From my window seat on the plane all I could see was a blanket of blush tinted beige and what appeared to be a layer of dust hanging near the ground as we approached Arequipa. Low buildings spread over a barren, pastel-tined landscape. The structures seemed to blend in rather than rise from the soil, creating a uniform hue from the various rooftops akin to a speckled egg. Even from this height I imagined I could taste the dry, chalky air where we’d be spending the next four days.
“Why did they send me here”, I thought.
Full disclosure, I hadn’t heard of Arequipa when the Peruvian Tourist Board invited me there. I had a choice; visit the jungle in Iquitos or Arequipa. Since I already had friends in the Peruvian Amazon ~ and if I’m being real, I didn’t want to pack for a fourth climate on my 25-day trip ~ so I did a quick google search, saw that Arequipa sat under a watchful volcano and read that it’s colonial center was called the White city for its architecture. “Good enough for me”, I thought, “let’s do it”.
The weeks leading up to the trip were a whirlwind of arranging my post tourist board itinerary, thus I never got around to learning more about Arequipa. Plus, I fully entrusted my experience to the local tourist board, and figured I’d show up and be in good hands. But landing in the low-lying haze the spread over the vast desert, I wondered if I had made the wrong choice.
Outside the airport, we were met by our local guide, Gaudy. I was traveling with two other women travel professionals, so along with Gaudy, the four of us gals would be spending the next few days hustling all over Arequipa and its periphery with the goal of gaining knowledge on the local cuisine, culture and activities while visiting a bunch of hotels. (This is common practice for travel professionals, go at lightning speed so you can find what speaks to your particular niche of travelers in order to design trips. Personally, after the first round I like to slow way down to take it all in and hopefully make a few friends)
As we drove into town Gaudy reviewed the agenda for the next few hours. The overarching theme of this trip was gastronomy so we’d be going to a bunch of foodie spots, pop into two cooking classes, and pretty much taste our way through the first half of the day. At this point I was glad the 4am wake-up call had left me hungry, and my thoughts wandering into what could possibly be grown in this ashy valley.
Gaudy would share with us that it’s not one, but four imposing volcanos that surround the city, and “Yes”, they’re active! As we drove farther away from the airport and into the city center, I started to notice bits of green. Terraces, like the ones found at Machu Picchu, and all over the Incan world, dipped down to what I assumed were invisible rivers, creating ribbons of oasis’ around the city. These ancient terraces clued me in to the fact that beyond my first impression of a desolate and foreboding landscape, the area in and around Arequipa had been settled for centuries.
So what was the draw that brought people here? To settle under the threat of volcanic eruption in a high-altitude desert must have had some very strong enticements.
Quick History of Arequipa
This area has been a home for people for 5000-6000 years! Archaeological evidence including petroglyph’s point to the long human history of settlement. By the 16th century the area civilizations were incorporated into the vast Inca empire. The terraces, and irrigation systems still visible today came into being in this time. Arequipa’s location made it an important stop between the Inca capital Cuzco, and the Pacific Ocean. In 1540 the Spanish conquest arrived to Arequipa, resulting in a dismantling of the local civilizations, and violent overthrow of life as they knew it.
Despite water scarcity, the land was fertile, and even made a suitable ground for European crops. To this day you can still see orange and olive trees growing around the city. The lack of building material led people to turn to sillar, which comes from petrified volcanic ash, locally from the Chachani volcano. The sillar rock is a pale, chalky color and the prevalence of earthquakes necessitated single story construction with thick sillar walls. Thus, the traditional colonial center, built of primarily sillar rock, has been coined “The White City”.
Okay, so here is the part when I start to see exactly why Arequipa is a major draw for visitors. As we began our walk into city center, Gaudy explains the gorgeous Baroque Mestizo architecture surrounding us, represents a convergence of the cultures in the 17th and 18th century. We visited cathedrals, cloisters, convents, and the main plaza only to be continually in awe of the stunning detail and design wrought from the volcanic stone. The dusty haze that had previously provoked my unease had lifted into pink hues that glowed above us like cotton candy creating dreamy sunsets, and Instagram worthy photo ops at every turn.
We heard languages from a half-dozen countries float by as we walked the clean and uncrowded streets. I was now totally clued in why the Peruvian Tourist board brought us to Arequipa and why so many other travelers already knew what I was just catching onto ~ this place was amazing.
Oh, and we hadn’t even got to the food yet!
Foodie Highlights in Arequipa
Visiting Arequipa, I found so much excellent food I had not even heard of prior to sitting down to the table. I showed up completely ignorant of the fact that aside from being an interesting destination to spend a few sunny days, the food is simply excellent. Something any Peruvian will tell you! Big time foodies, hear me when I say, do not hesitate to visit Arequipa on your Peruvian culinary tour.
The first stop Gaudy brought us to was La Benita de los Claustros. Nestled in a back corner of the cloister of the Templo La Compañía de Jesús Arequipa (a cloister is basically what connects the church with the domestic quarters of the monastery – this one was a serene sillar constructed courtyard). Benita Quicaño founded her restaurant in the countryside with the knowledge passed down from her grandmother, this location is newly opened and tiny, but still exudes a familial warmth and hospitality.
The restaurant is a “picantería”, a comfortable, typically family operated lunch spot (lunch is the largest meal of the day in Peru) found most often in the Peruvian cities of Arequipa and Cusco. Born in the countryside, picantería’s retain their rustic, home kitchen vibe even in the city, outfitted with checkered tablecloths and bench seats. We sat outside under blue skies at a small wooden table. You’ll certainly find every menu includes chicha, a corn beer, which can be fermented. In Arequipa it’s chicha morada, which is made from purple corn, non-alcoholic and offered in generous portions, or chicha de jora, the alcoholic version. It is also a custom to be offered a small shot of anise flavored liquor called a "cortesia" by the host.
Local picantería dishes are hearty and full of flavor, perfectly blended for complexity in every bite. You’ll find some of the most incredible stews, think caldo de res meets curry in my opinion. Ingredients include potatoes, pumpkin, squash, tomato, fish, meats, eggs, corn, cheese, lots of fresh herbs, and importantly – peppers!
The name picantería comes from picante, meaning spicy! A typical dish is one plate, meat and vegetables covered in a sauce or sometimes with a sauce on the side, or a piping hot Chupe (stew) made with a pepper paste. The creation of the paste is a labor-intensive process I had only recently been introduced to at a culinary event in Lima, where we observed a demonstration. Imagine the way a mortar and pestle grinds bits of seed into a fine powder, but instead replace the pestle with a huge stone in a shape similar to a bull’s horns, that is carefully rocked from side to side to grind and blend peppers over a larger, flat stone that serves at the mortar, until all parts have created a smooth paste.
It looks easy enough but I got to try a hands-on lesson, and let me tell you, it takes real hand strength (something I very much lack as evidenced by the dented jar lids lining my fridge), plus general endurance to create the desired juicy texture. The aromatic herbs and peppers are squeezed and ground until they from a silky paste that is the essence of every dish in the picantería.
What to Eat in Arequipa
No doubt, every visitor to Arequipa should taste the classic dish, Rocoto Relleno. You’ll find various presentations, essentially, it’s a stuffed pepper. Typically, I found it made of seasoned meat (beef and pork), little bits of potato and vegetable, with one thick chunk of local cheese placed on top, then baked, to finally be covered in a sauce made with picante paste and cream, served whole. Fun fact, the rocoto pepper is extremely spicy when raw but the dish itself is quite mild due to the pepper being pre-cooked in water and vinegar to remove the spiciness! Honestly, I could eat this every day. The most common presentation I saw were peppers that were pretty small, about the size of a crabapple, so I can totally see myself having one of these juicy little flavor baskets for breakfast or as a side with dinner any time!
My favorite meal however was the afore mentioned Chupe de Camerones! OMG! Believe that I’ll be on a mission to find a version of this at home in New York before the cold weather hits. I’ve read this dish described in English as “stew”, “chowder”, “soup”, but I supposed I’d classify it as a creamy, broth based… but also very hearty …soup.
Following La Benita, Guady brought us to Victoria, a nearby restaurant which is related to La Benita with a familial connection that I’m not totally clear on. We got to actually get in the kitchen, hairnets and all, to prepare the Chupe! This soup is velvety because of the heaps of butter and cream, but balanced with salty fish broth, and that lovingly labored over picante paste. What take this dish to another level is the aromatic herbs, they are thrown in whole early in the preparation and in generous portion, so every minute the pan simmers over the flame the fragrance releases into the dish. The heartiness from this stew comes from the chunks of pumpkin, slices of corn still on the cobb, and potato, plus the large Camerones (which translates as “shrimp” although we were served something closer to crawfish). The result comes out of the kitchen as a cloudy bronze broth, steaming and giving off an intoxicating aroma that stimulated my appetite despite having already tasted enough a La Benita to constitute a full meal.
Despite having had two full meals, I managed to make room for desert when Gaudy insisted we try the local ice cream, “Queso Helado Arequipeño” – which translates literally as cream cheese ice. Before I explain, I should tell you that Arequipa has a few unique cheeses and cream is a common ingredient. For dairy free folks, Peru is generally a very easy place to dine but in Arequipa you’ll want to inform your hosts, or waitstaff because it seems to sneak into a lot of dishes. Write down or remember the phrase, “por favor, sin lácteos” – “please no dairy”.
Now back to that ice cream! I tried this dish a few times, and each time it seemed to be homemade, with bits of coconut and spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla. It was both delicious and refreshing. Somehow with primary ingredients of cheese and cream, it was always very light, not as heavy as typical American ice cream, but closer to an Italian gelato.
My favorite was served at La Nueva Palomino, a gorgeous picantería up a little pedestrian only stone path. We sat in the labyrinth-like courtyard sharing a variety of dishes that could I could write a whole other blog about. Do yourself a favor and round out our Arequipa picantería tour with a visit to each of these establishments ~ La Benita, Victoria and La Nueva Palomino ~ And come with an appetite because the portions are large, and the flavors too good to not scoop of every last bit of picante!
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The author of this blog is the Founder of Conscious Travel Collective, Tara Busch.
You can find out more about Tara on our team page