colca canyon trip, day one

Our guide and driver picked us up at our hotel on Friday morning. Our guide is Carmen, who speaks beautiful English with a Latino lilt. Our driver is Javier, who speaks very little English and drives a comfy truck, somewhere between a van and an SUV.

As we head into the outskirts of Arequipa, I realize that Carmen´s job is more than just narrating the major sights. She gives us a capsule history of Arequipa - the people, the economy, recent changes. Throughout the trip, she´ll tell us about everything from flora and fauna, to ancient history, to current politics, to local legends. Any facts of note in these entries are attributed to Carmen - that will be easier than repeating "Carmen told us..." 50 times. She attended tourism school for three years, and since graduating has been a regional guide for another five years.

The outskirts of Arequipa were developed when farmers from the highlands fled the guerrilla war between Peruvian police and Peruvian terrorist groups, in which they were caught in the middle, and for which they paid a very high price. In this way, the children of Andean farmers became housekeepers and taxi drivers. It´s a sad story.

Past the outskirts, we drive up and up and up, leaving the paved road for dirt and gravel, climbing in altitude and watching the terrain around us change. In the distance there are snow-covered peaks (which are visible any clear day from Arequipa), which are volcanoes, and the road winds upward, approaching them. The land around is always rocky, scrubby and stark, but the plant life changes from yellowish to very dark green, different types of cacti appear, the mountains become more rugged and loom closer.

We entered a national preserve, the largest of three in Peru, home to Peru´s protected vicuñas. The vicuña is a relative of the llama and alpaca, another camelid, but with even softer and finer wool. It was hunted almost to extinction, and is now protected in Peru, Bolivia and some other countries - and not in others. The animals live on the preserve, and three times a year, local people round them up and shear them. Vicuña wool is so valuable that national police oversee the factories where women process the wool.

As the road climbs upwards, we see herds of alapcas, llamas and sheep, tended to by women or little boy shepherds. Every so often, in the midst of this desert, there is a cool blue lagoon and marshes, not with tall grasses, but full of moss and deep green shrubs. There are herons, ducks, gulls and many varieties of birds that are new to us. Carmen loves to point out all the baby animals, from ducklings to tiny lambs and alpacas.

Animals are everywhere, and we never get tired of looking at them. Some of the alpacas have red ribbons pierced into their ears, bells hanging from their fur, or the babies have red ribbons tied around their necks. These are males, and the red is associated with their fertility.

One time we stop for yet another photo, Carmen shows us a 3,000-year-old plant. It looks like moss, but it´s as hard as stone. It grows a milimetre a year.

As we approach the mountain pass that will begin our descent, the land is very rocky, like a vast rock farm, and vertical piles of rocks - the kind you see around Lake Ontario (and probably many other places in Canada and elsewhere) - are growing more and more abundant. Finally, there are just hundreds and hundreds of piles of rocks, as far as you can see, on both sides of the road. These are offerings to Pachamama, the Earth Mother, as we near a place of her power.

By this time the scenery is breathtaking: massive canyons, snow-capped mountains. We feel tiny and awed.

The pass is at 4,910 metres, or 16,300 feet. From the lookout (restaurant, souvenir shop), you are surrounded by the region´s 7 volcanoes, as well as the Andes. The Andes, of course, run north-south; the volcanoes form an east-west band across them. Some of the volcanoes are dormant, others extinct, and a few are active. We can see the mountain that is the origin of the mighty Amazon River.

At one rest stop, Carmen buys coca leaves and demonstrates how to prepare them for chewing, by removing the stems and wrapping a dozen or more leaves around a catalyzer. People have preferences for various catalyzers; the one Carmen buys is made of bananas.

The chew is a little bitter, Allan doesn´t like it, but it brings a really pleasant numb sensation to my mouth and throat. Carmen tells us about all the many properties local people use it for, but meanwhile I just want another chew. There are coca cookies here, coca candies, coca tea - everything to help the local farmers earn a living outside the drug dealers. It´s legal for us to bring home coca candy or cookies, but not the leaves, including in tea bags.

After the mountain pass, we wind downhill, down, down, down, to a town called Chivay, population 5,000. We have lunch in a tourist restaurant, full of groups, but the food is very good and everyone is so nice to us, it´s hard to care about that. I had more Ariqupeñan food, ocopo (the cold potato in sauce) and trucha, the rainbow trout that is very plentiful here.

Chivay has a little central plaza, a little market, an abundance of dogs on the dusty streets, and a few tourist restaurants and hotels. In other words, it looks like every town we see. The kids are sweet and shy and want their pictures taken, the men are weather-beaten and don´t speak to tourists.

The traditional dress of women in this region is unique: hat, blouse, vest, two skirts, plus sash, all white and covered with incredibly elaborate embroidery, including the hat. The outfits are dizzingly colourful and intricate. Almost all the women wear them, as do the little girls. Only the teenage girls don´t want to wear the traditional dress, but if they stay in the valley, they will probably don them again, eventually.

In the market, the women are selling everything under the sun, all bearing their trademark embroidery. As they sit in their stalls, they work on ancient Singer machines, the work no longer done by hand. Some machines are electric, others are run by a foot-pedal.

Next we head to the baños termales, the hot baths supplied by natural springs, just outside the main town. When it leaves its source, the water is 85 degrees Celsius, and the baths are between 30 and 45 degrees. They open daily at 4:30 a.m.; locals load into taxis for a soak before they start their day.

In the late afternoon, however, it´s all tourists. Allan and I didn´t pack swimsuits, since we never swim on vacation, so it´s shorts and wet t-shirt look for me. There are large groups of 20-something backpackers, and we run into a guy who was on our boat to the Islas Flotantes in Puno. (He actually appeared while I was writing this. We expect to see him again outside Nazca.)

I wasn´t overly excited about the baths, but two Cuba Libres later, I´ve relaxed into the spirit of the thing. That´s a rum and coke with lime, good rum down here, sin helado, of course. The view from the outdoor pool is all mountains, and while we´re melting in the hot water, the sun sets and the moon rises.

On the way back to town, Carmen - having overheard something I said - asks Javier to pull over and kill the headlights. We stand in the middle of the dirt road and stare at the sky.

A starry sky without the lights of a big city is a very rare treat in my life. An incredible moment in the jungle in Mexico (from the thoughtfulness of a driver) was one of the peak travel experiences of my life. So I very much wanted to see the Southern sky at night, and my chances have been decreasing as the trip continues. It is almost always misty on the coast, where we´ll be for the next week. So Carmen knew I wanted to see the stars, and made that possible.

What can I say? It was serene - serene and exciting at the same time. Now I´ve seen the Southern Cross, and another Orion´s belt, and an entirely different sky. I always wanted to do that. I feel really fortunate to be here.

A little later, we went to dinner at another tourist restaurant, this one with music and a dance show. Again, we were skeptical, as we´d much prefer to hear music with locals, but that doesn´t seem possible in this situation. But once again, it was really nice. The food was great - I tried something called cauche de quecho, a cheese, potato and onion soup, and sipped a hot, spiced Pisco drink called camarito. The music was the usual drill: four dark-haired men wearing ponchos, playing various stringed instruments, percussion and wooden pipes. They were good, although I don´t know why it´s necessary to hear El Condor Pasa more than once a day.

A young man and woman gave a demonstration of various regional dances in various regional costumes. They were fun and interesting, especially as it included cross-dressing, simulated sex, and S&M.

One dance re-enacts a young couple´s solution to the girl´s father decress that his daughter is too young to dance with a boy: the boy dresses as a girl. In another dance, the boy eats a poison fruit, and the girl must try everything to wake him - everything. This includes a not-so-gentle whipping, and covering his face with her skirts. Carmen told us the whipping is Andean love, but I didn´t feel I should press for an explanation.

The dancing couple are really good, and part of their act is to invite people from the audience to join the dance. Now you know me, I´m usually up for anything, and Allan is generally shy and reserved. So how is it he was more willing than me? I danced a little, but he was really into it, including a stint with the poison fruit, and he and Carmen wore themselves out on the finale, while Javier and I laughed ourselves silly. It was great - hilarious.

Day two will be much shorter, but more exciting. One word: Condors.

Photos from Colca Canyon, day one, here.


mike (in the middle) said...

I believe your other Orion's Belt was actually the same one, just upside down. In the southern hemi Orion stands on his head - I was stunned by seeing this in Chile four years ago. Try to get another look.

Masnick96 said...

Very cool, tha't alwasy been a dream of mine to - to see the Southern Cross and another part of the sky :-)

Gald you are having so much fun

L-girl said...

Wow, thanks Mike ITM! I know very little about constellations, so I wouldn´t be able to tell. That´s very cool.

L-girl said...

Thanks Nick. We have some similar dreams, eh? :-)

James said...

More maps:

Colca Canyon

If you have Google Earth, Colca Canyon is even more impressive to look at, since you can get low-angle views with terrain in 3D. Not at all like the real thing, of course, but it gives you an idea.

Laura, because you're about 16 degrees south of the equator, you can see most of the constellations you can see from Toronto (plus a few more). Only the ones within 16 degrees of the north celestial pole will be hidden from you (well, a little more than that, 'cause of all the mountains on the horizon...). So you won't be able to see Cassiopia or the Big Dipper, but you will have a view of all of the zodiacal constellations plus Orion, Canis Major, and so on -- except upside-down from what you're used to.

If you're on the equator, you can theoretically see all of the constellations (not all at once, though -- they're seasonal).

L-girl said...

I didn´t know that! Very cool. It makes perfect sense, once you think about it - the constellations couldn´t all change, 1-2-3, over an imaginary line.

Keep those Google maps coming...!