Monday, June 14, 2010

Flying High in Arequipa

It’s dark already in Arequipa, Peru, at about 5:30 pm as I wait for my night bus at 9:00 to Cuzco. I’m hanging out at my friendly hostel, where internet access is a bit hit and miss – so if all goes well, you`ll be reading this on the night of the 14th, but if it shows up later, you`ll know what happened.

You (I hope) have read my previous post about Arequipa – so you know how happy I was to get here after HATING Arica, Chile. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru (after Lima) at about 750,000 people, but not nearly so well known outside Peru as the smaller city of Cuzco, the former Incan capital and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. (Santo Domingo, where I went a couple of years ago, wins as the oldest European city in the Americas ... but the Incas built Cuzco long before that.)

I spent a relaxing day in Arequipa today enjoying the hot sunshine – it gets cold after dark and I bundle up in a fleece or two, but days are lovely and I can stroll around in a t-shirt. Went back to the Cusco Coffee Company and hung out for a few hours (and a couple of grande cafe americanos) with my Aussie buddy John. I still think it`s Starbucks in disguise, but the prices at least are different , with coffee costing less than $2.

I spent the weekend in the Colca Canyon, just outside Arequipa. “Just outside” is a relative term – it`s not a long distance away, but the highway twists and turns (and at some points becomes a dirt road) as it meanders its way through the mountains, and at the highest point hitting 4,800 metres above sea level. I bought coca leaves on the way, since they are reputed to help prevent altitude sickness (known as “soroche” here); whether or not they really work, I don`t know, but I didn`t suffer any ill effects (I might’ve been okay anyway, since I`ve been all right previously at high altitude).

Colca is deeper than the Grand Canyon in the U.S. at nearly 3,200 metres, surrounding by towering mountains and volcanoes that stretch as much as 6,300 metres into the air. You have the option to climb these volcanoes (not all are active) or mountain-bike down into the crater of some; I opted to admire from a distance and ventured further into the canyon instead.

My Spanish got a workout on the 2-day trip, as everyone else in my group spoke that as a first language (and mostly not much English); one 7-year-old girl from Lima in the group took a particular fancy to me and peppered me with questions about Canada and what I was doing in Peru. (It’s humbling when, despite your best efforts, you can’t always understand a child speaking the language you’re trying to learn.) She seemed particularly fascinated by the fact that I have blue eyes and red hair (this combination not being common in Peru), and by the sunscreen I kept slathering on; when I explained that I had to use it to prevent myself from turning ‘rojo’ in the sun, she asked if everybody in Canada was as white as me (I assured her that no, they weren’t).

I spent Saturday night in the tiny village of Chivay, after chilling out in the nearby hot springs; we went as a group to a ‘peña’, a folkloric show with traditional music, dance and food. The costumes (traditional local dress) were incredibly elaborate, on the women particularly in their colourful layered skirts and embroidered shirts. They pulled audience members up to participate at some points, and all of us were dragged up for a conga-line kind of finale; my 7-year-old friend found this especially amusing and wanted me to stay and dance with her after the show finished. (Her parents, however, dragged her back to the hotel to go to sleep, much to her chagrin.)

Sunday morning we got up really early (5 a.m. early) to get to the Cruz del Condor lookout while the condors were still active; the best times to se them are early morning and late afternoon. The birds are amazing – about a 3-metre wingspan giving them graceful, seemingly effortless flight high above the canyon floor. Too many of the spectators (the lookout was overrun with tourists) seemed to forget about watching the birds and enjoying the moment, with their cameras glued to their eyes the entire time. Sometimes, I think, you just have to put the camera away and relish the experience; otherwise, it’s too easy to get focused on how it looks on your digital camera screen, instead of seeing it in real life.

Tonight, I’m off to Cuzco on a night bus; I’m curious to see how the experience compares to Argentina and Chile. At about one-third the cost, I’m not expecting the same level of luxury – but I am hoping at least for a bathroom and heat on board. Otherwise, it will be a miserable and grumpy Carol who arrives in Cuzco, and you may want to skip the whining in my next post.

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