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Arequipa and Colca Canyon
The charming “white city”, surrounded by snowcapped volcanoes and beautiful mountains in a picturesque valley
Arequipa, the ‘white city’, is a peaceful colonial city, situated at 2.325 m. altitude and surrounded by volcanoes of which the most famous and highest is ‘El Misti (5.822 meters). Interesting to visit is the beautiful monastery of Santa Catalina. For 400 years, nuns have lived here in total isolation as the monastery wasn’t opened to the public till 1970. In the ‘La Católica’ University, you can visit ‘Juanita’, an extremely well kept Inca mummy. The Incas sacrificed this little Inca girl to a volcano in order to please the gods.
Arequipa is one of the most pleasant surprises in all of Peru – the city is full of interesting sights, has plenty of options for travelers, and is normally free of the throngs of tourists that are more common in Cuzco and other parts of Peru.
Arequipa is known as the “White City” because the city center was built primarily with blocks of a soft, white volcanic stone called sillar. Reminders of the region’s remarkable volcanic history are to be found everywhere – the city sits in the shadow of two majestic volcanoes: El Misti (5800 meters) and Chachani (6075 meters), and is also home to Juanita, the world famous “Ice Maiden” Inca mummy discovered atop a 6000 m peak and later featured in a National Geographic special. Although the city may seem noisy and crowded at first, with a little patience you will gradually discover many pleasant oases of peace and tranquility tucked neatly throughout the busy city center.
Principal among these is the Santa Catalina Monastery, a veritable city within a city. Begun in the late 16th century, expanded over the years, and restored after sustaining significant earthquake damage, the monastery presently occupies several enormous city blocks. Several hours are required for a thorough visit, and visitors are well advised to spend an entire morning or afternoon at the site, relaxing and exploring at leisure. The multilingual tour guides paint a vivid picture of the fascinating history of the convent and provide thorough explanations of the lives of the cloistered nuns and the social hierarchies that existed within the convent. The tours include visits to the reception room, where nuns were allowed to verbally communicate with visitors while hidden from sight behind wooden screens, the “Patio del Silencio”, the three principal cloisters (the “novice” cloister, the Cloister of the Oranges – with orange trees, and the main cloister), as well as several large gardens with fountains, and the church with its upper and lower choir areas.
Each of the different sectors is painted with beautiful, soft pastel colors that form a striking contrast with the dry blue desert sky. The monastery’s original gates, walls, water distribution system (for collecting water and washing), watchtower and central kitchen, as well as many of the original living quarters, have been painstakingly preserved over the centuries. There is also a rooftop lookout with views of the cemetery, the washing area, central Arequipa, and the nearby volcanoes. Be sure to allow some time after the tour to visit the museum and portrait gallery.
The local branch of the national tourist agency “Prom Peru” is located directly across from the monastery in the impressive “Casona de Santa Catalina”. The office boasts a friendly, outgoing staff, and is the most complete source of tourist information in town complete with well-illustrated brochures. The agency is tucked into a large gallery with several restaurants and shops that offer high-quality clothing and crafts.
The other “must see” site in Arequipa is the Museu Santuarios Andinos, housed at the Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria. This compact and well-organized museum contains a wealth of fascinating artifacts and exhibits pertaining to the “Andean mummies” – Inca children and young adolescents who were apparently sacrificed to appease volcanoes, which they regarded as angry mountain gods. The first and most famous of these mummies, Juanita, was the discovered by chance when a group of high-altitude archeologists made an expedition up Mt. Ampato to observe the eruption of nearby Mt. Sabancaya. The eruption had melted the snowcaps of neighboring peaks, and allowed the fortuitous discovery of a sacrificial victim (nicknamed Juanita) in the crater at the summit of Ampato, now housed in the Museum along with several other mummies and scores of related artifacts, including jewelry, bones, and textiles. One of the bodies was wearing a hat that was actually a carefully crocheted map depicting the location of other sacrificial victims on the same mountain and the trail up the mountain to the burial sites. The mummies are under continuous study, and are therefore displayed alternately throughout the year.
In addition to Santa Catalina, there are plenty of other religious sites in central Arequipa that are well worth visiting. Along the Plaza de Armas, you may visit the magnificent sillar cathedral, arched walkways, and reasonably priced gift shops. There are also several lovely churches and convents nearby: the spare but tasteful Santo Domingo, the elegant and ornate “La Compania”, the popular St. Agustín, and the understated La Merced.
Although not nearly as large or as grandiose as Santa Catalina, the Monastery of Santa Tereza is nonetheless a very interesting site. The monastery, dedicated to Santa Tereza (who reformed the Carmelite Order that was originally founded by Saint Elijah), is limited to 23 nuns at any one time, and was established in 1710. However, many of the artifacts and paintings at the site are from the 17th century, and many of the murals, frescoes and paintings are displayed in their original state. This site was recently opened after a lengthy restoration, and is therefore still a relatively unknown tourist site, so your visit is likely to be intimate and personal. The tour includes visits to the central “Claustro de Oficinas” with its beautiful garden, the “Sala capitular” where the elections for the Mother Superior are held, and to the church and cloistered choir loft where the nuns sing every Sunday. There is also a museum with detailed descriptions of the sculptures and gold lamé paintings that were produced at the monastery. Perhaps the most spectacular example of woodcarving that you will see in all of Peru is the intricate “Baul de la Navidad”, a nativity sculpture contained within an ornate wooden chest. When the chest is opened, a marvelous and delicate Nativity scene unfolds, and then folds back upon itself to fit snugly within the carved chest.
Another fascinating site is La Recoleta, a Franciscan Monastery located just across the quickly flowing Rio Chile, near Puente Grau. A visit to this unassuming and rather modern-looking location is well worth an entire afternoon. In addition to the church and cloisters, visitors should not miss the fascinating exhibits housed within the monastery. There is a library that houses volumes that date back to the 16th century, including many original books, manuscripts, letters, memoirs, documents, and historical maps based on early Spanish exploration. However, the library is only open for short periods each day, so check the schedule when you arrive. In addition, the Fernandez room has a fascinating exhibit donated by Dr. Enrique Fernandez, with pottery, idols, masks, a magnificent feather tapestry. The pre-Colombian Museum displays pre-Colombian art from Inca and several civilizations that preceded them. There is also an Amazonian museum, an art gallery that mostly houses works from the Cuzco school, and a Religious art museum with magnificent jewels, numerous sculptures, reliquaries and chasubles.
Other interesting sites near the city center include the “Molina de Sabandia” – a preserved grain mill. Puente Grau, which crosses the rushing Chile River that skirts the city center, has magnificent views of Arequipa’s nearby volcanoes: Misti, Chachani, and Picchu Picchu. After a long day of sightseeing, pay a visit to the Mirador de Yanahuara or Sachaca for a view of the marvelous high desert sunsets.
One of the most pleasant aspects of Arequipa is the wide variety of sophisticated and reasonably priced dining establishments, and you will find a host of options to satisfy any palette. Be sure to try the local “chupes del dia” – the traditional dishes offered each day of the week: chicharrones, rocoto relleno, etc. The largest concentration of high-quality restaurants is on San Francisco and Zela streets. Some of these restaurants offer live regional music (pan flutes, charango, etc), and you may even be lucky enough to be in town during one of the many seasonal festivals. To experience one of Arequipa’s most lively cultural and culinary traditions, visit one of the local chicharronerias on Sunday afternoon, where entire families and large groups of friends go to eat together at large communal tables. At least two of these (Chicharroneria Cecilia and Don Panchito) offer plenty of live music, dancing, and merry-making in addition to tasty food and drink.
Within the city center, one block over from the Plaza de Armas and San Francisco, Jerusalem St. has just about everything a traveler needs: a wide variety of shops, laundry facilities, restaurants, and internet café-call centers where you can make cheap international phone calls. There are also scores of tour companies on Jerusalem St. and in the vicinity of the Plaza de Armas offering a variety of packages. Be sure to shop around.
Taxis are inexpensive and readily available, but make sure that you take a registered taxi (if in doubt, ask locals to recommend a “taxi de confiancia”) and negotiate the fare to your destination before entering.
In addition to the many local sites, the city is the ideal base for adventures to several of Peru’s most we-inspiring, unforgettable natural wonders and there are unlimited options for excursions to nearby sites such as El Misti, Chachani, Cuevos de Sumbay, Bosque de Piedras Salinas y Aguada Blanca, and the world-renowned Colca Canyon.
About Colca Canyon
For years, Colca was acclaimed as the world’s deepest canyon before advanced scientific methods established that a neighboring canyon was in fact several meters deeper. Nevertheless, a visit to the Colca is still a magical and awe-inspiring experience. Unfortunately, one must endure a very rough 2-3 hour ride along a primitive road from Arequipa to reach the canyon, but the ride is very picturesque and well worth the trouble. From Arequipa, the road winds north through the high desert directly to the west of Mount Chachani for about 100km and then down to Chivay, a small town that stands along the edge of the far eastern reaches of Colca canyon. At this point, you can begin to see the majestic ancient terracing that is still in use by local farmers. From Chivay, the road continues along the edge of the canyon all the way to the primitive village of Cabanacondé, passing through several villages and observation points along the way. The most famous of these is Cruz del Condor, where all tours will stop, usually early in the morning. A family of condors seems to have learned that they are the main attraction and usually manage to please the large crowds that gather each day to watch them take flight and soar high about the vaulting canyon walls.
Cabanacondé is rustic and picturesque village at the edge of Colca canyon. There is a colorful church in the village center, and a beautiful cemetery just to the east of town near the trailhead that is the starting point for hiking down into canyon.
Bus tours of the Colca area usually last 2-3 days, and only visit sites along the top edge of the canyon. The first day includes sightseeing and a stay in a local hotel that offers nightly folk music presentations, followed by Condor viewing early the next morning and sometimes a trip to the hot springs before returning to Arequipa. Those who are more inclined to “rough it” should opt for hiking tours, which normally require three days, but can last up to one week if visitors choose to include side trips to the Valley of the Volcanoes or Cotahuasi canyon. The morning of the first day is typically spent in transit to Cabanacondé. After a brief stop for sightseeing and lunch, groups begin the long, winding, picturesque hike down into the canyon. The trail is thin, steep, and hugs the canyon walls that drop precipitously into the vast chasm below, but the views are absolutely spectacular. After descending for about four hours, hikers reach the bottom of the canyon and cross over the sparkling Colca River to the primitive but idyllic hamlet of San Juan de Chuccho. This beautiful Andean village is rudimentary (no electricity or hot water), but has plenty of water from a roaring acequia. Visitors spend the night in rustic guesthouses with natural earth floors and bamboo walls. There is a filling hot breakfast the next morning, and then a strenuous hike up to Tapay, a beautiful village with a lovely church at the base of spectacular and looming Andean peaks. After a brief rest, hikers continue down through two other villages (Cosñhirhua and Malata) for lunch, then descend down to the river and cross at Sangalle, an oasis with spring-fed swimming pools where there are two options for lodging: rudimentary huts and a slightly more comfortable posada.
The hike from San Juan to Tapay is very strenuous, and groups who are not accustomed to the altitude may opt to hike directly to Cosñhirhua from San Juan and then down to Sangalle. The hike out of the canyon on the third day usually begins around 2 am in order to reach the canyon rim by sunrise (5-6 am). Along the way you will meet many villagers from Tapay and Cabanacondé, including farmers and elderly women with their donkeys making the trek in or out of the canyon. There is a local woman, nearly 70 years old, who descends each morning to a point about 150 meters below the canyon ridge and sells coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cakes and cookies to help energize weary climbers on the last leg of the journey.
A visit to the brand new thermal baths just outside of Chivay is perfect for soothing your aching muscles after the long hikes and bumpy roads. These hot springs are much newer and better maintained than those at Águas Calientes, and offer both indoor and outdoor bathing options. Here, you are also much more likely to encounter groups of friendly Peruvians – large crowds are common, especially on weekends. There is also an Ethnological Museum.
- The Santa Catalina Monastery: Spreading over 20,426 square meters, this monastery is Peru’s most impressive religious construction. Its 16th and 17th century design has remained intact and can be visited by tourists. Founded in September 1579 under the patronage of Saint Catherine of Sienna, its doors remained closed to the world until 1970.
- Church of the Company: a 17th century Jesuit church with an amazing sculpted facade and a beautiful carved wood pulpit.
- Colca Canyon: Traveling north from Arequipa, you will enter the large Colca Canyon. The canyon itself is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and contains many pre-Inca terracing sites. Starting settling in the 16th century by Viceroy Toledo, the small villages have preserved until today their original characteristic features such as the layout of their streets, richly decorated churches and traditional festivities. The best place to observe the picturesque landscapes, the tiny cities and the snow-capped mountains is the so called “El Mirador” or “Cruz del Cóndor”. It is a breathtaking viewing point in Colca Canyon view point which is located on the cliff at the highest point of the canyon. The view is fantastic and offers the great possibility to see the immense Andean condor, which usually appears and slowly circles quite in the canyon during the morning hours.
- Access Routes – Arequipa is accessible by plane (from Lima, Juliaca and Cuzco) and by bus from Puno and Nazca.
- Accommodations – There is no 5-star hotel in Arequipa. There are two 4-star hotels: “Libertador Hotel” and Hotel “Cabildo”. Good Tourist class hotels and hostels are abundant.
- When to go – The best time to visit Arequipa is during the dry season, from April to November. However, Arequipa can be visited all year round, as it does not rain a lot.
- How long – The number of days we would suggest to spend here is a minimum of 2 days, one day to visit the city center and one day to visit the Colca Canyon Tour.
- Tips – In case of a private Colca Canyon Tour, you could continue traveling by private transfer to Puno, which is only 5 hours away from the Colca Canyon.
The blue-colored, highest navigable lake in the world close to the lively city “Puno”
Puno, at the edge of Lake Titicaca, is a rough town that hosts some of Peru’s liveliest festivals. It is the closest city to the immense lake “Titicaca”, which is the world’s highest navigable lake in South America at 3,800m (12,500 ft.) located between the two countries of Peru and Bolivia. Here you can still find Indigenous people living already for centuries on small island, some of them live on flowing island, which are made by themselves with soft patches of reeds.
Experience the ancient cultures of two inhabited natural islands, Amantaní and Taquile, by staying with a local family. There you can experience fantastic views of the immense lake with the blue sky and snow-covered mountains, as well as during the night with the star-littered night sky.
- Access Routes – You can come to Puno from Cuzco as well as from Arequiba by bus
- Accommodations – In Puno all types of Accommodation are available.
- When to go – You can visit Puno and the lake “Titicaca” during the whole year.
- How long to stay – We suggest spending 1 day in Puno visiting also one oft the charming island of the Lake “Titicaca”.
A large portion of this text was written by Traveler – Writer Craig Milroy.