We found Lima to be a big, gritty city with perpetually foggy weather, congested traffic, and poor air quality.
Only a few neighborhoods are safe to walk around in, and of those, Miraflores has become overly commercial and cute, colorful Barranco is being overtaken by high-rise developments.
The old town is more of a shopping zone than well-preserved buildings, and you can hardly feel Peru’s indigenous culture in Lima.
Not to mention, the political unrest in Peru is concentrated in the capital.
Yes, the dining scene has been made famous by a few award-winning restaurants, but unless you’re traveling for these tasting menus, we found that traditional Peruvian food was easier to find in smaller cities or pueblos.
And that brings us to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. It’s far calmer and cleaner, with all the modern amenities one may need, like a mall, quality Airbnbs, and a better supermarket than any we came across in Lima.
It’s also about 20% cheaper.
The weather is warm and sunny due to the increase in elevation, but the altitude is not so high that it’s uncomfortable. In fact, it’s a good place to stop in on your way to Cusco, which is at very high altitude, so you can begin to adjust.
If you fly straight from Lima at sea level to Cusco at 3399 meters, you’re more likely to experience altitude sickness than if you stop in Arequipa at 2335 meters on the way.
Most of all, it’s simply Peru’s most beautiful city, with a stunning old town square, well-preserved colonial streets, and views of volcanos not too far in the distance.
As we walked into the Plaza de Armas, our first reaction was, wow, someone spent a lot of money here.
The population is also more indigenous than in Lima, which is reflected in the terraced landscape, artisan crafts, food, and language. We met many people whose first language was Quechua, the language of the Incas.
There’s a surprising amount to do in Arequipa, from visiting alpacas to a multitude of open air museums. We visited the Moral House, a preserved mansion built around 1730 in the andean baroque civil architectural style.
Next to the Moral House is the most popular attraction in the old town, the Santa Catalina Monastery, a colorful 16th century convent that once housed 450 nuns and is often called a city within a city.
You can see alpacas and traditional weaving at Mundo Alpaca, get cheap eats at the San Camilo Market, where we bought a pound of sweet ripe figs, and take in city views from Plaza de Yanahuara with its tall palm trees.
My favorite place to get a vegetarian empanada was at Cafe Dulceria La Miel, which also sells fancy cakes for reasonable prices.
I really wanted to visit the Museum of Virceregal Art Santa Teresa because I saw a photo of an exquisite doorway at this museum, but we ran out of time.
You can easily spend a week in Arequipa. Our only regret was spending a week in Lima and only 4 days in Arequipa. If we had known better, we would have done the opposite.
And, if this isn’t enough to convince you, Nomad List ranks Arequipa 35 spots above Lima.