It felt pointless to visit other Inca ruins after seeing Machu Picchu, so instead we headed to the colonial town of Arequipa. Arequipa is known for its “easy” access to Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is apparently deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and being Americans, we were dying to see the bigger, better version. We decided to explore Arequipa for the day and take an afternoon bus to Cabanaconde where we could start a hike to the bottom of the canyon and back.
With limited time left in Peru, we packed our day in Arequipa starting with our first taste of Peruvian ceviche. Joshua has a few rules when it comes to ceviche: only eat raw fish when there is an ocean nearby, never order it on Sundays because fisherman take the day off and the fish is not as fresh (or so he thinks), and rarely order it for dinner because it has probably been sitting all day. Luckily, we were going for a mid-week lunch. We also aimed to visit the museum that has a well-preserved Incan sacrifice from the 15th century known as Juanita, “the ice maiden.”
We failed at getting a quick start to the day. We read that taxis should not be trusted in Arequipa, so we decided to walk into the center of town. The problem was our travel guide, Rough Guides Peru, only gave a general direction rather than a map of how to get there. Joshua took the approach that we could just follow the compass directions (read: go northeast). So we walked towards the sun on freeways, through dust storms and traffic fumes, and finally encountered someone who gave us accurate directions. Of course, we walked several kilometers in the wrong direction before we decided to ask. My patience was rewarded, however, with a visit to the wannabe Starbucks of Peru, “Cuzco Coffee.” It was the best iced coffee I have had since we left the United States. The town, itself, is beautiful. The architecture, white walls and intricate carvings all give Arequipa the feel of a city full of riches.
Re-energized, we decided to visit a famous cevicheria, Cebillano, prior to the museum. It’s taken Joshua years, but he is now adept at understanding the point when he needs to feed me before I get too hungry (even if I say it’s not that bad)…a condition we fondly refer to as hangry (hungry and angry at the same time). We had a tiradito, fresh fish cut sashimi style and covered in three different sauces, olive, chili, and lemon. It was the perfect introduction to Peruvian ceviche.
Full and ready to open our minds to the idea of child sacrifice, we visited Museo Santuarios Andinos. Discovered in 1995, Juanita is a well preserved Incan child sacrifice that was frozen almost immediately after she was walked up to the top of a local volcano 20,000 feet above sea level and bludgeoned to death by a priest. She is intact–hair, fingernails, clothing…and she has all her internal organs (different than a mummy). She is kept in a special freezer at the museum. They give you all the details of the events that led up to her death before unveiling her. It is a fascinating story re-told by university student volunteers.
By 4pm, we were on our way to Cabanaconde. We realized we were going to arrive in this small town well after dark which is not our favorite way to meet a new city. Luckily the one hostel we knew of in town opened the door when we came calling well after 10pm. They didn’t have room, but put us up in a nearby apartment. Not that we planned to rest long. We knew we needed to start the hike to the bottom of Colca Canyon before the heat, especially if we wanted to come back the same day. Why we planned it like that, I’m really not sure…the buses have a terrible schedule. If you don’t get back to take the afternoon bus, you can’t leave until 10pm which means you arrive in Arequipa at 3am. Simply put, it’s not made for tourists.
We packed a bag for a day hike and started down the canyon trail a little after 7am. We would’ve gotten an even earlier start, but we somehow missed the “you can’t miss it” trail, resulting in a 2 kilometer handicap to start the day.
We passed groups that had camped at the bottom and started the climb before sunrise, reaching the canyon ridge as we began our descent. The hike down was one gravel switchback after another…the kind where you have to be careful where you step or your legs will fly out from under you.
We made it to the “oasis” at the bottom where we rested, lounged, drank our first Inca Cola and swam before it was time to head back.
The problem with this hike was we were super cocky. We just finished our Machu Picchu trek, where we dominated the hills, felt more fit than other travelers and generally enjoyed the challenges we were faced with. At Colca Canyon, it was a grind. It was hot, the trail was boring and we were having some technical difficulties with our bodies. After the first hour of walking straight uphill, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. Joshua asked if he could lay down. We took little steps and breaks for water every 5 minutes to divide the trail into more do-able sections. Once we reached the trailhead two hours later, we still needed to find our way back to the town. We followed a maze of little dirt paths through fields and private property. We must’ve taken a wrong turn because we ended up in a backyard full of Peruvians who were blasting music at lunchtime on a Thursday. Old men were sitting on benches drinking cases of beer while their wives were preparing food. We were “forcibly” invited to partake in drinking, dancing, and uncomfortable closeness with dirty drunken men. There’s probably a cell phone video on youtube of me and Joshua with separate dancing partners who had more moves than teeth! After Joshua was done dancing with the wives, all age 60+, we used “we have to catch the bus” as our escape! By the end, we were wiped. All we wanted to do was get back to Arequipa, have a shower and sleep. Of course, the bus was sold out when we arrived back in Cabanaconde, so one of us had to stand on the 6 hour bus ride back…guess who took the lion’s share of the standing (not me, I travel with a knight).
Our trip to Colca Canyon was far from perfect. There is a viewpoint where you can see condors soaring through the sky in the early morning and late afternoon. Unfortunately, both times we passed the lookout it was dark. No condors for us. We also never got the magical, spectacular view where it dwarfs the Grand Canyon. I’m still not 100% sold.
One of our favorite activities on this trip has been learning to cook the local food…so when we returned to Arequipa we found a Peruvian cooking class for the following day. We visited the Arequipan market prior to class to check out the local produce and taste some of the flavors used in their food. The markets in Peru are like Whole Foods compared to those in the other South American countries we’ve visited. They are super clean, organized and full of amazing variety.
Our cooking class consisted of 10 people from all over the world in a beautiful garden setting where we made a causa rellena (spicy potato salad with meat and avocado) and lomo saltado (asian inspired meat stir fry served over french fries).
We drank chicha morada, a traditional Peruvian corn juice. We picked up a few skills like how to skin a whole avocado in one peel and how to flip food in a wok frying pan (while spilling, of course).
We could have stayed much longer in Arequipa (the city name actually means, “stay a while” in quechua), but were afraid to miss all the other exciting places that Peru has to offer.