Arequipa – The White City in the Andes of Peru

Any city that is located on the Chili River deserves to be a hot destination, and Peru’s second largest city Arequipa, although little known outside the country, certainly deserves a visit.

Arequipa is called “the White City” for one very good reason, many of its buildings are constructed from a white volcanic rock called sillar. The buildings in the city do indeed glisten white in the sun, and their colour embellishes them a certain distinguished and imposing presence.

Volcanic rock is an abundant material in and around Arequipa, as the city is surrounded by three volcanoes: El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu. It is a true mountain city, sitting at an elevation of 2,335 m (7,661 ft).

Although the sillar rock is an attractive stone it has its practical purposes also as earthquakes are a reasonably common phenomenon in Arequipa and the sillar seems to be able to absorb most of the tremors making it a relatively safe building material.

The city’s architecture is considered to be so important that the historic centre has been declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mainly because it best represents the integration of the Andean culture and the Spanish colony, evidenced by its majestic architecture adorned with a mix of Andean and Spanish elements.

One of the most interesting buildings is the Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa which was originally built in the 17th century, gutted by fire in the 19th century and destroyed by an earthquake soon after. It has been rebuilt, and suffered some damage in the 2001 earthquake. It has since been rebuilt to its former glory and is now home to the largest pipe organ in South America.

There are many museums and art galleries within Arequipa, with the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries being one that is definitely worth visiting. This museum focuses on high altitude finds and the Inca Empire. Exhibits here include mummies and the artefacts that were found in their tombs. The main attraction is the body of the young girl known as ‘Juanita’ or the Ice Maiden of Mount Ampato. This pre-Columbian mummy is believed to be in the best state of preservation of any mummy in the world.

Outside of the city, one of the main attractions is the Colca Canyon, which is one of the deepest on earth, plunging to a depth of 10,725 feet (3,269m) and is more than 100 km in length, double the depth of the Grand Canyon; although, its walls are not quite as steep. The journey to the canyon itself is spectacular. Travellers pass through rugged terrain dotted with volcanoes and believed to be inhabited only by llama and their cousins the vicuna.

Arequipa has a reputation for being a cultural city and is the home of Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize of Literature. Many visitors to Peru go only to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, but it is definitely worth adding Arequipa to your itinerary when you do visit Peru.

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