Understated Arequipa and great Colca Canyon

My whistle-stop tour of Peru continued with Arequipa and Colca Canyon in the south of the country.

Arequipa

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Often overlooked by Cusco, Arequipa is a world heritage city and Peru’s second largest. There is some stunning European-style architecture (especially the arched main square and cathedral) and even more impressive surrounding views of snow capped volcanoes and mountain ranges. I only had one full day to spend in the city before starting the standard backpacker Colca Canyon trek, so I tried to pack as much as possible into my one day – despite only having four hours sleep because of bus delays the night before.

The day didn’t begin so well with me losing my walking tour group within 15 minutes of starting the tour. I was pretty miffed by this after I had made it clear to the guide I was popping to the bathroom quickly and I spent the next hour or so wandering aimlessly around the city. This actually turned out to be quite a good thing though because it meant I got my bearings of the city quite quickly.

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With this “free time” in the morning that I had set aside for the walking tour, I went to the main local market and it was huge! They have everything you could possibly want there: all types of meat, fruit, vegetables, spices, everything. My favourite was the juice isle though, you can request any combination of juice (I had pineapple, orange and strawberry – amazing). Although South America has an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, they’re not often used in restaurants and local cooking so I welcomed this boost of vitamins and minerals.

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After drinking this in the main square – another beautiful, palm treed plaza – I visited the cathedral. It’s 10 soles for the tour (plus tips) and includes a guided tour of the main cathedral, museum and an opportunity to see the view from the roof of the cathedral across to the famous Misti volcano.

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This was a really impressive church, one of the best I’ve seen in Peru and the tour guide was extremely clear and informative – I almost felt glad I’d lost the walking tour after this. As the only English-speaking member of the group, she translated each part of the tour and explained a lot of the religious meanings for me. A special part of the tour was seeing the famous organ which has over 1,000 pipes and is the only one of it’s kind in the whole of South America (in fact only 10 were ever made).

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Next I went for a lunch at a place made for me, the Pasta Canteen. They serve affordable, yummy, fresh pasta where you can choose the type, sauce and toppings – definitely recommend.

In the afternoon my enthusiasm and energy levels were really beginning to deteriorate. By chance I stumbled across the Museo Santuarios Andinos and having read about it in my Lonely Planet guidebook decided I would visit this before heading back to the hostel for a well-earned nap. And I’m so glad I did. It is famous because the museum holds the refrigerated body of Juanita or the Lady of the Mountain who is one of the best preserved sacrifices ever discovered – she still has hair, flesh, muscles and blood. (Sadly no pictures are allowed but I’m not sure I want a dead body on here anyway.) It was really interesting learning about the history and ritual of the Inca human sacrifice – the honour of being selected and their journey from selection age, around four years old. This museum is 20 soles (plus tips) and in my opinion better than going to the monasteries for 50 soles – but as I didn’t want to pay that much I can honestly say.

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I would have liked to spend an extra day in Arequipa but I ran out of time, as always. It’s an interesting and beautiful city, perhaps the prettiest in all of Peru, and anyone who skips it on their trip is truly missing out.

Colca Canyon

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For my trip to Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest canyon which is also double the depth of the Grand Canyon in America, I booked a trip through my hostel. I was sceptical after my experience in Huacachina but everyone in the hostel spoke highly of the tour and I decided it would be much easier than finding a tour myself without any recommendations. I’ll say upfront that our guide wasn’t very good – he didn’t add anything to the trip at all – but the tour in general was good value – decent transport, food and accommodation.

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The day starts at 3am with a long drive to Chivay. After my lack of sleep the night before this was quite difficult for me and I actually picked up a mild illness because of this. But I didn’t have time to be ill so I just carried on anyway. First we went to the Cruz del Condor to see the world famous condors – with a wingspan of up to 3 metres. Annoyingly we had to get there early because of protests on the roads which meant we didn’t get to see very many. I struggled to get many pictures but just as we got back onto the minibus lots came out and were flying over head – and annoyingly we weren’t allowed to get out again and see them.

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Next we went to the start of the trek, an impressive 3,100 metres high. I was part of a large group of 16 young travellers which definitely compensated for the lack of guide. The first part of the trek was a three hour, steep descent into the canyon (down to 2,100 metres). But what really made it all worth it was the amazing views – the pictures speak for themselves but the brilliant blue sky against the rugged golden canyon is one of the best natural sights of my trip so far. After a short lunch, we walked along the other side of the canyon for a further three hours before reaching our lodgings for the night (very basic but good enough). At this point it was interesting to see the contrast between the dry side we had descended and the lush, green side we were now walking along (this is because of the melting glaciers creating a source of water). We also saw some impressive Inca terraces here which added to the natural beauty of the place.

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The next day started at 4am with a very steep, zigzagging three hour trek out of the canyon, beginning in the dark with flashlights. I was feeling even more ill at this point and without help or encouragement from the guide decided I would walk at my own pace – even if it meant I was 40 minutes behind the rest of the group (there were lots of other groups so it wasn’t as if I was walking on my own anyway). This was hard work and the altitude and illness combined to make me feel pretty weak but I was determined to continue. I stopped to take some pictures along the way and absorb the picturesque sunrise. The last 20 minutes were very hard, mostly because I had no clue how close I was to the top – I could no longer tell how long I’d been walking and the path was so similar the whole way I felt as though I was in a trance climbing to the top. When I finally reached the top I was very sweaty and tired but pleased with myself for enjoying the scenery and not giving up or even taking many breaks for the whole three hours.

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After a breakfast at the top of the hill, we were taken to some nearby hot springs. After the great hot springs in Baños I was excited for my second experience, and my legs definitely needed it. They were a lot more rustic than the previous ones but quickly filled with other tourists who had also finished the trek. I probably preferred seeing the locals in Baños enjoy the springs but it was still a great experience.

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On the way back to Arequipa, we stopped off to see some llamas and alpacas grazing along the roadside. I actually think I was wearing my new alpaca jumper at this point which probably wasn’t very sensitive – no wonder a llama tried to spit at me. We also saw the Ampato mountain where Juanita’s body was found which added an extra something to the trip for me.

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All in all, I had a great time in the south of Peru. So many tourists come to Peru just to see Manchu Picchu but hopefully I’ve shown that there is so much more to see. I have been to Machu Picchu and Cusco before with my squash team and family nearly nine years ago. They are both amazing place and well worth seeing but definitely not the only stars of the show.

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