Monday, December 16, 2002

Arequipa and Colca Canyon


Holiday cheer to you all!

Here is our final installment of our travels through Southern Peru:
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After a nauseous night bus, with cramped legs and broken seats, we arrived to Arequipa, nicknamed 'the white city', because the older, colonial buildings of its city center are predominantly made of sillar, a light colored volcanic rock (tuff). This city has been traumatized with many violent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions through the course of its history, since the spaniards founded it in 1540. Despite these destructive calamities, there are many fine examples of 17th and 18th century architecture that still remain. The city center is predominantly laid out in a grid with even blocks surrounding the Plaza de Arma. From high balconies, and rooftops, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of El Misti, a conical volcano of 5822 meters, and the rugged peaks of Chachani (6075 meters).

In Arequipa, we stuck to the city center, where we could visit some of the older colonial buildings and sample the local Arequipan cuisine - spicy peppers stuffed with meat, vegetable and rice mixtures, Alpaca steaks, and Adobo (a pork stew). Besides the usual churches and museums about mummies and mountain sacrifices, we visited the most fascinating religious complex in all of Peru - the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. This enormous convent was established in 1580, and was originally a place for wealthy Spanish families to send their second daughters to live a life devoted to chastity and catholic prayer. It became a small elite city within a city, where the sequestered women were actually more free to live, unburdened by familial and domestic duties to men. They could invite musicians to perform and hold parties much in the fashion they were accustomed to in the 'real' world. Eventually, the pope and the Catholic church decided to clamp down on this type of lifestyle, and the convent became more strict and much less luxurious. Now, the monastery functions as a huge museum, an eye into a private, secretive world of narrow streets, beautiful courtyards and plazas. There are still approximately 28 nuns who live in a new hidden complex built adjacent to the older quarters.
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Within days, we decided to customize our own trip to the Colca Canyon, by combining a 2 day conventional tour to Chivay with a 3 day trek into the deep Colca Canyon. With a large group of overnighters, we headed in a mini-van to the small pueblo of Chivay, which was celebrating its largest annual festival in honor of the Immaculate Mother and conception. Along the way, through desert and treeless plains, we spied herds of wild vicuña and alpacas, and stopped for vistas of snowy-topped Amparo, the last home of Juanita, the Ice Princess mummy. Once in Chivay, the party was not going to start until the evening, so before being taken to a further village to go on a hike, we briefly wandered through the plaza, eying the kitschy decorations (banners covered with shiny mirror-like silver platters, dolls, stuffed animals, Peruvian flags and ribbons, hoisted high in the air by two stilts). Once outside of Chivay, we coursed our way through terraced farms, by an ancient burial chamber in the cliffside, and saw our first views of the beginning of the Colca Canyon. Along the way, our guide Carmen was joined by a young 14-year old girl (a friend), who was dressed in the elaborately embroidered traditional dress of this region. She had a long bergundy skirt on, with a border of multi-colored floral and zig-zagged designs, a long sleeved shirt with puffy sleeves, tightened at the wrist, and a tight vest of closely embroidered flowers, topped with a white Chivay hat wrapped in ribbons. This is the normal everyday wear of this area, with slight variations in headgear from village to village.

After our walk, we were taken to the local hot springs, which were a LOT better than Aguas Calientes. The furthest pool of hot water was outside under the setting sky, with swathes of green grass nearby, had tasteful free-standing, yellow arched walls and windows acting as wind barriers, and was large enough to take a few strokes in.

Dan and I were pretty anxious to head back to Chivay, because we did not want to miss any of the festivities. We felt very lucky to be there for one night out of the 4-day party, and to partake in such a real cultural experience. Blocks from the plaza, we could hear the horns, trumpets and drums of the local bands. The streets were crowded with women dressed in their best, men drinking, staggering and laughing, children giggling and clinging or hiding from various family members, food stalls smoking with skewered meats, vendors selling homemade crafts, and people playing fair games to win toys. In the central square, women and women, men and women, were armlocked and dancing in repetitive circles, stopping and spinning, then marching forward. We were told that at the end of the festivities, a female winner would be chosen, who wore the most beautiful dress, danced the best, and was the prettiest, of course. Dan and I sat at nearby stall to drink a hot alcoholic punch (a mix of passion fruit, pineapple, fresh lime, and anis liquor or pisco), and watch the festive crowds mill around us.

The next morning we went to the Cruz del Condor with our group to try and spy condors with a hundred other tourists. Not a big bird in sight. After a few hours, we said goodbye to our group, and Dan and I started our 3-day trek into the canyon with Luis, our new guide. Some argue that the Colca Canyon is the world's deepest. Upon first sight, we compared it to the Grand Canyon, and honestly thought that the Grand Canyon was much bigger. It seems that the Colca Canyon is measured from the river's bottom to the highest peak of the nearest mountain, which is 3400 meters total. Our walk starts much lower than this summit, so perhaps that is why we felt it difficult to compare. We spent one day hiking a zig-zagged path down to the bottom, crossing a bridge to the other side, where we proceeded to climb through 2 small villages. These small agricultural towns have no cars (hardly possible) and no electricity. We stayed in a small mud brick room with tin roof and a candle, and slept brilliantly. The next day, we had a much shorter journey to the next pueblo, which is referred to as the Oasis. A lush emerald gem at the pit of the dry, steep, cactus-filled canyon. Here, enterprising locals have built natural spring water pools which are a heavenly respite from the intense heat. We had a bamboo hut to change and rest in, inbetween cool dips in the refreshing water. Most hikers tend to stop here for the night, getting up extra early (3AM) for their hike up and out of the canyon. We decided that we preferred to leave late that afternoon, and arrive in Cabanaconde that evening for a good nights rest. We had a good 2.5 hours steep climb up the mountain side in the dying sun, sweating and heaving in the high altitude. Dan is an incredibly fast paced climber, which helps to push myself and keep a steady step. Thankfully, another beautiful, deep night of sleep was followed by our exertion. In the morning we returned to Cruz del Condor, and this time were extremely pleased to see massive condors coasting on thermals, with gigantic spread wings.

Back in Arequipa, we visited another Monasterio - La Recoleta, which was home to an active group of Franciscan missionaries. Here we walked through more private courtyards, cloisters, and monk cells; viewed an extensive collection of pre-conquest artifacts, Amazonian exhibits, Cuzceño religious art, and an incredible library filled with incunables (books printed before 1501), and old Peruvian maps. We expanded our walks to include neighborhoods like Yanahuara, and caught up on more pre-Chile errands.

Now, we are back in the country of my ancestors, Chile. We are in Arica, where I am seeing my Abuelo (grandfather) for the 4th time in my life. It is a special occasion.

Our remaining pictures from Peru are posted http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/perare
in fine spirits,
Sarah and Daniel

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