Monday, 28 May 2012

Arequipa and Trekking one of the Deepest Canyons in the World

Arequipa, Peru's second largest urban center, is known as "the white city" but don't go picturing Minas Tirith of Middle Earth. The stone buildings are more gray than white but they are still beautiful in design. The city is located in a fairly flat arid region surrounded by massive snowcapped mountains, famous for their slopes of orange, red and purple rock dotted with various succulents and other desert-loving flora. It actually reminded me of Phoenix. The pièce de résistance is Volcan el Misti, towering more than 5800 m above the city. It last erupted in 1985. Several Inca mummies have been found there including the preserved corpse of Juanita the Ice Princess, a young girl believed to have been sacrificed by the Incas more than 500 years ago.

Arequipa's colonial-style buildings near the Plaza de Armas.

Volcan El Misti overlooking Arequipa.
Colorful walls of the courtyard near a french restaurant where we had lunch.
Taking a tip from Leoni, the Aussie lady we met in Huaraz, we stayed at Casa de Avila. It was a pretty nice hostal with a huge courtyard garden area. We arrived before the usual check-in time so we had a few hours to sit in the lounge chairs, sipping beers in the hot sun and making friends with the resident tortoise!

Neil knows the way to a tortoise's heart! Also, check out those pipes!!

A lesson in photo editing. Neil is an attentive pupil.
The main reason we'd traveled to Arequipa was to visit canyon country but the city itself has one major "urban" attraction - the imposing Monastery de Santa Catalina, described as a photographer's paradise. I managed to talk Chris into coming with me but Neil elected to stay behind and plan an excursion to a surf spot near Lima. The monastery is more like a small city within the city, originally housing the daughters of very rich families who sent them into service along with a sizeable dowry. Apparently their lives weren't too bad in the monastery at first - they were able to host parties and socialize in much the same way they might've outside the service. However, all that changed in 1871 when the pope sent a strict Dominican nun to straighten things out. For the next 100 years the monastery was closed to the public and that time period is shrouded in mystery. It was opened for tourism in the 1970s but the remaining nuns live in a separate building and don't interact with visitors. There are only about 30 nuns these days but the cloistered community was once home to 450, two thirds of which were servants. 

The vibrantly colored buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, flowers, fountains, and courtyards certainly lived up to the hype of it being a photographer's paradise. We paid for a tour and got a few interesting historical tidbits, anecdotes about nuns that lived there, damage that occurred during earthquakes in the 1900s, and what various rooms were used for. One of the strangest rooms was the mortuary where nuns were laid out after dying and an artist was commissioned to paint their portraits. The walls were adorned with decrepit visages of oldish ladies, all with their eyes closed on account of being rendered posthumously. Creepy but intriguing. The monastery was definitely worth visiting and I probably could've wandered through the houses, kitchens, and gardens for a few more hours after the tour but the sun was setting so we went back the hotel to retrieve Neil for dinner. 

The morgue where nuns were laid out after their deaths and painters were given 24 hours to create their portrait such as those hanging on the walls.
Kitchen typical of one of the larger houses in the cloisters.

A nun's house. Note the bed under the arched wall - this design was to protect them in case of an earthquake.

Spiky sleeping mat of one of the most highly-revered nuns... apparently self mortification and flagellation were fairly common practice. 

The following day we had an early (3 am) pick-up by our tour company for the Colca Canyon. Promoted as the world's deepest canyon (although that's not quite accurate), Colca's depth is reportedly twice that of the Grand Canyon but where it ranks in the world is somewhat unclear since depth measurements can be done either from the highest peak adjacent to the canyon or from the top of the gorge cut by the river that made it. A google search tells me that canyons in the Himalayas are deeper, the Grand Canyon has taller vertical walls, and the Colca's neighbor canyon, Catahuasi, is actually 335 m deeper. But I digress. 

We left Arequipa in the drowsy darkness, ascending from the valley into the Andes towards Cabanaconde, the town nearest the trailhead for our descent into the canyon. The temperature in the minibus plummeted as we gained altitude and, although they gave us some blankets, we were freezing! I don't know why the driver wouldn't turn on the heat but he never did. I developed serious concerns about the warmth factor of the wardrobe I'd selected for the trek. It was hot in Arequipa! 

After a chilly breakfast break at a small restaurant we made a stop at Cruz del Condor: a premier viewpoint for seeing Andean condors fly and for gazing down down down into the spectacular gorge carved by the Colca river. Unfortunately Chris was feeling really sick from the windy drive so I was tasked with taking photos. I did my best! After getting our fill of the sights (and the swarm of other tourists) we continued down the hiway a bit further to our drop-off point. Our group consisted of a German couple, a Swiss girl, and the three of us plus our guide whose name was Edison but he told us to call him Chiki. Okay.

Cruz del Condor; our first glimpse into the depths of the Colca Canyon.
A pair of condors.
Setting out for the canyon.
The first stretch was ~3 hours downhill to reach a bridge across the river. The path was loose gravel and rocks, sometimes with large stones embedded as steps. Somewhat treacherous but not unlike what we've come to expect in South America. We were extra cautious after our guide informed us that a tourist had died that morning on the hike out of the canyon. He hadn't fallen as we first suspected - heart attack. Chiki also let it slip that he was from Canada so we all felt a patriotic sadness for the loss of a fellow Canadian. The views were beautiful although slightly more claustrophobia-inducing in comparison to the magnanimous vistas of the Inca Trail. Despite the downhill trudge being easier on the lungs, our thighs and knees were begging  for mercy long before we neared the bridge. Finally we reached the bottom of the canyon and settled into a shady spot beside the bridge, listening to the roar of the Colca while we waited for the stragglers - the German couple was having a tough time with the hike and our guide eventually had to carry the girl's pack in addition to his own. 

We crossed the Colca river, a ferocious jade snake thrashing its way through the Andes in pursuit of the Pacific ocean,  and made our way up the embankment to the small village of San Juan de Cuccho where we ate lunch. Maybe we were just famished but I thought it was pretty tasty! After stuffing ourselves we stretched out on a sun drenched terrace below the restaurant and napped in the warm breeze. We then held a vote to decide whether to continue on to Cosñirhua, the next village along our route, or to bunk in San Juan for the night. I won't go into details (okay okay, I may have been the swing vote and may have voted the opposite of Chris and Neil...) but the outcome was to move on so we slung our packs back over our shoulders and slogged our way up for another hour and a half. 

Neil making friends with the hostel owners' son.
Our accommodations at a small hostel overlooking the gorge were very basic but there was a hot shower available for those that wanted one and flush toilets - more than I'd expected to be honest. Just as I'd feared, as soon as the sun disappeared above the mountain peaks it got very cold. I manged to score myself a seat by the woodfire cookstove in the kitchen hut, monitoring dinner preparations and the army of guinea pigs scurrying across the dirt floor in search of scraps. The meal was satisfying but we ate in near silence, quieted by the cold and our fatigue. After a few minutes of stargazing we retired for the night. It was about 8:30 pm. 

Overnight Chris was struck with a bad bout of food poisoning. He was very weak and unsettled the next morning but knew he had no choice but to press on. There are no other modes of transportation in the canyon. Well, aside from mules of course. And don't think he wasn't considering renting one. He persevered, albeit looking rather zombiesque for most of the day. 

Our trek was mainly downhill and only about 3 hours to our destination: The Oasis. I'm not sure if that's actually the name of the village or just the self-ascribed description of the cluster of hostels located at that particular spot. Regardless, the name was justified by the numerous gardens of gorgeous flowers, swaying palm trees, and the outdoor pool. Pool?? Yes, there were pools at most of the hostels, including ours. No electricity in the accommodations. Cold showers in small stalls constructed from hip-height cement walls and thin bamboo enclosures - not very much privacy! But there was a pool and it was glorious. 

The Oasis "resort" in Colca Canyon. So many beautiful flowers!
While Chris curled up to sleep off his sickness, Neil and I quickly donned our swimsuits and bee-lined it for the pool. After a refreshing dip, Neil found a giant boulder where he proceeded to bake in the sun, totally in his element. I climbed up another boulder that formed one wall of the pool and had myself a little sunsoak as well. It was lovely. We then had lunch, which Chris decided to forego. Sadly, the location of the Oasis at the bottom of the canyon meant that the sun was obscured by the lofty peaks by the early afternoon, which in turn meant that swimming in the unheated pool was no longer pleasant. Instead, I wandered around the property and snapped a few pictures since our usual photographer remained incapacitated. At dusk the canyon walls lit up in all their golden and copper splendor. Magnificent.

Chris managed to join us for dinner and Neil broke out the bottle of tequila he'd carried all the way into the canyon. A few of us joined him and had a small shot before again retiring early, conscious that the following morning would be yet another early start. 

We made our way by headlamp light to the dining area the next morning and noted the empty tequila bottle on the table. Soon after, a rather haggard-looking Neil appeared, announcing that he "didn't want to talk about it." Haha. Our established departure time came and went with no sign of the German couple. We had become rather tired of waiting for them all the time (they were late the first morning as well) and harassed our guide to get going. He eventually made arrangements for us to join another group for the ascent so we wouldn't have to wait all the way up. We set out as the gray haze of dawn entered the valley, grateful that the sun would soon arrive to take the chill out of the air. It was a challenging ascent! Neil left us behind after the first rest stop, surprisingly unencumbered by the hangover he'd confessed to having just before we left the Oasis. Chris and I hiked with the Swiss girl, taking frequent breaks to rest and admire our surroundings. I also couldn't stop wondering where the Canadian guy had died. Insatiable morbid fascination... Chris did well despite being undernourished after skipping meals the previous day and failing to retain much of the meals of the day before that....

Approximately 3 hours later we reached the top of the canyon. As I cleared the final step Neil came over and told me to hold out my hand. I did and he placed in it a full-sized Snickers bar. It was the greatest moment of my life. I ate that Snickers bar in 15 seconds and didn't feel one pang of guilt. Pretty sure I was still running at a calorie deficit after hiking without any breakfast! We hung out at the top of the gorge for another 20 minutes, revelling in our successful completion of another gruelling trek. Then the guide of the group we'd joined came over to let us know that Chiki had asked him to take us to our breakfast spot because he and the German couple were still quite far behind. We gratefully followed him to Cabanaconde.

The view as the Colca River emerges from the gorge into lands that have been cultivated for agriculture for hundreds of years using terraces.
View back towards the Colca Canyon in the mountains.
Our next stop was the hot springs in Chivay. Bliss. That was almost the best part of the tour but the Snickers still takes the cake. We bathed in the steaming pool and stretched our sore muscles, enjoying the brilliant sunshine and the 80s hits pumping from speakers at the pool-side bar. After a buffet lunch consisting of yummy Peruvian specialties we began our return trip to Arequipa. We made a few stops along the way to see vicuñas and llamas as well as braving the icy winds at the viewpoint "Mirador de los Volcanes" where you can see the snowcapped peaks of several volcanoes in the distance. Overall a worthwhile tour.


Our last night in Arequipa was also Neil's final night of travelling with us. He and I shared a romantic dinner alone as Chris was still recovering from the food poisoning. Bright and early the next morning we said farewell to Neil and he left to catch a plane to Lima. Chris and I had booked transportation to Puno for later that afternoon and had found out just before our Colca trip that the transportation was actually a tour, meaning the trip to Puno would take about 2 hours longer due to stops at viewpoints. We were a bit annoyed but decided it might be alright to see some flamingos and other sights. 

We should've tried for a refund... 

After being picked up by a minibus we left Arequipa to rendevouz with the tour bus in Chivay - yes, the same city we'd been in the day before. A group of 3 Russians were also on our minibus. They were on a whirlwind 8-day visit to Peru and didn't speak much Spanish. Therefore I did my best to translate when our driver got a phone call and we suddenly turned around, heading back to Arequipa. We were already an hour outside the city. The driver was quite agitated but I managed to ascertain that we'd forgotten some people and that they'd said they were sick but now wanted to come on the tour or something. Very confusing. It was even more confusing when we finally made it back to Arequipa one hour later, navigated rush hour traffic and stopped at a small cafe where a woman handed the driver a bag, and then we left the city again. We did not pick up people. We picked up snacks. I mean, I know my Spanish isn't great but I even had him show me the names of the forgotten passengers because the German couple from our Colca canyon trek had told us they were taking the same "tour" to Puno and we thought for sure it was going to be them that caused yet another delay. Nope. Snacks. Sandwiches to be exact. Which we ate a few hours later when we were still on our minibus enroute for Puno, having missed our rendevous with the bus in Chivay, consequently also missing the tour that we'd paid for. The Russians wanted to know if I thought we'd get a refund. Hah! Welcome to Peru, mis amigos!

Our plan was to spend the night in Puno and then catch an early bus to Copacabana - our entry point to Bolivia. We had read about a hostel located right in the Puno terminal terrestre (bus station) and figured we might as well check it out since we really only needed a place to crash for a few hours. Our minibus driver wasn't exactly supportive of this plan but he did take us to the terminal to check things out. Chris sorted out buying our bus tickets and I went upstairs to examine the accommodations. The room the receptionist showed me was actually not too bad. And the price was right - about $15 for the night. Little bit crazy having your hotel door open onto a bus terminal concourse but it seemed safe. Noisy, but earplugs let us get a reasonable amount of rest despite a few screaming children and chatty neighbors. 

The next morning we boarded a bus and arrived at the Peru-Bolivia border a few hours later. We had no trouble getting across; just had to stand in a couple of longish lines with our fellow passengers and some from other buses. And then we were in Bolivia! Our route was initially along the shores of Lake Titicaca but wound its way inland for a stretch. The extremely flat terrain speckled with farmland was surprisingly reminiscent of Alberta. We arrived in Copacabana under a brilliant blue sky and scanned the hillside for our destination - Hostal las Olas. It was fairly easy to pick our - the hostal is comprised of 7 unique, free-standing suites that were designed by artist Martin Stratker. The high altitude (3900 meters above sea level) made the uphill trek with our packs far more difficult than it should've been but oh was it worth it! After waiting 10 Bolivian minutes (approximately half an hour) for our room to be cleaned, we were shown to Suite #7, aka Torre y Mar. It's the coolest place I have ever stayed in. 

The suite is actually 3 storeys, constructed with mostly natural materials including adobe and lots of wood finishings. The main floor houses a kitchenette, bathroom, dining area, and a sleeping area with a kingsized round bed. Up the spiral staircase is a sitting area with seats sculpted out of adobe and plaster, a daybed that gets sunshine all day long, and another round bed. There are huge windows affording amazing views of the lake and Copacabana. Sunsets!!!! The third level is sort of an observatory with a table and chairs and a hammock. Crazy place! We ended up extending our stay because we liked the place so much. 

It was great to be able to cook for ourselves for a change. Although procuring ingredients proved a bit tricky. We found the small market and were able to buy vegetables and fruit but decided to go the vegetarian route after seeing the local meat storage and handling conditions... Fortunately beans and quinoa were easy to get so we still had a few good sources of protein. The limited selection of ingredients meant I had to get pretty creative in the kitchen but I did manage to make a tasty vegetable soup with quinoa, falafel made from fava beans, onions and quinoa, various tomato and cream based pasta sauces, and tuna melts. Okay, that last one didn't require much panache, but it was still tasty. And yes, we risked consuming cheese bought at the market. It was definitely manufactured elsewhere but definitely not kept in a refrigerator. Ahh well, we survived. 

We spent our week at Las Olas doing not much of anything. It was wonderful. Chris had contracted a cold with symptoms similar to my bronchitis so it was perfect for him to be able to rest and work on recovering. We also spent some time planning our upcoming itinerary. And we stared out the window at Lake Titicaca an awful lot too. Oh AND we watched the sunset from the outdoor hot tub. Yep. It was basically the perfect way to kick off our time in Bolivia. Photos to come soon, along with those from our trip to Isla del Sol, where the Inca's believed the sun was born!


  1. Sucks about the illnesses.

    I'm going on a motorbike trip for a week....

  2. I read it all.....what an adventure.

    Love Mom

  3. My trip to Kananaskis/Banff this weekend now doesn't seem nearly so much fun.... Oh well, at least I'll be hiking in the mountains. Can't wait to hear about your next adventure!