Volcan El Misti, Arequipa, Peru by Ana Raquel S. HernandesVolcán El Misti © Ana Raquel S. Hernandes

The centrepiece of southern Peru, this city has a wealth of colonial attractions, handsome architecture and stunning scenery, including two towering volcanic peaks which ring the boundaries.

Formally founded by the Spanish in 1540, Arequipa has been an important centre since pre-Inca times, with both the Colla and Inca active here. Developing late as a provincial capital and until about 1870 connected to the rest of Peru only by mule track, Arequipa has since established itself as the main commercial centre for the south and is Peru’s second city. It has never cared much for the capital and has occasionally hotly contested the right to be the foremost city; two of Peru’s major political coups began here in 1930 and 1948. People still cite Arequipa’s historic centre, wealth of colonial attractions, handsome architecture and stunning setting – three towering volcanic peaks ring the city – as reasons why the city should be duly recognised.

The nearby volcanoes are testament to the seismic forces that have shaped the region. The most recent natural disaster rocked the city in 2001; a giant earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale laid waste to the city, killing more than 100 people and injuring another 800.

However, the core survived and the city rebuilt itself. Relatively wealthy and independently minded, Arequipa’s alumni include intellectuals, artists and writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and politicians including former President Belaunde Terry. It has a distinct attitude and atmosphere and people are proud to be Ariquepenos; in a futile attempt at separatism Arequipa once even designed its own passport and flag.

The city is a stand-out destination in its own right, with attractions including attractive colonial architecture, impressive churches and the Santa Catalina Convent, which was closed and cloaked in secrecy for four centuries but is now open to explore.

The city is also an ideal base for discovering the region and surrounding countryside. Excursions to the Colca Canyon, Cotahuasi Canyon and Toro Muerto petroglyphs are primary reasons for coming, whilst outdoor enthusiasts will be spoiled for choice here.

Trekkers are drawn to climb the perfectly conical volcano that stands sentinel over the city, El Misti, or descend into the deep canyons nearby, which compete for the title of deepest canyon in the world; thrill seekers are lured by the promise of exceptional white-water rafting, while birdwatchers come, keen to spot condors ascending on thermals from the depths of the deep gouges in the sierra.

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