The white city of Peru, Arequipa. Its attractions, population, history and the Sumbay caves

By Renato Romero

Arequipa, the white city - My Peru Guide


Since I was a child, I learnt that my city, Arequipa, was also known as the white city, “La ciudad blanca.” Locals were always proud to say that they were born in the white city, at the slops of 3 volcanoes, where El Misti volcano plays an important role in their lives.  In Arequipa it is common to hear that their bad temper is caused by “la nevada” meaning that local’s bad mood was caused by the snow at the top of El Misti volcano (if the volcano has snow, then any bad temper can be attributed to El Misti.)

Among the many story-tails I have heard about Arequipa, I always remember the explanation that locals used to give for the origin of the nickname, “La ciudad blanca”, the white city. People said that the name originated during the time that the Spanish kingdom ruled in Peru, and when many Spanish conquerors chose the city of Arequipa and surrounding areas to be a land where the majority of the population should be from European origins (mainly Spanish). The presence of this predominant population was still noticeable until the 1960s and 1970s. There is another theory stating that “La ciudad blanca” the appellative comes from the volcanic stone used to build downtown Arequipa and nearby cities which has a whitish color. Anyone in downtown Arequipa will understand why it is called the white city (travelers should have a cup of coffee, mate or a drink at one of the main square terraces to enjoy a view of the city).

When it comes to the meaning of the word Arequipa, there are also a couple of theories about its origins. As a young student, I learnt that the word Arequipa has its origins in the Quechua word “Are quepay” which means stay here. Local tradition states that “Are quepay” was used by king Inca Mayta Capac when he and his army arrived to Arequipa to conquer it, and from that moment on that phrase was used to name this land. Later on and when the Spaniards arrived to the area where the city of Arequipa is located, they asked for the name of the land, and when they were told “Are quepay”, they wrote it as Arequipa. Later on, I learnt that this area was highly populated by the Tiahuanaco people (around AD 800) who spoke Aimara, and that language continued to be spoken after the arrival of the Incas, who spoke a different language known as Quechua; therefore, the word Arequipa could originate from the Aimara word “Ari quipaya” which means behind the peak referencing El Misti volcano.


Arequipa’s population and history

In my city, I also learnt that people has populated this interesting land for thousands of years, and these people have left behind a rich historical trail full of history and knowledge which can be shared with the rest of world. The population of Arequipa has changed along the time, and we know that it started around 8000 years ago (1) with nomad hunters and gatherers who inhabited the Sumbay area as shown in the paintings left at the Sumbay Caves.

As time progressed and agriculture arrived to the area, Arequipa’s population started to settle in specific locations between the coast of the Pacific Ocean and the high Andean mountains. Many of these locations have been ruled by several ancient civilizations such as the Wari, Tiahuanaco, and Incas, until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and then the republic. There are several ancient attractions where the remains of ancient civilizations can be visited. Also, many small towns in Arequipa are still practicing agriculture in Andean terraces built by their ancestors. These terraces were built even before the arrival of king Inca Mayta Capac Incas around the late 1200s.

Nowadays, Arequipa’s population is varied and there are many towns where ancient customs are practiced. For instance, there are towns located deep in the Colca and Cotahuasi Canyons where locals practice ancient customs. A proof of this is that each town in the Andes has an important celebration where locals get together to celebrate and practices their unique customs (food, clothes, dances, music, etc).


The main attractions of Arequipa City

  • Santa Catalina Monastery: Colonial monastery built in 1579 where cloister nuns lived until 1960 without leaving the citadel. This is the most popular attraction in downtown Arequipa.
  • La Casa del Moral: The building was built in 1730 and it is currently a small museum where travelers can observe several pieces of ancient art. This attraction is one of the hidden gems of Arequipa.
  • Cathedral: The first building was built in 1544, but the current building was completed 300 years later. The Cathedral and museum are a popular attraction.
  • La Compañía de Jesús and cloisters: It construction started in 1590 and it ended in 1699. It is a popular attraction among travelers who are interested in history, art, and religion.
  • Andean Sanctuary Museum: This small museum has an interesting collection of Inca and pre-Inca remains as well as the mommies of Inca princesses. This is not a popular attraction even though it is full of history and information.
  • Chilina Valley: The district of Arequipa includes a portion of the Chilina valley. This is an important attraction since the Chili river provides natural life to a narrow strip of farms and trees where locals practice different adventure sports such as mountain biking, hiking, zip-lining, and rafting.
  • San Lazaro: This is a traditional town where travelers can get the feeling of living in the old times with narrow streets and several colonial structures. This is not a popular attraction even though it is a great place for a walk and enjoy a meal or a drink.



1.  Los primeros pobladores de Arequipa

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