April 20 – 30, 2003
Settling down in Arequipa
Given a choice of taking the bus to Plaza de Armas then finding my lodging on foot or taking a taxi, I conceded to my laziness and went with the latter. I had been forewarned not to get in a cab immediately outside of the airport – bypassing all the touts was a taxi stand where the drivers would turn on their metres.
Unlike the sleepy Cusco, Arequipa has been the regional commercial hub of southern Peru since being founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1540. With a population of more than 800,000, it is the second largest city in Peru, which was easy to tell from the high volume of traffic on the road.
I had reserved a $7 single room without bathroom at Colonial House Inn, near the San Francisco Abbey and the Santa Catalina Monastery. They still served breakfast when I got there at 10:30 am. The sun was shining brightly in the sky, so I grabbed a seat on the rooftop balcony and soaked up the rays. Arequipa’s low humidity was a welcome shift from Cusco’s damp weather.
I chatted with a staff to inquire about the logistic of getting to Colca Canyon and was genuinely surprised to find out there would be a two-day tour leaving tomorrow that charged only $20. Having that settled, it was time to take a look at Arequipa. I had three places in my mind – Plaza de Armas, Santa Catalina Monastery and the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries.
A quick recap:
i) Plaza de Armas
Compared to Cusco’s, this one is much larger and more photogenic, especially with the volcano El Misti in the background. Instead of being overrun by touts like in Cusco, here many kids were having fun chasing pigeons.
It was easy to see how Arequipa gets the nickname “The White City” – most of the plaza’s buildings were built by the Spanish conquistadors with a type of white volcanic rock called sillar.
ii) Santa Catalina Monastery
Whenever the corruption and fallibility of the Catholic Church that Martin Luther criticized is mentioned, the attention will naturally be focused on the very top of the hierarchy – the Vatican and the lavish lifestyle of the successive popes. But even across the Atlantic Ocean in the New World, the impact of the Church’s bastardized teachings and practices is equally evident.
Founded by a rich widow named Maria de Guzman in 1580, the Santa Catalina Monastery accepted mostly women from Arequipa’s Spanish upper class. Back then it was a widely accepted belief that by having a daughter dedicated her life as a nun, she would bring salvation to her whole family. Once admitted these girls could never leave the monastery.
Barred but by no means arduous, the nuns lived a privileged lifestyle. Most had personal servants. The size of the complex resembles more of a castle than a monastery. Besides the backstory, the most distinguishable element of the Santa Catalina Monastery is its highly contrasted walls painted in red, blue, white and orange, perhaps as a way to brighten up the trapped souls of the past occupants.
I wholeheartedly recommend anyone who doesn’t have Arequipa on their itinerary to visit the city just for the Santa Catalina Monastery.
iii) Museum of Andean Sanctuaries
Across the street from the Santa Catalina Monastery is this tiny museum, home to the Mummy Juanita, the 500-year old frozen body of an Incan girl who was killed as a human sacrifice to the mountain god. The body, discovered in 1995 by an American anthropologist on Mount Ampato in Southern Peru, was preserved naturally in the glacier and didn’t receive any artificial desiccation.
Entry to the museum is by guided tour only. We were shown a video on the discovery of the body and some ceremonial artifacts but unfortunately the mummy was on a worldwide tour and I only saw its replica.
The Long Ride to Colca Canyon
The tour van came picked me up slightly after seven o’clock. Besides the guide and driver, our group consisted of a Dutch lady in her thirties who just went to the Manú National Park; a young German couple who were halfway through their six-month long trip in South America; a retired British man who was silent at all times; and last but not least two elderly ladies from London and New Jersey, respectively, who had trouble just getting on the van. It was quite a strange mix of people.
Arequipa is not located in a fertile region. Not long after leaving the city we came across a boundless, barren landscape incapable of sustaining any life forms but the most adaptive plants. As we climbed up the plateau, the road condition gradually deteriorated until we drove into a long queue of stalled vehicles. Our guide informed us that the road ahead was under construction and we had just missed the ten o’clock clearing. The road would be reopened again in three hours.
Even though we couldn’t open the windows because of the construction outside and the van became increasingly stifling, the unexpected interruption presented a good chance for everyone to know each other a bit. Some of my fellow tour mates began to question the guide’s lack of preparation.
As if three hours wasn’t enough, we were given more time to question our collective judgment of joining this tour when the van broke down an hour after we resumed our journey. Luckily it was just something minor and we soon were back on track.
When we finally could stretch our legs and set out on our first and only hike of the day in Choquetico, famous for its hanging tombs, it was already five in the afternoon. What was supposed to be a two hour trek was shortened to thirty minutes. The tombs were mere sideshows; the real interest was the panoramic view of Colca Canyon, for which our guide passionately proclaimed to be the very best in Peru. I personally didn’t share nearly the same level of enthusiasm.
On the way down, our guide asked me why was I traveling alone in Peru. He said it was quite rare to see Asian traveler. After hearing Machu Picchu as my reply, he nodded and said with a light chuckle, “You should go to Argentina. Extremely cheap there. Used to be they who travel here. But the situation has reversed.”
Night in Chivay
Like most people visiting Colca Canyon, our group spent the night in Chivay, a popular base for exploring the area that is also famous for its hot springs. After dropping off the two old ladies at an expensive looking hotel, the rest of us arrived at our lodging for the night – a ramshackle house with holes in the wall.
For dinner we had guinea pig at a nearby restaurant that catered to tourists. It was bony without too much of a distinctive taste. Afterwards we were divided into two groups; some went to take a dip at a hot spring and I went to a pub with the German couples and the Dutch lady.
Chivay at night was unexpectedly cold. There was a large crack next to the window which allowed the chilling wind an unfailing channel into my room. I left my hoodie and jeans on while pulling all five blankets available in my room over on top of me. Sleeping under the mountain of blankets kept me warm but left me breathless.
Cruz del Condor
Breakfast started at six and couldn’t have come soon enough. It was much warmer in the morning and the fierce wind had receded. After picking up the old ladies at their hotel we had a brief stop at Chivay’s town centre where there was absolutely nothing to see.
Now that we were finally on the way to the Colca Canyon, it begs the question, “What is there to see?”
Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, measuring at 4,160 m at its greatest depth. But of greater interest to most visitors is that the canyon is home to the Andean Condor, the largest flying bird in the world and a national symbol of Peru and other neighbouring Andean nation states. Our destination Cruz del Condor, 60 km from Chivay, is one of the best viewing spots to see the bird in wild.
Another Long Ride
Watching wildlife is always a crapshoot. Our guide said last week he spotted a dozen condors and some even flew right over his head, however today only two birds were in sight at the lookout, both gliding a long distance away. Endangered the Andean Condor might be, it was hard to conjure any excitement when in my eyes these supposed giant birds were no bigger than two impossibly tiny spots. We hiked along the rim of the canyon for an hour, then we were led back to the van and began our six-hour ride back to Arequipa.
To spend two full days for two hours at Colca Canyon was a poor judgement on my part. The scenery was underwhelming, though I guess those with more time to partake a multiple days trekking tour might appreciate the canyon more. To be fair, I didn’t pay much and the guide did his part to try to make the tour enjoyable for us.
I was dropped off at the Arequipa bus station at six in the afternoon. The station was full of commuters, the vast majority of them locals. Not sure which operator to choose, I ended up purchasing the cheapest overnight ticket available at the one with the biggest booth – a real-life proof that having the largest retail space is a definite advantage.
With another five hours to go until the 23:30 departure time, I elected not to go back to the town centre. I killed a few hours at an internet café on the second floor before dozing off on a bench in the main hall.