Arequipa, la ciudad blanca
At an elevation of about 2,350 meters, just over 7,700 feet, Arequipa sits in a fertile valley at the foot of three of Peru’s 80 plus volcanoes. The city is also known as la ciudad blanca or the white city, a name perhaps derived from sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock, used to construct many of its buildings. Another popular explanation for the city’s moniker is that during the colonial era, most of its inhabitants were of Creole of Spanish descent with lighter complexions than most Peruvians. Regardless of the explanation, la ciudad blanca is a beautiful city that has retained its colonial charm.
The widespread use of sillar stone, quarried from nearby white volcanic rock deposits, began in the latter part of the 16th century as a structural solution after many of the city’s adobe and stone buildings were destroyed in the 1582 natural disaster. Local officials realized that sillar was readily available, free, attractive to look at as well as strong and stable enough to sustain the area’s frequent earthquakes and tremors. Sillar was not only an ideal technological building solution, but also perfect for stone artisans since it is not as hard as granite but extremely durable and just as esthetically pleasing. The artisans’ craft can be seen in the bas-relief carvings on many of Arequipa’s builings.
Arequipa is located in southern Peru and is the center of commerce between southern Peru and Lima, the country’s capital city. This distinction makes it the country’s second most important city after Lima and the second most popular tourist attraction after Cusco. Arequipa is often a stopover for travelers from lower altitudes who want to acclimate before continuing on to higher altitude locations such as Lake Titicaca at 3,810 meters (about 12,500 feet), a trek on the Inca Trail where hikers climb up Dead Woman’s Pass at an elevation of 4,200 meters / 13,800 feet or an adventure to a head-pounding 4,900 meters (over 14,000 feet) on the road to Colca Canyon.
Arequipa boasts more than 300 days of sunshine each year and ranks as one of Peru’s driest cities. Like most highland cities, nighttime temperatures can be quite cool but not freezing, especially during the wetter months from June to August, and the days can be quite warm. So dressing in layers is critical.
The area which includes current day Arequipa was occupied by the Aymara Indians until they were conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. Modern day Arequipa was founded in 1540 by a handful of Spanish conquistadors. However, Garci Manuel de Carbajal, an emissary of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, is widely recognized as the city’s founding father.
According to guides, there are differing stories about how the city acquired its name. In one version, “Ari” stands for “peak” or “summit”, a possible reference to nearby towering El Misti volcano, and “quipa” for “lying behind”. In another version, Mayta Capac, a 14th century Inca ruler known for raiding nearby rivals kingdoms, was passing through the area and was so amazed by its beauty and strategic importance in its location between the Pacific Ocean and Cusco in the center of the Andes that he said in Quechua, his native language, “Ari quepay” or “Stay here”.
The Spanish also liked the area. As more Spaniards relocated to this valley in the high sierras, they erected homes and places of worship in the Spanish colonial style of their homeland. That Spanish colonial architecture is evident throughout the city in buildings of all kind and in the narrow cobblestone streets that are lined with colonial houses and churches, constructed from the local white sillar stone, that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of these buildings beautifully reflect the blending of European and Inca cultures.
Rio Chili runs through Arequipa making the city an oasis in the Peruvian high desert situated between the western slopes of the Andes and the Peruvian coast on the Pacific Ocean. Since the struggling city was not readily accessible over the high sierras, Arequipa remained relatively isolated during colonial times. However, in 1870, train travel to the city became possible when Southern Railroad completed tracks to Arequipa from the Peruvian port city on the Pacific Ocean.
Arequipa is built in an area prone to natural disaster. It was destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in 1600 and major earthquakes shook the city in 1687, 1868, 1958 and 1960. The most recent earthquake that occurred in 2001 registered 7.9 on the Richter scale. The city of nearly a million residents is situated along the constantly moving tectonic plates of Latin America and the Pacific Ocean and stands in the shadow of three volcanoes. It is only 17 kilometers or 11 miles from the summit of El Misti, dormant since 1870, but precariously close if the sleeping giant should ever awaken.
The three majestic volcanoes towering over Arequipa provide the perfect backdrop for photographs making them one of the most photographed vistas in the city. El Misti (the Gentleman) is located between two smaller volcanoes, Chachani (Beloved) and Picchu Picchu (Top Top). Local legend says El Misti is sleeping and if he awakens, Arequipa will disappear, perhaps a reference to flowing lava that could threaten the city. Legend also says that Chachani and Picchu Picchu are married and the little mountains between them are their children.
In recognition of the city’s efforts to preserve its history by blending colonial architecture with local conditions, UNESCO declared Arequipa’s historic center a World Heritage Site in 2000. Seeing the historic center is best done by walking around. It’s possible see most of the sites in a two or three day stay. Bus tours are readily available and reasonably priced for visitors who want to see interesting sites outside the historic area as they acclimate for adventures at higher altitudes.