Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Colca Canyon in Arequipa, Peru

Colca Canyon is outside of the city of Arequipa in southern Peru. It’s deeper than the Grand Canyon and the location of a three day, two night trek we did recently. Its also the location of where our guide gave us hiking rules. The trail was steep, rough and a bit dangerous. The rules were pretty simple, such as “stay on the path” and “don’t run”. About two hours into the trek, I heard a rumble while talking to a Frenchman who was on the hike with us. We looked up hill and saw a landslide heading our way. He ran downhill and I ran up, grabbing Leslie’s arm to pull her out of the way of the falling rocks. Some rules are meant to be broken.

It was the second rule we’d broken recently. The first was upon our arrival in Arequipa. It had been a long bus ride from Mollendo and the Peruvian coast, punctuated by the fact that there were no bathroom breaks. We took a taxi to the central area, which we usually avoid because they’re more expensive than the bus and we lose control over where we’re going when in the backseat of another car. The taxi driver looked friendly though and gave us a good rundown of the taxi companies in Arequipa. He recommended his company and two others. His English was limited, but he had a good grasp of “warn English-speaking tourists about other taxi company” English. “You be safe,” he said. “Most taxi drivers are… scoundrels.”
The practice of dropping tourists off at commission-paying hostels is common around the world. We don’t deal with that any more.
The city of Arequipa was absolutely beautiful. It gets teased by the rest of Peru for being posh, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. White rock sidewalks and building with Spanish-style architecture were everywhere. The city revolved around a large central square with a fountain and trees that was connected to a cathedral. A two-lane road ran 3/4 of the way around, everywhere except for the cathedral.
The hostel was awesome, with two movie rooms. Unfortunately, Leslie got sick and we stayed in and watched movies. I got sick the following day, but that might have had more to do with the fact that the only thing I ate the day Leslie was sick was a meat-lover’s pizza from Dominos. Yes, they delivered.
Leslie also had her 29th birthday in Arequipa, so we splurged and went to a restaurant called Zig Zags. The name was a little odd, but the food was amazing. The building was a bit like a wooden cave and we were sent to the second floor. Leslie got a fried trout and I went for the alpaca steak with cheesy-creamy quinoa.
Both dishes came flambe, meaning that a bit of alcohol was poured over the top of the meat on the table and they were lit on fire. The plates were large chunks of wood, almost like a fancy oak cutting boards. The wood had chunks carved out, inside of which sat a single piece of volcanic stone. The steak had been cooked upon the stone, which came to the table hot. It was excellent.
It was the fanciest dinner we had had in a long time, the whole experience being wonderful with the waitstaff singin “Happy Birthday, Senorita” and giving a birthday drink the size of a coconut.
The food was awesome, although the steak still has to take second place to Don Ernesto, a steakhouse in Buenos Aires. Never bet against Argentinian steak.
Nevertheless, we birthdayed Leslie pretty well.
The city of Arequipa is beautiful, but its not the reason most travellers come to this part of Peru. People come for the outdoors. Two massive volcanos accompany Colca Canyon as common hiking adventures. For us, the volcanos were a non-starter as they get up over 6,000 meters which is higher than our trip in Salar de Uyuni where we struggled with altitude sickness. So down we went into the Colca Canyon.
We started at 3 am and loaded up into a bus with a dozen other gringos. The bus was pretty nice by our standards, but a few people complained. Backpackers are a funny bunch because everybody has different standards. This bus wasn’t Argentinian or German standards, but was much nicer than the buses we had ridden in Morocco.
We attempted to sleep for the next four hours or so before getting some photos of the volcanos and having a breakfast of bread and butter. Stale bread and butter has been standard breakfast throughout South America and we’re getting sick of it. Even if we order eggs we get a single egg.
The bus took a bit of a harrowing turn through a tunnel filled with dust that was only wide enough for one bus. The earieness of the bus was compounded by Michael Jackson’s Thriller playing on the radio.
We took one more stop on the way out to the Canyon at a point where condors are known to gather. The large birds are actually related to vultures and soared throughout the canyon. There was an adult female and a juvenil active while we were there.
Another few hours on the bus and we were off the bus, seperating into smaller groups. We were on the three day two night trek, as opposed to some people doing 2 days one night. It was the exact same hike, except they did it in two days instead of three. We figured we’d go a little slower, and it was only another $4 for another night of accomodation and food, so it made sense financially.
We ended up in a group of four with a couple from Paris that were about our age, Sebastien and Manuela. Sebastien and I actually had a lot in common as we were both colorblind, the same age and both programmers. Add in our guide, Luis, and the five of us were off into the Canyon.
Colca Canyon was not what I expected. When I think Canyon, I think desert, but that was not the case. Colca Canyon was green, with life all around. Condors soared throughout and there was a plethora of llamas, alpacas and less common animals. There weren’t huge trees, as we were quite high (about 2000m) but there were plenty of big bushes, including one that looked innocent.
It was a little taller than me and looked like any other bush. It was near-white colored tree with small green leaves. Nothing about it would have stuck out except Luis told us to watch out.
He broke off a small branch and we saw a milky-white substance drip out. He told us to be careful, because the bush breaks easily and there was a good amount of poisonous liquid that came out. He showed us a scar on his arm that looked like an acid burn. He had gotten one drip on himself three years ago. This stuff wasn’t going to kill you, but it would burn like mad. Watchout.
The canyon was steep, rocks were loose and the trail was a bit rough. Workers from the local area were cleaning up the area. Luis was from Arequipa, but his family was from one of the small villages that dotted the canyon. He informed us that he used to go on fishing binges with his grandfather powered by nothing but coca and pisco (a local liquor).
The trail leading down into the canyon was small and because of the small bushes we could see to the other side. Small villages abounded, and Luis could point out to us our route.
The way down was tough, with both Leslie and I getting blisters on our feet. She was breaking in a new pair of hiking boots we had picked up for her birthday. Maybe its not the smartest to use new boots on a major trek, but it was much better than sandals.
Three hours later we reached the bottom of the canyon and the most powerful river I’d ever seen. There was no way you could go swimming in this river, it was altogether too powerful. I doubt top kayakers or river-rafters would touch it.
We hiked up the other side of the canyon a bit and reached a small town of about 200 people. There were rock walls lining the path and organic gardens all around. We purchased a bit of fruit and some water before learning a bit more about the locals from Luis over an alpaca-saltado lunch. “Saltado” is a common meal consisting of strips of meat and veggies fried then mixed with french fries. Its okay.
The small cities are getting more and more abandoned as the young people pursue education in the cities. There was a little bit of sadness about it, but I can’t really fault the youth for wanting an education then staying in the cities. Its the same story all over the world.
The next morning we made “panqueques” from scratch. I woke up at 6 to help Luis because the owner of the place ran to Arequipa to see his wife who was in the hospital. We made pancakes and topped them with Dulce de Leche, with a type of caramel.
Sebastien woke up first with Manuala and Leslie following, so we all got a chance to make the pancakes in a pan. We did okay.
That day saw another four hours of hiking. This time, we went up then down and ended up at the Oasis, which is a collection of really nice hostels by a natural hot springs. We spent an hour or so hanging out on hammocks under a mango tree. It was pretty relaxing until a mango almost fell on me. From that point on I was a little nervous.
The next morning saw the worst part of the hike. We woke up at 4:00 am and began the trek, straight up the canyon at 5. When I say up, I mean up. We were expecting three hours of straight up and we were not disappointed.
It was a race against the sun. We weren’t expecting rain in the morning, and the trick was to get up the canyon before the sun began to beat down on us. It wasn’t long before the legs started to burn. Fortunately, the blisters from the first day had faded. There were about three dozen people starting around the same time as us as we all raced from the Oasis to the top. We did pretty well, passing more people than we passed before making it to the top, sweaty and tired.
A quick stop at a hot springs on the way back saw our tired and sore bodies rest back at the hostel before another night bus.
We were sore and tired, but we had no idea how sore and tired we would soon be.
Next stop, Cusco and Macchu Picchu.
p.s. I forgot to mention the Maybelline related saga. Oh well, another time.

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