Arequipa City and Colca Canyon

After exploring Lima, our second Peruvian destination was the Arequipa area to the south of the country. Unlike Lima, Arequipa sits at a decent elevation of 2300m with higher points not far away (volcanoes and the Andean Plateau). It’s possible to bus from Lima to Arequipa but this takes approximately 20 hours so we took a cheap flight instead with Peruvian Air on an ancient 737. We came here to see the preserved colonial old town and to hopefully spend a couple days in nearby Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world.

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Arequipa’s central plaza and cathedral
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on top of our hotel

We were immediately drawn into Arequipa’s charm. It’s a very clean, picturesque city with friendly people and excellent food and coffee. It didn’t take long for us to feel at home! We wandered around the old town with its uniquely white sillar volcanic stone construction, much of which remains intact and in use as shops and restaurants (along with churches and cathedrals, of course). It’s a touristy city, but as many of the tourists are Peruvian or from neighboring countries, it doesn’t feel that way; and the locals are definitely present in force to enjoy the sun and scenery on the main plaza.

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near our hotel in Arequipa

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a local man visiting the cathedral’s outdoor nativity scene

We were relaxing and people-watching in the plaza the day after arriving when a parade happened on through. We’re not sure what it was about – we heard perhaps the anniversary of a neighboring village – but whatever the occasion it brought in hundreds of dancers wearing elaborate traditional clothes. Trucks from local businesses handed – or threw – out to the crowds everything from ice cream to cucumbers. It was such a jubilant scene, with cheering children and adorable old ladies clutching free roses, that it was impossible not to smile and laugh along.

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We had our first pisco sours here in Arequipa – absolutely delicious. (If this doesn’t sound familiar, it’s a cocktail made with local pisco brandy and egg whites.) I also tucked into an alpaca steak which was very tender and flavorful. Several salads were consumed and these were awesome as well with very fresh greens, figs, asparagus, cheese etc. We had classy dinners in refined settings, $3 two-course lunches with more food than we could eat, and street food in the busy marketplace. It was all great!

Mercado San Camilo, from top left: fruit stands, tasty chickens, salsa ladies, maiz morado (purple corn), juice stands, and bags of coca leaves

Peruvian food departs from our past Latin America experiences in many ways. There’s little use of brown/black beans, with instead a myriad of preparations for potatoes (of which there are a zillion types). Choclo – a large-kernel type of corn with a texture like hominy – shows up in many dishes. Homemade rocoto chili and citrus salsa is ubiquitous. Soups of all sorts are a normal first course. And of course there is quinoa which goes into anything – soup, salad, beverage, you name it.

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papa rellena (stuffed potato) from the market

Arequipa is referred to as the capital of the alpaca wool trade. Whether or not this is true there certainly are a lot of goods here that run the full range of quality and price. We visited Mundo Alpaca which has a small zoo of the different sorts of alpacas, a demonstration of traditional weaving, and some very nice (and very expensive) clothing. We didn’t buy anything but we did feed and pet the alpacas. Later on, however, we found ourselves some really nice thick blankets of sheep and alpaca wool that we sprung for and shipped back home!

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The activity to do near Arequipa – aside from summiting 6000m peaks – is to visit Colca Canyon. It’s one of the deepest in the world and promises great scenery, trekking, and sightings of the threatened Andean condor (by one metric the world’s largest flying bird). Simple lodgings are located along the popular trail so it’s pretty easy to do a multi-day visit. We intended to do the trek on our own but when looking into transportation options we realized that a guided group trek was really quite cheap. It’s often more fun and interesting to go with a group, so we signed up for the 3am departure the next day!

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on the road from Arequipa to Colca

Reaching the canyon actually involves a 5.5hr drive up and over the Andean Plateau along windy roads. The sun rose as we went and gave us some great views of shrouded mountains and some wild endangered alpaca relatives called vicuñas. Like the yaks we saw in Nepal, alpacas and their kin like it where it’s high and cool: we hit 4800m in elevation (that’s 3 miles, and remember this is a plateau surrounded by mountains) before dropping back down to 3300m at the rim of Colca Canyon. 

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First stop was Mirador Cruz del Cóndor, a viewpoint for spotting the namesake birds. No condors for us. But we did get a good view of the canyon opening up from the eastward valley where we had driven past many pre-Incan terraces. Here (or at any point for that matter) we didn’t see the deepest parts of the canyon, but it’s still quite a sight. Then we were stuffed back in the van and shuttled to a brief breakfast stop which was rather paltry but included a deliciously thick hot apple and quinoa drink.

Next at our departure point we were split into groups. Many were only doing a 2-day / 1-night visit which seems pretty rushed: the standard circuit is less than 30km, so not a lot of distance, but much of that is either steep uphill or down. Add in elevation – the lowest point in our trek is as high as the rim of the Grand Canyon – and it takes a bit of effort. We were happy to be able to spread it out over 3 days and enjoy ourselves. The rest of our excellent group agreed.

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So down we went, 1100m to the river crossing below. Happily we spotted a couple condors as we went, soaring along on their distinctive black wings with white trim. Our first day brought us to the small settlement of San Juan de Chuccho for lunch at a humble little farm/hostel. They have the obligatory pen of guinea pigs (this is how you turn food scraps into meat in the Andes) along with more typical livestock plus a variety of fruit trees. They grow some really delicious avocado and figs down in the canyon!

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an Andean condor overhead

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After a lazy afternoon and early bedtime we awoke for a nice sunrise the next morning. We hiked up through a couple other villages (Cosñinhua and Malata) while learning about the uses for local plants from our guide James. Pictures are better than words:

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our group: Marco, Charlie, me, Niels, Elisa, Elaine

Our second afternoon and night was spent at a place called Sangalle, or more commonly, the “Oasis”. It’s a lush green patch next to the river where several lodgings have swimming pools fed by a nearby spring. It’s as lovely as it sounds! We enjoyed some sun, cold beers, and hanging out with our new friends. Unfortunately another early morning was in store for us – we needed to start hiking up out of the canyon at 4:15am in order to make our ride back.

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this spring-fed waterfall also feeds the swimming pools!

The pre-breakfast climb took a little over 3 hours. It wasn’t terrible, but generally I’m happier doing this sort of thing once I’ve eaten and had some coffee. (Elaine ended up beating me and most everyone else to the top, earning a praising “valiente!” from the local ladies selling snacks.)

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Once we had all reached the top, it was only a short walk through some cornfields to the village of Cabanaconde for breakfast. The village square also offered some excellent people-watching while we waited for our ride to pick us up. Yes, all the old Peruvian women really do dress like this – it’s adorable!

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Our trip back involved a few touristy-yet-interesting stops for knicknacks, alpaca viewing, and hot springs. We managed to stay awake long enough after returning to Arequipa to enjoy another nice meal with some pisco sours. Next destination: Cusco and Machu Picchu!

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on the high road back to Arequipa

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