History of Arequipa

Mother Earth Travel > Peru > Arequipa > History

Arequipa, capital city of the state of the same name, proudly preserves today many relics and monuments that remind us of its colonial past, when it was the city with the highest proportion of Spanish population in the whole Viceroyship of Peru. This still shows in the city's traditional colonial architecture, best evidenced in the manorial houses, monasteries, and convents such as the famous Saint Catherine Convent, dated 1579.

Arequipa territories have been inhabited since between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago (Paleolithic Era) and much archaeological evidence such as rupestrian paintings and stones with carved drawings have been found. The best-known sites are the petroglyphics at Toro Muerto in the Valley of Majes, and the ones discovered inside the caves of Sumbay (Yura Province, 4,127 meters over sea level).

Later on, Arequipa was the homeland of Collagua, Cabana and Aruni civilizations, which were incorporated into the Inca Empire toward the middle of the 16th century. During the Inca occupation of Arequipa, this territory hosted highly developed agriculture, demonstrated by the still-visible remains of irrigation systems and farming terraces built in the mountains.

The Spanish conquest and consequent creation of the actual Arequipa city, on August 15, 1540, meant a sudden change for the lifestyles of all local civilizations. Despite the natural scarcity of water resources, agriculture remained the principal economic activity in these fertile valleys. Some European crops were successfully acclimatized to this land and within a few years, a flourishing production of wine, liquors and olive oil had been established.

Arequipa is located in a volcanic area of the southern Peruvian Andes. The lack of construction materials in this region, led people to the usage of "sillar," a light-colored rock that comes from petrified volcanic ash of the Chachani volcano. The whitish color of sillar accounts for the Arequipa nickname "White City." Arequipa's peculiar sillar architecture limited damage during earthquakes, although some have destroyed Arequipa. That is why traditional buildings have only one story and sillar walls about one-meter thick.

During the 19th century, Arequipa was one of the cities that adhered more enthusiastically to the independence parties, and once the Republic was proclaimed Arequipa became a symbol. The prideful, daring and rebellious temperament of Arequipans made them supporters and visible leaders of revolutions. That is why Arequipa is known as the "Land of Leaders."

The arrival of the Southern Railroad in 1870 marked the end of a long period of isolation. The trains connected Arequipa with other coastal cities and began new trade routes, since the railways extended to Mollendo port. Arequipa today is the economical heart of Peru's southern region and one of its most important milk producers. Commerce and agriculture are the predominant industries, and thus the city is developing a peculiar urban appearance.

The fast urban growth has been accomplished mostly by refurbishing old houses and manors into hotels, banks and restaurants. For example, the Compania de Jesus monastery cloisters now house a shopping center. The Banco Central de Reserva del Peru and Banco Continental refurbished the Goyeneche and Ricketts manorial houses, which are now their branch offices. The Banco Industrial did the same with del Moral House, and the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín updated the Irriberry and Arrospide houses to hold the Centro Cultural Chávez de la Rosa.