Canyons, Condors and Cockroaches.

8 12 2008

As we were heading back to Cusco for Christmas we didn’t hang around after we got back from the Inca trek, so we hopped on a bus to Arequipa. Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and is nicknamed the ´La Ciudad Blanca´ (The White City) due to the many colonial-era Spanish buildings built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock. It’s also called “the city where the volcanoes rest” because it’s surrounded by three impressive volcanoes: Misti, Chachani and PichuPichu. Volcanoes are visible from almost every place from the city. It is also possible to go on an expedition up these mountains. We decided not to do it though as we were still recovering from the Inca Trek. By the sounds of it, this was a wise decision; we met some guys in our hostel that had attempted to climb up Misti (5821m high) and had to be evacuated down as they suffered from severe altitude sickness and lack of oxygen. One of them ended up in hospital for a week.One of the main reasons for coming to Arequipa was to visit the Colca Canyon. It is located about 100 miles northwest of Arequipa, and is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Parts of the canyon are still habitable, and Inca and pre-Inca terraces are still cultivated along the less precipitous canyon walls. The Colca River runs through the middle. The canyon is home to the Andean Condor, something which I was very keen to see.

It is possible to do treks through the Canyon, but we had been recommended a 2 day tour by bus through the surrounding area, visiting several Inca sites along the way and ending up with a visit to the Canyon itself to view the Condors. We set out early morning, and in less than two hours regretted our decision. Our bus was full of holiday makers who were desperate to see as much of Peru as possible in such a short time. Our tour guide talked non stop in Spanish, then with halted English translations. He repeatedly attempted to crack jokes and had the microphone up at such a volume that it was impossible to drown out. We stopped every 20 minutes for either a toilet break or for a chance to take a photo of a llama or a field… The breaking point was when most of the people on the bus politely turned down the offer of coca leaves for the altitude, as they “didn’t do drugs…”

That we visited a number of different Inca ruins; whilst still relatively interesting, I found it hard to be too captivated having just come from Machu Picchu itself. Furthermore the ruins that we saw were only around 20% original, and had been rebuilt using a mixture of materials. We trudged round with the rest of our group, attempting to look interested. The saving point was another couple of the tour from Holland. They were of similar age, and also feeling about the tour. Chatting to them we found out that they were in the process of emigrating to Australia, and were stopping over in South America for 3 months on the way. We passed the time asking them questions, and swapping travelling stories about the East coast.

That evening, once we had checked into our dilapidated motel, we were treated to a night of traditional music and dancing. The band that played had modeled themselves on the Beatles, by this I mean that they had cut their hair and dressed the same; the music itself wasn’t quite in the same league. Dinner was a selection of over cooked typical Peruvian dishes, and conversation was out of the question as the music drowned out everything else. Luckily after dinner there was some traditional dancing, this was interesting to watch, and at times amusing. One in particular, involved myself being dragged onto the dance floor by the Peruvian woman, where I was spun round several times until dizzy. I then had to lie on the floor whilst she whipped me with a rope (she showed no mercy!), then when it began to actually hurt, she rustled her skirt over my face, and the dance was finished… it was bizarre to say the least. Afterwards we headed to the main square where there was a local festival going on. Basically it consisted of everyone dancing around the main square in traditional costume, slowly but surely getting drunker and drunker.

The next morning we headed to the canyon itself. We had been told that due to the season, we would be lucky if we saw one condor. With this in mind we headed up to the viewpoint, Cruz del Condor, and waited. As luck would have it, we ended up seeing almost 20 Condors, some swooping right by our heads. The Andean condor is the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere. It wingspan can be up to 10ft. It was captivating watching them flap their massive wings once or twice, before stopping and simply letting the huge thermals that came up from the Canyon, to take them higher and higher up into the crystal blue sky.

We spent the whole morning watching the giant birds of prey, before heading down the side of the canyon, where we were going to spend the afternoon in the La Calera natural hot springs that are located at Chivay, the biggest town in the Colca Canyon. The name Colca refers to small holes in the cliffs in the valley and canyon. These holes were used in Inca and pre-Inca times to store food, such as potatoes and other Andean crops. They were also used as tombs for important people. We spotted many of these as we walked, many lying just above the river. The afternoon was passed in a relaxing manner, free from incident, and after a quick bite to eat we boarded the bus back to Arequipa.

That night we headed out for some dinner in Arequipa with the Dutch couple, Erik and Sandra, and another girl from the tour, an American named Lindsey. We headed up Calle San Francisco where there is a great selection of bars and restaurants. We picked one and enjoyed a delicious meal over an equally nice bottle(s) of wine.

The next day we headed down to Plaza de Armas. With there only being a couple of weeks left until Christmas, Arequipa had actually got itself into gear and had erected a giant Christmas tree in the main square. Whilst not quite the same as the one in Trafalgar square, it was the first time that we had even begun to feel remotely festive, and staring up at the tinsel and baubles, we felt a slight pang of homesickness. The best cure was to keep busy. One option was to go the Santa Catalina Monastery, the most important and prestigious religious building in Peru; instead we opted to go to the Museum of the Universidad Católica de Santa María, home to Juanita, the Ice Mummy!

The “Ice Maiden,” is an Inca mummy of a girl, or more precisely, a frozen body, between 12-14 years old, who died sometime between 1440 and 1450. She was discovered in southern Peru in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner Miguel Zarate.
In 1995, during an ascent of Mt. Ampato, Reinhard and Zarate found, inside the summit crater, a bundle that had fallen from an Inca site owing to melting caused by volcanic ash from the nearby volcano of Sabancaya. To their astonishment, the bundle turned out to contain a remarkably well-preserved mummy of a young girl, frozen in the ice. In addition, they found-strewn about the mountain slope down which the mummy had fallen- many items that had been left as offerings to the Inca gods; these included statues and food items.

It is believed by some archaeologists that Juanita was in fact a human sacrifice to the Inca mountain god, Apus. What I found astonishing was that the Incas would have walked for days, sometimes even months in order to perform these sacrifices. They would have climbed up the volcanoes without any climbing apparatus or breathing equipment. On top of that they would have carried all their food and sleeping materials. The girls would have been offered up by their parents, and would be treated like living deities. It was believed that through their sacrifice they would be become gods themselves and would live on through nature and the mountains. It would have been considered a huge honour.

Once at the top, the priests would have performed a number of rituals, and the girl would have been dressed in the finest materials and adorned with the best jewellery. She would then have been given a drink consisting of a number of drugs which would numb her senses and calm her. Modern tests show the girl had died of blunt force trauma to the head (scientists think it may have been from a club), and she was then buried by the Inca priests at the summit of Mount Ampato (6309m), and left undisturbed until being discovered in 1995.

It was morbidly fascinating to look at the body of Juanita, as she lay in state in her frozen box in the museum. She had been remarkably preserved; you can see her individual fingers still grasping at her gown. Her skin and hair, even her eyelashes are still there to see. I’m unsure how I felt about her being there on show, apart of me thinks that she should have been left to rest in piece at the summit of the mountain. Either way, she has achieved a form of immortality; she is there to see, flesh and bone, over 500 years later.

That night we headed to a great Crepe restaurant that we had discovered. There was a huge array of savoury and sweet creations, plus there was a large selection of board games to play. We went with Mark and Laura from our Hostel, and were so busy eating and playing that we almost missed our bus out of Arequipa and on towards the town of Ica.

On the way to Ica we planned to stop of at Nazca. Nazca is famous for one of the great mysteries of South America, the Nazca lines. The lines are a series of animal figures and geometric shapes, some over 200m in length, drawn across over 500 square kilometres of bleak stony land. Each one is created in a single continuous line. No one knows how they were created or why; some propose they were a kind of agricultural calendar, or perhaps they served as sacred paths connecting huacas, or power spots. Nobody knows for sure.

Unfortunately for us, the bus we were on failed to wake us up when we reached Nazca at 6am in the morning, and as all the stops appeared the same; we were unaware that we had driven through until waking up in Ica. Luckily for us that we did wake up then, as the bus went all the way to Lima. We decided to get off at Ica, and attempt to go to Nazca on the way back to Cusco. Whilst the town of Ica has relatively little to offer in terms of interesting sights, just 5 minutes by taxi and you arrive in the small village of Huacachina, population 115.

Huacachina appears to be an oasis, built round a small lagoon and surrounded on all sides by towering sand dunes. Legend holds that the lagoon was created when a beautiful native princess was apprehended at her bath by a young hunter. She fled; leaving the pool of water she had been bathing in to become the lagoon. The folds of her mantle, streaming behind her as she ran, became the surrounding sand dunes. And the woman herself is rumoured to still live in the oasis as a mermaid.

We checked into our Hotel, a tranquil place named the Huacachinero. There was a large swimming pool, some hammocks, a bar, several parrots and the sand dune themselves spilled into the backyard. The reason most people come to this small place is to go sand boarding and ride in the large cadged dune buggies. We were no different, and the next day we signed up and headed out. We were joined by two lovely girls from London, Lisa and Lucy. It was the most fun that we had had in ages; the buggies flew up the steep slopes, at times catching air as they shot over the top and down the other side. It was better than any rollercoaster I had been on. Regularly we would stop and get a chance to sand board. The slopes were far steeper than those in Chile, and there was no need to struggle to walk back up again. After a few attempts, I was flying down the slopes, only once or twice ending up with a face full of sand. It was great fun to lie on the boards as well, rushing down the huge slopes, with literally centimetres between your face and the hot sand. We watched the sunset over the dunes before heading back for a cocktail and a few beers at the bar.

There is relatively little in the way of nightlife in Huacachina; most nights we went for dinner at one of the small selection of restaurants by the lagoon, followed by a few beers at the hostel next door – Casa D´Arena. This was known as the party hostel, and there was usually something going on each night. Unfortunately it also resembled at times, a rather bad 18-30 holiday resort, complete with awful music: each night the bar staff insisted on playing hours of reggaeton, the local popular music. There was a puppy though to keep us entertained and a pool table. Curiously enough, there was also a lone tortoise plodding around, which sadly someone had decided to paint it shell blue. It looked particularly sorry for itself.

We stayed around Huacachina for around a week. We had done all we wished to do in the south of Peru, and were quite content spending some time soaking up the sunshine, catching up on reading and lounging in the pool, before heading back to Cusco for some festive fun. We were joined by Gaz and Adam, two lads from the north of England. They were full of tales and kept us entertained with their antics. One night in particular, we had decided to venture into Ica for a few drinks and to head to a club. Adam got particularly intoxicated and had to be helped to his bed. We made sure he was safely tucked up before leaving him to sleep it off.

The next morning we were doing the usual routine of sunning ourselves and cooling off in the pool, when Adam was approached by a rather angry looking man, complete with handlebar moustache. He was the French father of the family that was sharing the dorm room with the lads (quite why he was paying for his family to stay in a dorm room is unclear…) He began to berate Adam in French, before switching tact, and shouting in broken English… “If you get into bed with my boy tonight I will kill you!” When he had gone we all turned to Adam for answers… he said that when he woke up he found himself in a different bed, spooning with an 11yr old boy… Quite how he got there is anybody’s guess. It was the most disturbing, yet funniest thing I had heard in a while.

Finally it was time to leave, and we decided to head out for one final meal. The lads had left that afternoon, but we were joined by a Dutch girl named Babet who had arrived that afternoon. We headed to what we had been told, was the nicest restaurant in town. It certainly looked nice, and we sat on the balcony overlooking the lagoon. I ordered steak with peppercorn sauce. The food arrived, and we promptly tucked in. The steak was cooked to order, and the side orders accompanied it well… I was shocked then to discover a cockroach under my pile of veg; the only saving grace was that it was still whole. After complaining we got the meal for free, but I was still hungry. I refused any more food from the restaurant, and opted to fill up on dessert instead. For dessert we headed to the HI hostel next door. Here they served very good budget food, and the best desserts: they made ice cream sundaes, layered with any chocolate bar of your choice (Peru´s limited selection of Mars, Twix or Snickers), then topped off with hot fudge and caramel sauce. It went down very well, all 6 times that I had one that week.

The next day we caught the bus back to Cusco, in time for our first Christmas away from home!

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