Peru’s “White City” offers picturesque European architecture with a backdrop of volcanos. Don’t worry—the volcanoes aren’t too active. The last small eruption happened in 1985.
Volcanos aside, the friendly locals, quiet atmosphere, and delicious cuisine mean that there’s a lot to love about Arequipa.
However, the city has a long way to go with being accessible for wheelchair users. Nevertheless, if you’re equipped with an accessible vehicle, you’ll be able to enjoy many of Arequipa’s highlights.
Note: The information here is based on my observation as a non-wheelchair user. If you have firsthand experience as a wheelchair user in Arequipa, I’d love to hear about your time there and your recommendations in the comments section. I appreciate it and I’m sure that our future readers will too!
An Overview of Wheelchair Accessibility in Arequipa
The Plaza de Armas is among the most accessible places in Arequipa because of its wide, flat sidewalks. You’ll also find some nice sidewalks leading away from the square, particularly on Calle Santa Catalina.
Outside of these areas, most of Arequipa’s sidewalks have one or more of the following traits:
- Narrow and/or blocked paths
- Curbs without a drop-down
Furthermore, Arequipa is nestled in a valley of the Andes Mountains. The valley is far from flat, meaning that if you’re a manual wheelchair user, there might be moments when you need help pushing uphill.
To complicate things further, Arequipa sits over 7,600 feet above sea level. That’s high enough to get out of breath pushing a manual chair until your body has time to acclimate to the high altitude.
For more details about preventing and managing altitude sickness in the Andes, check out this article.
That said, it isn’t all doom and gloom—with the help of an accessible van, you can bypass rolling to different places and drive to them instead.
Hiring an Accessible Van
View Peru offers accessible tours in Arequipa, along with other popular destinations in Peru such as:
- Colca Canyon
- Sacred Valley
- Machu Picchu
You can contact them about arranging a full tour in Arequipa or using their accessible vans to get around with your own itinerary.
Accessible Restaurants in Arequipa
The majority of restaurants and shops in the historical center of Arequipa require passing over one or more steps to enter them. The steps are typically steep and made from stone.
Nevertheless, below are some accessible restaurants you can count on when hunger strikes:
- Mirador Misti (located behind the cathedral; accessible outdoor seating)
- Mamut (on Paseo Mercaderes)
- Capriccio (on Paseo Mercaderes)
- El Cebillano (in Yanahuara)
The Restroom Conundrum
I encountered one accessible restroom during my time in Arequipa. It’s located at Mundo Alpaca (more on this shortly) and you’ll need to have an employee open it for you.
If you visit Arequipa and encounter any other accessible bathrooms, please share it in the comments section.
In the meantime, you’ll likely need to rely on the accessible restroom at your hotel. Wheelchair accessible hotels in Arequipa include:
- Costa del Sol
- Casa Andina Premium
- QP Hotel
12 Accessible Things to do in Arequipa
Arequipa may not be the easiest city for wheelchair users to roam around, but there are still many places you can visit. And luckily, most of them happen to be some of the most popular things to do in the city.
Below are some of the best accessible things to do in Arequipa.
1. Roam the Plaza de Armas
If you only have time to visit one place during your time in Arequipa, make it the Plaza de Armas.
This huge square boasts stunning Spanish architecture that’ll take you back in time to 1540 when Arequipa was founded.
Both day and night, the plaza teems with vendors—don’t miss the opportunity to buy a queso helado ice cream, which you’ll find women selling in the shade of the square’s perimeter. We’ll talk more about queso helado shortly.
You’ll have access to a wide, flat brick pedestrian walkway around the perimeter. To arrive inside the square where a fountain and palm trees make a beautiful foreground for taking photos of the cathedral, you’ll need to wheel across a cobblestone street, followed by popping over an approximately 4 – 6-inch ledge.
I circled the square twice looking for a drop-down ramp to no avail. Below is a photo of the cobblestone street leading to the centermost part of the square. The angle I took it at doesn’t show the ledge to arrive at the square, but it’s in the location of the faint yellow line.
The shortest ledge seemed to be in front of the cathedral on the leftmost side when you’re facing the cathedral. This is also the place that has an almost (but not quite) drop-down curb from the perimeter of the plaza to arrive at the cobblestone street.
Sadly, the cathedral itself isn’t accessible. I spoke with a cathedral employee ushering people in during mass, and he said that they can carry you up the set of stairs to get to the cathedral’s patio. From there, a ramp leads into the cathedral. It’s far from ideal.
2. Enter the Church of La Compañía
Arequipa’s cathedral steals the show of the Plaza’s skyline. However, the Church of La Compañía offers more delicate exterior stone carvings that are a field day for any artist-oriented person.
La Compañía opened in 1739 and you can find it on the southeast corner of the Plaza de Armas.
When facing the front of the Cathedral from the sidewalk, head around the corner to the right and you’ll find a short ramp that leads to the wide, partially cobblestone patio that you see in the photo above.
La Compañía has a flat entrance, and it’s free for visitors to enter. Just make sure you’re dressed in church-approved attire (no shorts or tank tops) or else they won’t let you in.
3. Plaza San Francisco
The Plaza San Francisco is a free public space that belongs to an old monastery.
It offers a flat entrance from the street and cobblestone sidewalks that weave through a garden. Because of some large trees that grow there, this is a nice spot to take a break from Arequipa’s strong sun.
The church wasn’t open when I visited, but the metal ramp leading up to it suggests that it would be accessible during its hours of operation.
When you’re facing the church, taking a stroll down the alley on the left-hand side offers the opportunity to experience what some of the older, narrower side streets in Arequipa are like.
Since this is a pedestrian-only alley, you won’t have to worry about squeezing by vehicles. It’s also a flat street without cobblestone.
4. Santa Catalina Monastery
The Santa Catalina Monastery is one of the most iconic things to do in Arequipa. In fact, as you roam around it, you’ll feel like you stepped inside another city within a city.
Much of the monastery involves roaming around (mostly cobblestone) outdoor pedestrian streets. Fragrant flowers and colorful buildings will leave you snapping photos at every turn.
The Santa Catalina Monastery is partially wheelchair accessible.
You’ll need to enter via an accessible door around the side of the building. They keep that door shut, so if you’re traveling with a non-wheelchair user, they can notify a staff member. It’s also possible to flag down an employee from the main entrance at the top of the stairs.
Once you’re inside the monastery, you’ll encounter cobblestone and areas where you’ll need to pop over small ledges.
Needless to say, they haven’t made the Santa Catalina Monastery ideal for wheelchair users. However, you can still explore much of the property.
5. Seek Out Volcano Views
Three volcanos surround the immediate area around downtown Arequipa—Misti, Pichu Pichu, and Chachani.
Of the three, Misti is the most beloved since it has a classic volcano cone shape. There’s some irony to this, given that Misti is an active volcano and is considered one of the most dangerous in the world.
It also sits only 16 km from downtown Arequipa—that’s about 10 miles, for my fellow Americans.
Although Misti’s last major eruption was over 2,000 years ago, some people compare Arequipa’s future to Pompeii, Italy. They say if Misti ever has a major explosion again, it’ll wipe out the city in a mere 30 seconds.
So, locals joke that there’s no point in trying to flee the eruption—simply turn towards it to make the last thing you see something beautiful.
The reality is that earthquakes are a far bigger threat to Arequipa than its volcanos. On average, the city experiences more than one earthquake per day, although many are too small to feel.
I’m about 2.5 weeks into my stay and I’ve felt three earthquakes so far, one of which was a 10+ second long, 4.1 magnitude jolt. To discover the earthquakes happening beneath your wheels at any given moment while you’re in Arequipa, check out the statistics on Volcano Discovery.
Okay, that’s enough of an aside. Let’s get back to volcano viewing.
One of the most popular volcano-viewing places in Arequipa is the Yanahuara Viewpoint. It has sillar arches (a material that comes from the volcanos, giving Arequipa its white appearance) that frame the Misti Volcano.
The Yanahuara Viewpoint is accessible from the park side of the entrance. When you’re facing the arches, there’s a ramp on the lefthand side that will lead you up to the wide, cobblestone-free viewing area.
Another great place to view the volcanos, along with the Chili River in the foreground, is on the bridge that connects Arequipa to Yanahuara.
The bridge has a moderately wide, flat path that you can stroll down. Alternatively, you can drive across it so that you can enjoy the scenery from a higher viewpoint.
Another great option is to take a drive outside of Arequipa. There are several viewpoints you’ll come across, and one of my favorites was the sidestreet we stopped at on my Ruta del Sillar tour.
It offered beautiful views of all three volcanos with fields of produce in the foreground.
You can’t see it in this photo, but the Chili River runs through this area too. For more details on how to find this viewing area, take a look at my guide on the Ruta del Sillar tour, which includes a section on accessibility.
6. Stroll Down Paseo Mercaderes
Paseo Meraderes is a 4-block pedestrian avenue that extends from La Gran Via to the Plaza de Armas.
It has a cobblestone center but a wide, smooth brick pathway straddling the cobblestone on either side. Paseo Mercaderes is an excellent place to enjoy some of Arequipa’s old architecture, purchase local food from street vendors, and get a feel for a portion of the city’s business area.
It’s also an area in Arequipa’s historical center that has relatively more accessible shops and restaurants.
The street is on a gentle slope. So, if you’re a manual wheelchair user, consider starting your explorations at the San Camilo Market and working your way downhill to the Plaza de Armas.
7. Pick up Some Goodies at the San Camilo Market
The San Camilo Market is the market to visit in Arequipa.
All of its many entrances are wheelchair accessible, thanks to flat entryways. You’ll need to be prepared to tackle crowded sidewalks in the area in front of the market, though, for shoppers and vendors alike flood the area during the day.
Once inside the market, you’ll experience relatively fewer crowds, in great part due to the massive aisles that allow people to spread out.
The first floor of the San Camilo Market is wheelchair accessible. The market is divided into sections, including fruits and veggies, meat, dried goods, pet supplies, and souvenirs.
There’s a second, inaccessible floor of the market where vendors sell cheap meals.
8. Drive Around San Lázaro
San Lázaro is an old, historical district located a short drive east of the Plaza de Armas. Many tourists don’t venture to this area, making it a great place to sightsee at a leisurely pace.
The caveat is that the streets in San Lázaro are extremely narrow, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a car and wheelchair to pass each other.
For this reason, taking a drive through the district is a great option. You can expect to encounter next to no cars, so keep your windows rolled down as you slowly peruse this small but mesmerizing area.
9. Explore Yanahuara
Yanahuara is another district that’ll likely be easiest for you to explore by car.
Unlike San Lázaro, many streets in Yanahuara offer sidewalks. However, as you can see in the photo above, the sidewalks are cobblestone and quite narrow.
Regardless of how you decide to explore Yanahuara, driving around this district is an excellent activity to do in conjunction with your trip to the Yanahuara Viewpoint.
10. Eat Queso Helado
Queso helado is one of Arequipa’s biggest prides and joys. Its name translates to “cheese ice cream” in English, but this icy treat contains absolutely no cheese.
Instead, it’s made from a base of three milks:
- Regular milk
- Sweetened condensed milk
- Evaporated milk
It also contains egg yolks, coconut, corn starch, sugar, vanilla, cloves, and cinnamon.
Vendors sell queso helado in wooden barrels all over the city. They typically offer three sizes that range from 2 – 5 soles (50 cents to $1.25).
Make sure to get your fill of queso helado before you visit other parts of Peru—you’ll be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere.
11. Visit Mundo Alpaca
Mundo Alpaca is a fun mini-farm trip within the historical center of Arequipa. It’s easiest to drive there, where you’ll find an unmarked parking area in front of the building. Alternatively, you can go there by heading down to the end of Calle Santa Catalina.
When you arrive at Mundo Alpaca, there’s a cobblestone pedestrian walkway to the right of the building. That’s the accessible entrance, and it’ll lead you through a series of accessible areas.
You’ll encounter alpacas to your right, and if you venture up a small, grass hill you can go right up to their pen and feed them through the fence. An employee will give you some fresh grass to feed the animals, and it’s completely free to do so.
You can also stroll through a large barn where they explain the process of steering and producing alpaca goods. There’s an area where you can feel the different alpaca wool, which is accessible to reach.
When you emerge from the barn you’ll need to head back the way you came, for the indoor area where they sell goods and the cafe don’t have ramps. As you’re departing, you’ll find an accessible restroom to your right.
They keep the restroom locked, so you’ll need to flag down an employee to open it for you. The person caring for the alpacas will likely be the closest option.
12. Donate to Fundación HOPE
Calling all animal lovers!
Fundación HOPE is an animal shelter run by a lawyer who practices animal rights law and runs a self-funded shelter out of her home. She often has over 100 dogs and cats in need of loving homes.
In the understandable circumstance that you can’t fly an animal home with you, consider donating to Fundación HOPE. They’re always in need of the following:
- Dog food (adult and puppy)
- Cat food (adult and kitten)
- Cat litter
- Dog beds/blankets
- Dog and cat treats
You can drop off your donations in person at the following address: Calle Ibañez 102, Arequipa
It’ll take you less than 10 minutes to drive there from the Plaza de Armas. Just be careful because there’s also a Calle Jacinto Ibañez in Arequipa. That’s not the address for Fundación HOPE.
Upon your arrival, they can open the garage door so that you have an accessible entrance to visit with their cats and dogs.
Are You Ready to Explore Arequipa?
Arequipa still has a long way to go before becoming a great wheelchair accessible city. However, with a bit of pre-planning and some modifications, you can see many of the city’s sites.
If you have questions about traveling to Arequipa as a wheelchair user, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help. I’d also love to hear about your experience in the comments if you or anyone you know has taken an accessible trip to Arequipa.