Quip Area (Insert Joke Here)
Our overnight bus arrived a couple of hours late through a pink volcanic landscape, lit by the rising sun - the volcanic summits of El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Picchu rising magnificantly over the city. Central Arequipa is full of beautiful, and wel-preserved, colonial buildings, arcades and courtyards, gleaming white from the local volcanic sillar rock. Lots of wrought iron and flowering plants added to the ambience.
For the princely sum of 9p, a cactus fruit was deftly skinned by Snow White´s stepmother, the dull exterior peeling to reveal the vermillion flesh beneath. Taste and texture is much like a compressed watermelon.
Next day saw us visit the convent of Santa Catalina, built in 1580 to shelter the daughters of the nobility - who, like any yahs, failed to exhibit appropriate nun-like behaviour for over 3 centuries, until the arrival of a strict Dominican Mother Superior put the kybosh on their shenanigans. Amid the colourful, cloistered courtyards, the cells themselves are fairly stark - but most were equipped with their own en-suite bread-oven.
The nunnery was opened to the public in 1970 - although one modern section, built after an earthquake made most of the older buildings too unstable to live in, is still kept private from tourists. The building, surrounded by a high wall, takes up an entire block and is essentially a self-contained community, with the original nuns only (officially) making contact with the outside world by means of rotating drums - like wooden versions of the kind found on securicor vans - allowing food to be passed in without the "purity" of the sisters being defiled.
Cabanaconde and the Colca Canyon
The journey to the town of Cabanaconde took us over 4800m, passing volcanos, altiplano, and salt flats enroute. Ancient terraces cut into the steep hillsides, cloaked in Andean green, are slashed through by the Colca Canyon, its bottom disappearing further from view with every mile, until it becomes the 2nd deepest in the world, only narrowly beaten by its near neighbour, the Cotahuasi Canyon.
Cabanaconde itself is like stepping back in time - all rubble-buildings with collapsing grass, or corrugated iron, roofs. Donkeys roam the dirt backstreets while pigs wallow in muddy backyards. At Kuntur Wasi (the Condor´s Nest), we dined on Alpaca steak (like beef but leaner) before retiring to our chilly room - despite the altitude and cold, we found that Peruvians prefer fresh air and often wedge doors and windows open.
Next morning, the irrepressible Carlos showed us to the head of the path down to the canyon floor, warning us that any shortcuts on the steep zig-zag trail could be cut very short! The canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, with a 3191m descent overall, its sides lined with cliffs, waterfalls, cacti and a few foolhardy farmers' terraces. The steep drop is such that, at the bottom, beside the fast-flowing Rio Colca, the temperature rises to a degree that trekkers are able to strip down to their underkecks and enterprising locals have carved natural, river-fed, swimming pools into the rocks of the valley floor. They also offer welcome cervezas - their marked-up prices justified by the fact that all drinks have to be brought down the 2.5 hour descent by mule and all rubbish goes back up the same way.
The 1100m of climb back up was even harder work, the rising altitude increasing the difficulty with every step - especially as we were now hiking in the heat of the day. Passing us in the other direction were the mule trains piled high with baskets of supplies, driven by young boys in football tops, while overhead condors circled in the afternoon thermals.
The return bus to Arequpia was enlivened by the, somewhat amateur, pan-pipist who jumped aboard to busk - although we gave him the benefit of the doubt because of the bumpy road surface. Mind, we were a bit more perturbed by the young lady nestling an arm-sized scythe in her lap!