The following morning, we got up early and headed downtown to depart for our tour to the Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. We were the first on our little bus and proceeded to go to various hotels picking up four French people, two Colombians, two Peruvians, four Spaniards, and one Japanese girl (traveling alone, spoke very little Spanish or English). After making the rounds, we proceeded on the 3 hour trip through the Colca valley and up to Chivay, the town where we would be spending the night. We stopped at various viewpoints along the way, learning about the flora, fauna and people of the highlands of Peru. And when I say highlands, I mean HIGHlands. At one point, we stopped to take pictures at an altitude of 4900 meters, over 16,000 feet above sea level and well above the tree line. While my mom and I both felt a little dizzy and short of breath, chewing coca leaves in the corner of our mouths per our guides recommendation, and drinking coca tea at a stop on the way up definitely made the altitude quite tolerable. Coca leaves are the base ingredient for cocaine and helps oxygen flow to the brain, but one would have to consume several kilograms of coca leaves to achieve an actual cocaine high.
On the way to Chivay, we saw several vicuñas, alpacas and llamas, and learned how to distinguish between the three “camelites.” Vicuñas are the only wild, not domesticated, animals and thus the textiles made from vicuña wool are by far the most expensive, maybe several hundred dollars. Llamas are bigger than alpacas and their tails point down, while alpaca tails point up.
In Chivay that evening, we had dinner at a local restaurant and were entertained by traditional Peruvian highland music and dance. The performers must have known I loved to dance because they quickly pulled me onto the dance floor with them. I also tried eating alpaca for the first time- a very lean meat, but a little gamey for my taste.
The next day we got up at 5am for breakfast in our hotel and were picked up at 6 to head to the Colca Canyon. The word “colca” means refrigerator or storage place, named for the the little holes along the sides of the canyon used in Inca times to store grains or vegetables. Our guide kept reminding us to stay positive- our goal was to see Andean condors from the lookout point over the canyon but apparently at this time of year it is fairly rare to see more than 1 or 2 condors. Some of our guide's tour groups had seen none at all on their tours. However, our positivity paid off. We had a beautiful sunny morning and saw no less than seven condors circling around our heads, their white undersides and 6-8 foot wing span clearly visible. Between the majestic birds and the breathtaking views of the canyon itself, the experience was incredible. It was also fascinating to watch the local people, wearing traditional dress, living in primitive conditions often with no electricity or water, goading their donkeys and llamas down the dirt roads, and tending to the terraced fields by hand in the same way their Incan ancestors did. As my mother says, the Colca valley felt almost biblical, watching the shepherds and farmers care for their livestock and land.
That evening, we headed back to Arequipa. My mom went to bed relatively early while I went out dancing with Lizzy at a local club. Lizzy and I agreed that the music in the club was marginal and the drinks overpriced, but it was still fun to experience the Peruvian night life.
The next morning, Mary took us on a little tour of Arequipa, known as the “white city” due to its buildings of a durable white volcanic rock known as “sillar.” We did way too much shopping and had a late lunch at a delicious typical Arequipan restaurant. We also explored the local market, which seemed to attack all of our senses at once. Colorful displays of exotic fruits, dried llama and alpaca fetuses used for sacrifices, aisles of artisan displays, strong odors of all cuts of meat, full pig heads, and plentiful bargaining and negotiating were just some of the sensory input. Before our bus left that evening, the whole family gathered in Isa's apartment to see my mom and I off. The sisters even surprised my mom by sneaking out and buying her a birthday cake- all of us sang her happy birthday in English and Spanish. Her present was a beautiful silver bracelet. The hospitality of this family was absolutely amazing. They fought over who got to take us to the bus station. Eventually Mary, Lizzy my mom and I headed to the station but Isa and Aledia were right behind us in a cab- they didn't want to miss out! Dozens of hugs, kisses, and goodbyes later, my mom and I were on the luxury bus for our 10 hour overnight trip to Cuzco.
To be continued…