Our 11am bus from Ica to Arequipa turns up at 12pm, which in Peru is probably not that bad.
The scenery is still the same. Sandy. To the left is sandy and sandy rocky mountains, probably the foothills of the Andes and to the right is sandy with a glimpse of the coast every now and then. The towns don’t change, they’re the same sprawling, dusty, rundown shantytowns full of tuk-tuks and crappy taxis. We see three people crammed onto a scooter, trucks loaded with people, a truck stuffed full of watermelons, and people selling trays piled high with oranges and other fruits.
Our driver is terrible at overtaking. Actually, once he decides to overtake he’s not so bad, it’s really his indecision that’s bad, sitting on the other side of the road, poised for overtaking, but not actually overtaking, and then having to swerve back in behind when something comes around the blind corner he’s been thinking about overtaking on! We know this because once again we have the ‘panoramic’ windows up top. The road gets worse, and the driving doesn’t improve any. Then to really put the s***s up us, the sun sets and darkness falls. The same manner of slow, indecisive overtaking continues, except the vehicles we are overtaking are driving without their lights on. So are we. So are the vehicles coming towards us. After the driver pulls out to overtake, sits beside the slower vehicle and then gets flashed by an oncoming vehicle and has to swerve back in I pull the curtains so I can’t see out the front or side window. It’s better not to know. We see a road sign, still 265km to go, we really are going to die.
Eventually though the lights of Arequipa show on the horizon so we’ve survived a horror night bus to live another day. At the bus station we ask an information desk to call us a registered taxi but they tell us the taxis out in the parking lot are all registered. So we head out and get in the next taxi that pulls in, hoping that the notoriously dodgy Arequipa taxi’s will be kind to us and take us to our requested destination. We give our driver the address, and then are whisked off on motorways and through dark cobbled streets, all the time hoping this is going to end well and not with us being mugged for our bank cards at 1am in the morning.
When our taxi pulls up at what appears to be a house in the suburbs we are sure he has not taken us to our hostel, maybe this is where the muggings happen? But someone comes out of the house and we are beyond pleased when they confirm it’s our hostel, Arequipa Backpackers. So pleased, so pleased. We are taken inside what is a plush, luxurious house, with pool table and table tennis in the lounge, we are shown the kitchen, which is bigger than any household kitchen I’ve ever seen. We’re shown a movie den and a bbq area outside. Then, we are shown to our room, which is positively palatial in size and quality compared to anything else we’ve stayed in (maybe except the tour hotel in Quito). Then its lights out, glad to be safe and warm in Arequipa.
After a sleep in we tuck into the free breakfast, which is simple bread with butter and jam and tea and coffee, but good all the same. We order a taxi as we are told it’s a 30 minute walk to the supermarket and then a further 45 minutes into the town centre, a bit further than the 30 minute walk we thought we were going to be from the historic centre. Oh well, the taxis are cheap enough.
Traffic close to the historic centre is chaotic, so we jump out early, alongside the Rio Chilli and then walk up into the Plaza de Armas. It’s quite a nice plaza as they go, and the festivities for tomorrow’s 470th anniversary of the founding of the city are already underway, with groups, brass bands, schools and Miss Arequipa 2010 marching around the plaza. We watch for a bit, and admire the cathedral built of sillar – a light coloured volcanic rock that dazzles in the sun.
Having had our fill of parading we decide to visit the Santa Catalina, (in the picture above) a must see in Arequipa. The monastery occupies an entire block and is practically a citadel within the city. A wealthy window who chose her nuns from the richest Spanish families founded it in 1580, but her new nuns kept living it up in the style to which they were accustomed. After almost three centuries of these hedonistic goings-on, a strict nun arrived to straighten things out. The complex was forced to open to the public in 1970.
We spent several hours exploring the medieval mazelike narrow twisting streets, nooks and crannies with beautiful plazas, courtyards and the living quarters of the nuns. The streets all have names taken from southern Spain towns; Granada, Toledo, Sevilla, Malaga. There are beautiful courtyards are peaceful with fruit trees in the middle and paintings around the outside. From atop one of the roofs within the complex we had views of the majestic volcano in the distance, El Misti (5800m).
Back out on the street we wandered from store to store and courtyard to courtyard selling handicrafts. After we’ve had enough sightseeing and shopping, we find a supermarket right on the plaza and hunt down some supplies for dinner seeing as we’ve finally got a communal kitchen to cook in. From the supermarket we walk back down to the river and try to hail a taxi, but not just any taxi, Evelyn gave us a list of four reliable taxi companies. Due to the festivities there doesn’t seem to be an empty taxi in town and we are beginning to despair when we manage to hail one.
Back at the hostel we relax for the remainder of the afternoon. When we find that the only buses going through to Cusco are night buses we sigh with dread and then decide we don’t need a further two days in Arequipa, so we sort some tickets through the hostel for a bus for the following night, giving ourselves a second full day here.
We cook up some chicken, peppers and pasta for dinner. This time the tin of tomatoes is tomatoes. The small jar of pasta sauce seems to have mince already added which is a bit odd. But at least we haven’t bought cat food (yet). And we have some parmesan as well. We are eating like kings and it’s easily our best self cooked meal yet. But then it doesn't have much competition.
The following day we set about booking our train tickets from Ollanta to Aguas Calientes on the PeruRail website. Eventually the transaction goes through and we have our tickets: going there on the cheaper backpacker train and returning on the Vistadome train.
We walk up into the Plaza again but can’t get to it, as there’s crowds and crowds of people jammed into the plaza and down the side streets. We stand on the pavement for a bit, straining to see the parade that is going past, we see a DJ playing some very un-traditional tunes from the back of the truck, but can’t see much else so we leave. We shop at a different supermarket, much bigger and nicer, more variety, a Plaza Vea, down by the river and then nab a taxi (which is much easier from outside the supermarket!) back to the hostel.
We catch up on our journal, cook an early dinner and then catch a taxi to the bus station. We find we have to pay a small departure tax and then get to wait in the Cruz Del Sur departure lounge, very plush!
Tonight our seats are right down the very back, much better for being in ignorant bliss as to road conditions and driver behaviour. We are given a snack shortly after we leave, but at 9pm whose hungry? They put a movie on, think it was the Devil Wears Prada and it was either in English or had English subtitles, but I’m already sleepy so I stash my snack down by my bags at my feet and head off to the land of nod.
The ride is not too bad, though some big speed bumps seem to sneak up on the driver and we bounce over them at full speed. Given that the speed bumps are lit up with several rows of cats eyes, I can only assume that again, we were driving sans lights... At one stage we seem to stop for an inordinate length of time, and can hear what sounds like a tyre change. Also to keep us warm at altitude, the driver periodically blasts the heaters on high which roasts us to the point of being unbearable and brings me close to the point of being bus sick, sick bag at the ready, but in the end we arrive into Cusco early in the morning unharmed.