Saturday 19 July 2014

Days 69 - 73: Arequipa and Colca Canyon

Choosing lunch
When we arrived in Arequipa, Southern Peru, we could tell we had crossed a national border.  After grid-locked La Paz, the traffic here flowed freely, and the centre of the town showed levels of wealth that we haven't seen since we left Sucre.  On the downside, the chains have come back into the picture.  I had forgotten what the logos of Starbucks and MacDonalds look like; now they offer me coffee and burgers and ice cream as I turn a street corner.

We paid a visit to the market where smoothie stalls abounded (strawberries, oranges, mangoes and passion fruits all in one drink? - yes, please).  We bought the world's biggest avocados and a cheese the size of my head and a box of fudge.  ("Don't make me eat any chocolate," says Guy, while stuffing himself with chocolate fudge.)  Then we bought mandarins the size of peaches and tomatoes.  Back on the sunny roof terrace of our hostel - the nicest place we have stayed in South America bar Easter Island - we ate our tastiest meal in weeks.

Very Fruity!
After gluttony, time for prayer.  We visited Santa Catalina's monastery, which makes up its own high-walled village within Arequipa city.  Its streets and courtyards are filled with flowers and lined with buildings coloured in royal blue and dust red.  Lean against them and you retain the red dusting on your clothes.  Turn your camera off and you will immediately turn it on again.  The monastery is photogenic, peaceful, easy to lose yourself in for an hour or three.

Santa Catalina Courtyard
We took a guided tour and found out about the oh-so-egalitarian lives of the nuns.  They lived far enough away from Rome "to get away with it", according to our guide.  Nuns' families paid an enormous sum of money to have a daughter admitted to the monastery, although less than the cost of a dowry - God comes cheaper than a husband, it seems.  Once there, your status depended on the riches you brought with you.  Your family had to build you a house inside the monastery complex and standards varied.  Some homes were shared by several nuns; others belonged to one individual.  Some had servants; others didn't.  All very equal in the eyes of The Lord!

Volcan Misti as seen from the monastery in Arequipa
The regularity of earthquakes in Arequipa had a significant influence on interior design.  Every nun's bed was located under a wide archway - the strongest architectural features of the building.  I also liked the pots of porous stone through which water dripped over a period of hours for purification.  La Paz, take note!

Feed the birds?
Colonial Arequipa
For the remainder of the afternoon we wandered around the stone buildings in the centre of Arequipa and sat out on the street drinking Pisco Sour, enjoying the warmth, and avoiding pubs showing World Cup football matches (ie. all of them).  England lost to Uruguay yesterday; neither Peru nor Bolivia is playing; and Guy would appear not to know even the most basic rules of football (like how long a match lasts, or the difference between a free kick and a penalty - clearly he had an insufficiently mis-spent youth) so interest is limited.

Susan in the clothes washing
area of the Monestary
First views of Colca Canyon
The next day we had to brace ourselves for the earliest start of the trip - a 3am bus to Colca Canyon.  Once day had dawned, the mini-van dropped us at a viewpoint on the rim of this vast green-and-rocky cleft where we spent half an hour watching condors circling below us.  Then we continued to the village of Cabanaconde where we optimistically left our baggage behind the counter of a shop for a couple of days before setting out on the trail that descends into the canyon.

The trail drops just over a thousand metres vertically by a route that changes at the whim of rockfalls and landslides that periodically wipe sections away.  A fair bit of work had clearly gone into propping it up, although we didn't always one hundred per cent trust the repair work.  Still, the views down to the river, almost vertically below us, were beautiful, and Guy had plenty of opportunities to wax lyrical about geological processes, so we were both happy.

After pic-nicking beside the river we walked through the village of San Juan - an oasis of orchards, sweetly-scented with all things alive and growing.  It's the kind of place where you walk under a tree and wonder whether it is going to throw an avocado or an orange at you.  The air is warm and balmy.  Water trickles.  Insects hum.

But before long we had left the village behind and started climbing the far side of the canyon to a scenic beer stop (accompanied by dozens of guinea pigs on death row - they feature prominently on menus here) before descending again.  Just before nightfall we reached the lush oasis of Segalle - surely one of the villages with the highest number of swimming pools per inhabitant on the globe?

The river at Segalle 2
The river at Segalle 1

Next morning, we re-climbed the canyon's sides and reached Cabanaconde at 11am, just in time for a refreshing peach juice after the sweaty ascent.  Fortunately our baggage had not been sold over the shop's counter for a few Peruvian soles and we reclaimed it gratefully.  The rickshaw-wallahs of Chivay, where we spent the night, would not have to miss out on transporting it after all.  Next stop, Cusco.

Descending into the canyon
The Oasis of Segalle
Columnar jointing in the volcanic rock is visible throughout the canyon

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