Peru’s Southern Gems: Arequipa and Colca Canyon

By Allie Almario

Night falling on the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa

Most travelers choose Machu Picchu as the highlight of their Peruvian adventure, but if you can add on a few more days to your itinerary, consider heading south to Arequipa and Colca Canyon.

Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, with just over one million inhabitants, and long considered one of the most beautiful in the country. It is nicknamed The White City; most of the buildings in this grand colonial city influenced by Spaniards used sillar, a volcanic stone found locally. This white colored stone was perfect as it was lightweight, resistant to the elements, and available throughout the region. While earthquakes destroyed many buildings in 2001, nearly the entire city has since been lovingly and authentically restored to its original glory. It is named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At 7600 feet in elevation, Arequipa is an easy destination to acclimate to after you’ve finished with Machu Picchu. From Lima, it’s only a 1.5 hour flight; from Cusco, it’s just over an hour. From Lake Titicaca, it’s a long, but stunning six-hour drive.

We recommend spending at least two nights here. Since the city boasts 300+ sunny days a year, there’s really no bad time of the year to visit. Highlights include the Plaza de Armas, the main city square. You’ll find a multitude of cathedrals, churches and fountains surrounded by palm trees. Don’t miss the very impressive Basilica Cathedral, one of the most iconic in the whole of South America. Founded in 1540, the cathedral is a mix of neoclassical, neo-Renaissance and Gothic styles. Within its museum walls, some of the Peru’s most treasured religious artifacts are held. It has survived fires, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, yet still endures.

Monastery of Santa Catalina de Sieta

The Monastery of Santa Catalina de Sieta is another breath-taking attraction, built in 1579. It is a photographer’s dream, with dramatic alleyways filled with flowering red roses, pink and rose-colored walls, and carefully restored antiques.

From Arequipa, it’s a three-hour drive and 99 miles to the Colca Canyon, deep in the Andean valleys. According to geologists, Colca’s 10,730 ft. depth is nearly twice of the Grand Canyon’s (6,100 ft). Aside from the glorious vistas, visitors flock to Colca Canyon to see its most famous residents, the Andean condors. They are hard to miss, with wing spans of up to 9 feet as they soar above you at the Cruz del Condor viewing site, located just under 4,000 from the canyon rim. If you have time, you can arrange to stop in the many hot springs and caves in the region.

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