Galloping through south Peru

Trip Start Oct 25, 2007
Trip End Apr 17, 2008

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

What a mad gallop the past week has been! I was in Jauja over the weekend; back in Lima taking care of business on Monday and Tuesday; managed to see the Nazca lines and visit the local museum on Wednesday; and spent Thursday through Sunday in Arequipa. At this rate it would not surprise me if I do manage to reach Bolivia by the end of next week, for the Diablita festival.

Surprisingly, I'm not tired. I should be - considering how little I've slept and what exhausting activities I have subjected myself to. On Tuesday I went to Fedex in Lima to pick up my camera equipment. I called them in the morning and they finally gave me the green light. I changed 3 combis and walked a fair bit to get to Fedex (which is close to the airport), where after some waiting and paperwork I was finally in possession of my precious new equipment.

I asked 3 separate people how to get back to Miraflores - including a combi conductor and a Fedex employee - all 3 told me to wait for the 'S' combi. Forty five minutes later, in a taxi, I found out that the 'S' combi doesn't in fact run down that street; it stops 500m down the road at the roundabout. All 3 of these people spoke with such conviction, it's incredible. I have yet to learn what the advice "don't trust anyone for anything in Peru" means. In the last few days this point has been reinforced by a number of other minor incidents; and every time it surprises me how convinced in their righteousness Peruvians are, even when they have no idea what they are talking about...

My bus to Nazca left late in the evening so I had time for a few more chores in Lima - I was running around without stopping all day so I was quite exhausted and hungry by the evening. The bus ride was extremely unpleasant and I arrived in Nazca aching and tired at 4am, only to wake up at 8am for the flight over the famous Nazca lines. I had not eaten for about 24 hours so I could not resist the hostel's free breakfast despite the owner's warnings that it might not be a good idea to eat shortly before boarding the small plane.

Well, he was very right about that! The craft was a four-seater and I sat next to the pilot at the front. Somewhere in the middle of the flight the sharp turns became unbearable, my head was spinning and I was so nauseous. When it became unbearable I tapped the pilot, who was busy pointing out yet another mysterious line in the desert, gently on the shoulder. Without even turning around to look at me, he pulled out a plastic bag and handed it to me. Even in my sorry state I found that rather funny. I guess it must happen often! From there on until the end of the flight I kept my eyes mostly shut, except for when the pilot would say, "and now look to your left"; at which point I would desperately inhale and open my eyes wide, as wide as drunk people do when they are trying to prove that they are really not drunk, they are just fine, you know. So I carried my breakfast out with me in the plastic bag, and spent the next 4 hours recovering in my room.

Oh yes, the lines. They're beautiful and magical, and captivate the imagination. Theories as to their meaning are abound but nothing has been proven yet, which makes them all the more appealing to see. Despite my sorry condition I did not miss a single figure - we flew over the famous spider, the colibri, the pelican, the spaceman, the monkey, and a number of others. The Nazca culture left for us to admire not just these lines, but also numerous examples of amazing pottery which I was able to see at the local archeological museum that afternoon, after I came back to my senses. Other than this, there isn't much to do in Nazca so I was happy to move on to Arequipa that very same evening.

At the Nazca bus station I bumped into Martin and Evzen (which is the Czech male version of my name), two Czech guys whom I had met at the hostel in Lima. We spent the next week traveling together - first Arequipa, then Cuzco and Macchu Picchu.

Arequipa is beautiful! Sillar, the local white stone used in the construction of many cathedrals, convents and other important buildings gives it a very distinct look. The Santa Catalina monastery was certainly the highlight of our walk through town. A city within a city, this convent was inaugurated in 1580, just 40 years after the founding of Arequipa. Its architecture is a unique melding of colonial and local traditions, causing it to stand out from the rest of the town's buildings. Most walls are painted in bright colors - blues, reds, yellows and ochre's. The nuns who were admitted to the convent were of rich families and had to pay significant dowries in order to be accepted. Many of them entered religious life with an entourage of slaves and servants! Legends speak of the lavish lifestyle of the nuns, with regular musical performances and parties being organized. The official website, however, tells a different story. In either case, it was a fascinating experience.

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Arequipa was to go to the Colca Canyon, a few hours away by bus. The Czechs and I booked a 2 day trek through the canyon and set off at 2am one night (that's right, the guide came to pick us up at 2am)! The Colca Canyon is the deepest in the world, twice as much as the Grand Canyon at its lowest point. We arrived there in the morning and began trekking down towards the river that cuts through the canyon. The views are breath-taking: steep green hills alternate with sheer vertical rocks of varied colors; small villages or individual huts dispersed throughout, and terraced mountain slopes both speak to the century old pursuit of man to conquer even the most untamed of nature's miracles.

The walk downhill was a hard one; we descended almost 1000m in a few hours. We crossed the river over a footbridge and after a short walk uphill on the other side of the canyon we stopped for lunch. The rest of the day was a series of ascents and descents, and took us through some of those rustic villages and near farmers working on the terraces. We spent the night at a very basic camp (no electricity and huts with practically no doors) at the valley floor. To get back to Arequipa on time we had to leave at 3-4am the next morning. I was still dealing with the effects of a recent cold and the persistent cough and stuffy nose prevented me from hiking uphill; so instead I opted for a mule ride. The mules are incredibly strong animals, but even more impressive was our mule guide. He walked beside us and kept pace with the mules up the steep track, stopping from time to time to talk to a fellow villager and then running to catch up with us; talking to us and the mules and ushering them to progress faster. This man, who was well into his 60s, with skin toughened from years of exposure to the unforgiving sun, and a brawny, muscular body, was not even breathless when we reached the top. The mules took an hour and a quarter to make the ascent up the established footpath, but he told me that the villagers have "shortcuts" (more or less vertical paths cutting through the switchbacks of the main trail) and that using these paths he can make it to the top in 40 minutes!

Next it was time for the magnificent condors. I had waited long for this moment and was all anticipation, despite the fact that it is not the best time of year to see condors in the valley. After breakfast we took a bus to Cruz del Condor, a famous look out spot, where there were many other tourists patiently waiting for the odd vulture to soar in the air. I only had 40 minutes before I had to move on, but I got quite lucky - three condors, two adults and one juvenile, flew at close range and I was able to get a good look at them and snap some amazing photos (judge for yourselves). Considering that the condors in Colca Canyon were the main inspiration for me to replace my happy snap camera with an SLR, you can imagine how elated I felt at finally having fulfilled this dream of mine...

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