We rolled into Arequipa at about 5 am on March 5, officially hitting two months abroad. (I am of course now typing this well past the three month mark and from a different continent…)
Here is the high level update between Feb 5 and March 5:
- Places Visited (anywhere we spent at least one night): 5
- Beds Slept In (including 2 overnight busses): 10
- Approx Miles Hiked: 36
- Long Haul Busses Taken (any over 2 hours): 6
Compared to our January numbers (as you can see here), we had a much more relaxed month 2; we spent 15 days alone in Santiago, and the change of pace was super welcome. Of course then we had to sprint through March to do everything we wanted, and I’ll cover that eventually.
Back to Arequipa!! Even before dawn, we could tell it was a beautiful city. Its nickname is la ciudad blanca (the white city) due to the fact that a large number of the buildings downtown are made from a local, cloudy volcanic stone. Our hostel was located just off the main plaza and Peru Hop organized a private shuttle to take us down the narrow streets. Continuing our streak of either choosing extremely vacant hostels or being lucky, we got into our room right away and were able to nap until a reasonable hour. We headed out in time to catch a free walking tour and decided to once again test our skills with a Spanish guide (and also steer clear of the many Peru Hop people we saw in the English group). I think the biggest takeaway from the tour was that Arequipa has a very distinctive food scene; their local specialties include many spicy dishes like rocoto relleno (stuffed hot peppers) that can be tasted at local restaurants called picanterias. We immediately headed to one after the tour and found a huge room with communal seating packed with locals. We ordered boiled potatoes covered in aji sauce, pork chicarrones, rocoto relleno and potato pancakes. Because of my affinity for spicy food, I had high hopes about this cuisine, but I found everything to be pretty blergh. Brett enjoyed it more, and we both had fun sweating out the spiciest table sauce we’d had yet on the trip, but somehow it still didn’t make the food taste good.
Full from too many potatoes, we made our way over to Llama Mundo to learn about how the beautiful wool fabrics we’d seen everywhere are made. The store had a cool exhibit featuring the different local species and detailing which are best for wool production. The short story is vincuña are the best, but you can only buy their wool on the black market, alpaca are second best and most popular, llama is not great, and guanaco is unheard of. A fun fact aside: the easiest way to tell llamas and alpacas apart is that alpacas have long hair on their heads where llamas don’t. After five hours walking we were due for another nap and only ventured out for the worst pizza of my life for dinner. Per earlier blog entries, you know what a severe statement this is coming from me. This pizza had CANNED CARROTS on it. How? But also, why? This ranks as one of the top most disappointing food days of the trip, which I think is probably unfair to Arequipa. We had to get up at 4:30 AM the next day to depart for our three day Colca Canyon trek, so we headed to bed early.
A small Peruvian man, Hans, picked us up in a cramped, 14 passenger van bright and early. Our group slept doubled over the chairs until we reached the Cruz del Condor viewpoint 2.5 hours later. We hung out for 45 minutes trying to find South America’s most famous bird (Brett and I were lucky enough to spot one in the distance at Los Torres) but only spied some tinier lookalike hawks. We continued on to a quick, breakfast stop which featured a single bread roll and some hot fruit soup with quinoa that Brett said tasted like a candle.
When we finally made it to the trailhead, there were probably between 40-50 other people getting ready to start the hike. Hans told us we were the only 3-day group and that everyone else would be finishing the hike in 2-days. Brett and I weighed the pros and cons between the 2 & 3 day tours and the bottom line is this: do the three day tour. Spend the extra day, spend the extra $7, and take your damn time. I imagine there is not another tourist attraction in Peru that gets you as much bang for your buck as this trek; your ~$50 total cost covers transportation, two nights accommodation, all of your meals and your guide. Evidently, we felt great about our decision, and to add to this, Brett and I were able to book a bus directly to Puno from the Canyon, saving us about three hours of bus time.
After Brett and I stored our large packs in a literal shack on the side of the road (and I said goodbye to my bag forever, because it was surely going to be stolen), we started our descent into one of the world’s deepest canyons (just over 11,500 ft deep vs the Grand Canyon’s 5,700!) Three hours of knee-breaking downhill later, we arrived in a small village to enjoy our lunch and relax for the rest of the day. Despite the Colca Canyon’s insane terrain, it is inhabited by thousands of people making up pockets of communities tucked into the hillsides. Many people work in the local mines, but farming is also popular. Avocados, cactus fruit, gooseberries, pears, limes, and pacay line the hiking path and Hans showed us how to choose the ripest ones to enjoy as we walked. We had a serious appetite after basically eating no breakfast, and luckily the lunch waiting for us at the bottom of the canyon was much more substantial. After our group chowed down, a hilarious German couple invited us to play cards with them over a couple Cusqueñas (the only Peruvian beer worth drinking). They taught us how to play cribbage – which is a super fun and simple game – and how we spent the better part of the next two nights.
On day 2 we got a slightly later wake up call, which meant we got to enjoy the sunrise on the beautiful canyon wall across from our barebones bedrooms. The hike for the day was tame; mostly gradual hills staying close to the river. Hans brought us into a local “museum,” which was just a room in someone’s house they filled with taxidermy and creepy mannequins. He shared his in-depth knowledge about natural remedies created from the surrounding plant life. My favorite was learning about the cochineal, a teensy, white parasite found on cacti in the canyon. Their blood is the deepest, darkest red, which people use as lipstick that lasts for “cien besos” (one hundred kisses). We also tried locally made chicha, an alcoholic corn beverage that tastes like kombucha. Despite the similarity, I was not a fan. We spent that night at Sangalle, an oasis-like resort at the base of the trail leading out of the canyon. Our entire group jumped into the pool and enjoyed the tropical vibe until we were too cold to pretend.
On the last day, we got up before sunrise to start the 3 hour slog uphill, and made great time before donkeys started barreling past us. By the time we made it out of the canyon, half of our group had succumb to exhaustion and hired a donkey to carry them the rest of the way. Truly, it felt like a huge accomplishment to DIY. We shared one last breakfast with our group before Brett and I took off for our bus to Puno. We made a quick pitstop at the roadside shack to grab our bags, which were weirdly still there, untouched. It was only early afternoon, but we were pooped, and spent most of the 6 hour bus ride in various states of napping.
Looking back, we wish we had had more time to spend in Arequipa, but it’s just one of many reasons we have to return to Peru in the future.