Beautiful Arequipa, Colca, Convents and Chachani

Trip Start Oct 10, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Arriving early in Arequipa we grabbed a taxi which to our shock was the same as the locals' price to the town centre, that`s a first for us!!! It struck us immediately that this was a stunning city, the center is full of fine colonial-era Spanish buildings of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock used all over the city, which is why Arequipa is called La Ciudad Blanca ("The White City"). The city stands at the foot of the snow-capped volcano El Misti and mountain peak Chachani!  They both provide a stunning background.  We spent a few days chilling in the beautiful main plaza and enjoying walking around and eating delicious cheap food around the city. The weather was gorgeous!  We had decided to hang around until Carnival on February 17th.  Sunday came and we headed down to the main square expecting some music, dancing, costumes and a big party atmosphere... the usual carnival we have begun to know so well, but it was all quiet. We strolled around a little confused as we were sure there would be some activity.  Suddenly, a group of kids turned the corner, with deranged looks in their eyes and cunning smiles. We soon realised that they each had buckets of water and their mission was to find victims (Gringos of course) to drence. We then noticed that there were kids on each corner of the plaza waiting in position for victims!! We couldnīt avoid getting soaked with buckets and balloons full of water.  By the time we got back to the hostel we were destroyed but in fits of laughter.  There was only one thing for it.. we had to arm ourselves, so with the help of a few other gringos in our hostel we found some buckets.. bought a lot of water balloons and sabotaged anyone outside our hostel who looked like they deserved to be drenched like us. We were kids for a day and we had a major battle going on with some kids across the road from our hostel - brilliant fun.
After a full day of water fights and sitting on our asses for another day, we decided to sign up for a 3 day trek in the Colca Canyon with a local Guide Rosvelt.  After a 6 hour hair raising bus ride along cliff edges we finally arrived at the start of our walk.  The Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world so you can imagine it is not a short hike. First day was all downhill to get to the bottom, we stayed in a tiny little village were the houses where made of mud. The locals mostly survive on agriculture and everyone we met stopped to talk to us to ask us the usual questions  1/ What is your name? 2/ Where are you from? 3/ How many children do you have? The last question still catches us off guard and we try to explain in our broken Spanish that we`re just friends...  :-)
That night we had a gorgeous dinner of fresh trout and went to bed early in our little room made of mud.  Next day we went to the Oasis, it was a fabulous walk to get there - only 2hrs. We passed through gardens of avocados, pears and exotic fruits that we had never heard of.  The Guide told us which ones we could eat, we picked the fruits off the trees and ate as we walked.  Most of the time the Guide had to show us īhowī to eat them as we hadnīt a clue what they were.  Then we reached the 'Oasis'.   It was magical.. pools of sky blue fresh spring water flowing down from the canyon surrounded by lush green gardens full of flowers and fruit.  I swear it could have been the Garden of Eden!! After lounging around in the sun and swimming in the pools for over 4 hours it was time to put on our hiking boots again and start the long climb back up to the top of the canyon.. It was tough.. the path zip zagged all the way to the top and it was a steep climb the whole way. It took us 3 hours to get to the top but it was worth it for the views.  That night we stayed in another village at the top and the next day we went to the Cruz del Condor, where you can spot Andean Condors up close and personal. It`s a bad time of year for seeing them apparently but we did manage to catch one male Condor in flight. He was massive. We were both gob smacked at the size of him, he must have been 2 meters in full wingspan.  They are vultures and have been known to pick up calves or lambs, fly to a height and release them... then wait for the them to die on the ground.  We heard this before we saw the Condor and found it hard to believe but when we saw the size of it, it is definitely true.  
On the way home we were doubly surprised with a trip to some hot springs for an hour or two.. it was perfect for the aching muscles. We arrived back to Arequipa tired but all the same we were fired up and ready for another adventure. There is a mountain here called Chachani which is just over 6000m high and we had been toying with the idea of maybe giving it a go.  The next morning we were whisked off at 7.30 to do just that. We got a 4x4 ride up to 5,000 meters with a Mountain guide. With our tents and  sleeping bags and all our equipment on our back we started walking.  It was cold. As we walked it started to hailstone and thunder clouds rolled in and a massive storm was going on over our heads. After an hour and a half of walking we reached the base camp and set up camp in the snow.   We had a dinner made for us by our Guide and served to our tent! Then it was time for sleep .. it was 2 in the afternoon but we were due to get up at 1am to start walking so we definitely needed some sleep. We both lay in our sleeping bags listening to the snow hitting the tent and the thunder rolling over heads. We tried and tried to sleep but could not get a wink. After a while we were getting delirious as neither of us could sleep and we knew we had to be up soon as we had a 10 hour climb ahead of us.  After hours of lying there wide awake the alarm went off at 12.30am.  Time to get up.  It was freezing. The water we left outside our tent was totally frozen. It was pitch dark, cold and we couldnīt breath from the altitude but after piling on the layers of clothing and a quick cup of cocoa tea we headed off with our excellent guide Ivan. The stars were amazing. After 20 minutes Lenny began to complain of feeling sick and within minutes of his declaration we had  projectile vomit all over the snow. The guide wasnīt sure if Lenny should go on but Lenny insisted he would (it`s only puke he said!). We were scaling mountain faces in the dead of night with just our head torches to lead the way while using our ice axe to hold us up. Every now and again one of us would slip and we had to jab our ice axe into the snow to stop ourselves from slipping into the oblivion below (you couldnīt see what was down there as it was dark but you knew it would be a sore fall). It was exciting but tough going. The altitude was a killer. I got a massive headache which was unbearable around the same time Lenny collapsed on his knees demanding a break as he was going to get sick again. After climbing for 3 hours we got to Angelīs Pass which was 5600 meters up. The views over the city at night were amazing. Our guide gave us no time to linger and he had us up and going again but it was obvious Lenny was too sick to go any further. We had a minimum of 4hrs ahead and 2.5/3 hours back, so we decided we didnīt have the energy or ability to put up with a throbbing head and more for this amount of time. We decided to go back down to base.  It was another 2 hours back to base camp and I donīt know how Lenny made it with the state he was in. I have never seen him so sick  We got back to the camp and fell into our tents .. but not before Lenny got sick again. Within a few hours our driver came to collect us and it was amazing as after going down to a reasonable altitude of Arequipa we were both absolutely perfect and even managed a celebratory beer for īattemptingī to climb Chachani! It was a great experience even if we didnīt make it although we were both disappointed we didnīt manage it. I think we set our sights a little high with this mountain and will be crossing  ALL high altitude mountains off our list of things to do from now on - we`ll be sticking to the more Irish type mountains for now on... Carrantuohill here we come!!!
Back in Arequipa we went to see a museum which holds Juanita the Ice Maiden, discovered in 1995 by 2 anthropologists. Juanita is one of the most important mummy finds in recent years as her body is remarkably well preserved considering itīs over 500 years old. It was really interesting to see all the artifacts found at sacrifice sites in mountains around the area. We learned that they believed nature to be God, and earthquakes, thunder storms and volcano eruptions (all common enough activities in these parts) was God being angry with them. So to please their Gods, they brought the most beautiful innocent kids (usually girls) up to the top of the nearby mountains, drugged them and then wacked them over the head with a piece of metal.  They then buried the body and surrounded it with lots of beautiful textiles and ceramic jars etc. as gifts for Gods.  They had an actual 'offering' on display at the museum which was replacing Juanita as she is being held in storage at this time of year.  It was a 14 year old girl who was found a few years ago. This mummy is also well preserved, the body is in a sitting (lotus) position. You can make out many details in her clothing and facial features, her long black hair was still in tact.
Our other touristy accomplishment in the city itself was visiting a huge walled convent built in the 1600s in Arequipa. It is practically a city within a city.  The nuns were traditionally from the local nobility and they came to the convent with multiple servants and a dowry. There are streets within the convent and all of the walls are painted beautiful colours of bright blue, orange and red.  The nuns used to self mortificate.. which basically means they used to wear barbed wire vests and wack themselves with whips now and again in order to 'ascend to the mystic pathī. They were "instructed" to overcome bodily weakness through "prolonged fasting, harsh clothing, avoiding sleep, adopting uncomfortable positions and using barbed wire undergarments and scourges with a view to maintaining the body with the minimum necessary requirements to prevent its collapse so it can triumph over itīs limitations" - mad nuns, I`m sure they didnīt have any problems climbing Chachani!!
Tonight we head to Nazca on a night bus - only a 10 hour journey... piece of cake!
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