Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arequipa Impressions

Although my last post was from the Colca Canyon, there are four days in Arequipa and four days in Cusco that have not been documented. I have decided to keep my Arequipa post to photos only. We had a great ime there visiting museums, Monestaries and Churches as well as a half day city tour that took us Casa Fundador which was the home of the founder of Arequipa as well as to Paucarpata incan terraces.

Areqiupa is a beautiful city with a wonderful Plaza de Armas, Cathederal and quaint streets. We stayed in the Casa Andina on Jerusalen street, which was a great location to see the sights and enjoy the food. One of the highlights of our stay was dinner at ZigZag listed as the #1 eatery on trip adviser. We both concur that the reviews were correct. You will see in the photo, that we are wearing bibs. This is due to the fact that all of the meals are served on sizzling lava rock. The bibs are to take care of the spray from the cooking going on as you eat your meal.

The city is clean and colourful as you will see from the photos. Enjoy!

A mixture of ups and downs in the Colca Canyon

Arequipa is the jumping off point for a growing number of excursions to the Colca Canyon. These trips come in all shapes and sizes at different levels of comfort and difficulty for as little as one day or as many as four days. There are dozens of tourist outlets in the centre of town eager to explain the trips to you in great detail. Each sales person points out the “unique” itinerary only their company can provide. After two or three sales pitches, the details begin to blur and it becomes more and more difficult to connect the price to the content.

The difficult part of the decision for us was whether or not to trek into the canyon or just enjoy it from the top. And the even more difficult part was knowing exactly what we were getting ourselves into if we did. Aaron and Melissa had done a two-day trip into the canyon on their visit to Peru two years ago and that got us thinking we should give it a go.

I think it was the fourth sales person we had invested half an hour with that seemed to be able to put a trip together that included all of the pieces of the puzzle we were interested in. We soon learned that he was from Ayacucho, which endeared him to us even more. The trip would be four days three nights and included many interesting stops we knew about and, in the end, many we didn’t that were very pleasant surprises. But there were also parts of the trip that were much more difficult than (I) expected. We had definitely signed up for an adventure.

Marc reminded me yesterday that it is the most challenging parts of each trip you remember the most when the trip is over. No pain, no gain as they say. But for me, the 12k downhill, extremely (this is an understatement) difficult second day of our four-day trip into the Canyon may be the experience I choose to forget! There are so many good things about the trip that I choose not to dwell on the difficult in this post, but rather on the wonders of the natural environment in the canyon, the friendship of two young Australian couples we shared the experience with, the delicious local food we consumed along the way, the thermal pools we soothed our sore muscles in, and the gracious local people we had the pleasure to meet.

There were some really funny parts as well that brought back memories of Southeast Asia. Let me start there.

As I was beginning to explain, we were dealing with apples and oranges as we discussed options with many tourist agencies, so when we finally had paid for our trip, and were waiting to be picked up the next morning, it was completely unclear what was actually going to happen. Many tour buses of many sizes and shapes passed by our hotel picking up people. The time we were supposed to be picked up came and went, and we were still sitting patiently on the steps of our hotel. We had tried calling the tour operator (who assured us he was available 24/7) to no avail. Marc decided to walk down to the office, which was a couple blocks away from our hotel, and found our gracious Ayacucho tour agent sitting in his office with his phone charging and turned off. He was surprised to see Marc, but immediately made a call and assured him that our bus would be coming by any minute. By the time Marc returned, someone had arrived to escort us to our bus. If you have read any of my posts from Southeast Asia — this will sound very familiar.

Over the next 24 hours, we were escorted on and off three different vehicles at different stops along the route. Each with different guides and a different assortment of passengers. And before we returned to Arequipa, there were a few more adjustments to our transportation. But the good news is that none of this bothered us at all. In fact, it seemed to add to the excitement of the trip!

The first day’s itinerary took us from Arequipa to the town of Chivay, which is the jumping off point to Colca Canyon. There were numerous stops along the way. First, we stopped to pick up water, coca leaves and coca candies, which were all definitely items we would need. We stopped soon after to have a cup of tea including coca and two other herb ‘infusions’, while viewing interesting geological formations, on yet another stopped to see llamas, vicunas, and alpacas up close. Our next stop was a viewpoint at the dizzying elevation of 4910 metres (16,109 ft) where we could see the peaks of the numerous active volcanoes that keep Peruvians at the edge of their seats waiting for the next big quake.

Everywhere we stopped there were local woman selling handicrafts.
We arrived in Chivay in early afternoon, where we were treated to the most amazing buffet lunch of every possible local delicacy. Even with the elevation and our uneasy stomachs, we could not resist plate after plate of this delicious food. After being dropped at our hotels, the activity for the afternoon was a trip to the local hot springs, which we declined in order to relax a bit and walk around the centre of town. But that was not the end of the day’s activities. We were picked up from our hotel at 7:00 pm and delivered to a folkloric dinner restaurant where we were entertained with local music and folk dances performed by two very talented dancers who changed into different costumes for each dance routine.

There were white Colonial Churches in each town we visited. Always in the Plaza de Armas.

 And that was only day 1!

Day 2 is where the adventure began in earnest. Everyone else we spent day 1 with was returning to Arequipa the next day. So it took us a couple of additional vehicle transfers until we found ourselves with Pepe, our new guide and fellow trekkers Bret, Ainslie, Tracy and Joe. (We were old enough to be their parents, and my “Oh my god, how will we be able to keep up with them?” radar was fully operational.)

Our first stop that morning was Cruz del Condor, which is the lookout point to view the mighty condors, the Quechua symbol of the heavens. At this spot if you are lucky you will see large numbers of condors catching the wind currents as they glide above the canyon. We were not that lucky and only had a chance to view a couple from afar. But the views of the valley were spectacular, so our 20-minute stop was still enjoyable.

We then found ourselves in the quaint town of Cabanaconde for lunch, where Pepe sat us down and drew a diagram of each day of the trek, indicating the terrain, the difficult areas and the number of hours each part would take. I knew I was in trouble immediately, but hoped for the best. The first day was 12k, for the most part straight down in difficult terrain. The second day would be for the most part straight up for another 12k and the last day he warned, was the most challenging! Yikes … I asked Pepe to arrange for walking sticks for us, and started preparing myself mentally for the grueling downhill trek.

Then we began our trek.

The landscape was beautiful, but it took a lot of concentration for all of us to stay upright so much of it was lost on us. The trail was loose gravel at a fairly steep grade and each step had to be taken with great care. Pepe, with a heavy pack on his back, was practically running down hill. The other four were hot on his trail. Marc and I were watching each step seriously using our walking sticks to help us along. I was convincing myself with each step that my legs were getting stronger rather than weaker, but it was a losing battle.

Luckily our final destination was an amazing hostal: Llahuar Lodge at the bottom of the canyon, outfitted with two thermal pools. Marc and I were the last to arrive (no surprise!). It had taken every last ounce of energy to get my jelly legs across the finish line and I was more than a little concerned about the next two days … You see we were at the bottom of the canyon, and the only way out as far as I knew was by foot — or donkey, which was not a comforting thought, considering the terrain.

I have to say there were a few moments of panic, but very quickly Marc, my knight in shining armor, had a quick talk with Yolanda who was helping Robert and his family run the Lodge, and we had a plan. They would drive us back to Cabanaconde the next morning in their 4x4 Jeep. We would stay the night there and meet up with Pepe, Bret, Ainslie, Tracy and Joe for the drive back to Arequipa.

Bret, Ainslie, Tracy and Joe

 With personal disaster averted, we all headed down to the thermal pools to relax and stretch our very sore muscles. Meanwhile, Yolanda, Robert and the rest of the staff at the lodge were preparing dinner for us. Refreshed after our soak, we sat down to a great corn soup followed by a fish fry, fresh from the gorge with green beans and potatoes. We all had lemon grass tea with our meal which was delicious! We all finished every morsel looking out over the amazing scenery.

The lodge, we later learned, can accommodate 40 trekkers each night. Robert and his parents had cleared the land (the lodge is on the side of a cliff) and brought all the materials down by donkey to create this oasis in the middle of nowhere. Until they purchased the 4x4 jeep, all the food for all of their guests had to be brought down by donkey as well. Sleeping quarters are in adorable bamboo huts. Accommodations are basic to be sure, but kept very clean and are so appropriate to the surroundings.

Yolanda, Robert and Robert’s mama drove us back to Cabonaconde the next morning. Robert and Yolanda have been a couple for the last seven years, Yolanda explained on the way to town. On and off she said, but they make a good couple since Robert is different from other Peruvian men. He supports her desire to be a modern woman. We found her fascinating in so many ways. As Robert maneuvered the tricky mountain gravel road, I asked Yolanda about the embroidered hats all of the women in the canyon wore.

She explained that the designs on the hat and its shape told the story of her people. The Quechua, like many indigenous peoples, believe in mother earth or Pachamama as the creator. God for them, is represented by the mountains. Different indigenous groups in the area worshipped different mountains and therefore wore hats in different shapes. One of the mountains was flat, another was pointy.

The hat Robert’s mama wore had a flat top, which indicated which region she came from. The design on the top of the hat depicts the mountains in a circular pattern creating a star representing the constellations in the sky, which was also an important part of their religious beliefs. Decorating the rest of the hat are motifs from nature in the region.

Yolands, Robert and his mama

Robert’s mama was taking the trip into Cabanaconde, with several donkey sacks full of “tuna”, the Peruvian word for prickly pears, which she had picked that morning. When we arrived in town, we all helped carry them to the public bus she was taking to another town where she would sell or trade her fruit for other supplies required at the lodge. That is the way things are done here. Before she hopped on her bus, she in turn gave her son, Yolanda and both of us a warm hug and kiss and bid us farewell. In a matter of hours we had become part of their family!

Robert and Yolanda took us to a couple of hostals to be sure we were well situated in town before we embraced them both and thanked them for all of their help and kindness. Although we had missed out of the rest of the trek, the time we had with this family will truly be cherished.

The next morning we were reunited with our group where we shared a hot breakfast and heard their stories about the trail. It was very challenging, but they all made it through and were feeling sore but exhilarated. We were very happy for them that they had survived the challenge. I remained relieved that we had made the decision we had made!

The ride back to Arequipa was again full of interesting stops, including another thermal pool, which we all had a soak in. This one was nice and hot. We all enjoyed the therapeutic effects of the waters.

We saw views of the Volcanoes on our way back that were spectacular. This is Misti.

Several hours later we were back in Arequipa. Tracy and Joe were taking a bus a few hours later to meet their Inca Trail trekking group in Cusco. Bret and Ainslie were catching a bus to the Peruvian border and on to Chile. We had one more night left in Arequipa before heading to Cusco ourselves to discover the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. We exchanged contact information and warm hugs and parted ways.

An amazing four days with great people in a very special part of Peru — the Colca Canyon.