March 28, 2013 by jiejie768
We rose early in the morning on Thursday, March 14, to begin our descent into the deep, dark crevices of Colca Canyon. Actually, in an ironic turn of events, we had to ascend several thousand feet to view the canyon, as Arequipa, at 7,500-ish feet, would be the lowest altitude we would experience during this whole trip outside of Lima (sea level).
After a second delicious breakfast at Las Torres de Ugarte, we bid our lovely hosts farewell (the owner of the hotel told Meg she loved my purple chullo(s) — “Dos gorras es!”) and boarded a craft with which we would become VERY familiar over the next three or four days: the 20-passenger Mercedes van/bus. Often you’ll hear people say “(fill in the blank) is the Mercedes of (type of transportation).” This is meant to imply that whatever vehicle the speaker is indicating is the height of luxury for that particular mode of transport. Well, when it comes to 20-passenger vans … the literal Mercedes of 20-passenger vans does not live up to whatever the proverbial “Mercedes of 20-passenger vans” would be. What I’m trying to say is, despite it’s luxurious bloodlines, the van was rather cramped and uncomfortable.
Our two-day, one-night trip into the canyon was booked through a company that features “semi-private” tours. This meant we would be joined by as many fellow customers (up to 18) as they could book for the same stretch of time in the aforementioned van. The other two seats in the van were taken by our driver, Miguel, and our tour guide, Ali. The morning the tour departed, the van drove all around Arequipa picking up various tourees at their respective hotels before heading north to the canyon-lands. We were the second or third stop (of about seven) on this route and when we boarded, we were taken aback to find that our very good friend Nick Zylstra would be joining us on this adventure. Mikey, Nick and I have been close friends since before high school (both were groomsmen at our wedding), and Meg and Nick are good friends who had previously traveled through Guatemala together.
Given that Nick is among our very best friends, we were shocked that he was in Peru without having told us. Furthermore, we were taken aback by his rather garish mustache and spot-on, though obviously affected, Australian accent. Turns out, though, this gentleman was not, in fact, Nick, but some other guy — Jamie, I guess — who looked EXACTLY like Nick, but with a stupid mustache. Unfortunately, though I took literally thousands of photos on this trip, I failed to get one of Australian Nick, so you’ll have to trust me. The other members of our traveling party included a half-dozen or so German people, a couple of French girls, a Spanish couple, a solitary Peruvian 20-something, and an older (50’s or so) Peruvian couple. Australian Nick and many of the German girls obviously had met earlier on their respective trips and formed an impenetrable clique that I grew to resent by the end of the trip. Mostly, I wanted to be one of the cool kids, but such was not my lot on this particular excursion.
Once I got over being shunted to the Table 9 of our trip, Meg and I did have a few nice conversations with the older Peruvian couple, who sat behind us in the van and were the only people on our tour at the same hotel as us in Chivay (the tour offered a variety of different lodging options for the night in Chivay at various price points). Mikey, I’m sure, also, really enjoyed nodding along during these conversations despite not speaking much, if any, Spanish. In fact, the husband (who spoke no English) was so taken with Mikey that he frequently struck up conversations with him despite his wife’s repeated reminders that Mikey didn’t understand a single word he was saying.
Our trip from Arequipa to Chivay, the biggest and most important of the Colca Canyon villages, was to take about five hours with a handful of stops along the way. The first stop was a little market on the edge of Arequipa where we could pee, buy water and stock up on coca leaves as we would be rising from Arequipa’s 7,500 feet to nearly 16,100 feet before descending again to a more modest 12,000 feet in Chivay. I’ve had pretty limited experience chewing coca since arriving in Peru. I’ve found coca tea to be a pretty effective tool in battling the sinus-infection-like symptoms I associate with being at altitude, but other than once in Cuzco, had not chewed the leaves. I’ve got to say, it’s the way to go; though the leaves do leave your tongue slightly numb, they almost instantly relieve congestion, headache and dizziness brought on by the altitude.
As the bus pulled out of Arequipa for good, any hopes we had of a restful bus ride through the countryside were dashed by Ali. Our guide was a nice man, and enthusiastic, but one that appeared incapable of abiding peaceful silence on a bus full of strangers. At first, his stories were interesting. But over the course of the next two days, he filled roughly 10-12 hours of bus time with approximately two hours of material about Arequipa, Colca Canyon and the people there-in.
I learned shortly after leaving Arequipa that the natives in the canyon once practiced cranial modification. The people living on the high slopes of the canyon would mold young skulls into a point, while those on the canyon’s floor would flatten the surface of their infants’ heads. As this practice is no longer legal, today the people on the high slopes wear pointed hats to denote their place of origin while the valley dwellers prefer a flat-topped hat.
This was interesting the first time, a useful reminder the second time, and a point of derisive laughter among Meg, Mikey and I by the 42nd telling. Adding to Meg’s and my exasperation with this anecdote (and a handful of other oft-repeated tales) was the fact that Ali repeated everything he said once in English and again in Spanish. For Mikey, this was good news, as he only understood one telling, for Meg and I, it quickly got tedious.
Our first stop after rising above the Arequipa valley was in a wildlife reserve to snap photos of vicuna. The vicuna is the smaller, non-domestic cousin of llamas and alpacas, Peru’s more famous cameloid residents. Llamas are the most well-known of the trio, but in fact, most wool from Peruvian goods comes from the alpaca, as it is softer and easier to come by.
The vicuna wool is even softer, but as the vicuna is not as easily herded, the wool is significantly more expensive — up to $3,000 per kilo. A sign near the herd indicated we had climbed to 13,414 feet. The air was crisp and notably thinner. In addition to the wildlife — it was the first time Meg or I had seen a vicuna — the stop offered a reverse view of El Misti and the Pikchu Pikchu and Chachani mountains which we had admired often from Arequipa.
The stop lasted fewer than 15 minutes, and we boarded again. The next couple stops featured a bathroom break and a cup of coca tea at roadside cafe and another break to photograph some grazing llamas. The final stop before Chivay was a viewpoint 16,100 feet above sea level, the highest point along our route from Arequipa to Chivay.
At this altitude the brush and vegetation had given way to red rocks, offering a breathtaking panoramas amid a rather bleak setting. If the air had seemed thin at previous stops, it was nothing compared to this. A 25-meter hike to the nearby outhouses had both Mikey and I huffing and puffing by the time we returned to the van.
Chivay was about 40 minutes from that final stop, and the winding descent from the pass into the canyon itself was pretty impressive. The red rock gave way once again to vibrant green plant life and the hills were dotted with shepherds and their various livestock — llamas, sheep and cows, mostly. We pulled into the charming village of Chivay at about 1 p.m., just in time for a buffet lunch a local restaurant. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the true effects of this lunch wouldn’t be felt until a few days later in Puno and Cuzco (we’ll get there in a later post), but for the time being it was a pretty spectacular meal. There were plenty of vegetarian options for Meg, while Mikey and I (myself in particular) gorged ourselves on delectable alpaca skewers and delicious chicharron de pollo (Peru’s superior take on the chicken nugget). … TO BE CONTINUED ON MARCH 29.
Catch up on all our travels with Mikey: