Published: April 3rd 2012April 2nd 2012
T - Buses, buses, buses – the best budget method by which to travel Chile, and our final overnight bus journey in South America comes to a halt at the northern border town of Arica
. The last time I was here I had a great time, my travelling friends and I had met up with a local surfing champion (sponsored ‘n all) and his best mate, the captain of the local rugby team, and we’d have fires on the beach, BBQs of huge steaks, wine, nightclubs and drive about town in their pick-up truck. My memories are a little jumbled and so it’s with some sadness that the Arica I now visit is looking a little worse for wear. Thirteen years haven’t treated this town well and buildings still listed in the guidebooks as must sees are boarded up, structurally damaged and left to the pigeons and people who can’t resist smashing old windows. The long beaches are still there, the high street is modern and active, but that’s about all it’s got to give. So after two nights of taking it easy we arrive at the local bus station to find a shared taxi to take us
over the border that sits just a couple of kilometres north of the town, and then on into our last country, Peru.
The Chilean boarder has changed too – it’s now a regular series of booths and archways, weigh stations and queues, a far cry from the small huts that used to dot the road. We queue for a while and our taxi driver is pleased that none of his passengers have caused any bother and ploughs forward through the white-beige desert landscape to the Peruvian side. A short time later, our friendly customs staff chats with his girlfriend and roots around for his lunch, smiles, stamps our passports while his friend allows us to retain our sandwich but with a heavy heart, regrets that we cannot keep our ill-advised potatoes. Unsurprised and potato-less we depart to the transit town of Tacna
in Southern Peru.
At Tacna we board a local bus for Arequipa
– it’s a long six/seven hour journey through the mountains and two Mexican films and an officially endorsed sandwich later, the scenery starts to transform and slowly, speckles of green and plant life return to the verges and hillsides we pass. Just
It's like being in a video game - there are no rules!
as we enter our final hour’s ride, we both experience something new, a fellow passenger plugs in a microphone and starts evangelising in the aisle – not so new you might think, but after a while we realised this guy wasn’t taking a breath. Our ears slowly tuned to his Spanish and after 45 minutes of near pause-less rhetoric, came the big reveal – he wants you buy special herbs from China! Out came the leaflets, the unreliable claims to heal all, live to 150, grown back limbs, etc. and then came the samples. Now I’m not sure if curry ever caught on in Peru, but the fact that so many people brought packets from this genius must mean that no one on that bus had ever had a Madras in their, soon to be much extended, lives. If you’d like to enjoy such health benefits at home, then consider mixing curry powder, cinnamon and cumin in every hot drink you ever have. No money back, sorry – you know how it is…
Arequipa is a beautiful city, well the centre is and the centre is quite big. Earthquakes and other destructive forces have left this cultural hub and
its classic colonial buildings untouched. Most notable is the Plaza de Armas with its large, twin-towered cathedral dominating one entire length of the square, while stone archways and pillars support the high terraces of restaurants and shops that complete the other three sides. The old part of city is peppered with Churches, old walls and little courtyards with stylised Spanish wrought-iron gates and doorways. We spent a very relaxing couple of days here and enjoyed exploring Arequipa which felt completely new to me, given that I’d been here before.
Most people visit the Colca Canyon at Cabanaconde
when in Arequipa, and we were no different. Our good friend Christina, while on her travels recently, visited it and had a great time so we quickly added it to our itinerary. It’s a six hour bus ride out to Cabanaconde by either local or tourist bus, we took the local one and boy! Do they pack ‘em in or what?! Should a single decker buses be able to move with 80 people on it? Okay, maybe a little over exaggerated but close to it – 79? One flat tyre later, and I experience several people trying to sit on my lap,
lean over us and on us pushing my broken seat to a near horizontal position. It felt like being in a dentist’s chair without the cheery ‘how are we feeling to day?’ or adverts for toothpaste. Turning my head to the window it is now dark outside with thick freezing fog. Are we going to be able to do the Canyon trek at all, I wonder?
In the middle of the crowded bus someone sells us tourist tickets to the canyon, our tickets inform us that we are South American Students, fine by me that just saved us £10. We arrive in the foggy rain and are immediately asked for our tourist tickets – easy come, easy go. No questions about my studies. We huddle into the local bar and raise a drink to our bus.
The next morning we are ready for the canyon trek. We aim to spend a couple of hours walking down, a night in a hostel at the bottom and then ascend the next day. Easy!...
Firstly, the scenery is lovely and reminds us of our time in Sapa in Vietnam – terraces and rolling valleys. Just like Sapa, it’s been raining
here for the last week so most paths to the canyon edge have become secondary streams, but each morning delivers glorious sunshine and we bask in it and soak in the views before the views have a chance to soak us. We’re really high here at 3500m and against the sun and clouds fly the area’s other attractions – condors.
Secondly, as we start to descend the winding mountain path, strewn with loose rock, gravel and mules, we notice that our knees have all the stability one might expect of a badly stacked jelly tower entrusted to a hungry eight year old for safe keeping.
K – Yes, our knees and legs were shaking like mad two hours into our decent. To add a greater degree of danger you also had to avoid the occasional runaway mule as it came hurtling around the bend. (On the way up poor Tom had his foot stepped on as one pushed past him.)
Eventually we reached the bottom and ‘checked into’ our accommodation for the night. The owner, Pablo, had passed us on the way down and put us to shame when he later told us he makes it down
in an hour and a half and up in two! We quickly realised that this place wasn’t the oasis we had been dreaming of but when you think that everything that we could see from the beds to the bottles of coca cola had been carried down that track we didn’t mind so much. We shared a beer and watched two girls climb down the last 20 minutes of the canyon. As they came towards us we saw that they had brought with them a furry friend. A cute black dog had followed us around the village at the top – she had a really bad limp and couldn’t put weight on her front paw (we later found out that as a puppy she had broken her leg after falling from a two-storey window). We couldn’t believe it when this little dog emerged from behind the girls and bounded towards us! Crazy pooch or what?!!
We got chatting to the girls (Erica, an American and Elizabeth from Argentina) and agreed to do the ascent with them at 8 the next morning. A few other travellers joined us and we shared a simple dinner together in a dimly lit small
barn. The electricity went off at 9pm so it was an early night – our wooden hut leaked and wasn’t fully enclosed so it was bloody freezing. Luckily we had brought our sleeping bag liners so we climbed in with all of our clothes and listened to the wind and the rain!
The next morning we were up early to beat the sun – we said goodbye to Pablo and his family and left them with a small supply of medicines (his wife was sick and they didn’t have any painkillers). And then we were off!! The track was steep and full of slippery scree – fortunately we were using the opposite muscles from yesterday but it was still a killer! The views were amazing though as we climbed up through the clouds and we even got to see a few more condors. After a few breaks we made it to the top in an impressive three and a half hours – we all felt like we had really achieved something and I was glad that we had people to climb up with to keep our spirits going. (Tom’s strategy was to list all of the foods and drinks
he was looking forward to having when we get back home!)
Even though it was only 11.30am a beer was in order so we all headed off to a bar before saying goodbye to the girls as they took their bus back to Arequipa (blimey that bus must be stinky – all those sweaty walkers). We fell into bed in our hostel and slept the afternoon away only to surface at 6pm for a pizza and then an early night.
They next day will be remembered as one of the most painful ever- our leg muscles had completely seized up and we ended up doing very good impressions of the star wars robot C3PO! As we stood at the bus stop we looked at each other smugly. We had seen a minibus service going back to Arequipa and bought tickets a few days ago – it was only a few soles more than the local and we figured we would be back in less time. Alas this was not to be – in fact we had been bundled onto the tail end of a tour group and the tour guide happily informed us that we could be stopping
Rush hour on the trail
off at no less than seven tourist stops on the way back. Bugger – we were going to arrive in Arequipa two hours later than the bloody local bus. We did not make good first impressions with our fellow passengers and we climbed into the minibus swearing under our breath – they had been enjoying a fantastic three day tour. However as we mellowed we got chatting to them and they were a really nice bunch. It turns out that they just wanted to go straight back to Arequipa so we missed out on the hot springs and arrived just half an hour after the local bus!
After a lovely last night in Arequipa (but a revolting last meal – salty tough alpaca and an inedible greek salad) we boarded the bus to Puno
six hours away. This time we had booked our tickets with a company called Cruz del Sur – apparently the best bus company in Peru. We were stunned to find the whole experience was like catching a plane – we checked our baggage and were shown to a waiting lounge and everything! They even gave us a free lunch! As we climbed up into the
mountains it started to snow and I loved seeing the ground covered in white.
Three Adam Sandler movies later (T – owww...) and we arrived in Puno – the Peruvian city on the edge of the highest navigable lake in the world – Lake Titicaca. Tom had warned me that it was a deeply ugly city, but it looked pretty spectacular spread out on the hillside and lake. The ugliness comes from the little unfinished concrete box houses that are everywhere. We checked into our hotel, found a laundrette for all of our stinky Colca Canyon clothes and went for a walk. I actually really liked the centre, although we didn’t take any photos. It was a bustling place with a good high street full of little shops that had twinkly lights at night time. Because we were so high up (about 3600m) the temperature really dropped so we had a lovely chicken curry and called it a night.
The next day we joined a tour to take us out to the floating Islas de Uros
– islands inhabited by indigenous families. Being on the lake was amazing – it was so clean and beautiful. The islands themselves
Knees no worky no more
we quite the tourist spectacle but hey it was an experience! The guide told us how the islands were made (reeds and floating sections of roots and earth) and we were invited into the president’s home. All very nice and then we were taken to their little market where the families did the best to sell us their wares. Tom and I were well trained after South East Asia and managed to escape – not easy on a tiny island!
After the tour was over we had a relaxing afternoon in Puno (we found a brilliant BBQ restaurant which served us the biggest grilled chicken we had ever seen). The next morning we were up early to catch the bus to Cusco where we’re waiting to meet up with Tom’s sister, Beth, and our friend Hannah – can’t wait!
There are more photos below