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Published: September 19th 2008
After the excitement of our Lares trek and the culmination in our visit to Machu Picchu we had to sit down and think what else we would like to achieve in our ever dwindling time left in South America. We had read about the city of Arequipa and both agreed that it sounded like a great place to vist and so off we set on the long road south.
12 hours later we arrived a bit sore and stiff, nothing new. We checked into our wee hostel and prompty headed out to explore our surroundings. We soon discovered that Arequipa is unique because many of the buildings and certainly all of them in the historic centre area are made with a white volcanic rock called Sillar, found only here. The city is actually nick named La Ciudad Blanca for its stunning white buildings. The rock is beautiful to look at and the colonial period saw it used extensively in creating some exquisite buildings. Once again the city is built around a main plaza, imaginatively named Plaze de Armas, as so many of them are! Here again we found fantastic examples of colonial architecture, most notably the Cathedral of Arequipa.
Near by is the extensive site of the Santa Catalina Monastery, this is effectively a self contained city behind huge walls, which to this day houses resident nuns and is an important religious centre. Built with the Sillar rock the main buildings are white, however it's rooms and streets are ornately decorated in wonderful colours of ochre, indigo and orange. There are also countless wall paintings depicting religious life and history. It is advertised as a photographers paradise and after our long visit we cannot disagree as we happily snapped away in the peaceful surroundings. We both agree it was thoroughly worthwhile and very much enjoyable, an extremely memorable and tranquill place to wander around.
In the Arequipa region there are several deep canyons, the largest of which are the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, both of these are amazingly over twice as deep as the famous Grand Canyon in the USA, which made us wonder why they are not far more well known or visited. Cotahuasi is notoriously difficult to get to because of the terrain, so we opted for a 2 day trip to see the impressive Colca canyon. At it's deepest point it rises to an incredible
6,288m up to the extinct volcano of Nevado Ampato. After departing from Arequipa it was a 4-5 hour bus journey taking in some more lovely scenery firslty of open desert plains followed by ever rising mountains which we travelled up and over down into the Colca valley and our hostel. The next day was spent travelling along the canyon side admiring the still visible and in use Inca farming terraces far below us. The canyon certainly lived up to it's billing, over 1000m below us we could barely spy the river running along its bottom, and high above us all along the canyon length there were snow capped mountains. Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a stop at a spot to view a family of soaring Andean Condors who have made their home here. We were not disapointed as the family swept through the sky above us riding the thermals, they passed so close to us it was a joy to watch and be a part of. It was an interesting few days and we had a great time.
We soon got itchy feet and planned our next step, a trip north up the coast to Huacachina, a
tiny oasis in a desert of vast and massive dunes very much like the Sahara! Here we planned to take in some sandboarding before heading further north to take a flight over the world famous Nazca lines. Finally we wanted to get some more walking done in an area called Huares famous for it gorgeous scenery and treking opportunities. That was the plan anyway...
Sadly Tony fell very ill on the night we were due to leave and was cooped up in bed for a couple of days forcing us to miss our bus. Ordinarily this would not have been a problem, but we were running very short of time with our flight out of Santiago, Chile on 26th August. Santiago is around 3 days travel from Arequipa alone never mind from further north in Peru and that is if we manage to make the connections on time. The loss of 2 or 3 days due to illness now ment it would be very difficult to head north and achieve our plans, we would be left with about 5 days, probably more of solid bus journies to make it to Santiago! In the end we decided to cut our
losses, we scrapped our attempt to see more of Peru and thought rather than spend 5 days travelling on a return leg, we would catch a flight to Santiago early and see some more of Chile. This had actually been in our minds right at the outset so although upset we were happy to experience more of Chile. With this decision we now had a few days to kill in Arequipa, not a bad place to relax really.
As you may have guessed already, we have also had to scrap our plans to reach Ecuador, a bitter blow to both of us. We simply have run out of time. We know we only have ourselves to blame, we spent too long in Argentina for instance, and in several other places such as the Inti Wara Yassi animal sanctuary. But the experiences we have had while taking this extra time is irreplaceable so while sad we are positive about the whole situation.
During our extended stay a lively celebration took place and the streets were lined with huge crowds and endless groups of marchers and bands filed past to rapturous applause. It seems that they like to celebrate and
party here in South America! That night there was a huge firework dissplay and some of the bands played on. We had a wonderful evening mixing with the locals and listening to brass bands bang out such diverse music as Michael Jacksons Beat it!
To take you back a bit, in Bolivia's La Paz city Tony had investigated the possiblity of climbing one of the massive 6,000m + peaks called Huyuna Petosi, but had been disappointed because none of the reputable companies had any excursions ready during our stay. Here in Arequipa there is another 6,000m + peak called Chachani nearby, standing at 6,075m. Now that we had a few more days here a trip up this mountain was available. Although not fully recovered from his illness ever willing Tony booked himself onto the climb only 1 day after he was able to get out of bed! Tony says :
I should probably point out that these peaks we are talking about are renowned as being amongst the easier climbs to complete of all the 6,000m + peaks in the world, hence I am able to attempt them! Nevertheless lets not forget that they are still over 6,000m!
After only an hour and a half of climbing
In short, it is mountaineering, people still die on these climbs my guide told me, scary! Our tight time schedule resulted in me having to attempt a one day ascent of the mountain, ordinarily Chachani is climbed over 2 days. But needs must and we set off at 11:30pm for a long drive up into the mountains to the first base camp at around 4,800m, which by the way is about the hight of Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in Europe). It was well below freezing but nevertheless we set off climbing steeply in the pitch black with our head torches to light the way. After several hours climbing dawn broke erupting in a spectacular kalidescope of colours.
Onwards we trudged picking our way through a maze of huge rocks and boulders to a snow covered plateau between two lower mountain peaks. At around 5,500m I was now beginning to feel the altitude and becoming tired. Before us lay a huge traverse, this involved roping ourselves together, breaking out the crampons and ice axe and picking our way precariously round an ice covered mountain side. A massive drop fell bellow us making me feel queasy, but the view was
about half way along the 1st traverse looking back
incredible. A good hour or 2 later we reached the traverses far end and I fell exhausted in a heap gasping for breath.
Above us was another massive steep climb, zig zagging our way up another slope we made painfully slow progress. Every step I took required me to gasp for air, desperately trying to get oxygen into my lungs. But no matter how hard I gulped down the thin air or how slow I took my steps I could not regain my breath. I had to stop more and more often and unfortunately as we neared the top of this section I started to become dizzy and my vision became blurry when I tried to increase my pace... altitude sickness had struck.
The guide explained that because I could not increase my pace, it would be difficult to reach the summit in time because it would be dangerous to return in the dark. I knew how tired I was, my legs were so heavy and I kept getting these dizzy spells, dangerous when perched precariously on an icy mountain side! But we decided to push on across the next traverse because I was determined to reach the
and beyond you can see the sumit...
top. This is another long and icy stretch winding its way around the mountainside. With great effort and gritting my teeth I went on. Traverses are tiring because they require a lot of concentration, you are treading on solid ice and across steep slopes with frightening drops bellow you, your ice axe is constantly in use.
At this stage I have to say I was fading fast, my energy levels were almost at zero and I was heart broken to think I may have to turn back. For weeks it had been my dream to climb a 6,000m + peak. So it came as a massive blow when nearing the end of this last traverse, with the summit looming above me, my right knee gave out, something went pop inside, I had pulled my tendon and this was the final nail in the coffin.
Sat with my head in my knees I listened to the guide explain that we had to turn back, his voice was a blur. I was dizzy with altitude sickness and utterly shattered. Craning my neck I looked above me and could see the top tantalizingly close, in fact only about 100m above me!
I began to feel very sorry for myself I was angry as well. Because if circumstances had been different I could have made the summit. Many things were against me, illness, climbing over one day rather than two and now my knee!
Picking myself up and making the slow return journey was torture, emotionally and physically. After many hours we reached base camp again, as you may have gathered I was feeling totally dejected. I have rarely been so exhausted, or so emotionally spent in my entire life.
Looking back I know the decision to turn back was correct, it is not reaching the summit that counts, but returning safe and sound to your loved ones, later that evening a hug from Karen seemed to make everything better. I know I tried my best in less than perfect circumstances. I reached a hight of about 5,900m and I am proud of it. 6,000m will just have to wait for another time! The memories, both good and bad will stay with me forever, the scenery was stunning and the experience of climbing in such an environment was exhilarating and enjoyable, at least while I was fresh and fit!
SillynessTony and Karen say:
Karen cannot take the stunning scenery anymore
Well that was a bit of a mish mash couple of weeks, it is not the way we had intended to end our time here, but as we have said to our selves several times, we have seen and done so many extraordinary things that we simply cannot complain. Sure we did not get to see a few things we had intended to, but hey, we will just have to come back another time! Next stop Santiago, Chile again...
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