth but it’s still a good story! What is certain is that there was a small Inca town here when the conquistadores turned up and did what they do best: destroying just about everything and then re-building a settlement that was a mirror image of the towns they’d left behind in Spain. So although there’s nothing left of the original Inca town, Arequipa today has beautiful colonial architecture with a gorgeous colonnaded main square, pretty cobbled streets, and exquisite churches on every corner.

Unlike other colonial towns in Peru, however, Arequipa’s historic buildings are all constructed out of the local sillar granite, which is almost white in colour. It has to be said that it makes the buildings look even more attractive, and it’s why Arequipa is known throughout Peru as la Ciudad Blanca or “the White City”. In fact, the centre is incredibly well-preserved, with very little in the way of modern demolition, and at the turn of the millennium, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site – something for which many Peruvians had campaigned for years.

Living in the Historic Centre

Although Arequipa is Peru’s second-largest city, it doesn’t have the sprawl of the capital, Lima, and the historic centre is definitely still at the heart of things. Most of the city’s best restaurants, bars and shops are here, for example, as well as the major tourist sites. It’s also easy to get from the centre out to any other areas of the city, so I was pretty happy that my friend’s apartment was just a couple of blocks from the main square. Located on Palacio Viejo, it’s also just a couple of blocks from the river, and a short walk from the tranquil, tree-filled Vallecito district where some other friends of mine were living.

I was only in Arequipa for a month, but it soon becomes clear why there is a sizeable ex-pat community here, mostly made up of people who came for a short visit and ended up staying. Arequipa has always been relatively prosperous in Peruvian terms, and the more general growth of Peru’s middle class is particularly evident here in the number and quality of new cafes, restaurants and shops since I first visited a few years ago. It all feels very civilised indeed, especially when you learn about a few semi-hidden secrets like the bookshop just off Calle Jerusalen where you can enjoy a coffee with the owner and spend some time discussing the latest releases in Spanish and English; or the gorgeous art gallery and café upstairs from the La Compañia cloisters.

And the weather’s uniformly great as well – it’s not known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for nothing. So if you’re a retiree looking for somewhere comfortable to spend a few years, or perhaps a backpacker who wants to settle down for a while, Arequipa is definitely a tempting choice. The only downside really is that cultural life is a bit limited if you’re used to the offer in, say, a European city of similar size. Not that there’s nothing going on, but if you value regular nights at the theatre, concerts or visiting art exhibitions, things can be a bit limited.

Eating Out and Nightlife in Arequipa

However, one of the great pleasures in living anywhere in Peru is the ready access to some of the world’s finest food (if that’s news to you then try getting a table at either of the two new Peruvian restaurants in London, by the way!) and Arequipa is no exception. Many are set in historic buildings with the classic Arequipa barrel-vaulted ceilings and are hugely atmospheric, while the food more than lives up to the surroundings. There are offshoots of trendy Lima places such as Chicha but for my money, you’re best off trying places like Hatunpa or El Viñedo, which specialise in traditional Arequipeña cuisine. When I say that much of this is based on potatoes, you might not get that excited, but then you might not have seen what Peruvians can do with potatoes! This is where they come from, after all, and the variety of different types makes our Maris Pipers and King Edwards look a bit lonely – in Arequipa’s huge Central Market you’ll find literally scores of different types of potatoes, with wildly varying flavours and consistencies. Favourite dishes of mine include Ocopa (yellow potatoes in a spicy sauce) and the rich, creamy pastel de papa potato cakes. Trust me: you’ll never go back to chips!

As with the rest of Peru, you’ll also find the ubiquitous Peruvian-Chinese hybrid known as chifa absolutely everywhere, and El Gavilan on Puente Bolognesi is a cracker: incredibly cheap tallarines noodle dishes, cooked to order in just a couple of minutes, so if you’re looking for something less formal, this definitely comes highly recommended.

Catalina Fountain, Arequipa, Peru

Catalina Fountain, Arequipa, Peru

And if you fancy some drinks and dancing after your meal then Arequipa won’t disappoint. There are plenty of bars and clubs in and around the centre, but if you really want to experience proper Arequipa nightlife then grab a taxi to the south of the city and Avenida Dolores, where the best of the city’s salsa clubs are located. You won’t find many other gringos here, but you will find a whole heap of salsa and once you’ve started going out on Dolores, you probably won’t be heading back to the centre any time soon…

What to Visit in Arequipa

Of course, whether you’re planning on living here, or just visiting on a holiday in Peru, you’ll definitely want to take in some of the sights, and although for me one of the joys of Arequipa is just wandering through the historic centre, there are a couple of stand-out sights which you should definitely make time to seek out.

Even if you’re not of a religious bent, the monastery of Santa Catalina is an absolutely fascinating place to visit. Formerly home to a closed order of nuns (although they moved out in the 1970s) it’s really a little town in itself, with a maze of cobbled streets, courtyards, houses, and even its own churches and restaurants, all cordoned off from the rest of Arequipa by a high stone wall – except that today you can pay your way in through the main gate, of course. In fact, things may not have been all that different in the past – in 1871 the Pope had to send out a special investigator to reform the monastery after claims that it was basically being run as a bordello for noblewomen… Today it’s all very peaceful, very sedate and thoroughly charming – like stepping back in time a few hundred years. In fact, if the entrance fee was a little less steep I would have been tempted to come back again and again, just for a spot of time out.

For me, the other “must see” in Arequipa is the absolutely excellent UCSM Museum. Compared to some of the museums in Lima, this is tiny but it is absolutely perfectly-curated. So rather than feeling buried under a mountain of precious metal like at the Gold Museum in Lima, you can take your time to appreciate just a few dozen extremely high-quality exhibits telling the story of pre-Columbian Peru. Oh, and one other thing… one of these exhibits is the famous mummy, Juanita. If you don’t know her story, she was a human sacrifice of the Incas, and her mummified body was found, incredibly well-preserved on the summit of the snow-capped Ampato volcano, just outside Arequipa. Today she’s kept in a hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled case in the UCSM museum, and in terms of human interest, history doesn’t come much more real than this.

The Friendliest People in Peru?

Arequipa Square, PeruBut fantastic though the tourist sites, the food and the historic centre are, they aren’t the main reason why I can’t wait to go back to Arequipa. As I’ve found with most places I’ve travelled, it really comes down to the people, and the people in Arequipa have to be some of the friendliest in Peru. With a dash of Lima’s sophistication, a soupcon of Andean courtesy, and just a trace of highland mischievousness, Arequipeños are easy and fun people to spend time with – and as a bonus, their Spanish is probably the clearest in Peru, which if your verbs are as rusty as mine, is a definite plus!

When he’s not taking it easy in Arequipa, Dan Clarke works for RealWorld, a UK company who specialise in tailor-made holidays in Peru and the rest of South America. Arequipa is always a popular stop on trips to Peru, but people mainly seem to be interested in the nearby Colca Canyon. Hopefully this article will make people appreciate that it’s worth spending at least a few days of their holidays in Arequipa itself, rather than dashing off to see the condors at the earliest opportunity!

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