A canyon, a condor, a convent

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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llahuar lodge

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Sunday, January 8, 2006

It was quite a little party of us that escaped by night bus from the armpit town of Nasca to Arequipa on the evening of 2 January. There was our young Korean student friend Oi, whom we´d met in Huacachina, as well as Guillaume (Swiss) and Ole (German), whom we´d met in Paracas.

We arrived in the Arequipa, Peru´s second-largest city, at about 7.30am on Tuesday and all piled bleary-eyed into cabs, in search of a hostel. Found two places very close to each other, both in lovely colonial buildings with rooms set around cobbled courtyards. After a shower and delicious breakfast, four of us (Rich and I with Guillaume and Ole) set about exploring the city and investigating options for a trek in Colca Canyon. A few hours´ legwork later, we´d settled on a three-day, two-night trek with Colca Aventuras along an alternative route (ie different from the bog standard offered by most agencies), leaving the next morning. And we got a great price too. Alejandro, the guy who sold us the tour, was to be our guide. Chuffed with our arrangements, we strolled down to the beautiful Plaza de Armas and on to the Museum Santuarios Andinos.

Arequipa is the commercial capital of southern Peru, but despite its size it´s a charming place in a stunning setting. Fine colonial buildings built of sillar, a light grey volcanic rock, grace the centre, and the greater urban area lies in a valley (altitude 2,380m) at the foot of the snow-capped El Misti volcano. In fact, several dramatic volcanoes rise from the high, arid plains around Arequipa.

And these volcanoes guarded a fascinating secret for many centuries, as we found out at the Museum Santuarios Andinos on that first afternoon. Several mummies, the victims of Inca sacrifices, were entombed in glaciers on the summits of Ambato and other nearby volcanoes since the fourteenth century before being discovered by a German archeologist. The bodies are remarkably well preserved (and are kept frozen to keep them so), as are the textiles, ceramics and precious metal objects which were buried with them.

Unfortunately "Juanita", the best preserved of all, was not on display at the time we visited, but we were nonetheless fascinated by the sight of "Sorita" and the variety of burial objects on display. I was particularly impressed by a finely woven cotton tunic, dark blue with intricate red and white pattern at the edges... it looked like it had come off the loom just yesterday!

Of course it was early to bed that night in preparation for our big three-day walk in the Colca Canyon... we were on the bus by 6.30am the next morning! The ride from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, the village at the rim of the canyon, is about five and a half hours... mind-numbingly slow! Before setting off down into the canyon, we had lunch in Cabanaconde - our first encounter with quinua, a grain ubiquitous in Andean Peru, served in soups, or in this case, as a tasteless, porridgy side dish. Urrgghh, didn´t like it much!

We started the five-hour hike downwards at about 1pm. The first bit took us along a ridge, past green terraces of maize and potatoes, and awesome views down into the valley (it really is more of a valley than a canyon). The clouds had gathered but still no rain, thank goodness. We´d been told not to expect any condors, as they tend not to soar very often in the rainy season, when thermals are scarce. But... what a treat... we caught sight of a juvenile condor way up. And then, unexpectedly, we spotted the huge outline of a fully grown male in the distance, etched against the clouds. These guys can attain a wingspan of over three meters, making them unmistakeable. Needless to say we were soooo excited, but unfortunately the bird vanished within a minute, before we could get the camcorder out. Oh well, at least we´d seen a condor!!!

We dropped down into the valley, a steady downhill all the way through an arid landscape of cacti and grey-green scrub. By 5-ish we reached our first overnight stop, Llahuar Lodge - a quaint little cluster of bamboo huts beside the Colca river. The host offered to take us fishing for trout, and of course we accepted. Rich had brought along his own fishing rod and set about casting, while Ole and I followed the little man with his fishing net. Well, we simply couldn´t keep up with him as he raced up and down the river bank, scrambling over boulders, so we gave up pretty soon. And so did poor Rich, when his fishing rod snapped in half! The little man´s manic fishing technique paid off though, for that evening we feasted on little trout - tiny by our standards but delicious.

The next morning we tackled a two-hour upward climb (up the opposite side of the canyon from which we´d started) which would take us up onto a high ridge. After an hour or so of huffing and puffing, Rich remembered that he´d left both our torches under his pillow in the lodge... arrgghh! We needed the torches for the next morning´s pre-dawn hike out of the canyon, so there was only one thing to do... he turned back to fetch them. Made it to the lodge within 20 minutes and returned to where we were waiting in one hour and 20 minutes, looking absolutely exhausted. Poor lad, he still had another hour of solid uphill to get through!

Clouds swirled around us as we walked along the high ridge; every now and then, when the clouds parted, we´d catch a glimpse of the lush valley floor way down below. Predictably, the rain set in for an hour or so, but nothing too serious. We descended and walked through two pretty little villages before reaching San Juan de Chuccho, our second overnight stop. The small settlements of mud-brick huts are surrounded by cultivated terraces of maize, fruit trees and prickly pears; llama and alpaca skins can be seen drying on walls; the locals use mules to transport goods between villages and out of the canyon as there is no road access. The second day´s walk was truly a marvellous insight into isolated rural Peruvian life.

We arrived at Posada Gloria, our humble lodgings in San Juan de Chuccho, at about 2pm and were delighted to find that they served beer! Mmmm, it slipped down with lunch. We snoozed the rest of the afternoon away in our mud-brick huts while it rained outside. Cosy. After dinner it was back to bed again in preparation for our very early start the next morning...

2am! That´s what time we started up the path out of the canyon. Boy, thank goodness Rich had rescued those torches, we would have been screwed without them. The hike up was relentless; we puffed and panted, even had to ask our guide to slow down a little. Of course we blamed it on the altitude. As we climbed higher and higher, the fog set in around us and soon we were covered from head to toe in dewlike droplets. We reached the top at just before 6am, cold and exhausted. The fog was really thick now and it was clear that a visit to Cruz Del Condor, the viewpoint where condors are often seen, was a bit pointless. Needless to say we were disappointed, but that´s the rainy season weather for you. After breakfast in Cabanaconde, we boarded the bus back to Arequipa.

Ah, what bliss a hot shower can be! Around mid-afternoon, Ole and I visited the marvellous Santa Catalina Convent, a vast, beautifully restored, walled miniature town. It´s a labirinth of nuns´ dwellings, courtyards, communal kitchens and gardens that evolved over several centuries from the mid-1500s, and is a super example of Arequipan colonial architecture. Many of the courtyard walls are painted in bright blue or brick-red, and original furniture in many rooms offer a unique insight into the nuns´ lives. About 20 nuns still live there, but their quarters are out of bounds.

That evening, we said farewell to Arequipa and to our two trekking buddies with a slap-up meal at a posh restaurant. The following morning, we caught a daytime bus to Cusco.
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