I pull in to Arequipa early in the morning. I’m getting used to these overnight buses in Peru that arrive around dawn and I quite enjoy having a full day to explore once I’ve arrived. It’s also nice to see a city as the sun’s rays start to touch it, before the locals fill the streets, and the shops open.
The bus station here in Arequipa is out of the city centre so I jump in a taxi and ask the driver to drop me at the central square so I can get a feel for the atmosphere. I haven’t booked any accommodation so I also need make a plan to find some… and wait until it’s a slightly more reasonable time to turn up unannounced.
In the main square – Plaza de Armas – I sit on a bench and look around at the architecture. There are shops, restaurants and public organisations, all in historic structures. With its archways, cathedral, and colonial buildings, this is one of the most important neoclassical collections in the country.
The centre of the square, with its fountain and grassed areas is quiet now but I know that later in the day it’ll be full. Some of the people will be tourists, but many will be locals who come here to have lunch or relax. This is not one of the busiest parts of the country for tourism although there is a decent amount of people who pass through on trips of southern Peru.
The city of Arequipa has been declared a World Heritage Site but, unlike many of the other sites in Peru, it’s the Spanish influence that is being preserved here. Arequipa doesn’t have Incan ruins or structures from ancient civilisations. This is a city of conquerors.
Arequipa was first founded as a village in the late 1540s. Over the years different styles of design were brought in here. Baroque, then rococo, neoclassicism, and modern empiricism. All through the city are chapels, churches and monasteries – the most famous being the monastery of Santa Catalina.
The centre of Arequipa has a grid structure, making it easy to navigate. There are 49 blocks of the original Spanish layout. Different blocks seem to have different focuses – a shoes block, an optometrist block, a mattress block. Gates and ornate doorways stand directly at the edge of the footpath but, looking through, you can see into beautiful courtyards.
Considering this is the second largest city in Peru, it feels remarkably quiet. That’s not to say the traffic isn’t bad and there aren’t lots of people on the street – it’s just that things are much more laidback than you might expect for an urban area of almost a million people. It feels more like Cusco than Lima.
Perhaps it’s the altitude – at 2,300 metres high, the air is thinner than the coast and that seems to slow people down a bit. Perhaps it’s the natural scenery. Impressive snow-capped mountains surrounding Arequipa make it feel more like an expansion of the environment.
And that’s the charm of the city. You can think of it as an architectural symbol of the new world the Spanish created in Peru or you can see it as a mere spot in the greater nature that has always existed. Challenged by environmental conditions, influenced by indigenous crafts, Arequipa deserves its heritage listing.