Peru Part IX: Surrounded by giants

The Colca Canyon and Arequipa


I am dreading another bus ride, this time from Puno to Chivay. But this trip turns out to be a lot better. Not just because I downloaded the entire season of Dirk Gently on my phone, but the landscape is even more beautiful than last time. We drive past wide lakes that seem pink from the thousands of flamingos feeding on shrimp. We make a stop in the National Park of Salidas and Aguada Blanca, where wild vicuñas roam freely like flocks of long-necked deer; how life can exist in this seemingly barren desert is beyond me. Great rock formations and ancient masses of green moss surround the road leading up to the mountains. After passing the highest point of our journey at 4900 meters we start descending into the valley. The Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but its walls are not nearly as steep. The snow that covered the side of the road disappears and after half a day we arrive in the small town of Chivay. We sleep just a few kilometers away in a guest house looking out at the Misti Volcano.

Later that day, I go out for a run. It’s not easy finding a level route to jog. I start on the pre-Inca terraces that are relatively flat, but the thorny bushes painfully scratch against my legs. I follow a trail downhill and end up on the quiet main road, which is partly covered with sheep. On my way back, I notice that I’d been only running downhill the entire time; I struggle upwards while barely getting enough oxygen. As I turn around a curve, I see a group of manic Peruvians standing and shouting around a fallen boulder, which is keeping their car from continuing. We combine forces and manage to push the heavy rock over to the side. After celebrating our herculean achievement, we all laugh and go our separate ways. I think to myself as I run up the hill, that there would most likely be a national outrage if something like this occurred in The Netherlands.

When we wake up the next day, 2016 has transformed into 2017 without a noise. In the distance, Misti is coughing out gray clouds of ash, as she does many times a day. Using a crudely drawn map from Herbert, a tour guide who is also staying in the hotel, we start a hike along the sides of the old terraces. I can’t believe my eyes when the open tombs that Herbert described turn out to be real. Bones from Inca times and even before lie piled up in big carved holes in the mountainside. I feel like Indiana Jones when I spot the elongated skulls that reveal the age and historical importance of these remains. Small pieces of cloth can even be distinguished between the skulls and ribcages. But these burial places are not a secret: scattered Soles proof that locals still visit these tombs regularly. How these graves have not yet been robbed or their contents put in a museum is a mystery to me.

We continue along the slope until we reach Uyo Uyo, the ruins of another pre-Inca religious metropole. When we hike down towards the Colca river, a stray dog that was sleeping near an old temple decides to tag along. He doesn’t leave our side when we cross the vertigo-inducing bridge to the town of Yanque, but he’s gone after we have lunch in a small cafe. While my dad, plagued by altitude sickness, takes a taxi to our hotel, my mom and I decide to finish the hike. Even though we’re walking on plain asphalt, the white peaks of the mountains around us make for a stunning walk. Meanwhile, dark clouds are rolling in and the sound of thunder in the distance grows louder. A bolt of lightning cuts through the sky and surprises us with a shower of rain. My mom, a notorious astrophobe, quickly increases her pace. I annoyingly start playing AC/DC on my phone before we safely make it back to the hotel. After all too many bus and boat rides, this active day outside was very welcome.

The next day is once again an early one. Along with our guide Olivia and charismatic driver Coco, we ride to the most famous spot of the canyon: el Cruz del Condor, the best place to spot the bird with the biggest wingspan in the world. You might ask, why do they gather around this area? Well, only because Peruvians leave all their dead cattle near this spot to attract the massive condors. Once again, we’re extremely lucky. No less than seven condors decided to put on a show today. And the Patagona gigas, the largest species of hummingbird in the world, shows up as well. We spent much time admiring the humungous birds before taking a detour back to the car. The second half of the day, we spent driving much of the same route as before. We get to Arequipa in the late afternoon, our last stop before going home. Before going out for dinner, I destroy both my parents in table tennis and foosball.

Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas is arguably more beautiful than Cusco’s. Its palm trees, large fountain and grand colonial houses make for an impressive sight. The city lies in a valley circled by volcanoes and is frequently disturbed by strong earthquakes. It’s home to Guanita, one of the best preserved Andean mummies in the world (she unfortunately was on holiday to the US). From her remains found high on the mountain sides, we have learned much about sacrificial Inca rituals. It is believed that these were voluntary; it was a great honor to be sacrificed to the gods of nature. Another one of Arequipa’s main attractions is the trade of camelid fashion. Mundo Alpaca sells baby Alpaca sweaters, meaning the high quality wool of an alpaca’s first shearing. If you wish to buy a cape made from vicuña hair, prepare to pay at least a couple thousand dollars. Mundo Alpaca is a great place to finally learn the difference between llamas and alpacas, as both are on display in an outside section of the store. Don’t anger the llama as I did, unless you want to find out what llama spit smells like.

We start our visit of the Santa Catalina monastery just before the fall of the evening. I am not in a great mood; the prospect of returning to freezing Holland in the most depressing month of the year does not excite me. But my bad state of mind is immediately reversed by the simplistic splendor of the monastery: the contrast between the red and blue walls is the perfect backdrop for photography. The light begins to change and the sun is setting as we climb the stairs to the top of a small church within the complex. The clouds have disappeared and we can suddenly see the looming mountains that surround us everywhere. I feel a strong understanding of why the Incas considered the volcanoes to be powerful and divine beings. For just a moment the setting sun paints the peaks with orange, before the clouds come back and conceal them once again. Then, it is time to go.

What could I write about the return trip? It’s awful, except for one thing. When I get back to The Netherlands, the strangest thing happens to me; I’m mystified by all the cycling people. It is as if they’re floating in the cold air while gracefully gliding forward.

In the next weeks, I make arroz a la Cubana, vegetarian llomo saltado and chicha morada to try and bring a part of Peru in my home, but it’s simply not the same. The days are cold, the trees are bare and the animals are hibernating. I want to somehow relive the best moments in the jungle and the mountains. So I start writing.

THE END

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A llama looks out over one of the many highland lakes. The small pinkish dots are flamingos.
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The Colca Canyon is still mostly used for agricultural purposes.
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Misti’s first eruption of the day. We were freaking out upon seeing this, but the hotel owners shrugged it off as completely normal. The volcano erupted at least four more times that day.
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Herbert’s amazingly drawn map.
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This skull looks like an artifact from Area 51, but it is actually the product of head binding, a popular practice among ancient Andean cultures.
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Yes, these bones are just lying out in the open. Some Soles have been put in a broken skull in the background.
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The church on the main square of Yanque.
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The age of a condor can be recognized by its color. This brown youngster will later turn black.
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A remarkable flower growing near Cruz del Condor.
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This lady in traditional attire is showing of her weaving skills at Mundo Alpaca in Arequipa.
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The red part of the monastery of Santa Catalina was reserved for more experienced nuns, while the new sisters resided in the blue part.
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The contrast between these colors is amazing.

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