Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Arriving in Arequipa and Hiking the Colca Canyon

In the morning we caught the Flores bus from Puno to Arequipa, we were looking forward to descending from the 4000m which we’d now been at for over two weeks.  When we asked the lady at our hotel if the Flores buses were safe to catch she said that the buses were ok, but that we should keep an eye on our bags as thefts were really common.  (The Flores bus company turns out to be the bus the locals catch, which explains why the ticket cost a fifth of the other companies).  So while we boarded the bus we watched carefully to make sure that our backpacks went underneath and stayed there.    

As soon as we boarded the bus we knew it’d be a long ride as it turned out we were sitting directly opposite a family of smugglers.  At first we weren’t sure what the youngest girl was doing as she put on what seemed to be a corset to keep her fat rolls in, but then she started shoving stolen mobile phones into the corset.  When she’d shoved at least 15 in there she donned a jumper and then a massive Michelin man style jacket which quite successfully covered the stolen produce.

The other members of her family had various other devices in their backpacks and pockets, but she was obviously carrying the most valuable merchandise.  It actually really annoyed us to know that most of what these people were smuggling would’ve been stolen from fellow tourists (perhaps those who climbed up to the lookout in Puno...), but it was also a very uncomfortable 6 hour bus trip sitting next to them as they knew we’d seen them shoving the phones into the corset and each time we were stopped and had the bus checked by the police we received death stares from them – needless to say we remained quiet, but hated doing so.  On arrival at Arequipa we gratefully collected our backpacks, which took a while as the smugglers actually also had 10 boxes underneath the bus, we were sure were also full of stolen merchandise. 

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Arequipa Cathedral
We took a taxi to our hostel, La Casa de Peral, and chatted to the owner George for a while as he was full of good advice for Arequipa, which turned out to be a really nice town with a massive cathedral and impressive main square. 

Surprisingly, Arequipa was also a centre for optical shops, which was perfect because we’d been commenting that Dave’s glasses were so badly scratched that it was becoming annoying to him.  Even better was that George’s younger brother ran the optical shop directly attached to our hostel, and even better than that was that it would only cost $50 for new lenses and the glasses would be ready in one day.  Done deal! We only had one day to explore Arequipa before taking a 3 day trek into the Colca Canyon so it was perfect timing.

We were up at 2.30am the next morning to catch the bus to the top of the canyon and start our trek.  On the bus we actually met two Aussie’s we’d previously seen when we crossed the border from Bolivia into Peru.  It turns out that they had to spend 3 days in Puno as they both had severe food poisoning and the girl ended up in hospital on a drip it was so bad! We thanked our lucky stars that so far we’d had no such experiences, especially given the amount of street food we’d been eating. 

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The starting point for our hike
After breakfast we made our first stop at a look-out point where if, we were lucky, we’d get to see condors.  Turns out we weren’t lucky.  So after 45 minutes of enjoying the scenery we moved on to the place where we were to start the hike.  Our guide was a young guy called Juan Carlos and he was fantastic.  He not only guided us over the next 3 days, but took his time to explain the flora and fauna and also taught us many things about local life.  He also really tried to support the local communities and made sure that each time he took a tour through the canyon he stayed in different places etc to help spread the money around fairly.  He also planned to do an unpaid hike the day after ours finished with 3 other guides, carrying Christmas toys to the children in the canyon.  The only way in or out of the canyon is to hike so the kids don’t usually get many presents as no one wants to carry them in.

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The path down
The descent into the canyon took around 3 hours and was pretty hard on the legs since we
hadn’t done much walking over the last week.  We then walked along through orchards to where we were stopping for lunch and the night.  The valley was actually really lush even though it was the dry season because of the great irrigation system that was installed hundreds of years ago.  Apparently a few years ago the irrigation system was getting really clogged with debris and garbage and the government promised the locals that if they cleaned out the troughs and kept them clean then each year they would provide a one night party where the food, grog and music would all be provided.  All the troughs are in pristine condition so the idea must’ve worked really well!

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Close-up cacti
After a lunch of soup and alpaca steak (very tasty) everyone took a nap since it’d been such an early start that morning.  In the afternoon we explored around a bit and then we all played UNO while we waited for dinner. We finally convinced Juan Carlos to play with us and he really enjoyed it and he caught on really quickly. 

The temperature plummeted when the sunset and everyone was soon wearing everything they’d carried with them into the canyon just to stay warm, so after dinner it was quickly off to bed.  We noticed while we cleaning our teeth that we were surrounded by the flickering light of dozens of fireflies.  It was quite beautiful with all the fireflies around and the amazing stars in the night sky.

Banana pancakes greeted us for breakfast before the 4 hour hike to our next destination – the oasis! It was great hike through small villages and more orchards and we had a beautiful view along the valley and down to the oasis before we arrived.  

The oasis itself was beautiful, Sarah went for a swim straight away as she’d had an allergic reaction to the detergent that the hostel in Puno had used on our clothes and was now covered in an itchy rash.  The cool water helped a bit, and we washed out all her clothes to try and remove any residual detergent. 

We enjoyed an afternoon of relaxing by the pool and more sleep before an evening UNO game with the gang before our carbo loaded dinner which we’d need in order to hike out of the canyon early the next morning.

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Sunrise as we left the canyon
We started our climb out at 5am.  We had 1150m ascent to conquer and at first we seemed to climb up really quickly - it wasn’t long before we could look back down on the oasis as a small speck in the canyon.   But this was deceiving and the middle section was a long, hard slog.  It took us the typical 3 hours to climb to the top, tired and sweaty – but the view was so much better than 2 days earlier (it’s always a better view when you earn it!)

What Juan Carlos hadn’t told us was that once we’d reached the top it was a further 30 minute hike to Cabanaconde before we got breakfast, and man were we hungry!  We wolfed down our scrambled eggs and bread and jam  and then loaded back into the van bound for Arequipa.  We stopped at the condor look-out again to see if any were flying around, but again there was nothing to see.  About 10 minutes down the road we finally got lucky and spotted a condor flying in the valley.  We all rushed out of the van and got to watch him soar for a brief 5 minutes (enough for Dave to get some good shots) before he headed to far up the valley to see. 
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An elusive condor

Everyone was very happy to have finally seen a condor as it wasn’t the right time of year to actually see them (Juan Carlos admitted that it had actually been a couple of weeks since any group he’d been with had seen one….)  We made a quick stop on the way back in a small village to try some ‘Colca Sour’ (which is essentially Pisco Sour but made with a sour cactus fruit instead of lemon).  It’s actually much nicer, even when drunk at 10am!

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Our great group for the hike!
We also made a brief stop at the highest point of our trip, 4900m, from which on a clear day you can see the famous Misti volcano, as well as three or four others, but unfortunately there was too much cloud to see very far.  We arrived back in Arequipa by 5pm and after a quick dinner boarded our overnight bus bound for Nazca, hoping that due to all the energy expended that morning we’d sleep really well!

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