Icy whitewater, Ice Maidens & the Elusive Condor

Trip Start Aug 26, 2009
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Where I stayed
Colca Hostel, Chivay

Flag of Peru  ,
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It was always going to be difficult to immediately top a trip like the Inca trail and so even though our mini trip to Colca Canyon was somewhat average... I wasn┤t really disappointed because I somewhat expected it. It does however mean that my story this time is likely to go off topic as I tell you about other interesting things that happened along the way to Colca. At some stage I┤d like to tell you a story about buses... but we┤ll have to see if I get to it today.

We decided to give ourselves a ┤rest day┤ in Cusco the day after the trek which translated into a day for washing, errands and shopping. Although we did manage to squeeze in a lovely massage as well and thanks to the stairs the pain in my calves was excruciating... A fair few from our Inca group hadn┤t left town yet so we went to a delightful little tapas restaurant for dinner that night. Relative to how I┤ve been eating, it was really, really expensive, but the food was sensational and we had a good time reminiscing about our recent adventures. On the way home after dinner we ran into a little girl of about 9yrs on the edge of the square selling things; it started with a hat:

Girl: Want to buy a hat?
Us: No thanks
G: Why not?
Us: Cause we don┤t need one
G:Yes you do, its cold! You need a hat!!
Us: Where┤s your hat then? If you thinks its cold why don┤t you have a hat???

At this point she dug about in a little bag about the size of a purse and pulled out a hat to prove she had one, although she did not put it on...

Sensing that didn┤t persuade us: What about fingers then, you want to buy some fingers? LOL 

┤Fingers┤ refers to finger puppets which we knew already as there are lots of people selling them here on every street corner. Except for when it rained this afternoon when in a split second they all turned into poncho sellers :) 

Us: We already have 10 fingers thanks, how many do you have?
(actually at this point I thought, we technically have only 8... but I wasn┤t the one talking and I didn┤t want to interrupt the flow of this delightful interaction...)
G: I┤ve got Michael Jackson [and she pulls out a ghost/skeleton puppet :):) > ah the humour and such a speedy response to current events!]
G: Our Father, San Juan [a priest :)]
G: I┤ve got everything...

Engaged as we were at this point we asked to see almost all her ┤fingers┤ and I must say she had a good variety... A few guys bought some and then we suggested it was time that girls her age go home to bed. Her English was superb so we took that to mean she was obviously in school but can you imagine the necessity to make extra cash that dictates selling tourist wares to strangers at random hours of the night?

The next day we had decided to go white water rafting; Peru has some excellent rafting although right now is not quite the best time. We were back on the Urubamba river so it was good to get a different perpective to trekking the Sacred Valley, however the water was frigid: 8C... And I really hate wearing a wetsuit with a passion, they must be the least flattering attire ever invented and probably because i┤m not used to them I don┤t feel very flexible when wearing one. The only thing I feel less comfortable in are the massive life jackets they make you wear rafting because these need to be pulled extra tight and the feeling across my chest is always one of suffocation and squashing. At least with the jacket though it comes with valuable life saving properties so I endure... :) 

So; cold, cold water and a boat guide who was a little bit too cheeky meant I was hoiked into the water at the first quiet opportunity on the river. I was freezing, and teeth chattering for the rest of the trip and unfortunately the cold water got the better of my beloved watch and I┤m sorry to say I had to retire it a few days later... :( I┤m very sad about this, it was the perfect travel watch. The rafting meanwhile was gentle - class II+ and III rapids - just good fun and it was good to use my arm muscles after having over-used my legs on the trek.

We returned to Cusco late afternoon and a night bus later we were further south in Peru in Arequipa and ready to explore some more of the countryside. First stop though was to see the non-mummy ┤Juanita the Ice Princess┤. I say this because she was found with all her organs in tact... and in remarkably good condition, almost perfect except for her face which had been exposed to the elements after her burial site collapsed during an eathquake. I found the museum and the story to be incredibly interesting. The Incan┤s practiced human sacrifice at times, of highly born children chosen especially to appease the Gods, archeologists have found something like 2 dozen other children in buriel sites on the surrounding mountain tops over the years. Juanita was found on top of Ampato mountain, at about 6300m in 1995. The mountain is perpetually snow capped and so it took volcanic activity from a nearby volcano to melt the icecap to allow full discovery of the site. They believe she was between 12 and 14 years old when she was walked to the top of the mountain in not much more than sandals and shawls (and her trusty coca leaves...) to take part in the ritual ceremony where they gave her more coca and some drugs before they hit her over the head and buried her with other offerings to the gods... At the musuem she┤s kept in a tiny glass case, triple glazed with regulated, freezing, temperature and dim light. She herself looks about 4ft tall and is in a seated, feotal position. It was hard to see details because of the light but if you kind of squinted and covered your reflection in the glass you could see her clothes, the skin on her arms and her face. All her artifacts are on display at the museum too. It was really well done so it was easy to transport myself back to that era, as I said, really interesting!!

The area surrounding Arequipa is largely desert or fast becoming one. Its very close here to Bolivia and northern Chile and so there is some contention as to whether the area is part of the Atacama desert or not. To me, it looks almost unlivable with its wide expanses of dusty, rolling hills, dotted in-between with occassional antiplano wetlands so I┤m happy to run with the desert tag.

There is a massive mine which is what supports the city, in addition of course to tourism since its close to Colca Canyon - contentiously again, but reportedly the deepest canyon in the world. As I┤ve never been to either Copper Canyon or The Grand Canyon I┤m happy to go with this and in parts its over 4000m deep so I think that┤s sufficient proof for me. Its popular here to trek into the canyon and through some of the local villages, or to visit some of the higher sections of the canyon to see the andean condors. We didn┤t really have enough time and weren┤t up for another high altitude trek so we took the second option which was far more popular. Unfortunately so... there must have been about 35+ minivans and tourists buses all doing the second option and we all stopped at the exact same places on the way for photo opportunities, or to see the Llamas and Vicunas (wild relation of the Llama) etc. This was disappointing.

The best part of the trip though was our guide who talked incessently (annoying at times), and told us heaps of interesting stories about the areas along the way. My favourite was the story about a ┤Greening the Desert┤ project a previous Prime Minister of Peru had initiated. 100s of thousands of hectares of the aforementioned dusty, rolling desert were graded to form series of channels to improve water catchment, theoretically improving groundwater supplies, soil quality and hence resulting in desert transformation. The only hitch was that nobody checked the weather conditions... the area has an average humidity of 20-30% which prevents it from raining very often - they average about 8 days of rain a year. The channels are still there as a permanent reminder... I found this almost as funny as a story I was previously told another time of the other Peruvian Prime Minister who gave a Eucalyptus tree as a gift to the Prime Minister of Japan saying it was their native tree :) 

The guide also told us about the mountains we were passing that used to be perpetually snow covered (like Ampato) but which now are only seasonally covered because of climate change. Areas that used to be farmable are now given over to desert and farmers have been forced to leave the area. And he solved the mystery of the half finished house syndrome that you see everywhere in Peru (and other developing countries I have to say). Most houses particularly in outer suburbs have the top floor unfinished with pipes and metal rods sticking out everywhere. Its really ugly and I never understood why they wouldn┤t just finish it off... but the people don┤t pay tax if their house is not `finished`...

It was an overnight trip and we stayed in a little town, Chivay, on the edge of the national park. The area has natural hotsprings so late in the afternoon we went to one of the springs just out of town and relaxed for a couple of hours in an open air bath beside a clifffside and almost dry river bed. The scenery was nice and the baths were much nicer than the ones we went to in Ba˝os.

Dinner was in a local restaurant with all the 50million other tourists doing the same journey... although we did get a good show with dinnner - a Peruvian music band and a couple of dancers in delightfully strange costumes - at one point the guy was wearing a tower of serving platters on his head and the woman had a plastic baby doll strapped to her back :). They were showing us the traditional ritual dances customary of the area, courting, marriage etc

It was an early start the next morning since the best viewing time for condors is apparently early. On the way to the canyon we passed through a small town Yanque, where we stopped for a half hour to watch children dancing in the town square and then we were off to see the birds. The condors like living along the edges of the canyon because it creates a natural wind tunnel which they use to help them lift off when flying, they┤re very heavy birds, sometimes up to 15kgs. When we arrived at the look-out point it was packed with a few hundred tourists and there were obviously no birds so we took a little walk along the edge of the canyon to take in the scenery. We arrived back at the look-out about 1hr later and still no birds so we had to sit and wait. And wait... Some tourists left which at least gave us a better position. And finally after another hour or two, it felt like forever but now that I have no watch it┤s all a bit of a guess,+ a solo condor flew past. 

Yes it was graceful, and it is a special and rare bird; but I┤m not sure it was worth the wait or the trip. It was too far away for a good photo too. Luckily the scenery was nice and I think practicing patience is an important part of my trip, because after the ┤sighting┤we were back on the bus for the return trip to Arequipa.

As it turns out there is not time for bus stories in this edition... you will have to wait for one of the next ones

Take care everybody


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