Arequipa itself is a fascinating snapshot of life in Peru: a mix of Spanish colonial architecture, modern high-tech startups (several Silicon Valley expatriates have set up shop), fashionable restaurants and shops in the center city, and extended mining operations and influx of impoverished campesinos who have moved to the outskits of town.
Its climate is that of Southern California, and so I felt immediately at home. As you fly over the mountains you will see tremendous canyons and ice-covered mountain tops: these eventually give way to dirt flats and a dusty wide plain. The city is built in this vast, desert plain, surrounded by active volcanoes. The city center was built by the Spanish out of the white mountain ash, or sillar, mined from the surrounding hills, giving the city center a ghostly, Catholic hue, while the more recent suburbs are corrugated metal and improvised brick. This situation gives Arequipa a kind of
desert-jazz feel, a fashionable heart surrounded by vast stretches of improvised dirt-and-cinder city blocks, and then surrounded once again by snow-capped mountains threatening to belch steam and ash every now and again.
|Casa Andina Private Collection Suite is Worth the Upgrade
For a top place to dine, check out Chicha, right near the hotel, which will require reservations. There are several other good places recommended in the guide books as well.
While you are in Arequipa, the place to visit is Monestario de
|Inside the walls of the Monestario
The other attraction is the main square, where you will interact with pushy tour guides (ignore them) and perhaps chance to see some of Peru's interesting politics, including the occasional strike or two. Those of you who want the background on such things: its agriculture versus mining, the two industries at war for the resources around Arequipa.
While this isn't nearly the jam-packed tourist attraction magnate that you will find in the Sacred Valley, Arequipa gives you a chance to relax and feel like you are in a genuine foreign city. Spending time simply wandering the streets or sipping cocktails in one of the rooftop bars will make you feel like you've gotten to see the real life of Peru. But don't forget the real reason you are here: to book one of the many tours to see the wonders of the Colca Valley.
Giardino Tours. They will be happy to arrange a two or three day excursion if you like. It will cost about $300, without hotel, if you want a private tour (which I recommend, as you can set your own itinerary). Bring your Spanish phrase book - the drivers don't speak English, and you will want to coordinate times and stops in advance if your Spanish is non-existent. Also bring crisp and clean US dollars (not old or bent) to pay the driver, since they don't take money if it's worn, along with plenty of Soles (which you will need for the restaurants and vendors along the journey).
The driver will pick you up at Casa Andina at the appointed time - then return you to the hotel two or three days later, if you like (unless you prefer to go on to some place like Puno). The excursion is the real reason you came to Arequipa, but don't overlook the charms of this fascinating city itself.