Canyon Country

Monday morning this week brought with it a dismally grey overcast sky which made the morning freezing despite being enveloped by the sand dunes of Huacachina. Yet just an hour after I rode the clouds magically dissipated all at once, vanquished by the ever-hotter sun that destroyed any chill left over from the night before. 

Seeing as I had already purchased a night bus ticket the day before, I was glorious devoid of any responsibilities or to-do list items and seized the day by indulging in the free breakfast at the hostel and lounging in the hammocks in the sedative courtyard, enjoying the curious playlist of Jazz and Christmas tunes. 

Unsatisfied with the instant coffee, I set off with my friends Stefje and Manon on a mission around town for some freshly brewed caffeine, which is surprisingly difficult to find in Peru. We eventually found ourselves at the fanciest hotel in town and promptly plopped our lazy butts on lounge chairs poolside to enjoy a pot of coffee in the deserted resort. 

Huacachina on Monday was a far cry from the excited and energetic town we had arrived at over the weekend, and we emulated the town’s easy-going atmosphere by strolling around looking for cheap eats and even wandering into an exceptionally odd local library piled high with classic philosophers, the complete works of Shakespeare, and various multiple volume versions of the history of Peru. What a befuddling place that library was, steeped with knowledge in the middle of a tourist town with almost no local residents. 

For sunset on Monday we climbed up the tallest dune in sight, a steeply sloping ridge just outside the town. Going up felt like walking through a foot of fresh powder, which inspires folks to try sand boarding down. Without bindings it’s next to impossible on your first attempt, but a couple of guys with real snowboards gave it a shredding. The top of the dune gave way to a massive panorama sunset, painted across the horizon with the colors of the rainbow. 

Behind us lay the fertile valley of Ica, hinged in deep purples as the sun approached its destination. On the other side lay the endless desert, with sand dunes waving into the distance as far as we could see. The sun set into the sky and put on a veritable light show, yielding from a blue sky lined with white clouds to stunning hues of orange, yellow, and purple. 

In the distance the moon rose, heralding the coming of nightfall. Upon the last rays disappearing, the raucous wind instantly stopped, giving way to an eery silence from our vantage point. Running down the dune in the thick sand was nothing short of childlike glee, as we carved up tracks, drifting from side to side. 

The following morning I woke up to the sight of Peru’s countryside whizzing by my eyes. The rising sun started warming everyone on the night bus up and we were treated to beautiful views on the way into Arequipa: Peru’s canyon country. 

Although it plays second fiddle to Cusco among tourist in Peru’s south, the colonial architecture, gorgeous plazas de arms and surrounding scenery make Arequipa a gold mine for having a great time. Overnight I had gone 12 hours further South towards Antarctica and gained 2000 meters of elevation, yet somehow it was warmer upon arrival. 

After checking in at Wild Rover, one of South America’s premier hostel destinations, I hit the streets for one of my favorite past time while traveling: finding cheap street food. Over the next few hours I got to know the city through its food: tamales, empanadas, fruit juices, and a chicken sandwich topped with spicy aji

The best bet for cheap food in Arequipa, as it is in most of South America, is the central market. Usually a two story affair, the lower floor is lined with rows of hundreds of stalls specializing in anything you could ever possibly imagine wanting to buy. There are 20 juice vendors, competing with each other for your business and whipping up fresh fruit smoothies. Upstairs is normally home to delicious food at bargain prices, but I had been warned at the hostel that this food was “too cheap” and decided not to risk it. 

Ringing the block of the market are always more shops, people hawking loose goods out of garbage bags in the street, and women cooking all sorts of food on carts, with the #1 seller in Arequipa being papas rellenas: potatoes baked with meat and vegetables. 

On Tuesday afternoon the streets were full of traffic and the plaza was packed with people and pigeons, but one place to escape the city for some tranquility was the Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa’s “city within a city.” The 2 hectare compound is used to train nuns and although just 14 are still in residence, it held hundreds for centuries. Inside, cobblestone streets and alleyways lead toward manicured gardens perfectly framed by colonial style archways. We embarked on a guided tour, getting led through sparse rooms where nuns once lived, adorned with minimalist furniture and kitchens with stone ovens. The architecture and general style is perfectly Colonial Spanish, right down to the streets that are each named after a city in Spain. 

After the tour we sat in one of the sunny gardens, enjoying the afternoon sun and doing some local research on what else to do in the area. Eventually we settled on trying to find a tour outfitter to go hiking in Colca Canyon, an excursion I had heard lauded as far back as Ecuador’s Amazon. 

It turned out that booking a hostel bed that night was pretty much a complete waste of time. My head hit the pillow at midnight and was jarred awake at 2:45AM for an impending 3AM departure. For the next 3 hours we retraced our steps Northwest towards Huacachina, winding through dark mountain roads and then getting treated to the eery blues, yellows, and grey of sunrise over the vast expanse of canyons, valleys, and mountains that make up the landscape in this part of the world. 

By 8:30AM our tour group had grabbed a plain breakfast in the tiny central town of Chivay, which signaled our arrival into Colca Canyon and pulled over for the first overhyped stop of the trip: El Cruz Del Condor. This viewpoint, which offers striking views of a canyon carved into the mountainside is purportedly close enough to a group of condor nests to see them soaring through the morning sky. Yet on this particular day, the dozens of busses, hundreds of expectant onlookers, and huge swaths of local women hawking souvenirs allowed me to see the sight for what it truly is: a severe tourist trap. 

From there it was on to the drop off point for the trek, a plateau that picks up a trail and dives straight into the canyon, affording a bird's eye view of the tiny inaccessible villages down below. Just like on a class field trip all the vans were broken up into smaller groups and provided with a chaperone, who began by explaining the geological and cultural history behind the canyon and its people. 

For the next three hours it was nothing but downhill hiking into the abyss, with rocks filling our shoes and sand covering our faces and seeping into every orifice of our skin. The dusty switchbacks lurched back and forth, steadily progressing towards the canyon’s roaring river at the bottom. With a lower average elevation, less ground to cover, and plenty of sun to keep us warm, it quickly became clear that this trip would prove much more leisurely than the Santa Cruz valley trek I had completed just a few weeks ago. In fact, by 2pm we filed into the group of concrete huts that made up our accommodation for the night, digging in for a light lunch and then wiled away the afternoon sitting in the sun and taking long naps to make up for lost sleep from the night before. From the lawn in the hillside we even had a perfect view of stunning vertical rock walls formed by volcanic basalt and shorn away by frequent earthquakes. 

On Thursday morning we woke up to the beautiful sight of the sun’s rays slowly creeping down the canyon walls, promising to warm us up after a cold night. After a delightful breakfast of banana and caramel pancakes, our guide Rojer set the pace out of camp and we were off again, this time climbing up away from the river for striking views of the canyon on every side. As our final destination for the day was only a few kilometers away, we took our time along the way, pausing to take in the panoramas and learning about the indigenous flora of the canyon. Rojer taught us how to use agave to make rope (not tequila), the different types of cacti and their respective fruits, and the various uses of molle, a local prescription for everything from infection to upset stomach. 

As the river raged beneath us on the left, we passed through a collection of tiny villages, unpopulated except for farmers and their respective animals, including sheep, donkeys, dogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs, a local delicacy. Below the villages lay acreage of farm land, terraced into the steep hillside in a way that wouldn’t have been out of place in Indonesia or Vietnam. 

From the villages we descended on the steep and rocky path for another hour until the sight of a waterfall spewing natural spring water directly out of the rock wall signaled our arrival at Colca Canyon’s Oasis. Adorned by trees yielding avocados, oranges and passionfruit and signaled from above by well manicured lawns replete with pristinely blue swimming pools, the oasis is where all the hikers stop on their last night of trekking before attempting the steep climb out of the canyon the following morning. 

Having opted for the more leisurely three day trekking package, we were rewarded with an entire afternoon in paradise, taking a dip in the pool and soaking up some sun on the lawn, the entire time blessed with stunning views in every direction. After lunch I even took the opportunity to lead a yoga session, cajoling a small army of fellow trekkers to work out the kinks in their knees and calves. 

Compared to other nights higher up in the mountains, the weather was positively balmy at the bottom of the canyon and after dinner I laid in the grass, gazing upward at the expansive stars of the night sky before slowly drifting to sleep. 

What seemed like ten minutes later I was awoken by a 4:20AM alarm, as we were scheduled to set off before 5AM for the morning hike straight up the canyon wall. We started off by climbing up, then continued by climbing up and up the unrelenting incline. In the night's darkness the stars were still out and the mood was spooky, our path illuminated by headlamps and flashlights. Straight above we could see trains of tiny pricks of light from groups ahead of us, signaling that even our ridiculously early departure wasn't even close to the first. 

The climb was challenging, but by progressing at a slow and steady pace and not letting our legs fatigue by taking long breaks, we were able to make progress upwards. Slowly the sun's light began to show signs of appearing, first lighting up the cliffs in the distance and then painting the strands of clouds in wisps of yellow and orange. Halfway through, our group stopped for a banana break and then Rojer let us loose, waiting for the stragglers and telling us where to wait for him at the top. For the next 45 minutes I set a blistering pace straight to the top, refusing to yield to the increasing fatigue and aching pains in my feet. 

Just as the first rays of sunlight shone through over a mountain in the distance I hit the summit. Sweaty yet still cold, triumphant yet delirious, I perched myself on a rock and took in the stunning view of the valley below, our starting point now invisible at the bottom of the earth's deep chasm. Over the next half hour over a hundred hikers straggled in, each one feeling accomplished after having gained over 1200 meters in altitude before 8 AM. 

At this point the entire group was starving and we gratefully had just half an hour walk from the top into town for breakfast. On the way back to Arequipa we pulled over for a couple of breaks, including a much needed hour-long soak at a hot springs, a pair of awe-inspiring views of the canyon and its surrounding volcanoes, and an entire hillside dotted with llamas and alpacas grazing in the high altitude grasslands. 

Upon returning to the urban sprawl of Arequipa on Friday evening, I recovered from the excursion by grabbing a much needed 10 hours of sleep, resetting my biological clock after far too many days awakening before dawn. Saturday brought with it beautiful weather and I took advantage by escaping the bustling center of the city and exploring Yanahuara, one of Arequipa’s most picturesque neighborhoods. Tiny cobblestone alleys twist and turn through the area, each one beautifully adorned with balconies and enjoyably quiet on an otherwise hectic afternoon. 

In Yanahuara’s main square we witnessed no less than five brides snapping photos after their weddings that morning, strolling around the manicured lawn with their devoted husbands and incessant photographers. From the viewpoint at one side of the plaza is even a perfect shot of El Misti, one of the tallest and most beautiful mountains in the area. 

Throughout the afternoon we continued exploring the town, finding a park with more great scenery of the surrounding area, a small pond to take paddleboats out on, and even a couple of coin-operated foosball tables. We surreptitiously made friends with Ethan, a fellow Bay Area native, and lounged in the shade to read and covertly observe all the budding teenage romances. 

As night fell on Arequipa, the sunset put on another miraculous show, wrapping up another week in paradise. From the rooftop at the Wild Rover we could see the distant glacier peaks illuminated in bright shades of red and orange, and then as we walked into town just a few minutes later, the sunlight began to flow like lava across the clouds, offering an array of colors. With just a few minutes to spare until darkness, we ran up the five flights of stairs to one of the expensive rooftop terrace restaurants in the main square, where the view was nothing short of sublime. 

That night we retreated back to the Saturday night scene at Wild Rover. The hostel certainly lived up to its moniker as one of the best party places in town; the bartenders kept the drinks coming all night, face paint got busted out and suddenly everyone’s faces were covered with streaks of bright orange and green, and by midnight there were so many patrons dancing on top of the bar that it was tough to sneak through them and order a drink. It was the perfect capstone to another spectacular week in Peru!