After crossing the border between Chile and Peru we decided to stay one night in Tacna, 35 km north of the border. It was our first time crossing the border to Peru so we were not sure how long it will take...
Tacna is a small but very commercial city, popular for patriotism due to its role during the independence war (1821-1824) and the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). It is a very chaotic city full of traffic, old cars, noisy buses and people selling everything in the streets. It was also our very first experience driving in Peru and we have to confess that Peruvians are some of the worst drivers we saw in South America!
After one night in Tacna and after driving 380 km (almost 5 hours) we arrived in Arequipa, Peru's second most populous, industrialized and commercialized city. Arequipa was also the capital of Peru after its independence from 1835 to 1883. Currently the city is part of the "Southern Peru Touristic Corridor" (together with Cusco, Puno and Nazca) but in contrast with these other cities, in Arequipa there aren't Inca artifacts or ruins. It's a truly living example of the Spanish and mestizo cultures developed in Peru.
The historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its cultural sites, historical buildings and natural scenery (the city is surrounded by 3 volcanoes!):
"The historic center of Arequipa, built in volcanic sillar rock, represents an integration of European and native building techniques and characteristics, expressed in the admirable work of colonial masters and Criollo and Indian masons. This combination of influences is illustrated by the city's robust walls, archways and vaults, courtyards and open spaces, and the intricate Baroque decoration of its facades."
We spent 3 days in the city so we had enough time to explore properly several historical places and also enjoy a few hours tasting the city's typical food (which we always try to do!).
Our favorite place was the Santa Catalina Monastery, a spectacular religious citadel, including small squares, chapels, nuns' houses and currently paintings and other religious expositions. This place is beautiful, full with little streets, colorful walls and windows. It made us feel we were traveling back in time and it took us around 3 hours to see it all.
We also visited the Convento Museo La Recoleta, a former convent founded by a Franciscan priest in 1648 and currently housing expositions of indigenous cultures (including Amazonian artifacts), religious pieces and a vast library (where we found a copy of the "Lusiadas" book and several maps explaining the History and cultures of South America vs the world). Although we needed to walk a bit to arrive into this place (not exactly in the historical center), it is a must-see!
The Plaza de Armas is the main square of Arequipa, surrounded by buildings made of a white volcanic stone called sillar. In the plaza it is also possible to visit Arequipa's Cathedral and Museum. You have to be part of a guided tour but it allow you to understand better the cathedral construction, how the past earthquakes affected the cathedral (and the city) structure and also to see the city and the volcanoes from the top.
We also liked the Santuarios Andinos Museum, although a bit touristic and expensive for what you see. Most people visit this museum to see the Juanita mummy (also known as "Dama de Ampato"), a sacrificed child during the Inca governance. Since we saw several other mummies in the northwest of Argentina (Salta, Fiambalá) this one was not a surprise. Actually it was almost impossible to see anything: the mummy was frozen and it was too dark. The museum also had an exhibition about volcanoes: how they work, different types of eruptions and major volcanoes in the world (with a major focus in Peru).
Less visited than the Santuarios Andinos Museum is the Museo Historico Municipal “Guillermo Zegarra Meneses”. This interesting museum explains the region's History since the pre-Inca times to the independence days from Spain.
Arequipa is also full of touristic services and local stores and it is called the "World's capital of the Alpaca"! If you are looking to buy local handicrafts, the best place is the Mercado Artesanal, a gallery with several small stores where you can find almost everything (and where you'll want to buy EVERYTHING!).
We also visited the Colca Canyon, 160km northwest from Arequipa (3 hours driving from the city). With a depth of 3,270m, it is one of the deepest canyons in the world (twice as deep ad the Grand Canyon, in the US). We drove all the way to the Condors Viewpoint to see its depth but we didn't feel amazed (since we are already in the middle of the canyon it doesn't seem so deep). But we enjoyed the surrounding green Andean valley still inhabited by people of the Collagua and the Cabana cultures (pre-Inca roots) who maintain their ancestral traditions cultivating the stepped terraces.
Next stop: Puno & Lake Titikaka (Peru!)
- Arequipa has several Airbnb options. If you prefer to stay away from the very touristic hotels of the city, this could be an option! Find here a first-time discount voucher.
- The tourist office of Arequipa is located in the main square (Plaza de Armas) and they can give you very useful information about things to see in the city and outside (volcanoes, Colca Canyon, small towns around Arequipa and others). It is the perfect place to get maps and and the Arequipa small book totally free!
- Main costs: Santuarios Andinos Museum (20$S/person), Cathedral+Museum (10$S/person + guide donation), Historical Museum (10$S/person), Santa Catalina Monastery (40$S/person), Recoleta Monastery (10$S/person), Colca Canyon + other surrounding sites called "bolleto turistico" (70$S/person)