Here in the bustling Colombian city of Medellin our January adventures in rural Peru seem a world away. It’s hard to believe the two countries are on the same continent, however it is quite a big continent. I was thinking the distance between Medellin and Arequipa might be equivalent to the distance between LA and Seattle and was a bit shocked to find out that it was 2.5 times the distance between those US cities. I feel a bit like a European who comes to the US thinking New York and Chicago are right next to each other.
South America is a huge continent with a wide variety of experiences in terrain, climate, lifestyles, economics and cultures. Medellin is a newly reborn city that has recently emerged triumphant after having been the murder capital of the world in the 90s. Our experience in southern Peru, by contrast, was of dramatic landscapes and traditional lifestyles that have seen very little change in hundreds of years.
After our culinary and historical delights in Cusco, we boarded an overnight bus to Arequipa. The bus station was a cultural experience in and of itself. At 9:00 at night it was loud, chaotic and crowded. It was difficult to cut through the crowds with our luggage to find the Movil Bus ticket counter. It was clear that competition in the bus transport business is alive and well, which is very different from our underused Greyhound busses back in the States. I was a bit worried about how much sleep I would get on an overnight bus but was more than pleasantly surprised to find lazyboy-like seating. Our seats reclined quite a bit and we were served drinks and snacks. There was a terrible American movie (Artificial Intelligence) playing in loud Spanish for everyone. Luckily, I had packed earplugs and was able to sleep pretty well. Sometimes I woke up when the bus went over a bump and tried not to think about the state of the road or the likely steep cliffs we were driving along. We were full of gratitude for being able to check into our Arequipa hotel at 7 in the morning and freshen up with showers.
Arequipa is a charming city with a historical town square and a huge cathedral surrounded by stunning snow-covered volcanoes. We did a walking tour to get the lay of the land. My favorite part was tasting the chicha drink made of fermented maize. I also ran into a Deaf soccer player raising money for uniforms and transport for Deaf team to play in Lima. American Sign Language and Peruvian Sign Language shared enough similarities we were able to understand each other. It was nice to use my signing skills and of course I made a donation.
We also did a guided tour of Santa Catalina Monastery, founded in 1580, which measures 20,000 square meters. The stories of the forced self-flagellation of 10 year old girls were disturbing. Apparently it was the norm for families to “donate” their 10 year old daughters to the monastery for the rest of their lives in order to ensure the family members’ ascendancy to heaven. The wealthier families were also required to pay a yearly dowry of 100 gold coins. There was an entrenched caste system within these beautiful azure cloisters in which the indigenous servant girls were at the bottom. A smaller portion of the original site continues to serve as a nunnery, though most of it has become a museum and historical site.
Arequipa was just a way station on the way to Colca Canyon, a destination that Brynn researched and organized for us. It was a nice treat having someone else do the travel planning. It was a 200 km drive to the Cabanaconde District with Oscar our private driver. The journey started with weaving through Arequipa traffic and seeing the crowded reality of life in this city. As we got to the outskirts of the town we could see how many of the people live in basic housing or illegal shacks on the hillsides. There was one flat desolate area where there were lots of houses, but our driver told us there are no roads or any kind of infrastructure including water and sanitation. We passed a concrete factory village which provides factory workers with housing. We also saw where garbage had been thrown down the hillsides along the highway. This seemed a long way from the quaint, clean, colonial streets of old Arequipa filled with children in private school uniforms.
As we drove further away from the city into the mountain highlands, we were awed by the landscape filled with about 40 volcanoes. We saw llamas and alpacas being shepherded by ranchers. The road reached an altitude of 16,100 feet. The highest any of us had ever been. Marley felt briefly nauseous and many of us sucked on coca leaf candies which help with altitude sickness. In addition to the striking landscape we became enamored with the rare Vicuna. They live in the Andean steppes above 13,000 feet/4000 meters. Their fur is highly prized and sells for at least $400 a kilo which is why, in the 1950s, there were only 10,000 left in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador combined. These countries have worked together on protection regulations for the last 60 years and now there are an estimated 350,000 Vicunas in the Andean highlands of these countries.
Our van wound its way down to about 9000 feet where we first saw the spectacular Colca Canyon. The deepest part of the canyon is 10,725 feet from valley to rim, making it one of the deepest canyons in the world. It is quite spectacular because the canyon stretches from the river below up to the jagged snow-capped Andean mountains. The canyon is famous for being home to the almost extinct Andean Condor. We were able to see this massive bird enjoying the thermals above the canyon throughout our visit.
We drove along the edge of the canyon and saw small towns of pre-Incan roots inhabited by Quechua-speaking people descended from the Collagua Indians. I immediately noticed the beautiful embroidered hats that ALL the women wore. We were informed that these hats are worn by the agricultural people who cultivate food along the sides of the canyon closer to the river on the pre-Inca stepped terraces. They have been raising the same crops for thousands of years: quinoa, potatoes and corn. The ranchers of the llamas and alpacas live higher above the canyon and can be identified by a different hat that they wear. During our stay in the simple village of Cabanaconde it was evident that the local people are living life much the same as their ancestors hundreds of years ago.
In 1992, this area was the focus of international attention when a local mountain guide discovered a frozen, extremely well-preserved, mummy. They called her “Juanita the Ice Princessa. Juanita is considered the best-preserved Inca mummy in the Andes. They believe she was about 14 years old and was sacrificed by her people to appease the gods and thereby prevent volcanic eruptions.
Brynn, Marley and Keegan chose to hike down to the bottom of Colca Canyon and spend a night in a tiny town, Sangalle. John, Val and I hiked down with them for about an hour of their 5 hour hike before turning back to Cabanaconde. In total it was about a 11 kilometer hike down via the village of San Juan de Chuccho. Everyone’s favorite part of the hike was stopping for lunch at Gloria’s, a well known farm restaurant with delicious avocados and fruit. In Sangalle, they staggered into the ecolodge where they shared a dusty room of 4 beds and discovered 2 scorpions. Brynn quickly killed the first one Marley had discovered on the wall next to Marley’s bed. Needless to say, Marley was quite disturbed and took every precaution to make sure others scorpions would not be joining her in her bed. Keegan and Brynn apparently took it in stride and were quite amused by Marley’s antics. It has, however, made for a great story that the three of them share.
Brynn was miraculously able to wake Keegan at 5am to do the alternate hike straight up the canyon before it got too warm. Surprisingly, Keegan quickly readied himself but apparently during the first hour of the hike was only able to converse in grunts. Brynn and Marley entertained themselves during the hike by coming up with alternative interpretations of the meanings behind his grunts. Their hike was quite tough since it rose 1,300 meters over about 3.5 kilometers (that’s roughly 4,200 feet over 2 miles), a grade of 37%. Val and I were able to greet the kids as they arrived at the top of the canyon. We were a bit relieved that they made it and were even smiling.
We continued to take advantage of the area’s beautiful scenery by renting bikes from our Pachamama Hotel. We were driven up into the mountains (2500 feet or 800 meters of elevation above Cabanaconde) and then rode the 40 kilometers back down to our hotel. On the drive, and around the Muecurca Lagoon, we were fortunate to see more Vicunas, a rare endangered deer called Huemul, a fox, chinchillas and pink flamingos! The scenery of snow-capped mountains and volcanoes was spectacular as we enjoyed the adrenalin rush of biking down.
The next day we went to the Arequipa airport via yet another stunning drive. We flew onto Lima where we had to say our goodbyes. Val and the girls were spending a couple of days in Lima before returning to Seattle and the three of us were flying on to Colombia early the next morning. We were fortunate to be able to share our experience of the natural beauty of Peru together, and to create memories that will be cherished deeply.