Sunday, September 25, 2005

Arequipa revisited: Touring Colca canyon

The Andean Condor as seen from Cruce del Condor


Arriving to Arequipa early in the morning, I missed Valy by several hours after he departed for the Colca Canyon trek. Nonetheless, I moved to plan B, and booked myself a tour with one of the numerous agencies in Arequipa. After two days in the city, I boarded the public bus to Cobanaconda with Miranda and Ross, the Australian couple, and with Hiang-Hwa and Yohans, from Germany accompanied by Nestor, our Peruvian English speaking guide. Even though three days in the Canyon sounds like a lot of time, I realized that it was quite a "laid-back" tour, but even so, I enjoyed it very much. This is also the last of the central South American adventure, with a different horizon ahead, different adventures...

Arequipa - One plan, two misses

The night bus (another one...) was as usual, a fast but a sleepless option, and when I finally arrived to the terminal in Arequipa, El Misti and Chachani shone brightly in the early morning sunlight. I took a taxi with another Peruvian guy working for LG air conditioning division and two french girls, that came to visit Peru in 3, that`s must be a real touch-and-go tour! In any case, from the main plaza I went straight for the Casa La Reyna, a favorite which charges low buck but shoulders with the Monestary of Santa Catalina. And more importantly, have hot water all the time! Yep, it is a good choice!
After dropping my stuff in the room (actually, the same bed that I used last time I was in Arequipa!) I went straight to the Internet, hoping to see that Valy is still in town. Before I left Cajamarca for Lima, Valy told me he is going to be in Arequipa and I replied that we might do the Colca canyon together. Well, upon reaching my email account, I gripped that I missed him: his email dated 12 hours before and in it Valy told me he is going the next morning for the Canyon with a Swedish girl (!). Well, a feeling of a miss was hanging in the air, but as I read Lee`s email, I understand that Lena had left San Pedro De Atacama and was doing her way to Peru. Now, I thought it was a fair chance she would do her way to Arequipa, right? So, I decided to wait couple of days and see where is she and the following morning I found her in the messenger, talking with me from La Paz (?!), and looking for some partners and action. Damn, second miss! At this, I headed later that day to the hostel, and booked through them 3-day trek to the canyon. Personally, I hate organized tours, and I did my best last time as well as now to stay clear of them. But, as I didn't had the power or the time to look for independent partners, I paid the 40 USD and cleared the rest of the day for strolling, Internet and film developing.

Colca canyon trek day 1 - Going down
The next morning, around 6 am the buzzer rang at the hostel door, and Nestor, the English speaking guide from the tour agency, came in panting and asking if I am ready. Sure thing, dude! I hoped into the back of the taxi, or more accurate, squeezed in with two Australians, Miranda and Ross. Both were on a three and half months of quick tour in the continent before they head to Amsterdam, for a prominent work as accountants for a couple of years. Very sympathetic and smiling couple. After Nestor found and boarded the other taxi, which held the other two person that would join us in the tour, he lead the way to the terminal, in the semi empty streets of awakening Arequipa. Getting into the terminal, Nestor went to arrange the bus tickets and terminal tax (which was nice, I must admit) and left us to complete the acquaintance. Hiang-Hwa Teng, 27, is a German dentist that was about to accomplish her studies and was accompanied by a tall and thin Yohans, 19, which his age was apparent from his young and clear face. Hiang-Hwa was very open and on the way to the bus she told she visited Israel as part of a high school exchange program between Israel and Germany.
The road to Chivay and then to Cabanaconde, two towns nestled on the canyon mouth, was most of the time paved and well scenic, with some photo-op`s here and there. Gladly, after 5 hours, we got off the bus straight into the main plaza of Cabanaconde with other tourists, each with his own idea and way of touring the Canyon. Nestor lead the way for our first and most important stop that day: lunch! Getting into a local hostal which also served typical Peruvian dishes, we sat down and talked casually while Nestor serves as our waiter and after seeing that we get our dishes, went to his family house. It was a nice meal, but certainly not one that can fill (and some of you already know how much I need...). In any case, after an hour we set our backpacks on our backs and started the hike. Hurray!
At first we walked from the town toward the canyon mouth, where we had a superb view over the canyon gorge. Some Condor already sored over the open gorge, and after some explaining about the tour details and the surrounding villages we saw, we started our slow and long way down, some hour and half! Yep, I was already familiar what is going down some 1200 meters but my partners were new to trekking in Peru. Sore feet, aching knees, yep it was all in the recipe. The going down was quite scenic, in any case, with the mountain peaks rising above our heads on the other side of the Colca river. Along the way I stopped several times for picture taking, and by that I generated a reputation of a delay man (which I kept on proving to be true). Not that anybody was upset or disturbed by this...
Eventually, we reached bottom and were confronted with the bridge. Well, once, say 50 year ago, it was a prominent bridge which one could feel safe crossing with it the roaring Colca river ten meters below. But nowadays, well...I have to add that a new bridge was in progress of construction, but I guess that the man in charge of the safety of the park waited till the bridge was literally falling apart, till he reached out and drew soles for the construction of the new replacement. Poor Yohans, with all his height and the rocking bridge, he was walking slowly and with no little fear in his heart, as I watched him cross the bridge. With no rail on either sides and with a disturbing left-side slope, IT was not a crossing intended for the faint hearted. One of the tourists that crossed the bridge actually spread her hands, like she walking across a beam, not a bridge across a river.
We stopped for 10 minutes and then went on, only now we were climbing the slope, while passing some agricultural fields. I have noticed some men work the land with a strange looking piece of machinery, which was composed of a bent wood stick and a a meter-long double sided blade, with a handle at it`s base. When I approached the men, looking for a good position to capture the scene, they suddenly stopped working. Damn that Murphy! After explaining that a picture will make me feel good, they rushed like little children to a piece of land that was not worked (and was not intended to be, actually, as a freshly extinguished bone fire still raised smoke) and started working the land. In simple words, the Maize (like the name of Corn) was a "digging tool" that enabled them to turn upside •down the piece of earth (like a MAHRESHA, only even more basic than that). After we were all satisfied (they got a sole for the photo-op, and had the nerve to demand more!), our group continued on walking up in a very decent slope, which was broken in many places by a leveled path. Finally, we came to the last slope and started our way up. We had all a hard climb (more or less), but Yohans had the worse. He suffered from his muscles and his knees, as he almost didnt do ANY sports. Well, I can only imagine how tough this hike was for him. I can easily understand him, as I was also totally exuasted on my asent to lagoon glacier only 4 months before in Bolivia (see for a reminder). In any case, when we reached a little village, Nestor asked if we want donkeys for the next day, as we had to climb back to Cabanaconde (yes, the 1200 meters we went down...). I didnt had the need for a donkey as after the Alpamayo trek, it was not a must..(don't forget, the Colca trek takes place between 2000 something meters to 3000 something meters, the later height was the BASE height of the Alpamayo trek!). The other agreed to take a donkey for the next day and we went to our hospedaje, a little courtyard with two-sectioned low building, one for a couple and the other served as a dormitorio. A small extension served as a shower and toilet, with only a curtain serving as a door...You can already imagine the embarrassing "OOPPSSI!!" that was following this revelation.
Well, we were hungry as hell and also quite dirty, so quite quickly each one found his way to take a shower and after an hour and a half we had an "Inca meal", as Nestor called it, which consisted of white rice and a cooked mix of Yuca, Cheese and eggs with special spicing. Interesting and filling, for sure...We were so tired, we all had some tea and head for the sack!

Colca canyon trek day 2 - we went down...So, we gonna go back up!!
Waking up at 7 am, more or less, we arranged our self for the upcoming day. We had a nice breakfast that consisted of Pancakes with jam and some tea. It was nice and sufficient and we went back to our rooms to re-organize before departure. My digestive system was working quite well and I headed jolly to the curtain-closed niche that was destined as the toilet, only to see Yohans in a shitting position, how attractive. Poor guy, I came so fast and quietly into the niche that he might have shit out of pure embarrassment, as he closed his legs and shot his hands above his crouch, while we both cried "OH!" and "HA!" in a perfect harmony of an embarrassing moment. Well, it WAS a funny incident and I still laugh about it just now, re-visualizing the whole event in my head...
After I done my shit (literally...), we started our walk along the Canyon passing another village on the way and then making our way down to the river bed, and to the modern bridge that waited for us this time. From above we could see already the Oasis, a patch of palms, grass and two shining swimming pool that glistened in an attractive way.
It didn't took us too much time to switch to our bathing suits and jump into the cool water in the swimming pool. While we made our way down to the Oasis, Nestor told us that the water originated from another stream and not from the Colca river, as those are very cold.
In any case, as I am a type of warmth, I quickly found myself sitting beside the pool and writing in my notebook about the events I experienced thus far. Later on, more tourists came and the feeling of being all alone went away from us. We dressed and went down to have our little lunch, this time Italian pasta with Napolitana-Tuna fish sauce. Nestor gave us some one hour and half to rest (which was a bless after the pasta) and after dozing off on the shady grass, we put the packs, breath deeply and started the climb straight from the Oasis. I am not that of a seasoned trekker, but lets say that the last time I climbed 1200 meter in one shot was a mission, and logically, took its demand of time, some 5 to 6 hours. This time, however, I knew I was in a different height, and was not expected to be difficult. Long, yes, but not THAT difficult. Well, lets say it was difficult and long, but not as difficult or long as the climb in the Alpamayo trek, as expected. On my was I passed several fellas who started before us, but I was in a trance of walking, not stopping but to take some chocolate from the bag or to enjoy the scenery for a second or two. I wanted to get it over with. And indeed, it came to an end, after 2 hours of climb. I remember that I asked Nestor were is the end when we were down in the Oasis, and he pointed to a point at the ridge above and said "You see those little 4 trees? That's the end of the climb". And, as I approached the last 20 meters of the climb I saw them and smiled as I came on the last leg, seeing their branches wag at the wind that blew at the mouth of the Canyon. It was a magical moment for me. Yohans, which passed us all sitting on the back of a donkey, was no where to be seen. So, I decided to start my way to the town of Cabanaconde, which was not far away. At a certain point, however, I noticed that the path is blocked with a knee-high brick wall, and after passing it and advancing by a bit, I decided it would be smarter to just wait for them at the end of the climbing path. If I miss them, how can I find them in the town?? And Nestor would sure be looking for me, not knowing what the hell happened to me...So, wisely, I re tracked my steps and waited for them for 10 minutes till everyone gathered. We continued on walking to town, and indeed, I missed one turn. I blessed my self for thinking straight, for once!
Coming to the edge of town we saw tall Yohand waiting for us with the Donkey driver and together we continued on to the hostel, and to the blessing shower. We were all full of the dusty path that was used daily by the local farmers and also the numerous tourists groups.
We had a similar dinner in the restaurant of the first day (not surprising, with no surprises with the set dinner dishes) but it was OK, as I had Yohans soup also (he didn't liked it and I am a good little boy who don't throw food away!). We talked over the candle lit table while in the background songs from the late 70`s early 80`s were screened on the TV. Very nostalgic, I must say. It was not difficult for me to get into a deep-deep sleep.

Colca canyon trek day 3 - The amazing and majestic Andean Condor!
We woke up at 5 am for the 6 am breakfast, only to waste time for the 7 am bus. One thing I can say about all this, was the fact that Nestor was smart enough to know that the 7 am bus is gonna be full to the roof, and the earlier you reach it, the more chances to have a sit. Good work, Nestor!
So, as we waited for the bus to leave, more and more people got in: Locals and tourists, and quickly there was no room to breath. Eventually, the heavy bus made an effort and started moving for the 30 minutes drive to Cruz del Condor, the best spot in the Colca Canyon to see the great Andean Condor, a monstrous 10 kg, 3 meter wing span bird that sores the canyon mouth as easily as we people walk from one point to another. And, amazing how it is beautifully sores, quietly and smoothly, when the only thing one can hear is the clicking of the camera`s shutters and focusing feedback beep in addition to the awe cries of the amazed tourists. No one can be indifferent to such natural beauty, and it is hard for me to believe that I will see such a magnificent vista as I saw at those 20 minutes that we were there. For bird watchers, this is certainly a must.
I took my time, photographing and all, and I forgot the timed schedule for the group re-meeting, and as I was looking for the rest of the group (and not finding them, of course). Suddenly I gripped that, while I was having fun, the others were keeping their time appointment, and as usually, I am late...As I walked back to the top of the terrace, I saw a figures running all over the place, and immediately I recognised the contour of Nestor. I started running up and breathless (Cruz del Condor is a 3000 something MASL) I met with Nestor, which grinned in a "your trouble, Chen, A lot of trouble!" manner and showed me for the waiting public bus. Five minutes after I boarded the bus, it left and rode down the road to Chivay. On the way we could still see Condors soaring over the canyon lip and as we rode east the canyon got shallower and many beautiful green terraces were covering almost the length of the canyon valley, with great binding contour and curves. It was a beautiful vista, which many left-seaters took pictures of. Arriving around 10 am at Chivay, Nestor boarded us on a taxi, and we headed first to the restaurant to have our orders ready when we gonna arrive later (very organized and planned, I must say). We left then to the hot springs (La Calera del Colca), some 3 Km upriver from Chivay. The place is also very organized, a money machine. Each of us got a key for a wood locker near one of the spring`s pools, and not more than five minutes and we were inside, throwing relief cries as our bodies felt the warmth of the pool`s temperature. This was exactly what we needed when finishing going up the canyon slope (not that we objected receiving it later...). The pool was quite big, and the near boiling pouring water (around 85 degrees!) dispersed quickly and gave a real nice and cozy warmth that you can be quite quickly addicted to. In any case, we enjoyed the place and after some time I wanted to get some temperature shock, so I went out straight into a near shower and full opened the cold shower, and the difference was of such that almost I released a cry of pain...Damn, it WAS a temperature shock. I went quickly back into the pool and felt so goood getting inside back...
We dressed up quickly and after waiting for Nestor for five minutes we went back to Chivay, and had a nice lunch (Pizza) in a touristic restaurant. We were then rushed to grab the bus, as it already departed from the bus station and was packed full with locals and tourist, a common mix I can only guess. In any case, the ride back was, as expected, not the best I had, as a local women was rubbing into me part of the ride. At a certain point she sat and leaned against my feet with her little child in her hands. Yeah, I know, all this bitching and they were sitting on the floor because they don't have the money to pay the full fare for the ride...Around mid time, I smelled a harsh odour of urine, and it didn't took more than a sec to realize that the girl peed...shucks, but why next to ME?!?! In any case, I hanged on with EIFO HAYELED blowing my ears and pushing the odour out of my concious for the next threee hours...Getting off at the terminal in Arequipa, I realized that Peru gave me the last of one of the worst rides in the Central South America region.
The group dispersed quite quickly, while Hiang-Hwa and Yohans took a taxi to the family they sleep with and me, Nestor, Ross and Miranda took a taxi to the center of Arequipa. We hugged in the lovely and busy plaza and said goodbye, as the both of them were to take a bus around 8 pm for Cuzco. A great stage was being erected in the plaza and a live show was due to 6 PM...Great!

Leaving Arequipa, Leaving Peru
The live show was nice. I went there with a Canadian, Tim, a French, Christian and with a German girl I forgot her name. In any case, It was nice but I felt a bit sick so I returned after a hour. Those Peruvians are crazy, climbing on tree tops in the plaza or on bushes and rocking the whole place out of enthusiasm...shit, they know how to ROCK!
A morning before I left Arequipa, me and Christian had an interesting talk at a corner not far from our hostel, over a local breakfast: Bread with Avocado and a hot broth of chocolate, milk and granola...An amazingly delicious drink! It was amazing, to stand there early in the morning (around 7:30), with the morning traffic all around us and we were talking about philosophical issues such as life and death, about living the moment and not the past or the future. It was a great conversation, which strengthened in me the comprehension of focusing oin the present and leave the past to decay and the future to evolve without my worries and toughts. Live the moment, live the time you have. Nothing will repeat it self exactly as you fell now. Just live.
An hour later Christian went to climb the Misti, alone. Crazy but with a lot of passion in it.
And I...I left Arequipa the following morning to Tacna, which I left in the next morning to Arica, Chile.


After five months and a half in the Central part of the South American continent, as it looks now, the Indiginous part of my trip is over. Saying that, I can also say that I miss the developed countries, the comfort of living. I am a bit surprised that after that much of a time I start to feel the need for comfort away from the stench, the inaccuracy,the dirthiness which accompanied some of my traveling in this part of South America, but at the same breath, I can say that such adventures as I had experienced here I will not experience in the next countries to follow. Bolivia was such a nation. Recollection of all my adventures in this true indiginous country floats numerous experiences, good and bad, experiences that gave me the feeling that I am a live, that I experience this life of mine. That is why I travel, to experience the world outside, but also the world which is within...

And I will keep on exploring, even after six months of hard backpacking, of worries sometime for own safety, of vistas that make you cry for joy and for sadness and of truth that reveals itself with each step on the rough path ahead...

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