1,020km (634 miles) S of Lima; 521km (324 miles) S of Cusco; 297km (185 miles) SW of Puno
The southern city of Arequipa, the second largest in Peru, might be the most handsome in the country. Founded in 1540, it retains an elegant historic center constructed almost entirely of sillar (a porous, white volcanic stone), which gives the city its distinctive look and the nickname la ciudad blanca, or "the white city." Colonial churches, mansions, a splendid Plaza de Armas, and the sumptuous 16th-century Santa Catalina convent gleam beneath palm trees and a brilliant sun. Ringing the city, in full view, are three delightfully named volcanic peaks: El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu, all of which hover around 6,000m (20,000 ft.). And the city's small Museo Santuarios Andinos holds an astounding local discovery: a perfectly preserved Inca teenage maiden sacrificed more than 500 years ago.
Arequipa has also emerged as a favorite base of outdoors enthusiasts who come to climb volcanoes, raft on rivers, trek through the valleys, and, above all, head out to Colca Canyon -- twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and the best place in South America to see giant condors soar overhead. Suiting its reputation as an outdoor paradise, Arequipa also enjoys perfect weather: more than 300 days a year of sunshine, huge blue skies, and low humidity.
The commercial capital of the south, Arequipa not only looks different; it feels dissimilar from the rest of Peru. Arequipeños have earned a reputation as aloof and distrusting of centralized power in Lima. Relatively wealthy and home to prominent intellectuals, politicians, and industrialists, Arequipa has a haughty air about it -- at least in the view of many Peruvians who hail from less distinguished places -- but you'd hardly know it in the evenings, when the historic quarter is alive with bar and restaurant patrons.
As beautiful and confident as it is, Arequipa has a history of natural disaster. The most recent devastating earthquake (which registered 8.1 on the Richter scale) struck the city and other points farther south in 2001. Although international reports at the time painted a picture of a city that had caved in on itself, thankfully, that wasn't the case. The colonial core of the city survived intact, as elegant as ever.
The Withering Snows of Arequipa's Volcanoes -- The three volcanoes that encircle Arequipa have, as long as most people can remember, been snowcapped year-round. In recent years, however, that has sadly changed. In 2009, the peaks of Chachani, El Misti, and Pichu Pichu were white with snow for just 3 months (June-Aug). Locals are mystified and heartbroken. The effects of global warming and, presumably, ozone deterioration, have not only altered the look of their city; they also bode ill for future discoveries of Inca sacrifices preserved in icy mountaintops.