Trekking Tarvits Deep In The Canyon

Trip Start Mar 18, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

We were impressed with Arequipa as soon as we arrived. It was Sunday morning and the Plaza de Armas (there is one in every South American town) was packed with families, pigeons and a good vibe. The plaza is surrounded by a beautiful cathedral and white stone cloisters full of markets and restaurants. The architecture of the city is heavily influenced by the Spanish.

Our first stop was Santa Catalina monastery which is spread over five acres in the middle of the city and is surrounded by a huge wall. It is a city within the city and was off-limits to the public for 400 years until 1970. We spent a few hours wandering the maze of alleys, colourful courtyards and rooms previously occupied by nuns, whose slightly morbid portraits are displayed on many of the walls.

We also visited a museum containing the frozen body of Juanita, a young Inca girl sacrificed to the gods on top of Mt Ampato approximately 550 years ago. It is an amazing story. The frozen girl was discovered in 1995 by climbers ascending the 6,000m+ peak, where her body had been preserved in an ice cave, which scientists believe was created during a nearby volcanic eruption. Juanita has been studied extensively in both Peru and USA to reveal a great deal about her age (around 12), mixed heritage, diet and her death by fatal blow to the face as part of the sacrifice to the gods, after being made to drink a potent cocktail which numbs against pain and the freezing temperatures. The body is displayed inside a glass case, with the temperature maintained at -20 Celcius. Juanita`s shiny hair looks in better condition than ours!

Colca Canyon is considered to be the deepest canyon in the world and we were determined to find out just how deep it goes. On a three day hike from Cashapampa, about five hours from Arequipa, we descended into the canyon to spend a few nights with local families. The scenery was spectacular, particularly in the lower sections of the canyon where the rock walls seem to stretch forever into the sky. We walked about four hours a day - much more palatable than our previous trek - and had a chance to visit different communities along the way, sampling local fruits and `chicha` which is a fermented corn drink known as the `cerveza of the Incas`. We still prefer a cold Corona.

On the second afternoon we arrived at an oasis with swimming pools and green grass, tucked into the side of the rock walls. We got to spend the afternoon and evening lazing about with a few beers and contemplating our early wake up call the next morning. Of course if you hike to the bottom of the canyon, you also have to hike out, carrying your gear on your back. Given the hot daytime temperature once the sun hits the canyon, our guide explained that we would have to get up at 2am to start the trek out. Shame about that.

Guided by torchlight and a full sky of stars, we rugged up against the cold and spent a few hours putting one foot in front of the other until we reached the top. Watching the sun come up over the canyon was almost worth the effort! After a good feed and a few coffees to warm up, we bussed it further along the rim of the canyon to watch the huge Andean condors flying around and then soaked our weary muscles in the local hot springs.

The Colca Canyon trek was a very different one to our previous trek in the Cordillera Blanca. Having the time to meet the locals and see their way of life gave us an appreciation for how tough some people do it over here. Each village grows fruit and veg in terraces on the canyon walls and barters with other villages to sustain their needs. Other basics require a trip to Cashapampa, which means a hike out of the canyon every time you need toilet rolls or a new chicken or donkey. The traditional dress of the locals includes finely embroidered hats and vests, which differ from other cultures as the communities in the canyon pre-date the Incas, who never took up residence in the dusty depths. Unique people living in a truly unique location.

We are pumped for our next stop - Cusco - and the opportunity to see a range of Inca ruins, including Machu Picchu. Until then.....
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