Hands up who wants to see a real mummy, cuddle a herd of alpacas and eat your own body weight in delicious food all in one day?! Well, keep reading because those are just a few of the best things to do in Arequipa, Peru!
No trip to Peru is complete without a little rendezvous in the country’s second largest city, Arequipa, and if it’s not already on your Peru trip itinerary then I suggest you shuffle things around, stat! You really don’t want to miss out on this gem.
Nicknamed La Ciudad Blanca (The White City) due to the white volcanic stone with which most of the city’s main buildings are made, Arequipa is situated in the southernmost part of the country and is often one of the first stops if you’re coming in from Chile. The city is flanked by three terrifyingly looming volcanoes with adorable names (Chachani, Pichu Pichu and El Misti; the latter otherwise known as my Arch Nemesis), and this dramatic backdrop certainly helps cement Arequipa’s position as Peru’s most beautiful city!
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After three trips and more than 3 months spent in Peru, Arequipa is still my favourite city, no question. On my most recent South American trip, I even chose to spend a full week there doing absolutely nothing instead of exploring the rest of the country, I love it that much! So based on my time in the city, here are twelve of the top things to do in Arequipa:
12 TOP THINGS TO DO IN AREQUIPA
1. Just chill in the Plaza de Armas
Cost: Free! Location: Plaza de Armas
The Historic Centre of Arequipa was declared an UNESCO Heritage Site in 2000, and for good reason. As well as being of great architectural and historical importance, it’s also bloody gorgeous! Right at the centre of Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas is a beautiful fountain, and if you like pigeons then I am telling you, you will LOVE it! Pigeons everywheeeere.
Whether you grab a drink at one of the many restaurants and cafes overlooking the Plaza, or just sit and people-watch from the Cathedral steps or one of the benches, spending a few hours in the Plaza de Armas is one of the most peaceful and enjoyable free things to do in Arequipa. It’s also the place to go if you want to sit and chat with local arequipeños – I made a wonderful friend in a 79-year old man called Jorge, who sat with a trilby hat and a typewriter every single day on the same bench and fed the pigeons.
2. Step back in time at the Monasterio de Santa Catalina
Cost: S/.40 Location: Santa Catalina 301, approx 550m from Plaza de Armas
A visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Arequipa, no matter your religious beliefs. The monastery has housed nuns since its completion in 1579; even today there are a small group of 20 or so nuns living in the monastery, despite most of it being used predominantly as a tourist attraction. If the grandieur of the colonial architecture isn’t enough of a draw for you, the monastery also has a number of incredible pieces of art, sculptures and historical artefacts to feast your eyes on.
You can visit the Santa Catalina Monastery alone, or hire one of the guides available on arrival. If you really want to delve deep into the history of the monastery, you should probably hire a guide (approx. S/.10 for an hour tour).
3. Get soaked on the Río Chili
Cost: Varies depending on the tour company + package. The cheapest I found in Arequipa itself was S/.70 Location: Río Chili – the rafting company will arrange transport to and from the river
Did you know you can go white water rafting in Arequipa?! No? Me neither, until I found myself signing up one sunny afternoon. Next thing I know I’m hurtling through rapids on the Chili River in a rubber dinghy with 4 other people. And let me tell you this for free – it was incredible! The adrenaline rush was unlike any I’ve ever had, and it’s now one of my all-time highlights of Arequipa. If you’re looking for one of the most exciting things to do in Arequipa, rafting the río Chili is for you!
Cost: S/.10, including guided tour Location: Av Parra 101, approx 1km from Plaza de Armas
Casa Museo Mario Vargas Llosa is skipped over by SO MANY people but is such a fantastic and immersive museum, definitely one of the best things to see in Arequipa! If you haven’t heard of Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa but are planning a trip to Peru, then you need to make a hasty trip to the library and check out The Time of the Hero.
Set in his first ever home, Casa Museo Vargas Llosa uses a unique combination of holograms, videos and displays to take you through the life and times of this incredible author. Unfortunately the exhibits and tour are only available in Spanish (as of 2016), but if you do understand Spanish or perhaps have a Spanish-speaking friend who could translate, it’s well worth the visit. The number of visitors per day are limited, so try to book in advance if possible.
5. See a bunch of potatoes at the Mercado San Camilo
Cost: Depends what you want to buy but it’s likely to be cheap as chips Location: Mercado San Camilo, 650m from Plaza de Armas
According to the guide on my Colca Canyon tour, a nice man on a bench in the Plaza de Armas, the guide who helped me attempt to hike Mt Misti and my old host family in the Sacred Valley, Peru cultivates more than 4000 types of potato. Who even knew there were that many potatoes floating about?!
While San Camilo Market doesn’t quite offer up all 4000+ varieties of potato, it’s not far off! As well as more potatoes than you can dream up, San Camilo is the perfect place to try cheap local foods and shop for fresh produce as the locals do. I once asked for one single orange in San Camilo Market, handed over a few Soles and thought “what a bargain!” it was so cheap. A few seconds later the vendor handed me a whole kilo of the most delicious oranges I’ve ever had, and I ate nothing but oranges for 3 days.
6. Take in the intense views at Colca Canyon
Cost: Varies, depending on whether you choose the trek or tour. Location: Colca Canyon – your chosen tour company will arrange transport there and back
The world’s second largest canyon (or, the world’s first largest canyon if you ask some Peruvians!), a visit to Colca Canyon is without a doubt one of, if not the best thing to do in Arequipa!
The good news is that you don’t have to do a trek to Colca Canyon, although if you did fancy it there are both two and three day trek options. My original plan was to do the two day trek but then I fell sick, and also remembered that I’m not keen on that whole physical exercise thing so opted for this two day tour instead and it was such an enjoyable experience! The tour starts by taking you through the Colca Valley featuring some absolutely breath-taking views along the way, and if you’re lucky sightings of local wildlife such as vicuñas, ibises and Andean eagles. The second day starts early but is SO worth it as you’ll get to see the condors take flight at Cruz del Condor.
If you don’t have 2 days spare, there’s also the option to take this full day tour which still lets you see most of the highlights of the Colca Canyon.
Read More: Colca Canyon 2 Day/1 Night Tour Review
7. Put your apron on and get cooking
Cost: From S/.100, depending on the course Location: Varies
One thing I always plan to do in a new country but never seem to get around to is learn how to cook traditional cuisine from local experts. Although I didn’t quite manage to take part in a formal cooking course in Arequipa, one of the wonderful ladies at a hostal I stayed in did teach me how to make rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers) and boy, was it intense!
If traditional cooking classes are up your alley, there are plenty of options in Arequipa including this one that gives you the chance to learn how to make ceviche, one of Peru’s most famous dishes.
8. Learn Arequipa’s history with a Free Walking Tour
Cost: Free, but you should tip your guide Location: Current meeting place is inside The Chaqchao Choco Museo at Av. Santa Catalina 204
Free walking tours are my favourite way to get to know a city, and Arequipa was no exception! Although it took me 3 attempts to finally do the tour because I’m stupid and get lost even with a map, it was so worth it.
The tour runs every day at 10am and 3pm, and starts at the Choco Museo where, if you’re lucky you get to taste some of the Chaqchao organic chocolates (highly recommend it!). From there, depending on the goings-on in the streets of Arequipa, the tour will take you to all the main sites in Arequipa including the Plaza de Armas and its most important buildings, the San Camilo Market, Arequipa’s first prison and more. Along the way the guide will give you an insider’s view on the beautiful city, and little tidbits of information you just can’t find on Wikipedia!
9. Try some of Arequipa’s best dessert, queso helado
Cost: S/.1-3, depends who you buy from Location: All over Arequipa, normally in and around the Plaza de Armas
Yes, queso helado does mean cheese ice cream but no, unfortunately there’s no actual cheese in the ice cream. Queso helado is a delicious artisanal ice cream with firm roots in Arequipa. Made from evaporated milk, coconut, cinnamon, cloves and some other bits and pieces, it’s one of the best things to eat in Arequipa. Although there’s absolutely zero cheesiness in it it’s called queso helado because when it’s made in its mould, it looks a lot like cheese which is incredibly inventive, I will say. Queso helado is pretty easy to find in Arequipa – just look for a street vendor pushing (or sometimes not pushing) a cart with a sign saying Queso helado.
10. Get right up close to Juanita the Ice Maiden
Cost: S/.20 entry + tip for the guide Location: Calle la Merced 110, just around the corner from the Plaza de Armas
If you only visit one museum in Arequipa, make it the Museo Santuarios Andinos, home of Juanita the Ice Maiden (sorry Mr Vargas Llosa!). One of the main Arequipa attractions, Juanita is an extremely well-preserved body of a teenage girl offered as a sacrifice on Mount Ampato to the Inca Gods some time during the 15th-century (estimated). She, along with the artefacts she was sacrificed with, were rediscovered in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing companion, when the top layer of her tomb melted away and she seemingly fell into a crater.
The museum experience starts with an incredibly interesting video about the discovery of Juanita, followed by several rooms full of artefacts and information about Incan sacrifice and life during Juanita’s time. The tour culminates with a viewing of Juanita herself, which I found to be particularly emotive! Photography is forbidden in the museum, and you must go through with a guide. The entire encounter with Juanita, learning all about her past and Inca rituals is extremely interesting and easy to see why it’s one of the best things to do in Arequipa.
11. Nab your daily fill of alpaca goodness
Cost: Free! But you may wish to tip the ladies weaving Location: Av. Juan de la Torre 101, 850m from Plaza de Armas
Have you ever wondered just how alpaca-wool garments are made? At Mundo Alpaca you can do just that and, even better, you can cwtch alpacas while you’re at it! One of Arequipa’s best free attractions, as well as being home to a bunch of adorable cuddly alpacas, there are exhibits and displays there with tons of information on the process of creating the garments. You’ll also see some local women demonstrating traditional fibre-sorting and weaving techniques.
It’s definitely one of the most ineteresting things to see in Arequipa, and a great cultural experience! If you’re looking for some good quality, authentic alpaca-wool items, Mundo Alpaca is one of the best places in Arequipa, and you can guarantee their quality.
12. Climb a freaking volcano
Cost: From S/.300, depending on the tour operator + my dignity Location: Mt Misti – the tour operator will arrange transport to and from the volcano
Remember all the way at the beginning of this post when I mentioned Arequipa being flanked by three volcanoes? Yeah, what I didn’t mention is that you can actually hike up the blighters. Although it is apparently possible to climb all three, the most popular volcano to climb in Arequipa is Mt. Misti. Tour operators and the internet will tell you it’s an “easy” climb, but it’s only really easy if you regularly drag your legs through pools of sand for fun.
Don’t let my bitterness at not having completed the Mt Misti hike put you off, though, as it really is one of the best things to do in Arequipa. The views along the hike are heart-stopping, and to be able to watch the sun set over Arequipa from above is a really unique experience I would recommend to anyone with a slightly better level of fitness than me!
Where to stay in Arequipa
If you’re looking for affordable, comfortable and homely accommodation in Arequipa, check out Park Hostel – I’ve been staying there since 2011, back when it was still called Hostal Posada del Parque, and it’s still my go-to budget accommodation in Arequipa.
There are so many more things to do in Arequipa beyond this list that honestly, you could stay for weeks and not get bored. Trust me, if I had the resources right now I’d move there in a flash!
So what do you think – have I missed any of the best things to do in Arequipa?!
If you’re looking for more inspiration for your trip to Peru, you might want to check out my two week itinerary for Peru.