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Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

Kicking back in the White City


Colca_Canyon-Peru.jpgOn arriving back to the busy streets of Cuzco after a diverting taxi ride, we found ourselves at our little hostel, where I slumped into bed for the remainder of the day.The days' hiking around the steep hillsides of Machu Picchu had robbed me of what energy I had possessed.I improved little in the following days, sleeping on and off and eating the bare minimum until I dragged myself to a private clinic and endured a battery of tests, all of them unpleasant.I was diagnosed with salmonella and giardia (nasty little buggers) and handed pills to consume and advice to follow.Thus we were forced to remain in Cuzco until I had recovered enough to travel, a period which lasted another three or four days.
Well behind on our travel itinerary, we made the tough decision to skip the visit to Lake Titicaca which we had promised ourselves after hiking the Inca Trail.Instead we hopped on board yet another night bus and took the 10 hour trip south to Arequipa, Peru's second biggest city after Lima.Arequipa resides in a region known as 'canyon country' in an area famous for its dry, rocky deserts and cavernous, deep canyons.Aswell as containing one of the worlds' deepest canyons, Colca (at 3191m deep), it is also home to several impressively high peaks including El Misti (5822m) and Chachani (6075m).In an area of such dramatic landscapes, Arequipa tends to attract those keen to do either serious hiking or serious climbing, both of which are well catered for.
We had other reasons for coming to Arequipa.While we both were very keen on doing some hiking, we'd decided even before we'd left Cuzco that we desperately needed a proper break from all the hurried sightseeing and extensive travelling.Backpacking may be an affordable way to see countless sights in a short space of time, but it can be hard going after a while and such constant moving from place to place only serves to increase the likelihood of a complete and utter breakdown.Two months of solid backpacking had us stretching our limit and my recent bout of sickness wasn't helping either.Time constraints usually forced us into unreasonably demanding schedules which we were desperate to esape from, at least temporarily.In short, what we needed was a holiday from the holiday.
Arequipa was to be that vacation.Janelle had already booked spanish lessons some time before which meant we would have no choice but to remain in the city for an entire week.With the decision made for us, it became easier to forget about schedules and itineraries and just relax.The days took on a nice, predictable rhythm; Janelle left for her classes early in the morning, while I awoke sometime later and had a leisurely breakfast before I set off for the town centre to catch up on some blogging and emails in one of the local internet cafes.I'd break for lunch after a few hours and eat tasty chicken fried rice in a cheap Chinese nearby.Then I'd spend the afternoon exploring the town and taking in some of the sights before leaving for the hostel and meeting up with Janelle for dinner.We'd squeeze in whatever activities we wanted to do in the time after eating and nightfall.It was a lazy, relaxing and glorious time.
I did, however, get to visit all the must see sights nevertheless.Arequipa is a city justifiably famous for its beauty and nowhere provides a better example of this than the main plaza with its stunning white brick cathedral.Many of the historic buildings downtown are built of the same volcanic white stone, called sillar, a feature that rightly earned the city its nickname of La Ciudad Blanca, or The White City.The plaza is a wide open space bordered by tall green palms and is constantly crowded with tourists and locals alike, all sunning themselves by the requisite fountain.Visible just beyond the tall spires are the twin peaks of Misti and Chachani, two mountains that are popular for novice climbers.I was on the verge of booking a climb up Chachani when I realised the trek started with a midnight pickup before a harsh pre-dawn climb in total darkness, a feat of serious endeavour that sadly conflicted with our original goal (that of taking it easy).
One sight that did fit in with our plans was a visit to the Santa Catalina monastary, a high walled citadel that virtually occupies an entire city block.Built in 1580 some 40 years after the city was first founded, the enclosure is a self contained structure that is still home to nuns, though they live in a seperate section to the one on display to the viewing public.It is a beautifully serene place, with narrow streets and sunny, fruit filled courtyards painted in bright primary colours.Its also home to some exquisite green gardens and lively fountains, as well as the cramped, ascetic cells once used to house the nuns.Walking down its cobbled streets is like walking back in time and nowhere in Peru will you find well maintained buildings of such simple design and function.
Another essential visit was to the Museo Santury, a university run museum that houses one of the most startling finds of recent times.Popularised by the documentary of the same name, the 'Ice Princess' is a frozen maiden who was sacrificed some 500 years ago by the Incas on the summit of the nearby volcano of Ampato.Nicknamed 'Juanita' by the American team of archeologists that found her remains in 1994, it appears the young girl (she was between 12 and 14) was killed in a ritual ceremony meant to appease the violent deities of the volcano.An interesting video coupled with a brief tour culminates in a respectful viewing of the mummy itself, her features still discernible after hundreds of years buried in ice.Indeed she still has a full head of long, dark hair.Such ceremonial sacrifices were only carried out in times of real catastrophe, the Incas apparently preferring to use livestock such as llamas or vicunas when possible.
Forgoing the high energy required for mountain climbing we did manage to have some adrenaline fuelled fun nonetheless.On our last day we booked a rafting trip on the Rio Chili, a river of moderate current that snakes its way through one of the nearby gorges that populate the region.Our guide was a twenty-somethinged American who was engaged to a local girl.He was all blonde surfer dude but seemed to know his stuff all the same.Due to the low season it was just the three of us and we navigated through some heart stopping and gut wrenching rapids along the way.One section in particular, the Waterfall, was a grade four drop that had us nearly tipping over into the icy water but we managed to right ourselves at the last minute.It was very wet and a lot of fun.
As with Cuzco, most visitors to Arequipa come with the intention of undertaking at least some of the many hiking opportunities that the rocky region affords.Two of the main expeditions on offer are the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, the latter being the deeper and more difficult of the two.We settled on the three day Colca trek and the next day were picked up by our guide along with a party of three Germans.After missing out on the Inca Trail we were keen to do some actual hiking but alas the entire first day was essentially a road trip through the dry desert of the canyon country.Fortunately it was extremely informative and we stopped off at some inspiring sites along the way.One of these was an odd collection of rock formations fashioned by years of exposure to the desert winds.They resembled various shapes including a face and a couch (?) but mostly looked like stone teeth set into a rocky jaw.
Another was a rare oasis where hardy famers take their hardier livestock and was crowded with all sorts of South American camelids; llamas, vicunas, alpacas and guanacos, all of them similar in appearance with long legs, hairy bodies and gentle faces.These animals have been used for centuries as pack animals by the Incas and still serve that purpose today.Their wool is highly coveted for clothing while their meat is commonly eaten as part of the Peruvian diet.Alpaca makes for pretty nice steaks, which taste somewhere between chicken and beef but contains less fat than either (so I'm told).
Our journey took us through some of the most desolate country we'd seen yet; dry, featureless desert with a bare minimum of brush and trees.We reached the edge of the canyon around noon and drove down the winding road that took us into the heart, arriving at the principal town of Chivay by lunchtime.This dusty town is in effect the capital of Colca, though we skipped through it to continue on to Yanque where we had lunch.The few towns that survive down here subsist mainly on the agriculture of the surrounding valley, where Inca built terraces can still be plainly seen.The Spanish built many churches in this area in an effort to convert the locals to Christianity, but many of them have suffered from the aftermath of the frequent earthquakes that periodically hit the region.Now there is a ghost town feel to them and any second you expect tumbleweeds to bounce across your path, blown about in the dusty climate by tendrils of dirty winds....It's that kind of place.
We continued on after lunch, driving through some rough terrain that surprisingly had its fair share of green surroundings.Indeed, at a glance the countryside was almost reminiscient of a blooming Tuscany landscape.Passing through small village after small village, we stopped to photograph each church that seemed to be the only buildings of any real note.Most of them were closed during the day, due to robberies of religious paintings and whatnot in the past.They did provide a nice distraction however, each of them with their own distinct design and character.We took our pics and drove on.
Passing by locals on over worked donkeys along the way, we continued on up the rocky road as it wound its way slowly upward.We stopped at various points, photographing the exquisite panoramic views on offer.This area has been inhabited by many differing cultures over the years, but its the indomitable Inca terraces that are the most visible remnants around now.They transformed what once was inhospitable mountain slopes into easily cultivated land and enabled the Incas to survive in what was otherwise an unlivable region.At one stop our gazes were directed upward to a crevice in the rocks overhead, a place the Incas had built many years before.These 'hanging tombs' were home to long deceased priests and other important figures, their function to obviously deter the pervasive grave robbers (huaqueros) with their difficult to reach location.The grave robbers were more than up to the task, however and had plundered these abandoned sites long ago.
Our final destination on our first day was Cruz del Condor, an outcropping of rock in Colca canyon that is famously home to many Andean condors.Most tours reach it in early morning, but we were here in the early hours of dusk to avoid the crowds.Since sightings aren't guaranteed we held our breaths, but we needn't have worried; several condors were circling overhead, gliding effortlessly on the thermals.They are elegant creatures that belong to more romantic times and somehow seem both out of place and at home here in the canyon.Whatever their own thoughts on the matter, they kept a clear distance from us and never ventured too near.Years of visiting tourist groups probably have that effect.
We ended the day at Cabanconde, another small village not far from Cruz del Condor.This was to be our home for the night and more luxurious lodgings we could not have imagined.Our room was a wide, circular cabin built of solid, painted adobe and enclosed in a roof of thick wooden beams.A double bed that could fit three (if only!) sat in centre and off to the side was an en suite with a sunken bathtub (!).Dinner was served in a restaurant of star quality that wouldn't have looked out of place in the more expensive parts of Cuzco and was predictably delicious.(fresh river salmon if I recall).All this in the depths of a dusty canyon miles from 'civilization'.It was good our first night was so comfortable for our next would be spent in the confined space of a cramped tent down at the real floor of the canyon.But for now we were in heaven.
The next day dawned bright and early.We'd be forgoing our van and hiking down into the real centre of the canyon, a drop of some thousand metres straight down.While our guide prepared the hired donkeys to carry the heavier tents and gear we busied ourselves with our own backpacks.Plenty of water was necessary for the hike down and we made sure we had enough.Once ready, we set off following our guide.An early start was essential for once the blazing afternoon sun hit us it 'd be next to impossible to do any hiking.We reached the edge, looked out once over the vast blue sky and dark mountainsides and began our descent.The path was extremely rocky and narrow,with a precarious edge always at our side.Slipping and stumbling downward we were soon sweating profusely.The steep angle of the path meant that our thighs took the brunt of the work and soon enough they were burning with the effort.Many, many stops and a full three hours later we finally reached the ground.
And what a sight!The small patch of ground we'd viewed from above was a veritable and literal oasis (sangalle), a brightly coloured lawn of green grass, palm trees and straw huts.Dotted all over were tiled swimming pools built into the natural stone of the area and as we explored further we even found a well stocked bar!The oasis was right beside the canyons river, whose low roar could be heard in the distance.But we were too hot and tired to care about that!Stripping off our sticky clothes we plunged straight into the clear, inviting pool.It was bliss!Afterwards we dried ourselves in the hot sun before being served a fine three course lunch under the nearby palm trees.Lomo saltado, a Peruvian favourite of shredded fried beef, chips and rice served on the same plate.We'd tried it many times before and were pretty fond of it.Lunch was followed by idle chatter and relaxed laughter and while some of the others caught a few z's I went off exploring the area, particulary the river and its raging current.The remainder of the day was spent much the same, with a minimum of physical activity.In the cool of the evening however, we did hike to see some more hanging tombs nearby as well as a suspension bridge farther upstream.Our guide showed us an interesting feature of some cactii that flourishes in the area; infecting the leaves was a small insect, that, when crushed, bleeds out an unnatural red colour.This is cochineal and the red dye is known as carmine.It has been used for centuries by the Incas as a dye for their clothing and costumes.The colour is so stark that the invading conquistadors were stunned by its quality and immediately began appropriating it for their own use.It is still in use today and fields of this same cactus are deliberately infected with this parasite to yield the dye as a commercial commodity.Carmine remains one of the most versatile dyes around and is used in everything from fabrics, cosmetics and foodstuffs.
Our night was spent in small comforable tents rather than the many huts on site due to the high likelihood of insect infestation (scorpions and spiders among them).We had to rise at the ungodly hour of 5am to begin the hike back, again to beat the scorching afternoon sun.As we stumbled around in the still dark yawning, we picked out torch beams on the mountain trail hgh above us, another tour group whose hike had started at 2am!We ate a quick breakfast and started out, picking our paths with our own torches.The cool of the pre dawn made it possible to hike in relative comfort, but the going was still rough and very physical.I can only imagine the hike in full sunshine!Myself and Janelle distanced ourselves from the others and began hiking at a quick pace, though we were still overtaken at times by locals who regularly make the trek in an hour and a half.We stopped halfway up and took a rest and some water and watched in silence as the sun rose over the mountains on the far side of the canyon.It was a beautiful, peaceful sight.The suns rays would reach us in another couple of hours so we hurried on, half climbing, half stumbling up the steep path.We unexpectedly reached the top an hour or so later, managing the climb in an impressive two hours when it had taken us three just to get down!We found our way back to the town and our driver, collapsed into the van and awaited the others.
An hour and a half later we were all enjoying hot coffee and fresh bread at a local cafe and afterwards piled into the van for the drive back.Along the way we stopped at one of the many hot spring resorts in the canyon and soaked our tired muscles in the tepid waters.An hour or so of this was enough to adequately soothe our bones and we gratefully made our way to Yanque for a buffet lunch, the final meal of our trip.It was fantastic, every type of Peruvian delicacy was on offer; lomo saltado, alpaca steaks, alpaca curry, aji de gallina (a type of spicy curry), rocoto relleno (spicy peppers stuffed with beef), grilled chicken breasts, rice, soups and everything in between.We were even served deep fried cuy (guinea pig), a dish I'd been keen to try.It wasn't exactly what I was expecting (very tough and chewy) but I guessed it was okay.
Suitably well fed, we made the long journey back to Arequipa, dropping the three Germans off at a bus stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere for a transfer onwards to Cuzco.Our driver left us right to our hostel, where we dutifully tipped both driver and guide as per backpacking custom.We had the remander of the day to rest before packing up all our belongings yet again for the long trip to our next destination.The desert town of Nazca, where we'd witness one of modern archeology's most perplexing mysteries; the ancient wonders that are the world famous Nazca Lines.

Posted by Janelle_B 15:31 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking

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