The White City of Arequipa

The first week of our trip, we raced around southern Peru by boat, dune buggy, sand board, tuk tuk, single-engine airplane, and Peru Hop tour bus. Finally, after a harrowing overnight bus ride on a winding two-lane highway, we made a one-week pit stop in the tranquil city of Arequipa.

White Sillar Stone Cathedral of Arequipa and Active Misti Volcano

Nicknamed the “white city” because it was originally populated by white-skinned Spanish Caucasians, and constructed almost entirely of white sillar building stone, Arequipa is a radiant city surrounded by three dramatic active volcanos. Despite frequent earthquakes and occasional volcanic eruptions, we felt calm, cool and relaxed as we leisurely admired the history, culture, and Spanish colonial architecture in Perú’s second largest municipality.

Plaza de Armas, Arequiipa’s Central Square

In the early 16th century, Francisco Pizarro and a mere 168 fellow Spaniards conquered the 10 million natives of the Inca empire. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish laid out the city of Arequipa using their conventional urban plan. In typical fashion, from a large central plaza, they expanded the city in a checkerboard pattern.

Influences of Southern Spain (Chachani Volcano in background)

Wandering the right angles of the historic center, we often swore we were in southern Spain. Reminiscent of our travels in Andalucia, we treaded the cobblestone streets, and passed blooming bougainvillea and potted geraniums lining whitewashed walls of sillar stone.

Entering the Quiet and Peaceful Santa Catalina Monastery

In the heart of Arequipa’s historic center, the Spanish built a walled city within the city. Inside the five-acre stone fortress, the Santa Catalina Monastery sheltered cloistered Dominican nuns from wealthy Spanish families. Constructed in the Spanish-Muslem Mudéjar style, the white sillar building stones were thickly painted in vivid ochre and crimson tones.

Santa Catalina Monastery Residences and Church

One early morning, we were the first visitors to enter the monastery. With the morning sun accentuating the rich blushing walls, our engaging tour guide showed us lavish living quarters and even private cottages that the wealthy and privileged sisters inhabited.

Andean Baroque Facade of the Church of the Compañia

During the colonial period, the wealthy and powerful Catholic Church also constructed other ornamental religious buildings in Arequipa. The oldest is the Church of the Compañia, whereupon the Andean baroque style originated. Characteristic of this regional decorative design, its carved sillar façade and interior artwork depict South American motifs, including birds, plants and native human figures. 

White Sillar Stone Quarry and Chachani Volcano

Besides being easy to carve, sillar stone is lightweight, strong enough to withstand stresses, and has a porosity that acts as a thermal insulator. Geologically, sillar is an ignimbrite, formed when hot volcanic ash flows or falls from an andesitic volcanic eruption. Just outside Arequipa, we went to the rock quarry where the sillar stone is excavated.

Quarryman Working Stone by Hand

Looming high above the quarry is the Chachani Volcano, which ejected the stupendous volumes of ash that produced the thick layers of white sillar building stone. Since continued eruptions and associated earthquakes have destroyed buildings in Arequipa on multiple occasions, the volcano literally giveth and the volcano taketh away.

Bright White Calle Cordoba in the Spanish Colonial City of Arequipa

Thanks to the infinite supply of bright white sillar building stone, this charming Spanish colonial city continues to shine amidst its magnificent but destructive volcanos. After a fast-pace start to our Peru trip, it was a pleasure to decelerate, stay put for a week, and absorb some history and culture in the white city of Arequipa.

One more from the monastery…

Feature Photo: White sillar stone arches and Misti Volcano, from the Yanahuara Mirador, Arequipa

Blogger’s Note: We are both doing well and are enjoying a wonderful trip. After our week in Arequipa, we are planning to complete a three-day hiking trek into Colca Canyon, followed by a visit to Lake Titicaca.

6 thoughts on “The White City of Arequipa

    • Thanks Phil & Michaela! Arequipa lived up to its reputation as Perú’s most beautiful city. The Spanish and baroque details and impressive volcanic setting were bewitching. I can understand now why it is the second most visited tourist destination in the country, after Cusco and Machu Picchu.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. How interesting! I think the active volcanoes would make me a bit nervous, but they clearly seem used to rebuilding from the earthquakes, so I guess people just get used to it. The city is certainly beautiful!

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    • Hi Ann. The volcanos around Arequipa are quite intimidating, especially after learning about their active status and the historic eruptions that damaged the city. While we have been in Perú, there have been several earthquakes as the magma moves under the volcanos. It is a normal occurrence and the population seems to accept the risks.

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  2. Looks like a beautiful spot – at least the old town portion you’ve shown us. Even though we have a semi-active volcano on our skyline, it’s not as close (or probably as active), so we tend not to think about eruptions. And I suspect the worst of the eruptions you encountered was heat from the chili peppers. Nice place to unwind.

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    • Hey Dave. You folks in the Pacific Northwest know a thing or two about volcanos. Like here in Perú, the citizens accept eruptions as a possible threat, but one that is unlikely to ever affect them. Old town Arequipa is a gem. Like most cities, the residential and commercial areas outside the center are less attractive. However, since the white sillar stone is used throughout the city, the uniformity of construction does have a pleasing effect. At our age, we can only go full speed for a short while. Stopping in Arequipa for a week really helped us re-energize.

      Liked by 1 person

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