Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

Leaving Lima behind us we arrived in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. As we drove from the airport to our hotel in the historical centre, we began to catch glimpses of the fabled Peru — women dressed in traditional outfits with woven textile shawls, full flowing skirts, long twin braids tied at their ends, and some of the best hats to be found anywhere. Every woman has a version atop of her braids, all unique and interesting, many perched precariously. We wish we had more documented as it seems we have missed capturing the most memorable ones — doesn’t it always work that way?!!

Packing Perfection
We have officially passed the one month mark of being on the road and we are faring very well for living out of suitcases on a daily basis. We have only unpacked once into drawers to date, and even that was only one of the three suitcases. It forces you to have a definite packing strategy and to really be on top of knowing where each essential item lies in the case. Living in Hong Kong really taught us that less is more when it comes to utilizing a small space, but packing the lives of five people for six months into three suitcases takes it to a whole new level! Add on top of that the need to pack two entire wardrobes for a babe who will change sizes midway through the trip. I’d say the art of packing perfection has been achieved.

La Ciudad Blanca
Arequipa’s description as “the white city” of Peru is fitting. The city has many colonial-era Spanish buildings built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock, from which it gets the nickname. The city lies in front of the volcano El Misti and on a clear morning you can see its snow capped peak which brightens the glow of the city. It really is nice.

The buildings surrounding the main square, called the Plaza de Armas, are beautifully restored (the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000). Plaza de Armas exist in every Peruvian town, big or small. The centre attractions vary from elaborate water fountains to condor statues to dead trees, depending on the location. Arequipa’s is always bustling and filled with people. Much to Oscar and Stella’s delight pigeons flock in the hundreds here and they drew quite a bit of attention to themselves as they chased, kicked and karate chopped the flock of birds. The local square photographer was asked several times to take photos of O & S, but they haven’t warmed to strangers cameras yet. Luckily Pru doesn’t mind and she more than makes up for their reticence. Its no surprise that Pru has proved quite the draw for local attention, but she always reciprocates with her trademark smile and twinkle in her eye, such that many a Peruana has ended up walking several blocks engaged with her charm.

One of the great surprises of Arequipa has been the food. We certainly didn’t expect to find French Style bistros with an extensive selection of crepes to choose from — a nice change from the standard Peruvian fare. Though Peruvian cuisine can be very tasty, it is dominated by meat and potatoes. When we previously cited the lack of vegetables and asked Lilian Delfin, the somewhat acerbic guesthouse proprietor back in Barranco (Lima), for a restaurant recommendation she deadpanned, “We don’t have vegetables in Peru. No, I’m not kidding, we don’t have vegetables.” While that’s not quite true, the decorative tomato rind and cucumber slice that adorn the dishes have become the delicacy! The one staple vegetable is corn, though it is nothing like sweet Ontario corn. It is the starchiest version that must exist anywhere, more suited to livestock than humans. Each kernel looks like it has been soaked in water for days and is enormously turgid and pale.  As for taste, bland is a kind descriptor.

Colca Canyon Vertigo
You would think if you were going into the second deepest canyon in the world you might expect to encounter some extremes in altitude, but it never really occurred to us. Wary of altitude sickness in parts of Peru, we made a conscious decision to forgo Lake Titicaca’s 3,830m (12,566ft) elevation, and also planned precautions to drive an hour and a half upon arrival in Cusco to the lower ground of Ollantaytambo to acclimatize.

In our trip preparations back in Canada, we never came across any mention of altitude sickness in the Colca Canyon region. We had left sorting out transportation for our 4 day jaunt into the canyon for once we had arrived in Arequipa, which was not a problem, but it wasn’t until doing so that we stumbled upon the fact that the road to the canyon reaches 4,910m (16,110ft – much higher than Lake Titicaca!) before descending somewhat to 3,635m (11,926ft – still higher than Cusco) on the canyon ridge. A quick internet refresher in the prevention of altitude sickness indicated pills to be ineffective and hydration to be the best prophylactic. To encourage the kids we offered free-flow gatorade, but Oscar-the-worrywart needed no incentive, chugging both water and gatorade at regular intervals.

Perfecting Roadside Relief
After exploring various transport options we realized quickly that traveling with three children pretty much eliminates the possibility of traveling using any cheaper tour  buses or minivans. How could one convince a bus load or even a van load of people for that matter, that it is necessary to stop very often and at lightening quick speed when the need arises for bathroom breaks? So after little deliberation we hired a private van with a driver for five days to drive us into the canyon. Enter Ernesto Presbeteria, our Peruvian driver, who spoke no English, communicated most effectively through aspirating rocketship sounds (psshhhhht!) and very enthusiastic hand gestures. He was an instant hit and his affinity for “psshhhhht” came in very handy when communicating we needed to stop for emergency bathroom breaks. Nature provided some excellent makeshift roadside toilets, but Dad still needs lots more practice keeping Stella from micturating all over herself.

The drive out of Arequipa initially brought views of more arid landscape, but unlike the drive out of Lima we began a steady ascent up to 4,910m. The arid hills became more mountainous which eventually plateaued into open fields (pampas) surrounded by snow capped mountains and volcanos from every angle, even got to throw a snowball at Oscar. At the highest elevation the landscape was dotted with amazing tufts of billowing grass, the perfect conditions for the vicuñas to graze upon (a once endangered camelid whose very fine wool was previously only allowed to be worn by royalty as the vicuñas had to be killed to get the fur because they put up such a fight).

The drive, although long, brought amazing views and changed dramatically over the course of the 8 hours it took us to complete the entire journey. Plains of misting hot springs, terraced farmers’ fields, expanses covered with hundreds of small rock talisman, the first glimpses of alpacas, llamas and vicuñas, and fields of yellow flowers that looked quaintly Tuscan (or so we suppose!) — the drive was arguably the highlight of the trip.

Yawn-kay
Our first stop on the canyon ridge was at an Eco Lodge in Yanque (pr. yawn-kay), a very small ghostlike town built entirely out of stone and mud. When a stone building began to crumble it seemed to be abandoned and a new one constructed beside it, leaving sections of the town deserted for newer adjacent plots. Old structures became bare of roofs and overtaken by cacti, growing both inside and on the walls themselves. A strange little place indeed as all of the roads were barren with only a few of the populous spotted at the lack luster Plaza de Armas. The Eco Lodge was perched on a beautiful cliff and the space was cabin-like with a twin-bed loft for Oscar and Stella. The lodge was also home to three hairy llamas and “Tim Hester” the resident baby donkey, as named by Stella (much to our amusement).

What would have been a great lodge was instead a little creepy as we were the only guests — hotel capacity: 95, occupancy: 5. An empty lodge in an empty town in what increasingly seemed to be an empty canyon became all the more resonant when the electricity was knocked out for two days as a result of heavy rain and mudslides. Luckily Yanque is home to many natural hot thermal springs so Mart, Oscar and Stella were at least able to have a hot swim in place of a hot shower/bath. No hot water, lights or internet for days takes it’s toll. Bland versions of Peruvian recipes (in both the hotel and the neighboring town restaurants) motivated us to move on to Cabanaconde a day early, the next planned stop where people flock to view the flight of the condors (though food and accommodation was basically the same, and still no electricity). The experience was far tougher than the Refugio de Pirates, and and culminated in an outburst from Mart over a particularly rough dinner: “I don’t want to be backpacking!”

Condors of Cabanaconde
Just before Cabanaconde is the mirador or lookout for viewing the condors. It was late afternoon when we were passing by, supposedly not the best chance for a sighting, but it had already been a long drive and was a perfect excuse for a pit stop. The Andean Condor has the largest wingspan of any land-based bird in the world, spanning 3.2m (10.5ft) and second only to the Wandering Albatross (but who wants to see that – looks like a giant seagull!). We virtually had the mirador to ourselves and were treated to a show by 8-10 condors silently soaring and gliding overhead and below, navigating in and out of sight behind canyon walls. It was awesome. We stayed as long as they stayed, until one by one, they disappeared down the valley. This is why people come to the Colca Canyon, and all the hardships to get here were worthwhile. The next morning, we checked out of our hotel for the long drive back to Arequipa and stopped again at the mirador. We only caught a brief glimpse of one condor deep in the canyon, the only other thing to see were tourists and their buses. Ernesto was right in proclaiming our ‘buena suerte’ (good luck) the day before. We got back in the van, happy with our luck. Ernesto cued the CD of peruvian divas and we drove back up to the heights of the pampas, eyes pinned to the beautiful, ever-changing landscape, vicuñas, llamas, alpacas, and storm clouds — happy.

Closing
As for how we are fairing with five in tow… pretty well I would say. There are definitely moments when you feel like you might lose your mind but they always seem to amaze and impress you when you really need them to. Walking five minutes to find a restaurant for dinner can bring on a melodrama of tears, but put them in a van for an eight hour journey through an ear-popping mountain landscape and they don’t seem to blink an eye. Maybe we should go to Puno…..!

Slideshow: Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

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One Response to Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

  1. Maurene Hammond says:

    The pictures are amazing and are making us wish we had been there with you. We can not believe how much Pru is growing. Gary felt the Canadian piliated woodpecker looks like a canary next to the Condor. You 5 are truly inspirational. We will anxiously await your reaction to Nicaragua. Love Mom and Gary

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