Peru has been on my list for years. My dad ran Machu Picchu when I was in middle school and brought back virtual tour CD-ROMs (remember those?!) of the ruins, and the valley. Later, I watched The Motorcycle Diaries, and have visions of Gael Garcia Bernal as El Che breaking down in the hills of Peru, and being passed by a hearty Peruvian carrying bundles larger than himself up an alarmingly steep hill.
Ross' company's main office is in Peru, and every year when he leaves for his retreat, I send him off enviously, imagining all the amazing people and sights he's going to encounter. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to head to Peru while Ross was there for some work. Unfortunately, we only had weekends to take advantage of, and Macchu Picchu, the way we would like to do it, is a 4-day trip so, we headed to Chicama to surf for one weekend, and to Arequipa the second weekend.
Arequipa's historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was once the capital of Peru. The historic center is magnificent, and they have done an amazing job maintaining it. There is little to no trash, fresh paint, and the city has encouraged modern business to occupy the historic buildings without sacrificing the integrity of the architecture. One of the banks for example is housed in an old Spanish colonial home with a large courtyard.
Santa Catalina Monastery was on my list of sites I really wanted to see. I have seen nuns travelling on missions all over the world, but I had never see what a nunnery looks like, especially not one that was still active. We rarely get guides, as it is more often than not a rip-off but I was so curious about the grounds. We were SO glad to have taken one. We learned SO much from our guide. She told us about how rich men sent their second daughters to the nunnery as penance, how rich widows not wishing to marry again would live there, about their sleeping chambers, and rituals, and how they filtered water with volcanic rock. I think of all the places I have seen that men have decided to lock women up, this was the most beautifully well kept.
After being guided around the labyrinth of rooms, and chambers at Santa Catalina, we were famished, and on a mission to lunch. At the advice of some of Ross' colleagues, we ate at a HUGE Arequipeño restaurant, Tipika. As we understood, there was a problem with shellfish, so no seafood for us, but I ordered the river trout, and Ross had some Chicharrones. The meal was forgettable but it did the job.
We had done some reading and found that Colca Canyon, and the Vista del Condors was just a two hour drive away. In true Ross style, he opened a map, and saw a small, non-descript alternative route through Salinas Aguadas National Reserve, and over a pass into Colca Canyon. From what we could gather, there were no gas stations, shops, or people in general along the 150KM journey, so we loaded up on water and food in case we got stuck, ran out of gas, or any combination of things that was likely to happen to us.
While we LOVED our hotel, La Casa de Melgar, we were excited about being somewhere more rural after spending our week in Lima. The gracious hotel staff allowed us to cancel our second night in Arequipa without any extra fees. (Score!)
When we flew into Arequipa, Ross and I saw these strange tiny squares that looked like awkward fragmented "townships" in the middle of the desert, so we set out to find what these were. Unfortunately, we were a little too late, and caught the sunset from some nearby hills without finding the funny, little box houses.
Before the sun rose the second day, Ross and I bundled into our rental Toyota Hilux equipped with a roll bar, several litres of water, and just enough snacks to last until dinner. Google estimated that we were about 5 hours away, which meant that we would arrive in Colca Canyon WELL before noon. After 3 hours of driving, and not even getting a quarter of the way there, we re-evaluated our ETA. It was very evident that Google did not understand driving even 40km/hr climbing thousands of feet in altitude on a sand "road" into the high desert was dangerous as best. I think our first clue was that the few massive trucks we saw were also driving slowly; a TRUE rarity in the developing world, especially for locals.
It's all fun and games until you get altitude sickness. Thank goodness, the gentleman at the car rental place suggested we pick-up some pills, but I took them too late. I attributed the first few drowsy hours to sleepiness, and my child-like tendency to be rocked to sleep in any moving vehicle. By the time we were at around 12,800ft, I realized I was not sleepy but fainting, I had a dull headache and I was having a hard time breathing. It was a really scary sensation to be somewhere between conscious, and unconscious and have no control over your body. Luckily, we saw some llamas.
In all seriousness, when I got out of the car to check out the llamas, and the salt flats, I needed to take a break every few steps as little spots of white and black started to enter my vision. Llamas are a great way to forget about being sick for a few minutes but the remainder of the trip until we started descending into Colca was miserable. It was hard enough staying conscious, remember to breath deeply and not throw-up, let alone expect myself to walk around to take photos but I got a few in there.
9 Hours later (HURRAY GOOGLE!), we descended into Colca Canyon. As were driving down the last 20KM of the amazing, nicely paved highway that we could have taken, I forgot how awful I was feeling. With rose colored glasses, I was reminiscing about all the beautiful scenes we had already seen on the way that I was truly glad we took the route we did. I was thrilled about our decision to come to Colca. If you're ever seen the Land Before Time, and when Little Foot, Sara and the crew walk into the vista seeing the Valley that they fought so hard to get to, descending into Colca Canyon was a lot like that. Epic.
We quickly checked into our super cute and VERY clean hotel the Miskiwasi Bed & Breakfast, in Yanque, dropped our bags off, washed our faces, grabbed our cameras, and jumped back into the trusty Hilux to explore. Oh, I also grabbed a fist full of coca leaves...Turns out these guys are on to something. It works!! And it was much more effective than the medicine to be honest!
We really only had 1 day to check out the Canyon, which is HUGE, find the Condors, and take pictures so we got right to it. If you remember that scene I mentioned in The Motorcyle Diaries, when I finally understood how El Che was feeling. These incredible campesinos were on their way home from a day working in the fields by the time we got there. They were all just trucking up the hills, and I could barely walk 10M without losing my breath. Admittedly, I was feeling better than I had at the height of our drive, at 14,000ft, but still...
We drove to the next township of Achoma. A group of mischievous middle aged women were sitting around the plaza, knitting, chatting and laughing a lot. They invited us to the festival that would be happening in a few weeks with lots of traditional Watiti dancing that they were all very excited about. We had heard that Colca was really wet during this time of year. The ladies started explaining that climate change was to blame. It had really altered the climate and they were experiencing more and more dry spouts, and noticeably warmer winters. It was alarming to me that even in a community where I met people who couldn't remember how to sign their names, so many of them were talking about how they were experiencing climate change, like it was common knowledge, and yet so many people in the US still don't believe it's real.
The highlight of our conversation was one of the ladies said, "Well, Colca is like a vagina".
You can read into that how you wish.
We made the mistake of going into Chivay for dinner. Yanque was a much more quaint, charming and clean town. The plaza in Chivay was packed full of tour busses. The restaurant we ate at, which was recommended by several of the guides online filled us up, but in terms of flavor, and service, was really disappointing. It was just food and nothing more. Which is fine but the smell wafting from our own hotels kitchen gave us high expectations.
Because we needed to be back on the road by lunch the next day, Ross, and I woke up in the morning to catch the sunrise, and supposedly catch the Condors. I will never get the image of the vistas we saw out of my head. I don't think I've seen anywhere as continually picturesque as I did this weekend in Colca Canyon. Ross had been to La Valle Sagrada near Lake Titicaca, and loved it but this was just a different kind of remote.
Historians believe that many of the terraced fields the Quechuan residents of Colca Canyon are still farming, date back to the Incans. Keep in mind that this is the world's second deepest canyon. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the terraces start at the banks of the river, and reach most of the rim of the canyon. It was also evident that most of the farming was manual, without machinery, so the terracing, to me is even more impressive.
We watched the sunrise above Achoma at look-out spot/ cacti garden. Each cactus reminded me of a headstone, and the flowers dotted them like offerings to people and histories past. As I walked up to the shrine at the highest point, suckling on one of the massive white flowers was the MOST massive hummingbird I have ever seen. I almost didn't believe it was a hummingbird. As fast as she fluttered into my path she was gone, like a fairy, who almost got caught. When I later told Ross about what I saw, he told me that the illlusive giant hummingbird was notorious in Colca for being rare, and shy.
We spent our morning hopping from town to town watching the valley wake-up. Ross and I decided we were more interested in meeting people in Colca than seeing the Condors, or bathing in hot springs so we just drove, and walked and talked like we usually do.
The Cruz del Condor is pretty packed at dawn, with eager tourists racing to catch a glimpse of the Condors. An annoying little black car was driving at a snail's pace in the middle of the road. Finally, one of the women in the car pointed to the rest of her comrades and as we looked up to see what was so interesting that they needed to block traffic for, a massive condor swooped over us. So, we got to see one! Thanks annoying black car!
I later told a friend about how we "skipped" the Condors but got to see one anyways and we were chided for our ignorance. Condors are one of the closest living relatives to the dinosaurs. We missed a massive piece of history, kinda...
People are either magnificently charmed by our cameras or understandably skeptical. Somehow, with a little bit of coaxing we always end up meeting some superbly fun people. We crossed the river, to another township, and started walking the streets when a stoic lady turned the corner in her traditional dress. Much like many of the women in the canyon, she donned her intricately embroidered and appliqued skirt, and hat. We asked for her photo and she scornfully declined when a funny older gentleman was riding down the cobblestone rather unsuccessfully in a wheelchair.
After the first massive pothole, it was evident that this wheelchair was not for necessity, and at this point was more of a toy. When he clumsily rolled himself towards the two weird foreigners on his street, our little lady became even more stern, and stoic. Eventually, we found out they were married, and somehow convinced her to allow us to take a photograph in exchange for a polaroid. I learned that being opinionated, and scary sometimes is a super effective way to get your way. She was disappointed with her first slightly over-exposed photograph and demanded a better one. Si señora, eventually turned into an invitation to their home where we took a few more portraits and my favorites from the weekend.
With the sun starting to get high in the sky, Ross and I headed back for breakfast and passed the hot spring baths on the way. We had a delightful, simple but filling breakfast, ordered a few sandwiches for the ride back to Arequipa to catch our flight, and packed up our things.
We started to worry as Ross had planned another epic journey which would circle us through the canyon back to Arequipa. Google said 4 hours, but we knew that was likely inaccurate. It was worrying because everyone else had a different number from 4-14hrs.
I had already started to get acclimated to the altitude, and now that I had a stash of Coca and some pills left I was ready for any adventure. Ross and I decided that if it was half as cool as the drive into Colca, we would be willing to risk missing our flight back to Lima, so we went.
We had been making amazing time, when I needed to get out to pee on the side of the road. I stepped out of the car. I am a lot more modest than you are giving me credit for, as in the 2hrs we had been driving, we had not seen a single person, or car and were descending a massive hill still 20km to the next town. I heard a weird hissing sound and my instinct was "RATTLESNAKE!", but in a second I realized it was coming from our trusty Hilux. Ross got out and shouted, "GET BACK IN! WE NEED FLAT LAND". I think we managed about 500M to a semi flat spot before it was time to get out and change a tire.
My dad had made sure I learned how to change a tire before I got my driver's license, but I've been fortunate enough to catch slow leaks before my tires went flat, so I had never done it. Luckily, I have a pretty handy husband. My job was to take photos, hand him tools and give him water...
What a princess, I know! ;P
Our trusty Hilux came with a kinda soft spare, we still had 90KM of uninhabited roads, and now, no spare, so we stopped in the next town praying that someone might be able to help us. The odds were not in our favor. The only vehicles we saw were tourists, or tourist buses, and a tractor on those terraces, ha!
Luckily, the policeman in town told us that there was ONE Afarmer in the community that had the tools to fix a tire. So a cell phone call, and within 30min, a man came down from his fields. We had someone fixing our tire!
A friend of the campesino/tire repair man came in asking if he knew what time the bus to Arequipa came into town, and was told that it wasn't until the next day. After another 5 inconclusive opinions about how long our drive would take, we decided we needed a guide, and took this man clad in a Canadian Tuxedo with us.
We decided pretty quickly, that picking up our compadre, Renaldo, was the smartest thing we had done all day. We also decided we had not seen so many different changes in terrain in the span of 4 hours ever.
Once we got onto the autopista, we also decided that this was the MOST talkative person we had ever met. He was amazing and gave us an entire history, geography, and politics of the region, and his life story in addition to guiding back to Arequipa. As time was ticking, we were getting closer and closer to missing our flight. It's always the worst when you miss things by a little bit and it was looking that way... If you DOWNRIGHT had no chance, it's almost easier to swallow. With this stress, compounded with the harrowing yet beautiful drive we had, I didn't have the energy to keep up with the weird Peruvian Spanish and just zoned out while Ross enterained him.
Then we saw it! The tiny little boxes!
Renaldo, our passenger, explained that the Peruvian government was building water pipelines in Peru. With the hopes that the pipelines would eventually come through, people have been building homesteads throughout the country in places they suspect will have water, one day.
We eventually did make it to the airport, just in time for Ross to change out of his dusty clothes, and put one more adventure in our pocket!