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Peru pt. 2: Arequipa y Cañón del Colca

After our 3-day stint exploring Cuzco and Machu Picchu, Hilary (one of the other Quilpue volunteers), and Ian (a buddy from home), and I hopped on an overnight bus south to Arequipa. Unbeknownst to many, Arequipa is actually the second largest city in Peru and holds the unofficial title as the country’s modern intellectual capital.  And, more recently, has gained increasing notice not only as a tourist destination, but as a more than suitable home-base for thrill-seekers, due in large part to its convenient location nestled among two active volcanos, including the nearly 20,000ft “El Misti” and Cachani (both of which are scalable), as well as its proximity to the Colca Canyon, arguably the deepest canyon in the world (and twice the depth of the Grand Canyon).

Arriving in the wee hours of the morning, without hostel reservations and hardly even a vague notion of an itinerary, we set out adventuring. Real quick bit of context: Ian, prior to meeting up with us, had been outside of Lima for about a week doing a medical-related volunteer trip with Health Bridges International. As it turns out, that same organization was working on another volunteer project in Arequipa the same time that we planned to be there. After connecting with them, they invited us to accompany them to the site and volunteer for the day. With the crust beneath our eyelids still fresh and the lack of coffee in our systems making our overnight bus travel-induced exhaustion readily apparent, we agreed, found a hostel to drop off our things and were off to the site.

The program was doing volunteer work at Alto Cayma, a religious-affiliated, community-development and outreach center led by Father Alex, a Catholic priest from Malta. Starting from scratch, the facility now has a church, primary school, daycare center, and has also become a center of commerce, with a workshop making artisanal crafts and clothing that now employs over 50 workers and still manages to maintain a rigorously-enforced fair-trade policy. We spent the day chopping veggies, playing with the school-children during recess, and interestingly enough, meeting the president of Malta. Yes, that’s right: we met a head of state. One who happened to look as if he were an extra from the Sopranos. But hey, I guess there are no rules when an important political figure is traveling abroad incognito. Later that night, a bunch of us from the group randomly decided to go “to the other side of the tracks” and go see a real, full-blown, no-holds barred Peruvian cockfight. Although I’m completely against animal cruelty, I am also a big fan of experiencing other cultures. At one point in the fight, I was elected amongst our group of gringo’s to receive a free shirt and address the crowd at the venue. I guess there’s a first time for everything. The next day consisted of wandering around the Yanuhuara district, a neighborhood with a considerable Spanish-Italian influence, duly noted in the multi-colored, villa-style architecture and cobble stone alleyways. We ate some delicious, freshly deep-fried Yucca donuts, made friends with a hawk, and just wandered around. In the days to follow, we maintained a similar rhythm, lounging in coffee shops, exploring different eateries, and drinking plenty of the local Arequipena and Cuscena beers.

About 2/3 of the way through the trip, Ian headed back to Seattle and we were just two. At this point in our vacation period, our original plan was to start heading to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca (not kidding), and then on to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. However, we decided to call a last minute audible and stick around Arequipa to do a 3-day trek through Colca Canyon. You gotta love spontaneity.

Leaving at 3am the following morning, we ventured three hours outside of the city to start out journey. Throughout this trek, we managed to be in one of the coolest group of strangers I’ve ever had the pleasure to travel around with. A mix of French, Belgians, Gringos, an Ecuadorian and an Aussie, we all immediately hit it off, with each person establishing some means of communication between the four languages being constantly thrown around. After our first stop at the “Cruz del Condor” to catch a glimpse of the bird in question, we spent the first day descending into the bottom of the canyon, eventually arriving at some cabanas where we would spend the first day and night. The next day was spent trekking through small towns on the canyon’s interior, including a stop at the “Oasis” to have lunch and relax. After lunch, we started our ascent back up, scaling the canyon on switchbacks in the middle of the day with the sun beating down on us. We all gradually made our way to the top, arriving in a little village where a festival was just reaching full-swing. After freshening up at the hostel, we all headed to the Plaza de Armas, where we were drinking, dancing, and celebrating with locals, as well as treated to a pretty fantastic fireworks display. The next day, we packed up our stuff and headed out. The return trip consisted of a stop in the village of Chivay, weaving in and out of a reservation with Alpacas and Llamas, as well as an amazing stretch of desert that looked like the surface of Mars with blue skies. Arriving back in Arequipa, most of us were catching buses and trains to the next leg of our respective trips. Thus, we said farewell over dinner and free pisco sours, exchanged contact information, and as it was my bday, sang me some tunes and even had the house band play me a Peruvian adaptation of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” (special thanks to the considerate person who made that request!). All in all, amazing birthday, sites, sounds, food, people, adventure, and buena onda. Will definitely be visiting again.

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