Arequipa, known as La Ciudad Blanca (The White City) for its many buildings constructed out of sillar, a type of white volcanic rock, is the second largest city in Peru. Most tourists outside of Peru simply pass through Arequipa on the way to Colca Canyon, but Peru’s second city offers so much more than just being a pit stop. Arequipa has a rich culinary history, holding a national record of 194 registered dishes, of which several are internationally acclaimed.
Arequipa has a population of over 1 million inhabitants. While nowhere near as large as Lima, it has plenty to see and do. Its main attractions are its Plaza de Armas, the Santa Catalina Monastery, and Mercado San Camilo, all located within its historic center. The city is surrounded by three large mountains, the 19,872 foot (6,057 meter) Chachani Volcano, the 19,101 foot (5,822 meter) El Misti Volcano, and the 18,583 foot (5,664 meter) Picchu Picchu Volcano. It is said that the volcanic white sillar used to make many of the historic buildings in the city was extracted from these three volcanoes.
The Southern highlands of Peru are a unique landscape. They’re more barren and desert-like than the highlands of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Arequipa is situated about 7,000 feet above sea level, giving it a more agreeable, less extreme climate than Cusco. Colca Canyon, about 3 hours away from Arequipa by bus, sits at a much higher elevation, giving it more extreme temperatures.
At 11,063 feet (3,372 meters), Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world (Cotahuasi Canyon, about 75 miles away, is the deepest, at 11,598 feet/3,535 meters). Colca Canyon is over two miles deep and easily over twice as deep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Cruz del Cóndor, the deepest point in Colca Canyon, is the best location to view Andean condors in flight, which is one of the most magnificent things one can witness in a lifetime.
Should you visit Colca Canyon, the third most visited tourist attraction in Peru, you’ll pass through Arequipa at least twice. I recommend staying in Arequipa for at least two to three days to try many of the unique dishes the city has to offer. This is a serious food city. Everyone here, from taxi drivers to artists to executives, is knowledgeable about the city’s foods and takes great pride in them.
What to Eat
Food writers often lazily lump Peruvian food into just three distinct areas: the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon. However, this is a gross oversimplification. The truth is that Peruvian cuisine is much more regionally diverse than that, particularly in the Andean regions. You’ll find the cuisine of Arequipa to have many dishes that don’t exist in Cusco or other parts of the Peruvian Andes.
Most of the dishes that I’ll be recommending to you are eaten in what Peruvians call picanterías. Picanterías are small, informal restaurants that specialize in classic Arequipan dishes. They provide the best, most authentic dining experience. Here’s my list of what to eat in Arequipa:
Pan de Tres Puntas
Arequipa has some excellent bakeries. You can find a wide variety of bread in the city, but the most famous is pan de tres puntas (three point bread), which is exclusive to Arequipa. Pan de tres puntas is named for its triangular, three-pointed shape, which is said to be represent the trinidad (holy trinity from the bible). Others have said that it represents Chachani, Misti, and Picchu Picchu, the three prominent volcanoes that surround the city of Arequipa.
Unlike French and Italian breads, pan de tres puntas is crunchier on the outside (though still soft on the inside), and is completely savory, lacking any noticeable sweetness. Though it has leavening and is not a flatbread, it somewhat reminds me of Jewish and Arabic breads. As eating habits have changed in Peru over the years, pan de tres puntas is slowly becoming less common in Arequipa. Many restaurants have begun serving French and Italian style breads, which have also been in Peru for centuries and are more popular nationally.
Though I love French and Italian style breads, I prefer the ultra-savory, simplistic taste of pan de tres puntas when in Arequipa. I find that it goes better with the flavors of the dishes here. It’s more absorbent, and thus an excellent companion for Arequipa’s many soups and spicy stews. It’s also fairly inexpensive. I picked up a bag of 15 small pieces of bread for one Peruvian sol (or about 33 cents in U.S. dollars). You can find pan de tres puntas at almost any bakery around the centro histórico area, and in Mercado San Camilo (the central market that I’ll be telling you about next).
Adobo Arequipeño, invented in 1525 in Arequipa’s Cayma district, is an aromatic red stew made with pork, dried ají panca (a Peruvian chili used to give a bright red color and fragrance), fresh rocoto (a spicy, red, Peruvian chili) garlic, onion, cumin, allspice, clove, cinnamon, oregano, chicha de guiñapo (a red-colored, indigenous corn beer made from black corn, specific to Arequipa), vinegar, and salt. Some versions contain additional ingredients, such as achiote and rosemary. The non-pork ingredients are ground up and liquefied into a marinade, which is then poured into a pot containing the chunks of pork.
The pork marinates for up to 12 hours, then the pot is placed on the stove with purple onions, brought to a boil, and left to simmer on low heat until the meat is tender. The end result is an ultra-flavorful stew that perfectly blends the flavors of the pork, herbs, spices, chicha, and vinegar to create something that’s even better than the sum of its parts. Adobo is served with pan de tres puntas, which absorbs the broth and compliments the soup perfectly.
I ate adobo at El Inter, located in Southeast corner of the second floor of Mercado San Camilo (Stall #19). Mercado San Camilo is the central market in Arequipa. It was designed 140 years ago by Gustave Eiffel, the famous builder of the Eiffel Tower. Much like the present day Eiffel Tower, it has a fair share of pickpockets roaming its floor and surrounding areas. The market is widely known for its Arequipan cuisine, including cheeses, breads, potato dishes like ocopa, and of course, great soups like Adobo.
El Inter, a 107 year old restaurant run by Vilma Rivera, has withstood the test of time. Vilma has run this restaurant for decades, having lived through countless presidential administrations, earthquakes, and other major historical events. She’s served famous clientele such as chef Gastón Acurio, the late former president Alan Garcia, and Arequipa’s own Nobel prize winning writer, Mario Vargas Llosa. She has even won a congressional medal for her contributions to Peruvian cuisine.
Like nearly all restaurants in Arequipa ,Vilma serves a different menu each day, with a rotating chupe del día (soup of the day), but her famous adobo is available every day. If you want to experience the best adobo arequipeño on Earth, I recommend heading to El Inter in Mercado San Camilo.
Ocopa is a beautiful green cheese sauce served in a similar manner to salsa a la huancaína, which I discussed in my previous article on Lima’s cuisine. Like salsa a la huancaína, it’s traditionally poured over boiled yellow potatoes and slices of hard boiled eggs, black olives, and a garnish of lettuce. Unlike salsa a la huancaína, it doesn’t have to be served cold, and is often eaten warm instead.
Ocopa is made by lightly sauteing fresh ají amarillo (a yellow Peruvian chili pepper), ají mirasol (sun-dried ají amarillo), onion, garlic, and huacatay (a popular herb in Andean cuisine) in olive oil, and then blending them with toasted peanuts, saltine crackers, queso fresco (fresh crumbly Peruvian cheese), evaporated milk, salt, and pepper. Traditionally it was ground together with a pestle and mortar, but in the present day, it’s usually made with a blender. The taste of ocopa is more herbal and nutty than salsa a la huancaína, thanks in part to the toasted peanuts and huacatay.
It has been said that ocopa originated in Arequipa during the time of the Incan Empire. Chasquis, Incan messengers, would go on their long voyages with a bag named ocopa containing ají peppers, herbs, and ground peanuts. Chasquis weren’t standard messengers, they pretty much ran the whole way, stopping off at relay points across the Incan Empire, where they would translate and transfer their message to the next chasqui. Their bag of ocopa was light enough to not slow them down.
Just like salsa a la huancaína, ocopa now has many variations, such as tallarines con crema de ocopa, a pasta in ocopa sauce. Ocopa de camarones is a popular variation with shrimp in it, as are yuquitas fritas con ocopa, fried sticks of yuca with ocopa as a dipping sauce.
Chupe de Camarones
Chupe de Camarones is chowder-like stew made with shrimp, choclo (giant Andean corn), yellow potatoes, onion, garlic, tomato, dried ají panca, ají mirasol, rocoto, huacatay, rice, olive oil, evaporated milk, queso fresco, eggs, salt, and pepper. Some variations include additional ingredients such as fava beans, green peas, carrots, pumpkin, and oregano.
The word chupe, which means “stew” in regional Andean Spanish, comes from the Quechua words chuwa misa, meaning “plato hondo,” which is Spanish for “bowl.” The city of Arequipa has 11 chupes, with chupe de camarones being its most famous. Chupe de camarones is technically a pre-Colombian dish, though it did undergo some significant changes with the arrival of the Spaniards, who brought with them milk, cheese, rice, and other occasionally used ingredients such as fava beans, green peas, and oregano.
In other regions of Peru, when you order chupe de camarones, you will get exactly that, a rich chowder containing shrimp from the ocean. In Arequipa, which lies 120 km away from the Pacific Ocean, you’ll get what look like large crayfish. So why isn’t it called chupe de langostinos instead? Well, it turns out that those actually are shrimp, namely big claw river shrimp (macrobrachium carcinus). This is what makes chupe de camarones so unique in Arequipa.
This is also a huge source of confusion for everyone in the Spanish speaking world. In many parts of Latin America and the United States, shrimp are called camarones, and crayfish are called langostinos (or acociles in certain parts of Mexico). In Peru and several countries in South America, the opposite is true, with crayfish being called camarones, and shrimp being called langostinos.
The fact that those crayfish-like creatures in your chupe de camarones actually are shrimp, yet still called camarones, as is the convention outside of Peru, makes it even more challenging. In Lima, the terms camarón and langostino are often used interchangeably, but in Arequipa, this is not the case. Anything that resembles a crayfish (even if it’s actually a large, freshwater shrimp) will be labeled as a camarón, and anything that resembles shrimp will be labeled as a langostino.
Be careful to make note of this, especially if you have a specific shellfish allergy of any kind, like me. For example, I’m not allergic at all to shrimp, but I will get a mild allergic reaction to crayfish, and a horrible allergic reaction to crab. Regional vocabulary differences aside, chupe de camarones is a phenomenal dish. It could possibly be, along with rocoto relleno, the most well known Arequipan dish outside the city.
In Arequipa, chupe de camarones is known to be served on Fridays, and is also known popularly as sopa de viernes (Friday soup). The two names are used interchangeably. This stems from the religious practice of only serving seafood on Fridays. Some popular locations make chupe de camarones daily, but it’s always a safer bet to eat it on Fridays, as this ensures availability.
There is a popular expression in the region: “El chupe de camarones es buenísimo, pero si es arequipeño, es mejor,” which translates to “Chupe de camarones is great, but if it’s Arequipan, it’s better.” Arequipan and Nobel prize winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa once wrote that chupe de camarones was “a supreme delicacy of Arequipa’s cuisine, that would later be my favorite dish.”
Rocoto Relleno is one of Arequipa’s crown jewels. It consists of rocoto chili peppers, stuffed with sauteed meat (usually ground beef, though the original recipe calls for finely chopped beef), ají panca, onion, garlic, olives, cumin, oregano, parsley, salt, and pepper, then topped with slices of cheese, bathed in a creamy sauce made from milk and eggs, and finally baked over a bed of potatoes and sliced hard boiled eggs. Some add other ingredients such as toasted peanuts, huacatay, and chopped hard-boiled eggs to the stuffing.
The rocotos are first sliced open from the top and the stems and seeds are removed to lower the intense heat. They are then boiled in saltwater and blanched in cold water three times. The third boil includes sugar in the water, as this is said to further remove the heat from the rocoto. Some even soak the rocotos in vinegar overnight to remove even more heat, though I personally think that’s too extreme, and prefer my rocoto relleno to be spicy.
The rocotos are then stuffed with the sauteed meat, herbs, and spices, topped with cheese slices, then covered by the sliced rocoto tops. A creamy sauce is created by whisking milk, eggs, salt, and pepper together. After the stuffed rocotos are placed on top of skinned, boiled potatoes in a casserole dish, the sauce is poured over the both of them. The dish is then baked in the over for 15 to 20 minutes.
The result is one of the best stuffed pepper recipes that you’ve had in your life. Rocoto relleno is like a spicier, richer, more extravagant version of a stuffed bell pepper. In fact, after eating this, American stuffed bell peppers and Spanish and Cuban stuffed sweet peppers will probably taste bland to you. Once you have rocoto relleno, there’s no turning back.
There are two versions of the origin of rocoto relleno, the historical account, and the fictional version, written by Peruvian writer Carlos Herrera. The fictional account states that a man named Manuel Masías created rocoto relleno as a dish to placate the demands of the devil, in order to recuperate the soul of his dead daughter, Delphine. Apparently, the devil prefers his food spicy, just like I do.
Though less entertaining, the historical account is the more reliable of the two. The Spanish had been making dishes of stuffed sweet peppers (pimiento relleno) long before they were introduced to the rocoto pepper. During the colonial era in Peru, sweet peppers weren’t available to them, so they adapted by using rocotos. In a bit of serendipity, rocoto relleno is now seen in the present day culinary world as far superior to Spanish pimientos rellenos. Not bad for what was once considered just a substitute ingredient.
Alpacas are one of four types of South American camelids. Vicuñas, guanacos, and llamas are the other three. They’re all related to one another, and are also related to the bactrian, wild bactrian, and dromedary camels found in central Asia and the Middle East. Much like dogs are the descendants of wild wolves, llamas are the descendants of wild guanacos, and alpacas are the descendants of wild vicuñas.
Camelids first originated around 45 million years ago in North America, where there are no present day camelids, strangely enough. They eventually began to branch off into different subspecies that spread to other regions. The ancestors of camels crossed the Bering Strait from North America into the Asian continent, eventually working their way to central Asia and the Middle East, while the ancestors of South American camelids eventually made their way to Andean South America.
Archaeologists aren’t completely certain why North American camelids completely disappeared around 3 million years ago. Some have speculated that overhunting by early human settlers may have caused their extinction, while others have said that environmental changes such as droughts and ice ages may have been the culprit. Others have said that it very well could have been a combination of the two.
Alpacas were domesticated by the Andean peoples around 6,000 years ago for their wool production. Their population dropped heavily during the Spanish conquest of the Andes, but slowly rebounded in isolated, mountain regions. You can see this firsthand when you visit Peru. Though you may find the occasional alpaca in coastal regions, there are far more in highland regions, particularly in the areas surrounding Arequipa.
Arequipa is known as the Alpaca capital of Peru. While you won’t find many in the city, you have to remember that it’s part of a larger province that goes by the same name. Arequipa province is said to contain more alpaca than anywhere else in the world. The production of alpaca products such as wool and leather takes place within the city of Arequipa.
Alpaca is not eaten as commonly as other meats, because farmers primarily raise them for their high quality, hypoallergenic wool (unlike lamb’s wool, it contains no lanolin), which earns far more money (up to $50.00 USD per pound of raw alpaca fleece) than selling alpaca meat ever could. However, alpacas are periodically slaughtered, and when they are, that meat becomes available for sale.
Alpaca is a fairly expensive meat, but it’s worth the price. It has an excellent taste, quite similar to beef, but much leaner. The meat is soft, with a beautiful red color that stays with it through cooking. Like lamb and beef, it can be prepared rare, and is bursting with flavor and juices. It’s low in cholesterol and high in protein and iron. One of the best ways of eating alpaca is as a steak, which can be found at several restaurants in Arequipa.
Chairo is a stew that originated in the areas around Lake Titicaca. Originally created by the Aymara speaking Colla people, who lived in both Peru and Bolivia, the dish can be found in both countries. The Arequipan variation of the stew contains chunks of beef or lamb meat, diced beef or lamb tripe or tongue, cecina (a type of dried beef or lamb), ají amarillo, rocoto, onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, mint, diced potato, chuño (Andean freeze dried potato), carrots, pumpkin, fava beans, cabbage, and wheat kernels.
Chairo is a hearty, nutritious stew that will stick to your gut for hours (in a good way). In Arequipa, it’s usually made on Tuesdays, giving chairo its other name, sopa de martes (Tuesday soup), much the way chupe de camarones is often referred to as sopa de viernes. Those are just two of the seven soups that correspond to each day of the week in Arequipa:
- Monday: chaque de tripas
- Tuesday: chairo
- Wednesday: chochoca
- Thursday: timpusca de peras
- Friday: chupe de camarones
- Saturday: pebe de cordero
- Sunday: caldo blanco or rachi de panza
The list is not completely set in stone, but for the most part, follows this pattern. Certain soups, such as chairo and chupe de camarones are pretty much always served on those respective days. This practice, in which most picanterías in the city cook the same dish on specific days, originated long ago as a way to ensure that local markets could allocate adequate supplies of ingredients for each dish on respective days.
Despite its name, queso helado, Arequipa’s most famous dessert, contains absolutely no cheese. It’s made with milk, condensed milk, chuño flour, and cinnamon. Some also add coconut milk as a mixing ingredient. The milk and condensed milk are slowly boiled together, then chuño flour is added as a thickener. Cinnamon is added and the solution is then mixed at a fast speed with a large wooden spoon in an artisanal ice cream mixer, which is essentially a stainless steel bowl inside another stainless steel bowl filled with ice.
The chuño flour and the freezing process help thicken the mixture until layers of the curdled mixture begin to flake off. These flakes are similar in appearance to cheese, hence where the name queso helado comes from. Once the queso helado is made, it’s usually topped with grated coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon, and then served. However, there are now countless other versions, such as mint, strawberry, guava, passion fruit, mango, and even varieties that include pisco, whiskey, rum, and anisado.
If you like ice cream, you’ll love queso helado. It can be found everywhere in Arequipa, and is beloved by Arequipans. In fact, it’s held in such high esteem that every fourth Sunday of January is Queso Helado Arequipeño Day, an event held in the city’s Plaza de Armas by the Arequipa Provincial Authority’s tourism department. Arequipans take their queso helado very seriously, and if you ever taste it, you’ll know why.
A Perennially Underappreciated Culinary Powerhouse
Though Arequipa may be referred to as Peru’s second city in terms of population, when it comes to food, it’s unlike any other. For a city of its size, it has such an enormous variety of dishes specific to the region. Its strict, unapologetic adherence to the preservation of its traditional recipes is what makes it so unique among other prominent food cities. For this alone, Arequipa is in a class by itself, and most certainly a worth a visit.
El Inter is open from 6:00 AM to 4:00 PM, 7 days a week.