Arequipa is Peru´s second biggest city, though it feels like a small town compared to Lima. Most of the city is focused around the central Plaza de Armas -- a great park with a flowing fountain, surrounded by colonial colonnades, and a gorgeous cathedral (which never seemed to be open when it was supposed to for us to visit!). Our pleasant hostel was just off the Plaza de Armas, and we were able to walk around the pretty town, snow-capped mountains in the background.
Arequipa is also fairly high up, around 3000 meters or so above sea level. Hence, it never gets really hot, and definitely takes a while to acclimate to the altitude!
Our main goal for Arequipa was a visit to the nearby Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world (measured from its lowest point to highest peak). We booked ourselves on a three-day, two-night trip into the canyon, leaving the day after we arrived into Arequipa.
We started in a minibus with a large group of people making a two-day visit into the Colca Valley, the region before the actual canyon. Our very capable guide made a number of stops on the way to the town of Chivay, including grazing grounds of alpacas and vicunas (cousins of llamas), and a high point over 4500m high for a view of the surrounding mountains and volcano peaks (just taking a few steps winded us!).
Chivay itself is a pleasant small town, the main city of the Colca Valley, and surrounded by gorgeous pre-Inca farming terraces and small pastoral villages. We took a dip in Chivay´s volcano-fed hot springs, and left early the next morning for Condor Cross to view condors in flight. None were seen.
I'm always a little suspicous of tours that take you to see whales, dolphins, wild goats, or any other type of wildlife, but our guide insisted that if we wanted to see Andean Condors, El Cruz del Condor was a great place, provided we all got up way before dawn to get to the Condor Crossing by sunrise. So we obliged, and saw no condors.
But we did get to meet our next guide Maria Jesusa at around 8:30am. A petite, robust, and absolutely charming woman greeted us at the Condor Crossing and led us on a day-long trek to the bottom of Colca Canyon. I was very glad for my knee brace by the end of the day, because we spent most of the day trekking straight downhill on gravelly, dusty, and otherwise challenging trails. By about 1:30, we'd finally crossed a footbridge over the Colca River at the bottom of the Canyon and had lunch in a small village. Then, we got to do some more hiking! We arrived at an oasis in the Canyon (palm tree lined greenery and swimming pool, huts and camp grounds), took very cold showers, chatted with some new Dutch friends over dinner, and then went to sleep after the sun went down shortly after 7pm.
Then came the most horrible event yet to occur on this trip! At 3:00 in the morning, a perky Maria Jesusa knocked on our door and told us it was time to hike back to the top of the canyon to return to the Condor Crossing. We absolutely had to get to the top by 7:00 to catch a very crowded bus, plus we had to eat breakfast before the bus, so we had to travel up and out of Colca Canyon faster than we went down! We quickly got dressed, slung on our packs, and trudged up the hill. The hike was strenuous, the stars in the clear night sky were astounding, and the European girls who passed us on donkeys and cheerfully said "Ciao!" as they flew by at the (relatively speaking) lightning fast speed of a Peruvian mule was slightly infuriating, but before we knew it, we were at the top, having breakfast, and taking a crowded bus to El Cruz del Condor one last time to see the birds.
Condor Count on that day: 1 for about 45 seconds before it went behind the hill.
We nursed sore muscles all the way back to Arrequipa, but we were certainly happy to have seen one of Peru's natural wonders up close. A great trip!
After some recovering back in Arequipa, we nearly lost our lunch after learning that there were protests on the road between Arequipa and our next stop, Cuzco. Normally, no big deal, we could change plans or wait it out, but we just HAD to make it to Cuzco by the 27th to check in with our Inca Trail tour and prepare to head out for the 4-day hike on the 29th (unchangeable, something we booked back in July). We had tickets with the popular (and expensive) Cruz del Sur company, Peru´s elite bus line, which canceled their bus. At the large bus station, we found the sole company willing to take a longer, ¨alternative¨ route to Cuzco, and we jumped on the opportunity. Unsure about what to expect, we did end up making it safe and sound into Cuzco Monday morning the 27th. Thank heavens!