Thursday, August 11, 2011

Peru – Arequipa and the condor republic

It's nice to be back in Peru, or should we say the Republic of Arequipa? The second largest city of Peru likes to be different and there is an underlying tone among the people that they want to be independent from Lima. When we jokingly asked a taxi driver where he's from, he promptly replied: "La Republica!" Strangely this city is also the most colonial looking of all places in Peru.

Being back in Peru is like being on a vacation from traveling. We are not as much in culture shock as we were a month ago in Lima, but after a month in Bolivia, we do enjoy the luxuries of a more developed country.

Plaza de Armas at night
Our vacation doesn't last very long though – our hotel has bedbugs! Yep, we managed to travel for 214 days without encountering these little beasts. New York City had an infestation of bed-bugs last year so we are quite surprised to have survived this long in the third world. At least, we only found two specimens so we could change hotels before they got into our belongings. Once we settled into our new hotel "Inca Roots," we could really start enjoying the town.
Arequipa has much to offer: culturally, culinary, and architecturally. So we wandered the streets and soaked up the warm sun (at 2350 meters), finally we are able to stay warm without the help of gloves and hats.

View from our guesthose "Inka Roots"
The Santa Catalina Monastery

A master learns his trade
from a young age
The main tourist attraction in the area is not the beautiful colonial city of Arequipa, but instead it's a crack in the nearby highlands called "Colca Canyon" This is one of the deepest in the world, nearly double the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Since we lived in the Grand Canyon state for more than 4 years, we of course have to go and check out the "competitor."

After a four hour bus ride on a paved road in a comfortable bus (we really don't miss the buses of Bolivia), we arrive in the town of Chivay which is the gateway to the Colca Canyon. We decided not to take a guided tour or join one of the many multi day hike option and explore on our own. Even though our hotel offered a 2D/1N tour (hotel, no meals) for 85 Soles in a large mini-van which is very reasonable. We are just so tired of taking tours.

Welcom to Chivay, now
show me your "boleto"
As soon as we are stepping of the bus in Chivay, we are greeted by a woman that is requesting us to buy the "Boleto turístico". Unfortunately being back in Peru also means falling prey to the well-oiled Gringo money extracting machine. The woman only approached us (the only Gringos) while there clearly were other Latin American tourists onboard. We showed her our Boleto which we already got in Arequipa (thanks Sam and Wendy!).

Chivay is rather touristy and in hindsight not really worth a visit, especially if you arrive on a Sunday when everything is closed but a few tourist joints. We decide to move on early the next morning.
Having been told that the earliest daytime bus moving further into Colca Land leaves at 6am, we are at the terminal at 5:45 – no bus. There are hardly any other people there and it's freezing cold (we are back at 3,630 m (11,900 ft). The bus actually leaves at 7:30am.

The views here easily compete
the Sacred Valley
We walk back to our hotel and thankfully are allowed to stay in our room again (it had already been "cleaned") which actually meant new sheets so that was a relief as we often wonder if they really change the bedding in these simple places!

Shop with a view
Once our bus finally left the terminal (close to 8am), we soon could see why Colca Canyon happens to be a favorite on tourists' postcards sent back home. The agricultural terraces built along the canyon walls easily compete with those in the Sacred Valley. We get off the bus at the Cruz del Condor mirador after 2 hours of "shake, rattle, and roll" (feels like we are back in Bolivia again). This place is THE spot to visit in the Colca. The andean condor can be easily seen from here as they take advantage of the morning thermals to propel themselves up high into the sky above the canyon. Thanks to our confused bus schedule we arrive at 10am instead of 8am and the prime time for condor spotting and tourist inundation has passed.

As soon as we step of the bus, we are again harassed to show the "Boleto" and again we are the only ones that have to show it. The dozens of Latino tourists that got off with us are ignored by the three guards that surround us. Tip to the Peruvian Government: If you target Gringos only, please be a bit more discrete about it!

El Condor pasa!
Despite being past the prime viewing time, we do see a couple of condors cruising above our heads, they don't seem to be that big until they are just a couple meters above our heads. We spend nearly an hour observing the condors and the Peruvian tourists that seem to be much more excited about the condors that we are. In fact, we don't need to look around to spot them, just listening to their screams alert us when a condor is approaching.

We plan to spend the night in Cabanaconde, a smaller village than Chivay and hopefully more authentic too. There is no conclusive info in the guide books about the distance to walk there but we figure we just start walking and see how far we get. The road to Cabanaconde is paved but has almost no traffic if you don't count the condors that are soaring above us. We actually see more condors while walking to Cabanaconde than at the Cruz del Condor.
The isn't much traffic here...
Surprisingly we bump into Sabine, a German girl that we briefly met on our first day in Arequipa. She's the only other Gringo that is walking too, the other way. She's been walking a lot in the last 2 days and now is lugging her heavy backpack (with camping gear inside) uphill to the Cruz del Condor. We are impressed.

actually there's more overhead
activity than on the road

Our leisurely stroll to Cabanaconde has turned out to be quite a hike. We end up putting 13km (8 miles) of extra wear on our shoe soles; and that is with some shortcuts. Our speed is at a leisurely stroll rate though it took us a good 4 hours from the Cruz del Condor to Cabanaconde, with food breaks and photo stops. And here we thought that it's going to take an hour or so ;-)

Traditional dress of the
Colca Area
Arriving in Cabanaconde is very surreal: a bit like entering the movie-set of "Sleeping Beauty". The whole town must be taking a Siesta. We knock on a few guesthouse doors, many stay shut. The few people that we do meet all ask us: "Did you arrive by bus?" It doesn't take us long to figure out why they all question us about how we arrived: nobody arrives at 3pm and all the hotels send touts to the main square when tourist buses arrive. And judging by the amount of people that we've seen walking today we must have appeared like aliens to all the villagers.

Anyway, we did find an adequate, yet very simple large room and joined the locals in their Siesta.

Cabanaconde is everything Chivay is not: authentic, charming, no tour buses. For the first time, we felt that we are in the true rural Peru. The town actually reminded us a bit of the charming simplicity of life that we've last seen in Miraflor, Nicaragua.
Sometimes it's just nice
to sit and watch
Julane was fascinated by the traditional dresses of the women, especially their hats. They are decorated with intricate stitching done in geometric and floral pattern by sewing machines Surprisingly she didn't buy one for herself! The dresses of the women are also special too with two layer of skirts where the outer one is hiked up to the knee revealing the lower petticoat underneath, It kind of looked 19th century.

The "Oasis" of Colca 
Sunset is best observed from the Mirador that is just a 5 min walk from town. From this viewpoint, we can easily see all the way down to the Colca Canyon's bottom and the little green patch called the Oasis just below the Mirador.
We are frankly a bit underwhelmed. The Colca may be deeper than the Grand Canyon, but only if the height of the surrounding maintains is included. The canyon walls are also not as steep and don't have the multi colored layers of rock striations that the Grand Canyon is blessed with. We happily conclude that we've made the right decision to explore the Colca from the ridge and don't book a tour to climb down. The Grand Canyon is without a doubt a much more spectacular sight!

This is what we call an authentic town,
Cabanaconde "night life"
Walking back from the Mirador we came across several herds of sheep that were driven back home by young shepard girls – this is definitely an authentic town and we are loving it!

We buy a 5am bus ticket back to Arequipa before heading to dinner. We ask the girl if the bus really leaves at 5am? "At 5:30, but be here at 5:15," she replies. Good thing we asked, at least we can sleep for 30 minutes more. Guess what: at 5:15 there was not a soul at the bus. A couple minutes before 6am it started to fill up with locals – they all know that 5am scheduled departure means 6am really.
She's not happy about the
late bus either
Most of them are actually going to work selling tourist souvenirs at the miradors along the road and this is the only public transport for them to take. Leaving an hour late and adding "Colca Time" into the equation, we arrived in Arequipa 7 hours after we boarded the bus – we were told it would take 5 hours :-(

Real food at last
Back in Arequipa we devote the remaining time to culinary treats. After all, we have to take advantage of being in one of the major tourist centers. Our first treat is Zig Zag, a Swiss Peruvian restaurant that created Alpandina food which is a mix between European cooking methods and Andean ingredients. We especially loved the Ostrich Carpaccio, although Patrick was equally as happy with the trilogy of meat served sizzling on a hot lava stone.

Our second treat was for more local fare. We went for lunch at a place called Sol de Mayo although more than half of the guests were tourists (both Latin and Western). It has a large menu of local dishes served in heaping portions. Here we indulged in a Chicharron de chancho a rich pork dish and their version of fried queso. Mission accomplished; we managed to gain back a bit of the weight that we lost in Bolivia.

The famous colored walls of
Santa Catalina
Before our night bus to Lima, we had enough time to visit the Santa Catalina Monastery, which is a "don't miss" site in Arequipa. Our verdict is that while the monastery is nice, it is quite pricey at 35 Soles ($16) entrance fee – per person that is. And a guide costs extra. Luckily there are lots of English explanations in each room and you can easily guide yourself and not be packed into a group.

So it's back to Lima now where our South America journey began more than 2 months ago. Our luck is already on the good side as "Cruz del Sur" upgrades us to their top level suite service. Sometimes there is a benefit to arrive early: we are at the terminal an hour before departure and there was still place on the bus departing immediately. We figure they can probably sell our seats on the later bus to someone else as it is the last bus leaving for the day. Anway we don't question why we got an upgrade :-)

So, no waiting this time and we should be very comfortable for the next 16 hours!