How Arequipa Became Named the White City

Church Arequipa | © sharptoyou / Shutterstock
Church Arequipa | © sharptoyou / Shutterstock
Packed full of stunning colonial architecture set around picturesque parks and plazas, Arequipa is undoubtedly among the most beautiful cities in Peru. And much like the capital Lima, there is a story behind how this colonial gem got its name, and why it was given the moniker, “The White City”.

Long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the site was inhabited by indigenous settlers. One theory is that the Aymara were first to lay claim to the land, naming the site Ari (summit) Quipa (lies beyond). The theory holds some credibility when you consider the imposing summit of the El Misti volcano does indeed lie just beyond the city.

El Misty above Arequipa © Petr Meissner / Flickr

The other possibility is that the name came from the Inca who were known to have settled in the region. Upon assessing its fertile land and strategic location between Cusco and the sea, the fourth Inca emperor Mayta Cápac is thought to have exclaimed in his native Quechua language, “Ari qhipay” (Let’s stay here).

No one knows for sure which of these versions is true, although we do know the Spanish took a liking to the name as they decided to keep it when they founded the city in 1540.

Church Arequipa © By alessandro pinto / Shutterstock

Upon founding this grand colonial city, the Spanish had to decide what to use as a primary construction material. As it turned out, a volcanic stone known as sillar was the perfect solution, mostly thanks to its abundance in the region. This remarkably soft, lightweight, and weatherproof white colored stone was ideal for constructing the imposing churches and government buildings which characterize central Arequipa.

A devastating earthquake in the 19th century practically leveled the city, obliterating many of the most majestic colonial structures. Determined not to lose their most beautiful city, the newly formed Republic of Peru lovingly rebuilt from the rubble up, incorporating plenty of white volcanic stone while closely adhering to the “Arequipa School of Architectural Design” for which the city is so well loved today.

Arch Arequipa © sharptoyou / Shutterstock

Such was the success of this painstaking reconstruction that UNESCO declared the White City a Cultural Heritage site in the year 2000.

Arequipa does have a second, less official nickname – The City of Eternal Spring. As you might have guessed, it stems from the fact the city enjoys a pleasant year round climate.