Treasures of... southern Peru

| November 4, 2016

What’s in a name? Well it’s said Mayta Cápac – fourth Sapa, or emperor of the Inca empire – was travelling through the Andes in the 12th century when his party came to a scenic valley by the Rio Chili. Struck by its astonishing beauty, his followers appealed for permission to settle on the land. Pronouncing “Ari, quipay” (‘’Yes, stay here’’), Mayta Cápac annexed the city, henceforth known as Arequipa, into the Inca kingdom.

santa catalina monastery

Centuries on and Arequipa will still stop you in your tracks: no pilgrimage to southern Peru can be complete without witnessing the magnificent ‘White City’. In fact, while Cuzco may take the crown jewels as portal to the city of Machu Picchu, and Puno is favoured as a stop for the sacred Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is ripe for appreciation, with its enchanting colonial heritage and legendary landscapes.

Despite the ancient anecdote surrounding its name, Arequipa has no Inca ruins or artefacts to explore (save Juanita, the frozen mummy at Museo Santuarios Andinos). But inhabited by the Spanish more than any other city under the Vice Royalty of Peru, naturally there is a well-preserved colonial presence in the form of churches, monasteries and grand ancestral houses. However, what distinguishes Arequipa from other popular tourist destinations is the lingering native blood of the city.

Said to be one of the most beautiful in Peru, the main square, Plaza de Armas, is dominated on the north side by the beautiful, white Catedral de Arequipa. Featuring stained-glass motifs, Catholic relics and one of the largest organs in South America, it’s actually the exterior of this part-museum, part-church that makes the basilica so interesting. Considered holy ground since the city’s founding by Garcí Manuel de Carbajal in 1540, this site – initially occupied by a simple cross – has held a church since 1656. Though plagued throughout its history by earthquakes, reducing it to rubble in 1583 and 1604, not to mention a great fire in 1844, today it still stands tall as a symbolic reminder of the missionary message brought here by the conquistadors in the 16th century. A glorious, twin-towered masterpiece, the stark white of the church exterior is broken up by clusters of rainbow-dressed, indigenous women who gather here to sell their wares.

plaza de armas arequipa

With its construction, customs and cuisine, the fusion of cultures is apparent everywhere in Arequipa. Simply stroll through Plaza de Armas and you’ll discover arcades of old shops built in the typical Escuela Arequipeña style: a bold blend of European and native architectural characteristics. These baroque structures have now been repurposed as charming restaurants, shops, banks and boutique hotels to retain their historic facades. In fact, in 2000 Arequipa was declared a Unesco world heritage site, in recognition of the city government’s effort to preserve Arequipa as a ‘living museum’ through the refurbishment of over 200 period buildings.

A fine example is Casa Ricketts, a gallery-cum bank that houses local artist workshops and is a fascinating place to learn about the craftsmanship still thriving in Arequipa. And there is the famous Monasterio Santa Catalina. Called a city within a city, this monastery kept locals locked out for hundreds of years, breeding rumours and gossip of sinister happenings from within. Nowadays visitors can walk through the complex cloister by cloister, learning about the rituals practiced by the devotees and gazing in wonder at the religious murals.

santa catalina convent

Many of the old buildings are now used to host regular bazaars. Mercado San Camilo and Mercado de Artesanías, located in the old town jail, are two sprawling markets selling a huge variety of traditional handicrafts, including the colourful jumpers you see everywhere. No trip to Arequipa would be complete without taking home something made from alpaca wool; the city’s main product, the fostering of the alpaca industry has allowed Arequipa to cement its position as the commercial centre of southern Peru.

Both markets are great places to barter for intricately woven ponchos, as well as hats and scarves made from soft baby alpaca wool.


Beyond Arequipa is a dramatic landscape of desert mountains, salt lakes and lush lowlands, overlooked by the ‘three guardians’: the snow-capped El Misti, the marbled Chachani, and the chocolate-like mound of Picchu Picchu. Peering from an elevation of 5,822 metres, El Misti remains a temperamental, murmuring volcano, which not only destroyed the city in 1687 and 1868, but also brought it back to its feet. White ‘stellar’ rock quarried from El Misti and its surrounding mountains have formed the basis of many buildings in Arequipa, giving it the nickname La Ciudad Blanca, or ‘The White City’. While many visiting the city plan hikes up the three peaks, which create the city’s skyline, arguably it’s not these marvels you’ll want to conserve your energy to tackle.

El Misti volcano

From May 2017, visitors can ride to Cabanaconde, the gateway to the magnificent Colca Canyon, aboard Latin America’s only luxury sleeper train, the Belmond Andean Explorer. The 160-km journey from Arequipa to Chivay – the hub of the valley – is a rich tapestry of dramatic, euphoric vistas: from dry tundra to tiny villages such as Sibayo, which crouches under towering emerald hills, and ancient terraces farmed by tribes such as the Cabana and Collegua since long before the Inquisition.

southern peru train

Colca Canyon arguably first hit the headlines in 1981, when a group of Polish kayakers made the first successful descent down into the plunging ravine. Following the publication of their story, everyone from fellow adventurers to National Geographic Magazine wanted to experience firsthand the ruggedness of the climb and the wild, untamed handsomeness of the land.


An endeavour into the abyss can offer a unique opportunity to bathe in one of the most serene spots imaginable. La Calera is a series of bubbling, natural pools, surrounded by frothy brooks pouring in from the surrounding mountain sides. An area steeped in Peruvian mysticism, folklore speaks of the healing powers possessed by the pure canyon waters.

Trekking also offers the opportunity to spot Andean wildlife. Colca is peppered with countless alpacas, llamas and vincuñas – a relative of the llama and the national animal of Peru – as well as hummingbirds, eagles and, of course, the soaring condor.

It’s at Mirador Cruz del Condo – the viewpoint from which the canyon reaches a depth of 4,160 metres – that the sensory explosion of splendours hits its peak. Come early in the morning and you can watch the Andean condors ride the thermals in all their glory. These giant, bronze birds are heralded by locals as a form of the sun god, making the experience of witnessing them in their own territory even more wondrous, and a crowning moment in this magical part of the world.

Recommended Cox & Kings tour

Train to Machu Picchu
16 Days & 14 Nights from £2,695
Machu Picchu is perhaps the most breathtaking archaeological site in the world, yet southern Peru also offers a wealth of natural wonders, colonial cities and ancient cultures to explore. This tour visits the Peruvian capital, Lima; the colonial city of Arequipa; and Cuzco, former capital of the Inca empire. Along the way, marvel at the scenic delights of the Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca and the soaring Andean peaks. A journey aboard the stylish Belmond Andean Explorer is also included. See tour >

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