Peru 2: Arequipa / Colca Canyon

We arrived at Terminal Terreste in Arequipa just after 8am, where I first spent some time gathering information on trekking the Colca Canyon and getting a bus from Arequipa to Cusco, before taking a bus into the historic centre. You exit the terminal by turning left, you then turn right and walk the pedestrian bridge which you cross, to then jump on one of the white mini van buses (Camya) to the centre. As they can’t actually go into the main centre, I got off at Plaza Vea, paying 1 soles, and then walked up the white steps before turning right and walking towards the Plaza de Armas. The wonderful and baffling thing is seeing the white-topped El Misti and Chachani behind the Iglesia, almost looking like it has been photoshopped behind the architectural historic centre. 

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The Iglesia in Plaza de Armas with El Misti behind it

I eventually arrived at my hostel one block away, Peter’s Hostel. Despite being way earlier than the normal check-in time, they kindly let me go straight to my room where I had a much-needed shower and change of clothes before I headed back out. Having not yet eaten I walked to San Camilo, which is an indoor market selling crafts, souvenirs, fresh drinks, meat, vegetables and hearty food. Wanting to sample something local, after getting a list of recommendations from Brenda on the bus, I opted for a cafe where I ordered Pastel de Papa Rellena for 10 soles.

As is usual with Peruvian food, I was first given a bowl of soup, this one being a pretty decent onion soup with a bread roll, before receiving my plate of Pastel de Papa – very similar to dauphinois potatoes but less creamy – and Rellena – a red pepper stuffed with meat and onions then topped with cheese. It wasn’t as hot as I would have wanted but also not as rich as I expected, and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t quite get over having this dish as my first meal of the day.

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Pastel de Papa Rellena

I then picked up an average-at-best cinnamon latte that I managed to spill down myself as I hurried to make it on time for a Free Walking Tour at 12:20. I wasn’t won over by the one in Lima but I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet people and maybe get some info on the Coca Canyon. For the next few hours he took us around the historic centre, telling us tales about the Iglesia in the Plaza de Armas whilst viewing El Misti peaking up behind it from the balcony of a restaurant and taking us to a “secret square” where we got to sample chocolate and cacao tea in a coffee shop.

He also took us to an alpaca/llama shearing institute where we got to see the animals as well as the process of turning their fibre (not “wool”) into jumpers and various other garments; I stood, amazed, as I watched a Peruvian woman sat with her legs out in front of her and back completely straight as she wove a single item of clothing that apparently takes approximately 3 months to finish. On our walk around I also got to sample the local delights such as Queso Helado (cheese ice cream, that was actually really tasty and refreshing).

Arequipa is a charming and individual place – as we drove in on the bus that morning I was struck by how green the landscape was and how magnificent the volcanoes of El Misti and Chachani were illuminating in the background, and the historic centre itself is quaint, with narrow cobbled streets and tree-lined calles and plazas. There’s also Downtown Arequipa, where we got to watch Pisco sour being made and sample some. Despite being previously informed that it had been proven Chile invented the Pisco sour and not Peru, and having personally loved Chile, I have to admit I preferred the Pisco sours here, which were made with egg whites as I believe they should be.

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Downtown Arequipa

After the tour Kim (a Dutch female from the tour) and I walked to Peru Andes to find out information on their Colca Canyon tour. In all honesty it wasn’t at all different from the one I had been pitched from American Tours at 90 soles for 2 Days / 1 Night. In fact they are all pretty much identical regardless of which company you go with, but Kim had been recommended this company by a friend and it didn’t seem to hurt to pay a bit more – 105 soles – for the potential of having better service. Afterwards we went to get money out from an ATM, struggling more than we expected to find one without an endless queue, before walking to Mirador de Yanahuara across the river.

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We had been told there were really good views of El Misti here but it was actually halfway through our half hour walk there, as we crossed the cute bridge over the river, that we go the best view (in my mind) as you were gifted with Chachani in your eye line as well as El Misti, and Chachani happened to be my favourite of the two.

Back in the historic centre we went for a Pisco sour during happy hour (2 for 15 soles, or £3.75) before parting ways just after 6pm as we both needed to pack and get some sleep for our very early start at 3am the next day, plus I needed to book my night bus to Cusco fir the evening we returned from the Colca tour as well as my cusco accommodation. After passing a beautifully-lit Plaza de Armas and stocking up on water and snacks from the supermarket, I went back to my hostel and packed my bags before heading to the rooftop with my 1litre Canyon of wine (10 soles, or £2.50) to have a drink and a cigarette. Somehow that turned into chatting with a German and some French, consuming most of the carton and heading out for food around 10pm. I didn’t book my bus, didn’t even look up accommodation and wrong to bed at midnight, to then wake up 2.5 hours latter with a wine head and dry mouth.

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I somehow managed to dress and get myself out the door through bleary eyes, my minivan picking me up at 3:30am and heading straight to Chivay in 2.5 hours where the best I achieved was an on-off dozing state for about an hour. Our stop at Chivay was to purchase our 70 soles ticket for entrance into the canyon (which you get asked for at various points in the canyon so you do need to hold on to this) and for our included breakfast – I was disappointed that on a cold, early morning ahead of a 6 hour trek we were only given cold bread with jam and marmalade rather than something nutritious and substantial as required. Back on the road again at around 7am we then drove to Cruz del Condor to watch the condors fly out over the mountains. I’m not necessarily a massive “fan” of birds nor did I have a huge desire to see them, but there were beautifully large and graceful birds, and it was peaceful watching them soar down and up through the peaks of the canyon.

We then finally arrived at San Miguel for the start of the trek; somewhere we had been advised we would arrive at 9am but in actuality it was more like 9:45am, and we then head to wait for our tour guide, Edgar, to arrive, as well as the rest of our group, so we didn’t actually head off until after 10am. The first part of the trek was 3 hours downhill through the canyon, and by downhill I mean often quite steep with rocks and slippery gravel along a fairly narrow path, along which we sometimes had to press ourselves against the mountainside to allow for mules that were coming uphill (sometimes bringing trekkers uphill whom had decided not to walk it back up) to pass us by. It was an enjoyable walk – the views of the gorgeous, layered mountains peaking high over the green, open valley dotted with villages – and the effects of the altitude from the top decreased as we walked down, but it was tough on the knees and on the toes. 

Relatively near the beginning of the walk I got chatting with Charlie and Ed – two guys from Southend travelling together – and we hit it off straight away, joking about travelling the world and meeting people from all over yet so often getting on well with people from the same country/area as you as a natural thing. They had teamed up with Peter and Dan who were travelling together – and Dan’s sister Jen who, had joined them for Peru – after meeting in Lima, and I spent a large part of the nest 36 hours with the 5 of them (although Peter held a much faster walking pace than the rest of us!)

We finally made it to our location for lunch, San Juan de Chuccho at around 1:30pm where we were served a delicious vegetable soup followed by Lomo Saltado – a Peruvian dish of beef mixed with peepers and onions with chips and rice – with a side of avocado. Much more nutritious and suitable than breakfast was, but they didn’t provide any drinks so we had to purchase all of these ourselves.

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After lunch we began the second half of our trek towards Oasis Sangelle, which we had been advised would be an “up and down” trek. We did start the trek with a small downhill to a river that we then had to cross, where we first spent about 10 minutes just staring at it figuring out how to cross it. Edgar advised we should take off our shoes and wade/clamber across the small rocks to the other side, so we all stripped off our footwear (not so quick and easy with walking boots and knee length socks) and started to cross the river in a slow line, sharp rocks and freezing cold water shocking our feet, to then have the group behind us arrive, promptly cross the river at a point lower than us over large rocks with their shoes still on, and all make it across before half of us had even got there. Oh well, I suppose it was “refreshing” and all that.

The next chunk of our trek did include some flat sections, which were slightly jungle-esque through some fresh, green smelling trees and bushes, a welcome cool respite from the earlier relentless heat, but quite a lot of it was uphill, apparently “training” for the following morning, and we had to move out the way – away from the edge of the paths – for any mules that needed to pass. The last 30/45 minutes were once again downhill, slightly more rocky/slippery than the first decent and tackled with tired feet, but the sight of our Oasis “paradise” below kept us going, and thankfully the sun had fallen behind the mountains of the canyon so it was much cooler than the first part of the day.

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We arrived at our lodgings in Oasis Sangelle just before 5pm where we could use the pool to cool down – unfortunately I could only dip my feet in due to potential infection of my leg wound – and shower away the sweat and dirt of the day. We then headed to the “bar” for some drinks (2 cocktails for 15 soles) before being provided with dinner at 7:30pm. A starter of minestrone soup (with proper pasta, wonderfully cooked) followed by rice with fried veg, egg and potatoes. Absolutely exhausted after being up for 18 hours and hiking for 6 in the blazing sun and high altitude, we all went to bed at around 8:30pm.

I slept well but the intrusive noise of my alarm going off at 4:25am ruined any joy for me (I can feel myself getting progressively more tired – physically as well as literally – as I near the year mark of travelling) as we were to set off at 4:45am. As always happens we didn’t actually start our uphill trek until 5am, which gave us the opportunity to gaze at the beautiful bright stars before we began and we would no longer be able to look up as the focus would be on putting one foot in front of the other. 

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Whilst only 8km in distance, it was a ridiculously steep ascent that was relentless – absolutely no flat or downhill to balance it out – and there was a lot of climbing up rocks along a narrow winding path; similar to the start of our trek the day before but uphill rather than down. Plus you would get in your stride to then have to stop and allow mules to pass. The Canyon changing colour frequently over the time we hiked up eased the pain and certainly made it worthwhile, but our ridiculously over-enthusiastic joy at making the halfway mark (the trash can, see photo below) was telling of the struggle. 

 

Thankfully it was dark and cold (well, it doesn’t feel it once you’re hiking uphill) for the first 40 minutes and the sun didn’t appear from behind the mountains until near the end, so it was relatively cool despite being tough physically and causing you to be out of breath often. We were advised it could take around 3 hours so I was really pleased to make it to the top in 2 hours 15, plus all our group made it in under 3 which was great, and our sheer delight at doing so was palpable. But anyone who does it – no matter how long it takes – has done a brilliant job. 

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WE DID IT.

We then walked half an hour through fields to make it to the town of Cabanaconde for our breakfast, this time a much more nutritious and substantial breakfast of two bread rolls and scrambled eggs – lovely but it would have been better the day before. We then drive to a nearby village to see some llamas and peruse a small market, where I bough a “Joseph and his technicolor dream coat” inspired scrunchie, before driving back to the same restaurant in Chivay for lunch; an optional buffet for 30 soles that I declined in favour of booking my bus that night to Cusco for a bargain 39 soles (£10).

We then continued our journey back towards Arequipa, first stopping at Volcan Chachani, which, at 6,065 m elevation, is the highest point in Peru, and finally stopping at an open reserve of llamas and alpacas. They were cute and the landscape was gorgeous, but I felt I’d had my fair share of the animals over the last few days in both Lima and Arequipa.

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We hit some roadworks on our journey to back to Arequipa and right near the end we got held up by approximately 1,000 army officers marching through across the roads, bags on their bags accompanied by multiple blankets (perhaps they were on their way to trek the Colca Canyon??) so we made it back later than expected at around 6pm. I had to rush back to my hostel, desperately try to book accommodation for Cisco, freshen up, change and re-pack, before leaving to scoff down some food at a nearby restaurant and race to the bus terminal terreste. The joy amongst the anxiety was the conversation with my taxi driver, Eduardo, a local 29 year old whom was fascinated by me. I made it to the terminal with half an hour to spare to be told I had to print off my bus ticket, despite my booking not indicating this, so I once again became flustered and had to pay to print off my ticket and then you also have to pay 2 soles to get an exit ticket at the bus terminal. All very strange.

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Anyway, despite looking forward to Cusco I had really enjoyed my time in beautiful, quaint Arequipa and I loved my time in the Canyon. I didn’t agree with the expectation to tip when we have already paid a fair amount for the tour – the companies passing the buck of paying the guides onto the customers – and there were things I felt could be improved. However I wouldn’t have saved much money doing it myself and I would have missed out on the stories from our guide, his help and support in completing the treks, and the friendships I made along the way. I would really recommend doing it if you have the time and the money – I felt a huge high of achievement at the end of it.

LS.

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