Published: September 14th 2009May 16th 2009
Having woken up early and with a sudden burst of enthusiasm I decided to see if I could make it to Arequipa (Peru) from where I was staying in Sorata, Bolivia, that same day - 14 hours, 5 buses, a rather uneventful border crossing later and we finally rounded a corner to see the lights of Arequipa brightening up the dark sky ahead. Of course we arrived late, just the 3 hours mind, not pulling into the bus station until 11pm. I hadn't booked anywhere to stay and neither the thought of spending a night in the bus station nor the idea of trying to find somewhere to stay at this hour was especially appealing. Fortunately though the Dutch guy (and only other gringo on the bus) who'd been sat next to me was rather more organised so I jumped in a cab with him and headed off to his hostel hoping there would be space. Alas I was being optimistic and they were full but the lady running it was really sweet, pulling on her coat and leading me down the deserted street to first one, then another hostel until we finally found one with space. Welcome to Peru!
The next morning I went straight off to meet Shirley who'd just arrived from the UK. Despite her jet lag we were soon out exploring the city, starting at the Plaza de Aramas with its towering green palm trees and central fountain where locals sat relaxing on the surrounding benches, chatting and enjoying the sunshine. It's bounded on three sides by white arched colonial style buildings, now occupied by a host of tourist restaurants and forex shops all with sales people on the street outside trying to entice you in, whilst on the fourth side sits an imposing cathedral. A short walk away is the Santa Catalina Convent, the way there a gauntlet of travel agents and tourist shops (all selling alpaca jumpers, some with llama decoration, some without, gloves and hats with funny ear flaps all of which are '100%' alpaca... depending on your definition of 100% I guess) eager to part you from your money. The convent itself is stunning; a maze of buildings in shades of terracotta or vivid blue separated by cobbled streets, large cloistered courtyards, simple rooms, kitchens and views from the rooftops that are amazing. Built in 1580 and later
enlarged in the 17th century the convent was founded by a rich young widow, Maria de Guzman. Initially only women from high-class Spanish families were accepted with families paying a dowry when the woman entered. In addition to the dowry she was also required to bring a number of other items into the convent, including a statue, painting, lamp and clothes. In the early years each nun also had a number of servants or slaves to do her bidding but the good life didn't last. In 1871 Sister Josefa Cadena, a strict Dominican nun, was sent by Pope Pius IX to reform the monastery, freeing servants and slaves and removing the restrictions on entry. Once home to some 400 nuns there are only 20 are in residence. The next day we walked to the district of Yanahuara where an impressive church sits alongside a leafy plaza with lush green gardens and where through the archways at its end are fantastic views of El Misti, a 5822m volcano, with the city sprawling from its feet.
After a few days in town we headed out to the Colca Canyon - having deliberated doing an organised tour
vs. the 'DIY' version we'd ended up opting for the later.... always my favourite choice :0). So the next morning we were up early to be at the bus station by @6am for what turned out to be a fairly basic bus (no semi-cama or cama here!). Shirley coped really well with her first taste of transport South American style, possibly because the altitude sickness was giving her more to worry about than the lack of a few luxuries! The scenery was stunning as the road twisted and turned its way to higher plateaus, along hillsides covered with low or no vegetation, sparkling streams still part frozen from the overnight chill and snow capped mountains in the distance. As we got closer to Cabanaconde we drove though small villages, invariably with a central plaza and small white church where the bus would stop. Often locals got off between villages, a long walk ahead for some as they disappeared across fields, others entering basic huts nearer the road. The scenery became less wild and more rural, pre-Inca stepped terraces covering even the steepest hills. The traditional dress of local women has matching skirts, tunics and floppy hats decorated with brightly coloured
patterns in reds, greens and blues all set on a white background, although it's worn far more often by those selling to tourists than in the villages!
The minute we got off the bus in Cabanaconde we were approached by a local hostel owner - unlike so many I've met though this guy was happy just to give us information, where the path started, bus times to see the condors etc. As a marketing ploy it was actually rather effective because we all ended up heading there for a fantastic lunch and would be back again, this time to stay, once we'd completed our walk. So fed, suntan creamed up and hats on we finally started walking..... and promptly got lost before we'd even made it out of town!! Possibly not the best omen for our trip but things soon picked up once we were on the right route. Cabanconde sits at an altitude of 3287m, so even the flattish path that took us to the edge of the canyon and the start of our descent had me struggling to breathe. More than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon the Colca Canyon has an average depth of 3400m,
at points reaching to 4,160m. Fortunately though from where we were we only needed to descend @1200m. The zig zagging path was good and easy to follow, although the locals preferred the shorter straight up/down way. I guess all those zig zags become rather irritating after a while. Annoyingly despite the fact they took a steeper route and were often carrying heavier bags the locals would fairly skip up, making it look effortless and moving much faster than we would!
The scenery was lovely, all precipitous slopes, stepped terraces, small villages on the opposite side of the valley with the clear waters of the Rio Colca running along the floor far, far below. We passed donkey caravans and towering spiky cacti, condors flew just meters in front of us and we watched a beautiful sunset. Unfortunately at the time we saw the sunset though we were still only halfway down.... not relaxing with a cold beer at the bottom as we'd planned! We'd started walking with two English guys, Jamie and Dave, and the Dutch guy I'd met on the bus to Arequipa; initially we were doing well, stopping to take photos and just enjoying the views. Unfortunately Shirley
had an old knee injury that started playing up and as walking became more painful she mentioned that she also doesn't like heights (so we were walking down a steep sided canyon!!). We started moving more slowly so Jamie and I stayed with Shirley whilst the others went ahead. The sun set, stars covered the dark sky above sparkling all the more brightly for the lack of unnatural light pollution and still we continued down a seemingly never ending zig zagging path... thank god for head torches!! When we finally reached the river we were met by a home stay owner - the boys had gone on ahead, found somewhere to stay and sent the owner back to make sure we found the way in the dark! In the end what should have taken 3 hours took more like 5 but we'd made it! Half an hour later we were all sat at the home stay, having a well deserved beer and glad to have our feet up!!
The next morning was another early start, at least that was the plan! By the time we'd had breakfast and spent far too much time taking arty photos of bright flowers
even the home stay owner was suggesting we should get moving! We'd arranged for a mule to pick up Shirley, her knee not being up to any more trekking, and I headed off with the boys - we planned to meet up again at Oasis, a small, well, green oasis at the bottom of the valley where a number of guest houses had set up. Much of the landscape was dry and dusty except near to villages where irrigation and perhaps more fertile soil turned it into lush agricultural zones - fields and terraces growing vegetables surrounded each village, whilst every garden was full of fruit trees. In one village we stopped to try some fruit a local woman was selling - I've no idea what it was but it was tasty and bitter. In the next village an elderly lady gave us a master class on dealing with barking dogs that growl, bare their teeth and really don't look like they want to do you any good. As we stood deliberating whether to back track and find another path the lady comes up behind us, picks up a rock and throws it straight at the dog.... which duly sees
sense and bounds off out of our way! For @3 hours we slipped and slid our way up and down scree slopes, crossed bridges over the gushing river, stood alone in deserted villages before finally reaching the Oasis. As soon as we'd tracked down Shirley we were in the thermal pools, resting our feet and looking up at the rather daunting climb that awaited.
From the Oasis you can choose to stay overnight, getting up in the middle of the night to walk out whilst it's still cool or walk up in the afternoon. Initially Shirley and I had planned to stay but now she couldn't walk at all it made sense to go up in the afternoon. So she organised another mule and I headed off with the others. There was no shade along the way so we walked in the fall glare of the sun, which combined with the altitude made tough going. And it was incessant, every step being up, up and up. I swear there wasn't a flat section along the whole thing! It became easier after the sun dropped below the canyon rim although keeping in theme with the previous day Jamie and I
formed the 'night team' once more and finished in the dark. Granted we didn't help ourselves, stopping for photos even when we knew time was short and even stopping to photograph the night sky. In fact the most adventurous part was navigating from the top of the canyon to the village! Initially we could see lights ahead but a wrong turn followed and we were soon stumbling across fields, losing our way in the dark and having a scary encounter with a horse that took exception to our presence, stamping his feet and snorting in a manner that moved us on quickly!!
Colca Canyon is also home to the magnificent Andean condor with its 3m wingspan so the next morning we caught the 7am bus to 'Cruz del Condor', a popular viewing spot where we waited and watched in awe as condors soared gracefully overhead on the rising thermals. Absolutely amazing!
Next stop - Lake Titicaca, again
There are more photos below