This is a complete re-write of the original, hurried, posting which failed to cover any detail about the Colca Canyon or Arequipa… or anywhere much that had passed between postings. I hadn’t realised I’d been so scarce with information.
Arriving High at Arequipa
We took what could only be described as a mobile sauna masquerading as a long-distance bus. We travelled from Nazca to Arequipa like this – sweltering on a bus that had very late. So after a long night of this ten hour ride along bumpy, twisty roads, we arrived at our first high altitude destination – the city of Arequipa.
It’s a classic, colonial city, and after Pisco and Paracas, and a lot of Lima’s less smart districts it came across as a clean and vibrant city. There are parts which are dangerous but as was the case on all of this journey – we never saw anything especially worrying to people who live in cities like Liverpool and Paris. Sadly the sky was quite cloudy so we never got a good view of the massive volcanoes like Misti and Chachani. This was a shame as they provide a stunning backdrop.
One of the highlights of Arequipa has to be the Monastario de Santa Catalina de Siena – actually a nunnery, it occupies a whole block of the city centre and was closed to outsiders for 400 years. Inside the architecture reminds you of cities in the south of Spain – colourful, fresh and simple. You can spend a happy afternoon exploring all the rooms, kitchens and chapels – seeing how life was lived here by the nuns for hundreds of years. A small number of nuns (around 20-30 it would seem) still live within the walls, but hidden away from the tourists.
The Colca Canyon and Condor Watching
From here we travelled to Chiway (Chivay) to see the Colca Canyon. This journey, although easier today than ever, is still rather gruelling – taking hours, half of it on unsealed roads and crossing a mountain pass at 4900mt. You soon start to feel the altitude and some members of the group suffered a little – Kitt in particular becoming ill enough to warrant a visit to the hospital. Once at Chiway you feel like you’ve arrived at a frontier town – the roads are mostly dirt, there are just a few cars and horses around, and the men and women look rugged.
At one point on the route we stopped at a café for some mate de coca (coca tea) and a break from the bus. Here a few kids were hanging around outside. I went to take a picture of one sweet girl (pictured above) and she promptly held her hand out and demanded “un sol!” I guess the money’s handy, though I hope that to earn this the children aren’t missing out on schooling.
Because of the tourist traffic through Chiway, we found that the food and facilities weren’t so bad for somewhere so remote. Ok, our showers were… shall we say rustic, but the rooms were clean and adequate and service friendly. The mobile phone didn’t work, but there were two internet cafés for those who’d like to recreate what the internet was like before broadband came along – the connection was sloooow. But it did work so I was happily in touch.
In the evening we ate pizza and danced away with a local group. I’ve got vivid memories of being grabbed by one of the local girls for the traditional dance and I could tell I had little chance of refusing. As I put my hand on her waist I realised that she was pure muscle. They build girls for strength up in the mountains. One of the dances they did was slightly bizarre, however, and appeared to revolve around domestic violence. Couldn’t quite follow that one.
Drank lots of pisco sour too. Hmmmmm….
The next morning we were dragged out at some ungodly hour. I’m not quite sure what time now, perhaps 5:30am, in order to wind our way up the Colca Canyon towards the spot where we hoped to watch condors soaring.
And lo – it was good. A little touristy – all the villages which mostly are sleepy and restful wake up for the visitors, putting on traditional dances and the like in order to raise precious pennies which help educate the kids and restore churches. I actually feel that compared to similar towns in Chile they’re not doing quite so well here. There are plenty of tourists, but not a huge economy generated by them so far as I can see. But they’re definitely doing better than they otherwise might….
As time passed we eventually arrived at the point where we might see some condors. And… nothing… it wasn’t the season. Most would be at the Islas Balestas, it seemed, feeding on the placentas of newly born seals. Damn… we’d just been there! Didn’t see condors or placentas though.
Disheartened we started to amble a little, look at the tourist tat, and consider heading back to the bus when we heard an “ooooh” from other tourists. As one, hundreds of tourists headed straight to the main groups and looked out. And there she was… one solitary condor! Then another… and another! As we stood at the top of the terrifying canyon (the deepest in the world) we watched as the condors arrived. They really are magnificent birds to watch as they soar effortlessly between the walls of the canyon in search of carrion. And they’re huge… so when they pass closely you get a sense of their grace… and ugliness. Man! When you get close they’re ugly… but from more than about 100ft they’re beautiful. Like some girls I’ve met, I suppose.
After another day in Arequipa our next stop would be Puno and Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world.