Our recent trip to Peru was not your typical Peruvian trip. We did not visit Macchu Picchu, nor did we go to Cusco, the capital of the now-defunct Incan Empire. Instead, we took a decidedly different track and planted ourselves in Arequipa, the 2nd largest city in Peru, and one we had no knowledge of until we picked Peru as our destination. Our goal was to find physical challenges and “less trafficked” places that might prove interesting.
We took inexpensive flights ($600), which required several airport changes, ultimately departing Texas at 11am Saturday and arriving in Arequipa on Sunday at 6:30am. The altitude in Arequipa is 7,660 feet, the equivalent of Aspen, so oxygen saturation is at about 25% less than at sea level.
We had booked an Airbnb, so grabbed a taxi, after decoding the currency details (3 Peruvian Sol = $1 USD), and found our new home, behind a large iron guarded gate, labeled “Monte Bello” (in Spanish, pron Montee Bay-oh). I, of course, butchered the pronunciation resulting in an extended cab ride. Consequently, riding in a cab in Arequipa is equivalent to the death ride scene from “Grinched” with Bill Murray: doors locked, can’t get out and drive like absolute hell on the wrong side of the road. We slept a few hours and ventured out to find the center of town – Plaza de Armas. The Plaza is a four-cornered town square with a large church, The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa, at center. Everyone there was strolling, eating ice cream cones. It felt American Rockwellian. Not what we were necessarily looking for. We sought raw, Peruvian culture. Where were the Alpacas? The colorfully dressed women in Fedoras and fancy skirts? There was a Starbucks and a McDonalds within viewing distance. Ugh. But the church was amazing. It is the largest Roman Catholic church in the city and was opened in 1656. Older than the US!
I found two additional things out about Arequipa that day. First, if you’re seeking mouth-watering, fancy desserts, this is your country. Apparently Peruvians like sweet endings. Tres leches cakes, meringue cookies, caramel galore….. Unexpected, but what a treat (pun apology). Second, Arequipa has more shoe stores than Imelda Marcos had shoes. And most of the shoes are platform, as the average height of a Peruvian (male or female) is 5’ 1”. My heaven!
Today we planned to hit the Public Market to find local produce for recipes. Indigenous items in Peru are yucca (like sweet potato), guava fruit, avocado, quinoa, lucuma and potatoes. Many of these foods are considered “superfoods” in the US. We hit the jackpot. The produce looked fresh and ripe. Ready for eating!
We left on a hellish 6-hour, 100-mile bus ride to Cabanaconde, the gateway to Colca Canyon, a canyon rivaling our Grand Canyon, by Peru’s description. The cost? $5 USD. We later found out a taxi would’ve put us there in 3 hours for only slightly more.
The ride went on forever but gave us an opportunity to connect with Millenials and locals alike as both were numerous. We met post high school teens from Germany, and early twenty-somethings from France and Holland.
The scenery was interesting, as Peru’s agricultural scene is different from the US. Due to the mountainous terrain, farmers divide layers of field into terraces (think vertical v horizontal). Then, mostly women farm the land, which is hard-ass manual labor! These women rode the bus with us back to their homes, after their day was over, carrying heavy farming tools in their slings over their backs. Amazing! Many had small children with them as well, who had spent the days in the field with their mothers.
The attire of the local women included embroidered hats (seen in pic), skirts with leggings and heavy sweaters as the temps dropped in the almost 11,000 foot altitude.
We began our trek down Colca Canyon, the first of our two hikes, carrying about 30 lbs of “stuff” in our backpacks. Upon checking in with the trail guard, we found that we were the only ones over the age of roughly 30! I think we set a record as the oldest people to ever traverse Colca Canyon on foot. Interestingly, we had seen a large party of German folks at breakfast in our hotel, Kuntar Wassi (fabulous, by the way!), but it appears that many tourists (esp over the age of 50) opt not to hike, but to view the canyon from the top.
Anyway, off we went, down, and down….and down.. to the bottom. The hike was 7.5 miles down and took us roughly 3 hours. What a great quad burner!
At the bottom, we found a wonderful lodge, Llahuar Lodge, which felt like a construction project not quite finished. But that was kind of a “cool effect”. Plus it was $21 USD /night. Score! The lobby was open air on 2 sides with glass windows on the third. Lunch was one option served to all, and vegetarian at that. After lunch, we hiked down further to our “cabana”, which was essentially a storage shed with a bed in it. But it was perfectly situated near the Colca River, and the rush of the water had a lulling effect. The bathrooms were cement blocks with bamboo for walls; kinda cool for showering. Made one think of showering under a waterfall in the tropics.
Jamie and I ventured to the Hot Springs, located adjacent to the river. Felt fabulous after the hike so much so that I didn’t give a second thought about wearing my one-piece racing suit, amongst the Millenials clad in everything from bra and underwear to tiny string bikinis. Soon, everyone in the Tub was friends and chatting (in English) about various places we’d all ventured. That is the best part of traveling the world with a backpack. It levels the playing field as money doesn’t talk at these levels.
Dinner was classic Peruvian: quinoa, egg and vegetable. Shortly after, we retired to our cabin, as there was not much else to do. I have found bedtimes amongst hikers to be relatively early – say 8pm, as morning comes early as well and everyone needs to be back on their feet. I do have to say, however, that my nighttime bathroom needs were met with a bit of unpleasantry, as one of the hikers (lets assume an uber young one) had lost his dinner (and apparently his several beers) all over the toilet and floor. Fortunately, there were several independent bathrooms to choose from.
Day Five thru Eight:
We hiked back out of the canyon, after a breakfast of crepes. The 30 lbs felt like 80 on this trek, and the sun was beating brazenly on my shoulders. The Alba 50 SPF I had brought from the US, simply because it was packaged in a small container, didn’t work and I was left with pretty intense sun burn on all areas of my body. Jamie, with a Cuban heritage, did not even notice the sun!
We arrived back at the top after 4 hours of climbing, and grabbed lunch at the “best” restaurant in town, La Terrezza. Ironically, not only did I eat everything in sight but also showered right there in the restaurant prior to boarding the death bus back to Arequipa.
All in all, I would describe the Colca Canyon hike as “challenging”, in that the sun is very intense with little reprieve and the climb out is an arduous trudge uphill at a fairly strenuous grade. The climb covers roughly 4,000 feet of climbing, from 7,000 to 11,000 feet where Cabanacode resides.
Once back in Arequipa, we spent the next few days running (in altitude), and also nursing various forms of food poisoning. This led to negotiation sessions with our guides from Pablo Tours for El Misti, the 19,000 foot mountain we’d hired them to take us up. They kindly moved the departure date twice, as one day I was sick and the next, Jamie was..
On our ninth day in Peru, we felt we’d acclimated as much as we were going to, and overcame our illnesses, so departed for our epic climb to the top of El Misti, the active volcano that stands 19,101 feet high. This first day encompassed car riding, or rather, off-roading on barely-there dirt roads, hiking up into the mountain range to our starting point for the hike at roughly 13,000 feet. It kind of felt like we were cheating to ride to the “start”. We passed housing “developments” where the very poor resided. As we climbed our driver sped faster, taking turns in dust ruts with several hundred foot drops a few feet away. Still, I felt safe and enjoyed the thrill. From there, we had lunch, prepared by our Pablo Tour guides, Julio and Jose. Our lunch was prepared in a steel pot, over a gas flame on the desert sand, consisting of vegetable soup with Peruvian corn, avocado and banana as sides. It was, amazingly, delicious!
Once consumed, we set off to hike this giant sand dune of volcanic ash. We each carried our clothing, snacks, and 5 liters of water, along with sleeping bags, mattresses and toiletries. The good news is that our tent was already onsite.
We ate soup, rice and canned tuna at the base camp, at 15,200 feet, then brushed our teeth and hit the sack. These tents were more comfortable than many because they were laid on volcanic sand, making a much softer cushion than most camping sites.
We awoke at 3:30am to begin the trek to the summit. The good part was that we didn’t have to carry our heavy packs; only day packs. We left them at base camp, to pick up later after summiting. The climb was still extremely hard, however, as we were moving uphill, on sand, at, ultimately 50% of street level oxygen. This climb was harder, for me, than Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, which was the same exact altitude at the top. This was a mental grind. Less physical.
The climb took 4 hours overall to reach the summit. We stopped maybe 3 times, for 5 minutes apiece, to grab our breath, but overall pretty much moved upward for the entire 4 hours.
Once atop, we could see into the crater of the volcano, where there was steam rising. There was also a large cross made from railroad ties, which had been erected in the early 1900s. Amazing that someone lugged railroad ties up to 19k feet! As with any other summit, we grabbed pictures of each other, in every combination – guide, no guide, Jamie and I, just me, etc. And then the attention turned to the descent.
Interestingly, many people assume the climb is the hardest part of a mountain summit, but I have traditionally found the descent to be equally evil and sometimes even worse. This descent was on (again), volcanic ash (no, it had not mysteriously disappeared during our time atop). This made the trip down akin to skiing. Literally. We had poles and pretty much slalomed our way to the bottom. It took around an hour to get back to base camp, where we packed our belongings, dumped sand out of our shoes, grabbed a little food (whatever was left) and descended the rest of the way back to the car that was waiting for us. Incidentally, this drive to the start of the climb is so rigorous for the driver and vehicle that the driver ends up spending the night, in wait for us to descend. You surely get a sense of remoteness…………
Once at the bottom, we had about a 90 minute drive back to the city, over all of the ruts, craters, boulders and other road debris we passed on the way up.
Once back, we slept and arose the next morning for breakfast and time in the city.
We felt passionately about visiting the Andean Sanctuary Museum, which held the mummified remains of “Juanita”, the 12 year old Incan girl who was sacrificed to the Gods. The story was amazing. Juanita was chosen at birth, and raised according to the pure standards of a sacrificial body. Her umbilical cord was kept as was hair from her first haircut. When the day came, identified by a volcanic eruption that expressed anger from the Gods, Juanita was caravaned 160 miles to the base of the volcano, to ascend for her death. Once atop, she was inebriated with a corn-based fermented drink and hit over the head with a blow intended to kill. Her body remained in almost perfect condition for 550 years, as she was frozen almost instantly following death.
Since this time, several other children’s bodies have been found, some on El Misti where we climbed, as well as the artifacts that were buried with them.
So, it remains that there are things we can learn from other cultures- different foods, challenging athletic endeavors, spiritual respects – including the fact that climbing in volcanic ash is a great way to up your cardio game! In fact, our porter, Julio (the young dude in the pic), actually won the annual race to the top of the mountain the previous year. Our little climb, to him, was barely that………a little climb, and a part of his everyday job. For us, it was an epic feat!
Good to be home! PS – the look on my face is because my phone wasn’t working! Go figure at 15,000 feet!