– Our completely inept Colca Canyon hiking guide, Marco
I really enjoyed Arequipa, the white city as it’s called because of the predominant use of sillar (a white stone) in the construction of it’s buildings. Arequipa is generally considered to be the second most important city in Peru, for both commerce (behind Lima) and tourism (behind Cusco). I first arrived at night on the bus from Tacna, and got into a cab with a driver who didn’t know the hostal I was staying at. This resulted in my most succesful Spanish exchange to date as the driver spoke no English, but with my ever improving Spanish, I was able to give him the address and we found the place together. A major factor in my improved Spanish in Peru is that the local people talk much slower than the motor mouth Argentines and Chileans.
Having arrived at the hostal, I met up with my travel companions for the next two weeks, Pearl and Nadia, the first familiar faces I’ve seen in nearly two months. The hostal we stayed at was absolutely terrific, by far the best of my trip so far – La Casa de Melgar – an old colonial Spanish building that reeks of history – literally, the walls were lined with old black and white pictures of what we can only assume are past residents, including one, Laura, that haunted Pearl throughout our stay in Peru (or so she likes to think).
We spent our first day in Arequipa touring the city and making plans for our trek of the nearby Colca Canyon. The highlight of the city was the absolutely massive Santa Catalina Monastery, literally a city within the city. Almost 400 years old, nuns lived within the convent walls, having only extremely limited contact with the outside world (they could talk to guests and family members through bars embedded in a 3-foot wide wall). Nowadays, the nuns have moved to a more modern convent adjacent to the old one, leaving the monastery as a site of exploration for tourists eager to lose themselves for a couple of hours (like myself). The whole experience was a bit of a flashback to the Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires.
The next morning, we awoke at 3AM for our Colca Canyon trek pickup. We chose a company called AndesExplorer based on the recommendation of our hostel, and although the trek itself was exactly as described, our guide left something to be desired. Marco was his name, and he was at our hostel at 3AM, eager to go. We weren’t expecting Marco, as he was the guy behind the desk at the agency who sold us the tour. Although Marco was a really nice guy, that’s pretty much where my positive thoughts about him end. He is most definitely not guide material. He didn’t know the route at all – in fact, we’re pretty sure this was his first time doing the trek based on how many times he asked us to take pictures of him along the way. He didn’t really know anything about the area, aside from some pretty blatantly obvious stuff like the river that flows through the Colca Canyon being called the Rio Colca. He wore old tennis shoes with barely any soles which caused him to slip and slide all over the mostly gravel trail. And he didn’t bring a drop of water with him – thankfully I had a 2L bottle with me, at least half of which I gave to him.
But back to the trek, after about 5 hours of driving in the dark, we arrived at the first stop on our tour, the Cruz del Condor lookout. The Colca Canyon, which by the way is the second deepest in the world (and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), is world renowned as a major habitat for Andean Condors. Andean Condors are massive, vulture-like birds that have major symbolism to the Inka people (more on that in another blog post). They just so happen to love gliding right around the Cruz del Condor lookout because of dominant air streams in the area that allow them to glide effortlessly without flapping their wings. When we first arrived at the lookout point, there were no condors, and after about half an hour, we were getting ready to leave. But just then, hands shot up into the air, heads started swirling and the crowd of several hundred got very excited. The condors had arrived. Huge winged beasts swooped overhead, almost within arms reach and for the next half hour, everyone got sore necks and tired fingers as the cameras clicked away.
On to the trek itself, which was superb, guide or no guide. The canyon may be the only natural feature in the world that you hike down first, and then up. Starting at the very top, we hiked right down to the shore of the river running through the base of the canyon over a period of about 2 hours. We stopped at a small village for lunch (more on that in a bit) and then hiked about half way back up the canyon to several other villages, before finally settling in an oasis at the bottom – literally, the place had palm trees and a massive pool which was welcome relief to all the tired hikers. The next morning, we awoke early again, around 5 this time to hike back up the canyon before the sun got too strong. After wasting an hour going the wrong way and back (thanks Marco), we finally caught the trail where I ascended almost 1000m in about 2 hours. The girls rode mules up…no comment. Just kidding, it was an extremely hard hike easily rivaling anything I did in Patagonia. By the end of the climb, I was wishing for a mule. Thankfully, here there was no wind to contend with and only harsh sun for the last stretch. On the way back to Arequipa, we stopped in Chivay for a dip in the natural hot springs, another very welcome relief after a hard day’s hike.
Back in Arequipa, we went to a traditional Peruvian restaurant for dinner. To a much greater degree than Argentina and Chile, Peru has been an opportunity to try new and unusual foods, and just generally expand my culinary palette. On our first day in Arequipa, I tried ceviche, which is seafood marinated in a cold lemon sauce and served with corn. During the Colca trek, we were served alpaca steak for lunch, which was terrific. It has a bit of a veal taste to it. I had alpaca multiple times during my stay in Peru. And after the trek, I had Cuy Chactao, which North Americans might know better as Deep Fried Guinea Pig. That’s right, guinea pig. And not just guinea pig meat, I was served the entire animal, head to toe.
For those of you wondering, it tastes like chicken.