When choosing a night bus from Puno to Arequipa Wendy and I were careful not to make the same mistake twice….or so we thought. We chose first class this time and wore considerably more clothing to shield us from the nights’ chill. When we saw our seats we were painfully reminded of life’s relativity. It turns out that first class in this bus was just about the equivalent to the economy class on the last bus – go figure!
We arrived in Arequipa at about 3 am and headed to our hotel which I had communicated our potential late arrival earlier that day. When we arrived, however, the hostel owner knew nothing of our late arrival nor our reservation. As luck would have it, he had no space for us and had to call another hostel. Luckily there was a hostel that had just opened recently and they were able to take us. The next day we went searching for a tour to Colca Canyon. We stupidly ignored the hostel owner’s advice and went to a closer tour agency that was listed in Lonely Planet. We ended up paying almost twice as much as the people that went to the agency he had recommended but by this point we were so tired that we couldn’t even muster up the energy to be too angry at ourselves.
The Colca Canyon tour itself was good although slightly less active than we had thought. The first day we bussed from place to place with our overly chatty tour guide babbling all kinds of information in Spanish and English about the surrounding area and local people. We were able to see quite a few vincunas (llama mixed with alpaca), which I didn’t even know existed. When we were about to reach the highest point he guided us through altitude sickness prevention by chewing coca leaves. What are coca leaves you ask? Well, coca is what is used to make cocaine when mixed with other chemicals, but in its natural form it is quite healthy and does seem to prevent altitude sickness and give you a burst of energy. It doesn’t taste wonderful but it’s certainly bearable given the benefits. I even brought some coca tea home for everyone to try!
Once we arrived at the hotel we had about 20 minutes to get ready for our 1.5 hour hike to the thermal baths. The local tour guide who took us seemed in a bit of a rush. He didn’t speak English at all so I had to translate what little he mumbled to everyone else. The sun was setting quickly and we still hadn’t reached the thermal baths. As you can probably imagine we had very little sun by the time we reached the baths and as nice and hot as they were, we all suffered quite a bit on the ways in and out. But hey… sacrifices will be made for natural thermal baths now won’t they? We only had a half an hour in the baths and then our guide insisted we had back before it got too dark out.
The next morning we up early again and headed out on the bus to catch more of Colca Canyon’s main attractions. The highlight was probably the lookout of the canyon where all the condors liked to hang out. I was sad to not have had a zoom lens for this event but I have some cool, albeit distant, shots of the condors flying by. In comparison to the Grand Canyon I was a bit disappointed with Colca. It didn’t seem quite as special nor beautiful although it could be because I was visiting in the dry season. Apparently the canyon is much more colorful in the wet season. But even still, Colca is a very narrow canyon and is therefore quite difficult to appreciate its great depth. But you can’t beat the coca sampling now can you?!?
At the end of our Colca Canyon trip, Wendy, sadly, had to head back to California. I decided to change my itinerary and hang out a while longer in Arequipa just so that I could try and recover from the craziness. In my extra time in Arequipa I did a couple of exciting excursions -white water rafting and downhill mountain biking. White water rafting was something I had wanted to try for as long as I could remember. I was a bit hesitant to do it in the cooler season but was told I’d be comfortable in the morning sun so I signed up for the morning time slot. The agency then called me later that day to tell me that I needed to switch to the afternoon as I was the only one signed up in the morning. I knew I was in for a rough day but I reluctantly agreed to the switch.
The weather was nice when we started out but the sun quickly hid behind the rocks and every little splash sent chills through my body. The level 3 waves seemed very calm and I was even a bit disappointed with the lack of excitement, however, I could imagine level 4 and 5 waves really giving me the rush I was craving. The worst part was getting stuck on some rocks in such a way that the waves were pouring into our raft in such a way that we couldn’t get unstuck to do the weight and force of the water. Now, had it been a beautiful hot sunny day this would have been but a minor inconvenience but that water that was now covering us all from the waste down was FREEZING cold. It felt like a thousand knives were stabbing me over and over again for a good 8 minutes straight until we were able to get free from the rocks. I actually thought I might have permanently lost feeling in my feet after that but my body recovered remarkably with a towel and some warm tea afterward. That night I even hung out with the chilean and argentinien tour guides over a few drinks. Mission accomplished!
The next day I was to downhill a local volcano known as Chachani. The bus ride up the volcano was slow yet charming and at the top I bundled up a bit before putting on all the necessary padding. It took us about 2 hours to get down with a bit of walking in between for uphill sections of pure sand. The highlight, though, was when we hit the beautifully paved open road near the bottom. I must have been going 35 mph on a mountain bike. It was a little frightening but VERY exciting. After a nice taste of the outdoors in Arequipa I packed up my stuff and headed back to Santiago to prepare for the last stop in my south american tour: Bariloche, Argentina.