Forget about Lima, Peru is all about three things: nature, big old Inca ruins, and genuine people (they will nevertheless try to charge you a ‘Gringo Tax’ on everything, so do haggle). Our plan to capture all of this involved traveling to Arequipa (Colca Canyon), Puno (Lake Titicaca) and Cusco (Machu Picchu) in just nine days. Motivated by a tight budget and a healthy dose of masochism, we decided to stick to buses and hiking.
We arrived to Arequipa after a grueling 17 hour bus ride (little did we know that much longer rides lurked ahead). Arequipa is Peru’s second most populous city, driven by agriculture, mining and the camelid wool industry. Like many other cities in Peru, it has an incredible ‘Plaza de Armas’ but the rest of the city is little more than a succession of unfinished buildings (most Peruvians build their houses progressively, leaving exposed brick facades and bare steel beams until they have enough money to add additional floors).
But there’s more to Arequipa that meets the eye: it is called ‘Ciudad Blanca’, supposedly because its historic buildings are made of ‘sillar’, a local white volcanic rock. Locals however venture that the real reason is that during much of its existence Arequipa was inhabited mostly by white Spanish descendants. All of that changed during the 1960’s (when an earthquake and the drough plateau caused an influx of emigration from Puno and other nearby regions), but to this day a certain segregation seems to persist (for instance, calling someone indigenous might be considered offensive). Thankfully, younger generations seem to be broader minded and embrace the Inca and pre-Inca history with the pride it deserves.
After an afternoon in Arequipa, we woke up bright and early for the high point of our journey: hiking to the bottom of the Colca Canyon (one of the deepest gorges in the world, formed by a geological fault between the Coropuna and Ampato volcanoes). After an exciting bus ride (traffic laws seem to be optional in Peru) and an uneventful stop at ‘Cruz de los Condors’ (I know that condors play a big role in Peruvian culture, but what’s the fun in watching birds circling 200 meters away?), we started our descent into the canyon.
Don’t believe travel agents that tell you this is an easy hike: the trail is steep and narrow, the sun is hot and the 3.700m+ altitude will run you out of breath. Thankfully, our awesome guide Rafael took care of us and of our Canadian hiking buddies. He also put up with our tentative Spanish and taught us a lot about Peruvian customs and the Colca flora, thanks Rafa!
We got to the bottom of the Canyon tired but happy, and slept like babies (the fact that there was no electricity, much less internet, did help). The following day we got up before sunrise to hike back up the canyon avoiding the scorching sun as much as possible (in the pictures you’ll notice that our guide is covered from head to toe: skin cancer is a big issue in Arequipa and other Peruvian high altitude cities). As we crept up the path, we were occasionally passed by mules carrying hikers that chickened out. Making it to the top was tough but rewarding, as the views are incredible!
On our way back to Arequipa, we made a couple of extra stops. These are touristy but fun: one at Patapampa (at 4.910 meters and freezing cold) and another one to see the three types of camelids that inhabit Peru: llamas, alpacas and vicunas (the latter are very rare and their wool costs more than 400$ per kg).
We’re off to Puno now, to check out Lake Titicaca and more big old ruins!