As with the journey from Ica to Cusco, again we traveled on an overnight bus with Oltursa, this time from Cusco to the ‘White City’ Arequipa. Though, this time, the bus was a little older, it was still fine and the only annoyance was people leaving their alarms chiming out at 5am, ringing out for a good 5 or 6mins before I lost my rag and made them turn them off.
The last time we visited a ‘white city’ was Popayán; a place that we never really warmed to. Arequipa was different, as soon as we arrived we felt at ease and happy to be there.
We stayed at Vallecito Backpackers, ran by the helpful and friendly Sylvia and her step dad Leandro, a friendly older man who told us how he is a well-known scientist and inventor.
We had a ‘matrimonial room’, which means king-size bed I think, and all rooms had a shared bathroom. Value was decent at 70-odd soles a night and the banana and caramel sauce pancakes made for a tasty brekkie. The only con was that one of the young girls that worked there was a right stroppy teenager with a bad attitude, but other than that we loved it. The hostel seemed to be in a nice and safe part of town and was only ten mins or so walk to the main square.
Arequipa’s historic centre is really nice. The building are made with a white volcanic rock, many of them featuring intricate carvings. The stone comes from the mountains and volcanoes that surround the city. It’s weird when the sun is blazing but the snow-capped mountains are in view.
The main square is one of the prettiest we’d seen, with a big white cathedral overlooking a fountain and palm trees that were enclosed by restaurants with sun terraces.
We did the free walking tour, as we had in other cities, which was fun. We had the chance to pet alpacas and llamas and learn about the differences of their wool. We also learnt a little more about Peruvian history and politics but the highlight was the special access we got above a restaurant, with amazing views of the main square.
The restaurant belonged to a proper character of a man, who gave us a weird talk about the energies of earth and how we are all one and the same. His restaurant is thought to feature the only pre-Inca kitchen/menu in the world.
A highlight of Arequipa was a visit to the Monosterio de Santa Catalina.
Still in use today, but only by a handful of nuns, the convent is like a town within a city; dozens and dozens of houses, streets and gardens within high walls.
The place was once fully occupied by nuns who had devoted their lives to God, and young girls who would learn from them before deciding whether to stay on in the convent.
The guide told us how, in the past, the vast majority of the nuns were from wealthy families, as the tradition was for a first-born daughter to devote her life to God, whilst the second would marry into another noble family.
We could see how each home had its own kitchen and the size and grandeur was dependent on the wealth of the family.
Each nun had three servants each but that practice was soon ended when the catholic church in Europe decided that it was not appropriate for nuns to have it so easy.
Within the walls were fountains, a launderette and a garden with avocados and figs.
There was a chapel, a school and some homes had places for chickens and guinea pigs. One even had a built in toilet.
One of the exhibitions inside the convent described sister Ana who was thought to be able to cure miracles. In the 1980s or 90s, Pope John Paul II beatified her, after a man fed soil from her grave to his wife as a last resort to cure her and it saved her…
There was a viewing platform in the convent where we got a great view of the sunset, overlooking Arequipa.
On day three, we booked a tour to the Colca Canyon through the hostel. We’d been around a number of agencies in town, only to find that the best package was on offer at the hostel. Most places offered a bus-ride-heavy two day tour, with a stay in touristy Chivay, or a two day hike that meant a 3am start. We managed to book a compromise that included the key view points and attractions by bus, but a coupe of hours for hiking and time to visit a natural spring and a night in the far less touristy village of Yanque.
On the first day of the tour, we stopped at a remote village on a plain near herds of wild vicunas, known for having the finest wool of all animals. We had a quick mug of ‘inca tea’ before hitting the road again, stopping at 4200 metres for a view of the volcanoes in the Arequipa region.
The views were impressive but the altitude was kicking in.
We headed on towards our destination of Yanque with a stop at another village, which had a church and not much else.
When we arrived in Yangue, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the hostel was a beaut, with maybe the best room we’d had in the whole of Peru. We dumped our bags and it was time to go on the trek right away, but we were starving, so we begged the bloke in the hostel to cook us a meal and wolfed it down.
Our guide on for the short trek up to the village was a local 17 year old called Lucio. He showed us a tiny village, which was a Qeuchua village for years and years until the Spanish invaded in the 19th century.
We then carried on until we came to the river and natural thermal pools where we had a quick dip.
Lucio told us how he was lucky enough to tour the US for 9 months when he was younger, performing traditional Peruvian dance as part of a group. That’s how his English was so good. His parents were farmers and his mum made extra money by charging tourists for photos with their pet eagle each morning in Yanque square.
In the evening, just hours after we left Yanque, there was an earthquake in the village that killed at least six people and caused a lot of destruction. Really tragic and we were thankful not to be there at that time.
On the second day of the tour, we woke up early and met the tour group in the main plaza, before heading off to see the condors and Colca Canyon.
The Colca Canyon is the second biggest in the world, the largest is Cotohuasi, close by in Peru.
We waited patiently for a glimpse of the birds and then they all came flying above us at once.
The birds ranged in size and appearance, some dark brown and others black with white collars, but all were massive birds – the biggest flying bird on earth in fact, and with one of the biggest wingspans.
We stopped in Chivay for lunch and then headed back to Arequipa, where we spent another few days in the city before a bus to Puno and Lake Titicaca, on the border with Bolivia.