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Arequipa & Colca Canyon

Convents, mountains & someone's birthday...

sunny 23 °C

Buenos Tardes gringos!

Here we are reporting again from the disputed home of the Pisco Sour, a land that has multicoloured corn and is arguably the true home of the potato with over 3000 varieties!

Our journey from Iquitos to Arequipa was via a short flight back to Lima before catching an overnight bus for the 16.5hr journey to Arequipa. Whilst in Lima, some quick 'Travmin' (Travel Admin) had to be done before catching our bus - more specifically to try and resolve the issue with our DSLR! Having discovered in Iquitos that the camera was not working properly and trying everything under the sun to get it working again, we needed to get it fixed, or worse buy another! Having found a Nikon Center in Lima, we luckily managed to get it fixed in the short few hours before our bus, though we were told the cost of buying a new one was only £95. Han was sure this was a mistake though and put the suggestion of upgrading to a better model for £110 to bed almost before it even left my mouth! :-(

Fixed DSLR in hand, we then made our way to the bus station to catch our coach to Arequipa. Having heard how good buses are in South America, I was not disappointed to see our Cruzer 'Suite' coach arrive. What can I say really...it was brilliant. Sooooooo much more comfy than any plane I have ever been on. Seats recline to 160 degrees, 2 hot meals, drinks, personal TV screens in back of seat in front...amazing. Too good to be true? Well, there was a down side. The toilet next to us didn't flush so after about 3hrs it was flooded and so, if you needed to pee, you either had to stand in other peoples wee or stand at the opposite side of the bus and have good aim! After about 5 hrs however, the crew fixed the problem and cleaned the area and everyone remained dry! All in all, a pleasant experience though.

We arrived in Arequipa about 2pm and made it to our hostel about an hour later. It's really not that far but having provided the taxi driver with the address of our hostel, he thought it more appropriate to try and drop us off in two different places first, nowhere near our hostel. On our arrival, we were met by the owner José who I can only describe as a Peruvian version of Basil Fawlty. Very eccentric, very funny but also good natured. He took us straight to our room which was very simple, but very clean and comfortable and with hot showers (woohoo!).

Our first stop in Arequipa was to book our Colca Canyon trek. As is fairly standard with these sorts of places, there are a million different operators you can go with so through Tripadvisor, we were able to narrow it down to 3. One was ludicrously expensive and the other seemed a little simple, so we settled with Peru-Schweiz for a 3 day/2 night trek for a couple of days time. Lucky, because when we arrived, both us were suffering from a little altitude sickness, so we still had time to acclimatise first. Arequipa's altitude sits at just under 2400m.

The next day, after a much needed lie in we wandered into the streets of Arequipa which is awash with impressive white stone colonial era buildings and of course a huge plaza flanked by a huge cathedral. Typically, a lot of the most fantastic looking old buildings seem to house banks.

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We wandered around the town sampling the variety of food and drink, finally settling on our beverage of choice...agua (water). Amongst the endless number of pizzerias and chifas (Chinese restaurants) we managed to find couple of small places that served amazing local food. We also found a place that did amazing crepes (Crepisimo - their alpaca crepe was amaze balls) and awesome sarnies (Lacla - our venue of choice for breakfast, lunch, light evening bite - their pulled pork sarnie is immense and goes at a whopping £1!).

The next day we went to explore the Santa Catalina Monastery in the morning because as it is rainy season while you can have glorious sunshine in the morning, the heavens could open in the afternoon. The Monastery is huge and a photographers' playground with the sharp contrast of bright colours and shapes. We walked around the huge nun house, part of which is still in use by the nuns today but in a more modern building and far fewer numbers of the religious ladies. Apparently families would send their second born daughter to the convent so the majority of those there were from wealthy families and it took them 4 years to become a fully fledged nun, having taken a vow of silence for the entire duration. How you wouldn't go crazy, I have no idea. By the sounds of things life for the nuns was not entirely one of hard worship and study but throw in some visitors and a few parties and your closer to reality. The powers that be in the homeland of Spain apparently caught wind of this and sent over a more serious leader to straighten out the convent and as for the nuns, fun's over ladies! From that point the convent remained closed to public eyes until it was forced to open to the public in 1970. We also learnt that one of the head nuns, Ana de los angeles, was one miracle away from sainthood; according to the catholic church you must conduct 3 miracles. If anyone ever comes to Arequipa, Santa Catalina is a must-see!

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To top off our religious adventures of the day we went into the massive Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas and set eyes on their prize possession, the organ donated from Europe which got dented on the way and is now out of tune..... but it's still the biggest in South America. We also visited two other smaller but equally attractive churches which were conducting services all day.

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The next day our trip to the Colca Canyon started with a 3am pick up (ouch! Although they happily provided neck cushions) ready for the trip over the mountains and down to the local town of Chivay for breakfast. We had thought we had conquered our altitude sickness until we got up to the 5000m high point & Han felt decidedly worse for wear. A bit of breakfast in Chivay helped though.

Our next stop was the Cruz del Condor lookout. As it was still early the clouds were hugging the mountain sides. The canyon is immense in size. It is over twice as deep at the Grand Canyon and plunges 4,160m at its deepest point! Unfortunately, we did not see any condors due to it being a little out of season to see them and a little too cold for them to ride the thermals.

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After that pit stop we joined the local road towards Cabanaconde, an important old indigenous village, and the further along the road we went the steeper hill sides became and lower the river got. The main living in these parts in farming, mainly types of corn, one of which purple in colour and is fermented to create 'chicha' the local tipple, and potatoes with some other native crops filling in the patchwork pieces of flat land, and of course every farmer has a donkey because someone needs to carry the stuff up and down and around the track's meandering through the canyon from one side, and village, to another. Anyway, this was where our trek started and we met our guide David, 21 the youngest guide at Peru-Schweiz and resident from one of the small villages in the canyon. In our group was a German woman called Sylvi, two French girls who spoke neither any Spanish nor English, which made them a joy to be around and then another guy from Chile. We never quite caught his name so we just called him 'Santiago'.

We departed down the canyon path hugging the cliff face. It was particularly narrow and steep at points, which made it fun when local villagers were trying to pass us with mules laden with produce or materials. So much so that only about 15mins in, one of the mules which was carrying corrugated sheet metal on its back decided to run past Hannah knocking her arm. All was fine until about 2 minutes later when one of the stragglers noticed blood coming from her arm. David and I stopped Han and sat her down to have a look at her arm. Fortunately, it was in a spot that Hannah couldn't see(!) although she made the mistake of asking us how it looked. Knowing how my wife is with the sight of blood alone, I thought it best not to tell her how it actually looked for fear of her passing out but I think she pretty much got the picture from our groans. I can only describe it as two very deep cuts (I prefer gashes) that were wide open and so deep you could see the layers of fatty tissue under the skin and something pulsing inside!! My immediate thought was stitches will be required. Our guide though, despite his years remained calm, cleaned it up and then told me to hold her arm together whilst he put on three steri-strips and a bandage. For the rest of the day, as the loving husband I am, I decided I would play donkey and carry Hannah's belongings so we could get her down into the canyon with no more incidents. I should say that Hannah was very brave throughout, much more so than the spider episode in the Amazon! The descent was 1.5km straight but the walk was 7km due to the zig-zag nature of the path required to descend safely. That afternoon, we arrived in San Juan de Chucha which is where we were staying that night. A great little place where the accommodation was in surprisingly comfortable little huts and where we ate masses of local food and spent the evening chatting and playing cards.

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The next morning, it was my birthday! Greeted with an alternative birthday card from my wife, consisting of a message on my pillow spelt out using our supply of boiled sweets, this was followed by an amazing breakfast of a nice cuppa and banana and chocolate pancakes. We eventually left San Juan de Chucha and walked along the canyon floor to an Oasis in Sangalle which is where we were spending the second night. I should mention here, Hannah's dressings were changed before leaving and the wounds seemed to be closing. On our walk, our guide told us all about the local produce, farming and plant-life, pointing out which ones are used for dyes in cosmetics and which you should not touch as they will kill you. Things like that. The oasis was fantastic. The weather was great and as it wasn't raining, we got to go for a swim in the pool, which was heated by the thermal water coming from the local waterfalls flowing down some of the 2000 volcanoes in the region.

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The rest of the day was spent chilling out, more card playing and chatting. Later in the evening, more hikers from other tour companies and those on the 2D/1N trek arrived turning it into a bit of a party atmosphere. (I think they knew it was my birthday.!) At first, many were hesitant about the 5am ascent of the canyon in the morning but it did not take long before the beers were flowing, the pisco sours were being drunk and shots being had. Not a bad way, or place to spend my birthday. After a couple of renditions of happy birthday, we were just heading to bed when our guide David decided to treat me to two more large bottles of beer. It would be rude to say no... :-) About 10pm, everyone got 'the fear' about the mornings climb and by 10:30pm, most were in bed.

4:30am - having barely slept a wink, we were up and ready to make our 1.5km ascent. This was much steeper than our descent as the path up was only 4km rather than 7km. The tour operators give about 3-4hrs to make the ascent which includes short breaks. The record according to our guide for an ascent by a tourist is 1hr30mins. Seemed like a challenge was on. Setting off altogether, it soon became apparent that one of the French girls was struggling so David stayed back with the girls and allowed myself and Santiago to push on. After about 10mins Santiago had dropped back also. I carried on, feeling surprisingly alright. I passed all of the other groups on my way up and 1h36mins later, and with the company of a local mutt from the oasis, I hit the top with not another person in sight. Worried I'd made a wrong turn, i asked the local woman at the top if I was in the right place and she assured me I was. About 25 mins later, the next person arrived at the top and then another and another. Soaked to the bone with sweat, I started to get pretty cold pretty quickly given the altitude so I changed my clothes and waited patiently for the rest of our group, taking in the views. Santiago came home about 30mins after me and my wife, proud as ever and dragging her dodgy knee behind her, in at 2h30mins. The views were spectacular from the top.

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Proud of our achievements, we then headed to the local village for breakfast and then back on the bus to head back to Arequipa, but not before stopping at the local hot springs where we got to soak our aching bodies for an hour. Pretty much everyone was asleep on the way back, exhausted by their efforts.

Our last two days were spent relaxing in Arequipa and getting Hannah's arm looked at in the local clinic. Again, using our best Spanish and a picture of the offending mule, we were able to explain what had happened. The doctor cleaned it again and after giving it a few good squeezes (much to Hannah's discomfort) said that it seemed to be closing and to have started to heal well and so no stitches were required. He also said it didn't seem to be infected but to be on the safe side gave us a prescription for some antibiotics and instructions for cleaning it and dressing it, stating it should take about a week to heal. Whilst there, I also showed him a bite I got in the amazon on my leg which had not healed and was getting redder, bigger and more painful everyday. He explained this was an example of something that had become infected (!) and so basically doubled Hannah's prescription and gave me the same instructions re dressing and antibiotics. What a pair, and only 2 weeks in!! We left pretty impressed with the clinic though and feeling pretty proud of ourselves for having been able to convey our problems in our pigeon Spanish and broadly understand the doctors comments and instructions back (he spoke no English) and, as a bonus, when we came to pay the consultation fee, he happily screwed up the registration form and receipt and told us not to worry about it.

I had hoped to climb El Misti or Chachani, the two local volcanoes in the area (one just under 6000m and one just over) over these latter few days but unfortunately no guide would take me up unless there were at least three people given the cost of a professional guide and equipment. With Han flatly saying no and no other takers, it looks like my climbing goal will have to wait another few weeks til we hit Bolivia. I cannot complain too much though, the Colca Canyon was amazing and anyone who is in this region should definitely hike it!

Our last meal was spent at one of Arequipa's best restaurants Zig Zag to celebrate my birthday. A bottle of Chilean Syrah (Peru is not known for its wine) with an amazing main course of a trilogy of meats (Beef, Alpaca and Pork) for me and trilogy of fish (Salmon, Amzonian Paicha and Trout) for Han served on a 'volcanic hot stone' and served with local potatoes and caesar salad and finally followed by Apple pie and ice cream (yum!) our time in Arequipa and Colca was 'rounded' off quite nicely.

Thank you all for your birthday messages and mum for your card. I had an amazing birthday, one I will not forget anytime soon.

Next up, a 10hr bus to Cusco for the start of the Inca Trail...

Posted by shaunandhan 15:07 Archived in Peru

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glad you're better!!! I was despo to go here!

by natalie fox

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