The overnight buses in South America are always an experience. It is often whispered on these buses that if you have not boarded a night bus with “Eternal Flame” blaring from the on-board television system then you have not lived. As our overnight hostess handed out our “night survival kits” we received more than our fair share of strange looks as our group sung at the top of their lungs… “Is this burning, an eternal flame……” Given that most of the group at this point were deliriously tired, it was not long before we are started counting z’s.
The following morning found us pulling into Arequipa terminal terrestre, or in simple speak, the main bus terminal. Completely exhausted but in a good mood, as the hostess felt that we enjoyed our “go to sleep” music so much that it would be a good idea to wake us up with the same music video, we lumbered to our shuttle bus/taxi to go to our hotel. As one may expect, at 8am our rooms were not ready, so it is amazing how quickly the hotel staff made rooms available after a group of smelly backpackers turned their once beautiful lobby into a dormitory style bedroom. Checked in, it was time to explore Arequipa.
We left our hotel and wearily made our way to the Santa Catalina nunnery. This 16th century nunnery was made famous for inducting women from high class Spanish families, where they would live completely self sufficiently within it’s own walled city. From here we only just managed to make it to the last tour of the Juanita Museum, which had displays of recovered mummified children and other objects which were sacrificed by the Inca’s into the surrounding volcanoes centuries before. The main child sacrifice people go to see is Juanita, though she wasn’t available for viewing, so we saw another girl Sunita. It was extremely hard to believe that you were looking at the mummified body of a child centuries old, who still had skin and hair attached to the bones.
The next day our journey took us to the Colca Canyon region, and as we drove, we experienced our first taste of altitude, in the form of Coca Leaves. At this point, it is important to mention that I am sure a dog licks itself in certain areas to rid itself of the taste of dog food. The same desire can be found for humans after chewing coca leaves. Coca leaves are one of the raw ingredients of cocaine, and as such, provide the body with the necessary nutrients to assist in the management or the reduction of effects of altitude sickness without been addictive in nature. However, I am convinced that the “not been addictive” statement is more closely related to the gagging effect when you place the leaves into your mouth. It was to be strictly Coca Candy from this point (boiled sugar lollies mixed with coca flour).
After reaching 4300 meters, we began our decent to 3800 for our first real stay at altitude, shortness of breath and blueness of the finger nail was to be a regular side effect for the next week.
Our stay in Chivay, although brief, included a walk into the surrounding hills to see incan ruins, a brief game of soccer with some local kids, a visit to the La Calera hot springs and dinner at a local community.
However, we were here for more important matters, the condors of Colca Canyon.
As we rose to a beautiful morning in the Andean Alps, our concerns lay on the ability for the sky to remain clear for our viewing pleasure. We left our village and began to gradually make our way up the winding canyon often finding ourselves looking out one window to see a cliff wall and the window providing a spectacular view straight down the cliff. After 2 long hours, we arrived at our destination, “Condor Lookout”. One may believe that this is a play on words, meaning, a vantage point similar to that which a condor may see as they are perched high on the cliff face, however they would be somewhat mistaken.
This rocky outcrop provides thermals and up drafts for the condors that frequent this spot, but do not land due to the flightless tourists below. As we stood at this point, it was hard not to be amazed by the transformation of these birds from ugly turkey looking birds on the ground, to beautiful and majestic.
Providing ample opportunities to take photos, and after more than 100 photos later it was time to just sit back on the rocks and admire these creatures as they skimmed over our heads catching the next thermal skywards.
Invasion of Colca Canyon complete, it was time to make the 6 hour trip back to Arequipa. After picking up vital supplies and getting a good night sleep in preparation to the 13 hour bus trip, it was time to head to the north to Cusco. As we left on time, we were further delayed by our bus drivers ability to get lost by taking the west road to Nazca rather than the more obviously marked northern road to Cusco.
Arriving late that night, we each took our queues and went to bed looking forward to our free day in Cusco where we would be able to pick up critical survival supplies like chocolate and Inca Kola for our journey on the Inca Trail. Reducing our packs into the supplied duffel bags, we packed our bags to last us the next five days whilst ensuring that the many chocolates that we purchased did not take us over our 6kg limit.
We left Cusco early in the morning, and joined a local community in an ancient Inca ceremony by making an offering to the gods of the water, earth, mountains and sky.
After paying our respects we then spent an hour or more of back breaking labour helping the locals harvest their potatoes, it really helped us to appreciate the machinery that is used on the farms at home.
From the fields we proceed to a local textile house, where we received a demonstration on the techniques used by the local people in making and the natural dyes they use in the many alpaca products that originate from Peru. Eager to get to the gateway to the Inca Trail, we hastily left the community after a hearty lunch, and journeyed to Ollantaytambo.