Arequipa is a lovely city of beautiful white Spanish colonial buildings against a backdrop of massive Andean volcanoes. At nearly 2,400 metres it'll be a good place to acclimatise before going higher. This was our first taste of Peru after an interesting day's travel from Arica.
Ross, the owner of Sunny Days Hostel, gave us a lift to the station with typically Antipodean warnings not to trust anyone in Peru and to be very careful to take good care of our belongings. We got to the station good and early and after completing exit formalities at the station we climbed on board. The train, which only runs back and forth between Arica and Tacna (a distance of only 68 kms) was a rickety affair of just one wood panelled carriage and about sixty seats. There were only a few people on board so we commandeered four seats in which we settled ourselves, and our bags, comfortably. But soon the train started to fill up and pretty soon it was full, mostly of women obviously out for a day's shopping in Peru, which is much cheaper than Chile, and more specifically Tacna which, as a tax free zone, is probably cheaper still. After chugging along through the desert at no more than 50 kms/ph we arrived in Tacna where we were surprised to see tuk-tuks again, our first since Asia. The entry formalities at the station were quick and easy and we were greeted by a friendly taxi driver who'd been waving to us as we'd come through customs, such as it was. Very wary because of all the dire warnings we'd been given, not only by people but also in the guide books, we entrusted ourselves to his care. He turned out to be really helpful getting us safely to the bus station (via an ATM), telling us the cost of the bus and ensuring we bought the necessary embarkation ticket - 1 Soles (less than 20p) each to allow us to us use the terminal's facilities and board the bus.
Tacna was much more frantic than we had experienced in Chile but it gave us a flavour of what was to come. The bus we had booked was not up to the standard of Tur Bus in Chile but it left on time and got us to Arequipa. The bus was held up (not literally - although there are warnings of bus hijacks on certain routes in Peru) on several occasions: first it was stopped at numerous checkpoints by various bureaucratic groups (what we took to be - road transport authorities, regional government, central government and Peruvian customs as we emerged from the free-trade zone) all of whom entered the bus and had a good look around; and stops all along the route for hoards of travellers to get on and off (not unreasonable we suppose because it was after all a bus!). The landscape became slightly different from Chile as we saw more vegetation - although it was still pretty arid country - seemingly benefitting from more water in the streams and rivers. As we reached 2500 metres, we could see the volcanoes of El Misti and Chachani with Arequipa nestled at the foot of El Misti. A welcome sight after another long bus journey.
We'd booked ourselves into the Casa de Avila Hotel near the centre of the city on the recommendation of Tanya, a German we had met in Arica. It was a lovely inviting place with comfortable rooms around a large garden and very friendly and helpful staff. Settled in we walked the few blocks to the wonderful main square - Plaza de Armas (which all main squares in South America so far seem to have been called) - surrounded on three sides by colonnaded buildings and the other by the impressive 17th century Cathedral (which lost one of its towers in the 2001 serious earthquake that caused much damage to the city). A rather touristy meal in the attractive lane behind the Cathedral saw us down some typical Peruvian food and a bottle of local Cab Sav, accompanied by traditional music. Yup, with loads of American, British and European voices echoing around us, there was no doubt about it, we were now firmly on the tourist route.
We'd highlighted a number of Arequipa's main sights plus a trip to the Colca Canyon to fill the week we'd spend here. One of the most impressive attractions is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina which is a 16th century convent - essentially the size of a small walled town - which has been remarkably preserved and is reckoned to be the most important and prestigious religious building in Peru. We spent 3 hours wandering around the narrow cobbled streets, exploring the many rooms where nuns lived, worked and cooked. It is fair to say that the life they led was probably much better than the lives they left behind. It is a wonderful place and certainly must not be missed.
The city is home to another convent and was highly recommended by Ross (our NZ hostel owner in Arica). Monesterio de Santa Teresa is a totally different experience from Santa Catalina and was more of a museum to the nuns who had lived and still live in the convent. It was a rather exclusive place which received generous dowries - which were on display - from wealthy donors who wanted their daughters to be nuns there. We had a really informative and personalised tour.
The majority of the mountains that surround Arequipa are active or dormant volcanoes well over 5000 metres. One of the active volcanoes, Ampato, has provided Arequipa with one of its most significant exhibits in the Museo Santuarios Andinos. 'Juanita' is a 14 year old princess who was sacrificed by her Inca tribe over 500 years ago at the summit of Ampato. When a nearby volcano erupted in 1994/5, the snows on Ampato melted the summit glacier that had preserved Juanita and she (along with two other sacrificed children) was discovered by an American archaeological team. Her body has been remarkably preserved and she is now on display in the museum. Her presence tells a very sad but revealing story.
Like many Spanish cities, Arequipa has so many beautiful churches and we enjoyed wandering the streets and looking at the impressive interiors. One we didn't manage to visit, however, was the Cathedral as it always seemed to be closed when we were there. On our last day we'd planned to visit it after lunch but when we got there it had just closed - we got the opening times wrong!
The Colca Canyon is now officially recognised as the deepest canyon in the world (new editions of guide books will hopefully acknowledge that fact). It is one of the top places to visit from Arequipa, either for a trekking trip or a 2 day tourist trip - we did the latter to avoid a 1000 metre climb down into the canyon followed by a 1000 metre climb back up the following day - bearing in mind the high starting altitude! When we were picked up last and had deposited ourselves into the back seat, it felt like an awayday. Ali our guide asked us to announce our names and where we were from. When we said Scotland, Cristyna from Arequipa whooped with excitement because she'd been to Escocia, had loved Escocia and even more so William Wallace. Cristyna became the star of the 2 day trip - she is a lovely and lively person. But we had a great group - Susan from Atlanta, Susanne (Stockholm), Angela and Doug (Toronto), a couple of lads from Barcelona, a couple from Greece (the first travellers from that country we'd met in over 2 years), Guy from France (he was visiting Cristyna), as well as Japanese, Mexicans and Peruvians. We reached the breathless summit of our trip at the mirador overlooking Ampato (where Juanita was found) and at 4,910 metres/16203 ft it was the highest point we had so far reached. You could say the views were breathtaking - because they were, in more ways than one!! At this high point we should add that we'd been very relaxed at the Auckland travel doctor 6 weeks ago when she prescribed us altitude sickess pills, because, as we told her " ... we'd be gradually climbing and acclimatising therefore we probably wouldn't need any pills - but we'll take them just in case". Thank goodness we did because without them we might not have made it this far.
We were staying the night in Chivay - a village that seems to be thriving on the success of trips to this area and the Colca Canyon. Chivay sits at the foot of Mismi, the mountain that is the official source of the Amazon River (but on the other side from us as it is the watershed. It was a non-stop couple of days and as soon as we'd checked into our hotel (the Colca Inn which was very nice) we were whisked away to the thermal baths at La Calera. After a long and dusty, albeit enjoyable day, this was just what was needed to wash away the grime and relax in the very warm waters as the sun went down. It also gave us a chance to get to know more of our group as well as to have a blether with other travellers. No sooner had we dried off than we were back in our hotel, getting for an evening's entertainment, and picked up by Ali and the bus which circled the town to pick the others in their hotels. Had we known beforehand we could have had some extra time to relax because - the restaurant was just over the road from our hotel! It was a good night of Peruvian music and local dancing which had a great touch of humour about it. Although we were all very tired and had to get up at 5am the following morning it was all great fun.
The highlight of the trip was the Colca Canyon itself and, hopefully, the chance to see condors in their natural environment. Up at this unearthly hour and on the bus to arrive at the neighbouring village of Yanque at 6.30am it was slightly odd to encounter a main square that was absolutely buzzing with the colourful local people and children dancing and selling handicrafts, as well as with their birds of prey on their arms and their pet llamas/alpacas. With the tourists milling around it seemed much, much later in the day. After a quick look at the church, which is being restored, it was onwards and upwards to the main event. The Canyon itself was mighty impressive and the very steep sides have some of the most extensive and magnificent terraces which date back to Inca times and are still being worked today in a manner that has changed little in hundreds of years. One worrying aspect however is that the surrounding mountains which up to ten years ago were permanently snow covered, are now virtually devoid of snow. This is another effect of global warming and may seriously affect the continuation of this wonderful indigenous and ancient agricultural system.
We stopped short of the Cruz del Condor to take a (thankfully) short walk to look down into the Canyon and to experience it at close quarters. As we reached one of the miradors (lookouts) three condors appeared soaring over the steep sides of the Canyon. We should say that the Canyon attracts many visitors so we were not alone in experiencing the thrill of seeing these magnificent birds - the biggest birds in the world. We quickened our pace with the aim to get nearer the action and perched ourselves on a wall in the hope that, as these three flew off into the distance, more would appear. We weren't disappointed and a few minutes later we had some excellent views of one that soared and wheeled directly over our heads (see Colca Canyon photo album). It was good to spend so much time here in the very fresh air although we were disappointed that no more condors made an appearance.
On our return journey we stopped at Maca, a small village that is renowned for making toffee that promote sexual invigoration! The previous evening in the restaurant we'd noticed a poster advertising this fact and one of the young lads, a biologist from Lima working in a fertility clinic, confirmed this was true. So as soon as the bus had stopped M rushed across the road and into the shop to buy a bag - watch this space! Once again this place was buzzing with all sorts of Peruvian activities - dancing, music, crafts, animals, birds of prey etc. M took a liking to what was described as a 'domesticated' eagle, which was admittedly a magnificent specimen and which the owner perched on M's bare arm without any protection. Before she knew it, it was then on her head but at least this time with the protection of the owner's straw hat (see Colca Canyon photo album) and all for just a few pence. Maca also had another glorious church. While these village displays are no doubt put on for the tourists no-one could deny these lovely mountain people some of the rich takings of the tourist industry - we certainly didn't grudge them it.
After lunch in Chivay it was straight back to Arequipa. That evening we met up with Susan and Susanne for a drink and a bite to eat. They are heading to Cuzco and, who knows, we might meet up again.
Lots of love
E & M xxx