The long, 26-hour journey from San Pedro to Arequipa included 2 bus journeys, around 8-hours in bus stations and a rather amusing colectivo (shared taxi) journey from Arica in Chile to Tacna in Peru.
The dozens of drivers are ready to pounce as you arrive at Arica international bus station. For £4.50 per person they pile you into their ancient, beat-up car, wait until it is full and drive you the hour or so to Tacna, rushing you through the two border controls as quickly as they can manage.
Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, is as beautiful a city as we have seen in South America. Stunning architecture, pretty churches and grand colonial buildings. The gorgeous main plaza, dominated by the city’s cathedral with snow covered El Misti peaking between the towers, would give any European square a run for it’s money in the prettiness stakes.
The appeal of Arequipa doesn’t stop there…cute courtyard cafes and lantern lit restaurants line the busy streets enticing you in. Finally, the main attraction, Santa Catalina monastery shouldn’t be missed. At 20,000 sq m it feels more like a village than a convent…with it’s own lantern filled streets and flower filled squares.
Unfortunately we had underestimated Arequipa and only allowed one day to soak in the sights. The following day we had an early pick up to start the 2-day tour into canyon country.
As we were leaving Arequipa for the canyon we noticed that the beauty of the place is contained very much in the central hub. It is in fact a sprawling city with shanty towns surrounding it.
A cup of coca tea was the first stop on the agenda…Peru’s answer to altitude sickness. Perhaps it works because other than a little breathlessness Lach and I seem to have escaped any symptoms.
As well as the main selling point of the tour, the canyon, there were many other points of interest along the way. Short treks to inca ruins, rural indigenous villages and wildlife spotting. At every stop, no matter how small or brief, there would be a line of stalls with every type of colourful textile being sold. Many of these stops were at very high altitude, it was freezing, even snowing at some, and the women (and children) would be out there all day just waiting for the odd bus that passes. Our tour guide told us that if they sell only two items it is a good day for them.
We also had the opportunity to glimpse the way of life for the indigenous communities living amongst the Andes, many of them living solely off the land with none of the basic services (clean water, electricity) that we all take for granted. All ages seem to be trained in sheep and cow herding and over the two days we saw young children of no more than 10 years old and pensioners of 70 herding their animals to or from the mountains.
We stayed the night in Cabanaconde, a very small village located at the head of the canyon. Heating has certainly not reached this village and it gets freezing at nights here. I don’t think I have ever been as cold…even in Scotland!
On the plus side staying here did mean we were well located for an early morning trek to the canyon viewpoint. Colca canyon is almost twice the depth of the Grand Canyon and it is quite a sight, particularly seeing the villages that cling to the edges of the canyon walls. The locals living there have no road access and need to walk a minimum of 4-5 hours (up a very steep hill) to sell the crops they grow and buy anything they need.
All in all, a fascinating insight into a very different way of life and a brilliant opening to Peru.