White City, Red Canyon

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

After a somewhat restless sleep on the bus to Arequipa, I was happy to get off the bus and grab a 3 soles taxi to Plaza de Armas in the town centre. If that sounds familiar, it seems that every city in Peru has a Plaza de Armas at its heart. I had arrived at 5:30 AM so as I walked around looking for a cheap hostel the sun was glowing on the mountaintops. Arequipa is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes and the latter became a foundry for white volcanic stone blocks upon which the city was built. Arequipa has a reputation as a beautiful city and certainly it is set beautifully but I didn’t find myself especially awed by its beauty. Maybe I missed the best parts? There were certainly interesting and pretty alleyways leading to church-side courtyards and I admit I didn’t enter the rather pricey monastery but while the city was far from ugly I didn’t love it. Maybe I’m just a victim of high expectations. Our – that is my American friend Ty and I – were here for other reasons anyway, specifically sussing out the nearby Colca Canyon which is said to be one of the world’s deepest.

We arrived separately as our departures from Machu Picchu the day prior had been on entirely different timetables but we’d arranged ahead to meet in Plaza de Armas at 1:00. My morning walk had found me at the corner of Puente Grau and Santa Catalina where I settled in the Santa Catalina hostel for 15 soles per night with a private room. This hostel, it turned out, was right around the corner from where Ty’s taxi driver took him. We met for lunch (pretty decent pizza) and had what was basically a lazy day of strolling. I walked the pedestrian strip and passed a market where I saw a painting of Arequipa that I decided to seek out with Mount Misti overlooking an old stone bridge over the river. I had also spent a lot of that morning getting information about going to Colca Canyon and seeing if we could do it on our own. That evening we sat and had a great beer in Plaza de Armas watching the sunset. The next day was a Sunday and Mother’s Day so after a call home Ty and I went for lunch which was a bit of a splurge but HUGE and worth it. On the platter, for $7 each, were two chicken breasts, sausage, beef, pork chops, sliced beef hearts (better than liver but the only thing left), bottomless fries, a salad buffet, and a beer. After all the trekking and small menu/hiking meals, I somehow managed to finish my share aside from the beef heart. At one point a little girl walked in with her family and seeing two foreigners said to us, "Ella es mi amigita!" (this is my little friend). Meanwhile, some drama was unfolding in Ty’s hostel with a woman and her drunk/possibly abusive English (or Australian – Ty wasn’t sure) boyfriend/co-parent.

Somewhat recuperated, we set out the next morning at 11:30 for Chivay (there are earlier busses all the way to Cabanacolpe but all were booked) and our third trek in less than two weeks. Once again, we had decided to travel it solo and make our way with less hand-holding and money-handing. The bus to Chivay took a long time to get there but was uneventful. The local bus from Chivay to Cabanacolpe left about 45 minutes after we arrived and was more interesting. I was impressed to see an orderly line formed waiting for the bus and then a little less impressed when four traditionally dressed women who’d been sitting walked right to the front and then simply amused as the line devolved into a mob around the bus full of elbows, shoving, and the usual bustle. One man pushed me right into the door and I used it to push back and knock him right out of the circle before getting on board. There was no chance of a seat and not long after we were aboard there was no room left to stand either. We set out and I realized with horror and too late that I was standing right next to the speaker. Which, as it inevitably does, pumped out terrible Peruvian music at a level that warned passing vehicles of our approach. My earplug-headphones saved the day – that and that I had the good fortune to be standing right in front of the first passenger to get out of his seat and disembark. I offered it first to the lady behind me who refused twice and then sat down happily.

We arrived near sunset at Cabanacolpe atop the canyon and stayed the night there at a hsotel in, you guessed it, Plaza de Armas for 7 soles each. Dinner was another 5 soles as was breakfast the next morning. We set out around 9 AM towards Llahuar on the road less travelled down into the canyon. The walk was stunning and full of colour – red gorges look like angry wounds in the mountainside which is alternatively yellow, white, and golden. Cacti, rock, dust, and dry air all vie for whatever moisture you’re willing to emit. Aside from being a beautiful section of the canyon which, really, is not a risk wherever you choose to walk here, there were two advantages to our route. The first was that it was all ours. For seven hours we walked and passed only a single woman and her three mules. And a dog that followed us from the very start all the way down the trail who we named Guia (Spanish for guide). The second was that this path was so little used that it was not necessary to pay the 35 soles park fee so long as you crossed the bridge below near San Galle instead of San Juan. Our plan had been to walk to Llahuar which should have taken about 5 hours but we arrived there in 3.5 and that meant it was only 12:30. Llahuar, it turned out, was just somebody’s home and looked desserted from our viewpoint in nearby Paclla so we decided to do something all the guides had told us was impossible and make it to San Galle that same day. We didn’t quite have enough food (one mandarin and several mini-muffins each) but our water situation – much more important – was adequate. We ate a bit, gave Guia some water he looked desperate for and a few crumbs and set off.

The trail to San Galle was indeed tiring and I was exhausted by the time we completed an hour and a half climb which I feared was at the very least unnecessary. We had ascended to the opposite side of the canyon, however, and the views were spectacular from here as well. We ate the remainder of our food and set off downhill. Eventually, we spied San Galle below and, true to the map, there were palm trees and pools; it was a literal oasis in the desert canyon. We got there a bit after 4 and settled in the OK Paradise/El Cielo hostel by 4:30 making the total day a 7.5 hour journey which is far from impossible (although we had the benefit of a cooler and cloudy day). Our hostel, which only cost 5 soles each, had a swimming pool and though it was getting cool I went for a swim anyway. It felt great to get the dust off my face. We thought there were hotsprings here but it turns out they’re just warm springs at about 28 degrees which everybody uses to fill their pools. Guia had abandoned us when we hit town but we were joined a bit later by two cool Israeli guys and two young Dutch cousins and then for dinner as well by two Danish girls. They were all pretty friendly and we had a nice dinner together for 6 soles. Breakfast was at 7 AM the next morning and was 5 soles but both Ty and I were really hungry still. The climb out of the canyon was surprisingly enjoyable and we surfaced at the top about 2.5 hours later. Priority one: bus ticket back to Arequipa (15 soles). Number two: food! The bus left at 11:20 AM with us and two decent-sized lasagnas in our bellies (plus some granadilla and chocolate for dessert). While we waited for the bus, Guia appeared out of nowhere to say goodbye. That was a nice touch.

The bus ride back to Arequipa was stunning and afforded incredible views of the canyon all along the way. I even managed to whip together a panoramic photo as the bus drove! I guess we were too busy being jostled on the way there to notice much. Back in Arequipa – after an ‘alpaca’ sandwich that I’m pretty sure by both look and taste was turkey in Chivay – we got our bus tickets for the next day to Puno on Lake Titicaca near the Bolivian border, went for a decent dinner at a nearby restaurant and went out for a couple beer and pool in a four-storey multi-themed bar. I had a streak of good luck and I think the final score was 5-1 for me. The nightlife here is supposed to be pretty good but there was none to be found on a Wednesday night. The bar wanted to charge us for playing pool (the price of two over-priced beers there) but they had neither told us, put up a sign, or given any indication whatsoever that this was the case. We paid half after arguing and discussing and left. The next stop is the last in Peru and I am, as always, excited to be getting close to yet another border and new food, drink, culture, and experiences. Incidentally, our cost for Colca Canyon: 61 soles. Tour cost: 130 soles.

Arequipa and Colca Canyon Photos

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