The bus ride from Copacabana to Arequipa incl. changing buses in the quirky town of Puno took approx. 10 hours and the last 3 hours we drove in rain and fog so that I wasn’t even able to see the road. It sometimes is a really funny experience travelling on a bus here. One of those awkward experience was crossing the Bolivia-Peru border. On the Bolivian side our fun bus driver gave us instructions on where to go and what documents to have in our hands (and where NOT to change money because it would be fake money). We got out of the bus and since we were the ONLY bus at the border (very first time!) we were the only people there full stop. We walked into immigration and after only waiting for 3 minutes a friendly and funny (also premiere!) officer took my immigration card, my passport and while he stamped it he greeted me with a warm “buenas dias, Brita, como estás?”. I was really staggered because I didn’t expect anything like that – the usual immigration officer appears more like a Zombie, more dead than alive (in terms of emotions) but THIS guy was great! So after we got our passport and documents stamped on the Bolivian border we walked through a kind of archway along a rainy, foggy road for about 100 meters and that was the border to Peru where we entered another empty immigration office and a not so friendly but at least very quick immigration officer. 2 minutes later we hopped back on the bus which waited for us in front of the office we headed to Puno and then to Arequipa. That was such a quick and easy border crossing, heavenly!;)
When I arrived in completely foggy and rainy Arequipa I got to the hostel I had booked before where I was warmly welcomed by the receptionist and met up with Michel who had arrived with his bike only a few minutes before me. It was freezing cold and I was looking forward to a hot shower but the water just didn’t want to get as warm as I would have hoped for still better than the morning after and the upcoming 30 hours where there was no water AT ALL! When we went to breakfast we saw A4 sized printouts posted to the walls in the hostel, saying “sorry, now water because of the heavy rain. Sorry for the inconvenience”. Hmmmm, I thought, THAT sounds like a bit of a contradiction: NO WATER because of RAIN? Rain=water! But then we learned that because there had been so much rain the river had risen enormously and there were so many stones and rocks coming through the pipes that the city had to turn off the water so that the rocks wouldn’t congest the pipes! So some restaurants even started shutting down in the late afternoon because the restrooms weren’t really – hmmmm – you know what I mean…Anyway, I should get to the more essential aspects of my stay in this lovely city. The material which is used for most of those amazing buildings is sillar, a volcanic white rock which gives the city its nickname “la ciudad blanca”. I instantly fell in love with this city – just the right size – not too big but big enough to see a lot. Beautiful churches (yes, sorry, there they are again, the oh-so-often-quoted churches), cozy little alleyways with lots of good restaurants (after the Bolivian rather blunt cuisine this was a REAL treat!) and the usual Alpaca & co tourist shops. An absolute highlight of the city was the visit to Monasterio de Santa Catalina. We went there in the evening and were almost the only visitors. The history of the monastery is just as interesting as the appearance of it. I have never visited a monastery that was so full of atmosphere as this one. With over 20.000 square-meter this monastery takes up a whole street block and is like a citadel. We were able to visit the individual houses where the nuns used to live and instead of equipping the monastery with cold bright lights they only had candles lit or a fire burning in some of the many ovens that used to serve for cooking. We had the feeling of having travelled back in time when we entered the big, charred kitchen or the basic but still enthralling homes of the nuns. This place is really a must-see if you ever got to Arequipa!
The next morning we started our 3-day/2 night tour to the area of the Canon de Colca which is famous for its condors (you have a good chance of seeing them close up because they cruise around the top of the canyon because of the perfect thermal conditions). Canon De Colca is the world’s deepest canyon and it is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. Having heard a lot about its beauty we had decided to go on a 3 day tour to explore the canyon and the surrounding villages. We got picked up in the morning by our fabulous tour guide Roosevelt who was very knowledgeable and gave us a great insight into the culture, flora and fauna of the region of the Canyon. The first day we visited rock formations which looked similar to the ones in Capadocia in Turkey (just a bit smaller), drove up to a 4.900 meter high viewpoint from which we could have seen all the surrounding mountains and volcanoes (but it was so foggy that we just saw the postings pointing in the direction of those mountains and volcanoes), had a very local yummie lunch at the town of Chivay, admired a plant on the way which looks like moss, growing on the rocks on the ground which grows extremely slowly and is so hard that it is used for making fire in some regions (the plant we saw there was about 3 square-meter big and about 800 years old!) and then made our way towards Cabanaconde, another very rural, old town next to the brim of the canyon. The drive towards Cabanaconde was simply beautiful. The valley presents one of the most intensely-terraced landscapes in the world, continuing for many kilometers downstream. Within the deepening valley downriver, a series of small villages is spread out over the approximately 56 km between Chivay and the village of Cabanaconde. Our guide was a local from Cabanaconde so it was extremely interesting to listen to stories that his grandmother had passed on to him, learning about the old rituals, the religion and history of this wonderful area. Once again the traditional dresses of the women looked very different drom what we had seen before: instead of the striped, bright fabrics and the bowler hats that we had seen before the women there wore pretty skirts which flower prints, finely embroidered blouses and flower-print hats. One phenomenon I found very interesting is that the people of the 2 towns of Cabanaconde and Chivay wear different shaped hats – one being flat on top and one being round and showing a star embroidered on the top. The reason for that is that in pre-Inca and Inca times there used to be a common practice: head deformations. Privileged newborns got wood-plates wrapped around their heads with straps of fabric so that their head would develop a certain shape – the one town developed cone-shaped and the other flat heads. The straps were adjusted during growth of the first years and the result was very deformed head shapes (I saw a few skulls in a museum in Cuzco and couldn’t believe what shapes a head can take!!). But what I found even more amazing was the reason WHY they had done that: they used to worship volcanoes or big mountains because those were either the source of essential water or because they were scared that they would break out or they were happy that they didn’t break out. So they deformed the heads of people according to the shape of those volcanoes/mountains.
As we arrived in Cabanaconde after an adventurous car ride (streets had been swept away by big rivers because of the heavy ongoing rain and we had to take a detour where we got stuck on a bridge in deep mud and had to be towed across by a tractor!) we were once again very lucky as the same festival that we had experienced in Copacabana, Peru (see former blog posting) – the festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria – took place in the town that night so we got the “Peruvian version” of that festival. The whole town was without electricity all evening and night so the people danced pretty much in the darkness on the main square which didn’t reduce the phantastic vibe. TO me it was the most “authentic” moment that I had experienced in the whole of South America – beautiful dresses, happy people, a lot of music and dancing and no tourists! That night we lurked around in our little hotel with torches and candles and jumped into our sleeping bags because it was sooo cold. The next morning we started our descent into the bottom of the Canon de Colca. We started at around 3.200 meters and had a 1.200 meter descent ahead of us. The views were spectacular, the weather was great and as we got closer to the bottom we could already see our final destination: a little green oasis right next to the river!! I thought I saw a Fata Morgana but they had really set up 3-4 little oasis for tourists where you were able to camp or sleep in little huts, with swimming pools being fed directly by the springs coming from the mountains and lush tropical trees and flowers. We started at around 14 degrees Celcius on the top of the Canyon and as we reached the bottom we had about 28 degrees – tropically humid. That day we still walked along the river a bit and our guide showed us interesting plants and picked cactus fruit for us to eat fresh from the cacti growing plentiful in the area. The next morning was another one of those “getting-up-at-4 a.m.”-days. We packed our things and had them loaded on our mules and then, after a mini snack – started hiking up the 1.200 meters at 4.45 a.m. it had stopped raining and the moon was so bright that we were able to turn off our head torches after 15 minutes. Everybody was really quiet as it is a bit of a tough challenge to hike up from 2.000 to 3.200 meters that early in the morning. But we made in less than 3 hours and back in Cabanaconde a nice breakfast waited for the group (I skipped it because by stomach was still/again upset since Uyuni). The hike up was – although strenuous – a not-to-be-missed experience for me because it is a truly magical place and beautiful to see the moon disappear and the sun slowly paint the whole landscape in all shades of green. Around 9 a.m. we drove to the most popular tourist spot of the region, the Cruz del Condor – a viewpoint from which you get a close-up with those majestic birds. If you are lucky. And we were, at least for 3 minutes, because as soon as we arrived at the spot we saw about 5-7 condors sailing over the brim of the canyon only some 20 meters away. Soon they disappeared though and the only 2 condors which we saw were lazily sitting on a cliff, showing no intentions at all to move. After that great viewing we headed back to Arequipa and once again almost drowned on the streets which couldn’t take the water anymore. Those 3 days were a really beautiful experience and quite different again from what we had seen before. If you ever go to Peru, don’t miss out on lovely Arequipa and the Canon de Colca!
P.S. Oliver, this blog is dedicated to you – because this place was particularly beautiful for taking pictures!:)) (P.P.S. thanks for the camera-picking-support, I really enjoy the little camera!:)