After returning from the “Colca Canyon”, we still had the evening to explore the busy streets of Arequipa. While Bastian and I were waiting for Madalina, who involuntarily got a two hour guitar lesson from her roommate, we were having a look at the different happenings around the central square: There was a small gathering for “Earth hour”, which was not really effective, as all the lights of the city remained on and their candles were constantly extinguished by the wind.
And then there was a march of the soccer fans of the local team, shouting and lighting fireworks as if it was a match day, which it wasn’t. We couldn’t find out what they were celebrating, but it surely was fascinating. When they were gone, Madalina finally arrived and we went for some Chinese food and afterwards for Peruvian drinks, like “Pisco Sour” and “Chilcano”, at a French restaurant.
The next day we had planned to go on a free walking tour, but the guides seemed to be a bit unorganized, as none of them showed up. Instead, we went to the market for a second breakfast. The freshly made juices are just amazing and with a free refill it’s the perfect fruit serving for the day. And we also got to try the “Queso helado”, which is not actually frozen cheese but homemade ice-cream with cinnamon, a desert that Arequipa is famous for.
In the afternoon we tried to join a different free walking tour. This time it worked and we discovered the northern part of the city, which we hadn’t seen before. After a quick stop at the “Mundo Alpaca”, a museum for alpacas and alpaca products, we continued across the river to the viewpoint of Yanahuara. It lies a bit elevated and allows for a good view over Peru’s second biggest city.
Last but not least we wanted to check the quality of Peruvian hairdressers – Madalina and Bastian wanted to get a haircut, while I could use a beard trimming. Although most hairdressers are closed on Sundays, we did manage to find some open ones. They were hidden in a little passage and were cornerstore and hairdresser in one. Madalina and Bastian gave it a try, but I was a bit more skeptical and decided to go for the men’s hairdresser a few houses down the road. While Bastian and I were happy with the result, Madalina wasn’t, although it looked perfectly fine to us.
Afterwards it was time to part: Madalina and Bastian took a bus to the coast and I was headed for the airport. I had decided to fly back to Lima to avoid any problems with flooded roads, like friends had experienced on that route a few days earlier. And even with an hours delay it was still much faster, as it also saved me the 17-hour bus ride, which it would have been otherwise.
Bastian and I arrived in Arequipa, Peru, in the late afternoon and decided to go on a tour to the “Colca Canyon”, which would start the next day. The canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world and is located a few hours north-west of Arequipa. Without much sleep we got picked up at 3 a.m. the next morning. After driving all around town to pick up the other people, the bus took us to Chivay for some breakfast.
Not too far down the road we stopped at the “Cruz del Condor”, the condor’s cross, a popular spot for watching these majestic birds. But that day we could only see tourists, not condors at this viewpoint. As our tour guide Jean-Carlos explained, most condors migrate to the ocean during the rainy season to feed on the placentas of seals and sea lions, after they gave birth to their offspring.
Close to Cabanaconde we started our descend. We seemed to be the last group for that day and soon we were all alone. Not far down the trail we paused, as we had seen large birds circling below us. As they got a little closer, we could make out the distinctive white coloring on top of their wings, telling us that they were condors. It was an awesome feeling to see four of those majestic birds all on our own as they seemed to own the canyon. At that moment it felt like “Condor Canyon” would be a more appropriate name.
We continued our descend and were happy to reach the bridge across the river after losing 1100m of elevation while constantly hiking downhill. The suspension bridge across the fierce brown waters was in much better condition than on the “Inca Jungle Trek” and we reached the other side without a problem. A few minutes later we had reached our accommodation for that night.
However, all further hiking plans were abandoned as it started raining during our lunch break. Instead Alice and Alessandro (Italy), Remy and Manon (France), Madalina (Romania), and Bastian and I (Germany) discussed European politics until nightfall, when dinner was served and the rain finally stopped. Unfortunately, Nelson (Chile) and Jean-Carlos (Peru) were too tired to join the conversation for some non-European views on the issues.
After a good night of sleep, we woke up to beautiful sunshine and a bright blue sky. With a delicious pancake breakfast, everyone was ready to tackle the day’s hike. As we walked through the canyon, following the river downstream, we learned about the different fruits and plants that are grown here. We also learned about the little man-made caves, where the native people would store their seeds for the next seeding period or just to hide them from the Spaniards. These caves are called “colca” and gave the canyon its name – “Colca Canyon”.
Around noon we started to pick up cactus fruits as dessert after lunch. By the time we had filled our bag, we had crossed the river once again. On the other side of the river, elevated and in a riverbend lay a small oasis, which must be even more impressive during the dry season, when the rest of the canyon is brown and dry. To us it was still a little paradise with sunshine, swimming pool and free delicious mangos right from the tree.
In the afternoon we met Alex, a 19 year old guy traveling through Peru all on his own. A few days before he had bought a live guinea pig, as he wanted to try this Peruvian specialty. He had been looking for people to share it with and we were willing to pitch in. The former owner had told him exactly how to kill, skin, gut and prepare the animal, but we were still happy for the two Gauchos that Alex was staying with, who helped us with everything and knew exactly what they were doing.
Luckily we were able to use the kitchen of our hostal after the regular dinner was served. We seasoned and fried the guinea pig and had it with rice and yucca as our second dinner. To me it wasn’t tasting like much and it had way to many bones for the little amount of meat that was on it. It was definitely a very interesting experience, but I wouldn’t order another guinea pig in a restaurant. Nevertheless, it added another nickname to the canyon – “Cuy Canyon”, which is Spanish for guinea pig.
The next morning we had to get up before sunrise once again. For the next two and a half hours we climbed back up to Cabanaconde. Along the way we could have hopped on one of the “live taxis”, that take supplies down into the canyon and come back up with an empty saddle, but all of us made it without additional help. By the end we were still happy to get some breakfast, which we had been waiting for since 4:30 a.m.
On our way back to Arequipa we stopped for a view of the “Colca Valley”, which is upstream from the canyon and much wider. Afterwards we visited the hot springs right by the riverside to relax our muscles for a bit. Together with another stop at 4900m, the highest point along our route, and one more for some llama-selfies, this day was also pretty action-filled and all in all we were quite happy with the value of this trip.
After two days of resting I decided to go on my next adventure – a four day trip Manu National Park, located on the other side of the Andes mountains. Nik didn’t join the tour, because he had to sort out some issues with his company, as he was trying to quit his job. We had one more beer together and toasted to our last two weeks of exciting travels, before I had to go to sleep, as I got picked up early in the morning once again.
This time the group was very mixed: There were Denisa and Casuelo, two Dutch girls, who were only with us for the first day, as they had booked a tour that would take them even deeper into the jungle, Esteve from Australia, Charlie and Luise from France and Gary and Sharon from Canada. After a quick stop to pick up some rubber boots and during a late breakfast stop we had some time to get to know each other more.
In Paucartambo we picked up some head lamps, because our lodge would be without electricity after the generator is turned off. Additionally we would need to pay attention for snakes and other wild animals while walking outside after dark. During a quick visit to the local museum we learned a bit about the National Park and about the local festival of the “Virgen del Carmen”, a colorful celebration in mid July that draws thousands of people each year to the village.
A little further down the road we entered Manu National Park at over 3500 m, one of the highest points of the park. The vegetation changed quickly from deserted rocky slopes to a lush green rainforest as we descended through the “cloud forest”. Here, we in constant search for the “Cock of the rock”, in bright red and black, which is Peru’s national bird. In the end found it somewhere along the road along with several other bird species.
We spent the night in Pillcopata and continued the next morning. This time we exchanged the van for our hiking boots and discovered more birds, monkeys and different tropical plants. Our guide Lucho pointed them out to us and explained their different medical properties that are known to the indigenous population. Afterwards we visited an animal rescue center, where different wild animals are taken care of until they decide to move on.
After a short boat passage on the massive “Rio alto de Madre Dios” we reached our eco-lodge, which would be our home for the next two days. It lies a bit elevated to protect it from flooding, giving it a magnificent view of the river valley. Here, we said goodbye to the Dutch girls and Lucho, who would be the guide for the rest of their tour. And while Barbie, our excellent cook, prepared a full lunch buffet for us, we had some time to gather energy for our afternoon expedition.
In the afternoon we crossed the river and found ourselves in the middle of a papaya plantation. The riverbed is considered no man’s land, so anyone can come and built a plantation here, because the course of the river may change next year, destroying the whole plantation. And this is how the trails looked like – flooded and overgrown, so that Darwin, our new guide for the rest of the trip, had to make good use of his machete. It was definitely an adventure in itself.
After dark we set off again, this time to discover the creatures of the night. In the light of our torches, we explored the vicinity of a more beaten path and found owls, night monkeys, crabs, spiders and other insects. The most interesting animals were a tiny, blue and red poisonous frog and a cricket, which was being eaten from the inside out by some sort of fungus that takes control of the body.
Early the next morning we left to watch “blue headed parrots” and “blue and yellow macaws”, who come to a clay-lick by the river to obtain different minerals important for their diet. After breakfast we went for another walk in the woods, this time the path was not as overgrown, allowing Darwin to explain us more about different plants and animals. We had the chance to try termites or swing across the forest floor like Tarzan.
Another time we went to a little lagoon, which was a disconnected part of the river. It was almost fully overgrown, but a perfect place to watch some more birds. We took a little raft to the other side, where a little observation tower allowed for an even better view. It was really nice, by the end of the day we were so tired and exhausted that nobody felt like going on another night walk.
The last day was needed for the long journey back to Cusco. Along the way we stopped once in Pillcopata for the market, where Darwin bought his weekly supply of pineapple, oranges and yucca. Another stop was made for the funeral towers of Ninamarca, which were by a pre-Inca culture: Either by indigenous people close to Puno, as they had similar towers. Or they were constructed by an unknown and forgotten culture, as the walk from Puno took about three weeks.
After seeing the ruins of the “Sacred valley” and the Moray terraces it was time to visit the most famous of all Inca ruins – Machu Pichu. There are different ways to get to there: The Inca Trail (closed in February for maintenance), the Salcantay Trek and the Inca Jungle Trail among others. We chose the latter one, which includes biking, rafting, hiking and zip lining and allowed us to be back in Cusco for carnival without skipping part of the tour.
We got on the bus early in the morning. With us on the tour were Alex and Lucie from France and three American machos, who were still drunk and hungover from last night’s party. With the bikes and protective equipment all tied up on the roof we left Cusco and drove up to a mountain pass at about 4400m. Since it was covered in clouds, we had to continue a bit further down for a better visibility.
At about 3500m the conditions were better and we changed the bus for mountain bikes. From here it was about 50km only downhill biking. It was a lot of fun! The weather was perfect and we stayed dry except for the times when a stream was crossing the road. On our way down we encountered a bus that got stuck in a narrow curve and trucks who had to cool down their engine manually, because it kept overheating.
In the afternoon we had the chance to go rafting. While Nik, Alex and Lucie went for it, I decided to skip it, as the water levels of the river were pretty high and the tour agency in Cusco had advised us not to do it for safety reasons. The Americans wanted to go as well, but they passed out on the sofa, as they needed to catch up with some sleep. In the end everything went well with rafting and Nik, Alex and Lucie had a great time.
The next morning we left Santa Maria and walked along a bumpy road through the jungle. After about an hour we took a small path that left the road and led us up into the mountains, through small banana, coffee and coca plantations. During a short break at the “Casa del mono”, the monkey’s house, we learned about the different types of cocoa products, coffee beans and Inca tequila, an alcohol made from potatoes and several different herbs.
The following section was part of the original Inca trail and led us along a narrow path high above the river valley. The views were truly amazing! After a steep descend we followed the course of the river, crossing it twice – by a suspension bridge in disrepair and on a little pulley platform. At the end of the day we were quite exhausted and happy about having some time to relax in the hot springs of Santa Teresa.
Day three started with some rain, delaying our next activity – ziplining. Fortunately we didn’t need to wait too long for the rain to die down. We put on a body harness, gloves and a helmet and were ready to fly across the deep valley. We conquered the different ziplines in different styles, first sitting down, but then also upside down, spinning and “Condor-style”, all of which were a lot of fun! The rest of the day involved some more hiking to Aguas Calientes, the closest village to Machu Pichu.
By then we were ready for the most magnificent Inca ruins. At five in the morning we started our ascend of the several hundred steps that lead up to Machu Pichu. On a guided tour we learned that the city was built in the mid 15th century for the family and friends of the ruling Inca king at that time. With the arrival of the Spaniards it was abandoned and forgotten for about 400 years.
The rest of the day we explored the large area on our own, discovering little details that we hadn’t seen before on the tour. We also climbed the steep slopes to the top of Waynapichu, constantly wondering how and why the Incas had bothered to build more structures up there. Reaching the top, it became clear, that the 360° view is perfect for the defense of the city and a great spot for sending signals across large distances.
The way back to Cusco was long and included a train and a bus. It’s the fastest, but also more expensive route, but it allowed us to be back in time for a crazy carnival party the following day. The main scene was happening on the “Plaza de Armas”, where hundreds of locals and tourists engaged in a huge fight with foam spray and water bombs. But the fighting was not limited to the main square, so we had to be careful while walking through town.
Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, which stretched from southern Colombia all the way to the middle of Chile. It was divided into four different sectors, all of them meeting in Cusco. Therefore, it has been a large and important city for centuries. It was home to thirteen different Inca kings, who built large palaces and temples all over the city.
When the Spanish arrived, they believed that the Inca were pagans, as they had different gods – the sun and the moon – and a strong connection to Pachamamma, mother earth. As a result, the Spaniards destroyed those buildings and placed Catholic churches on top of the remaining foundation walls. These remnants still show the superior masonry techniques of the Inca, who prepared each rock individually, working without mortar.
To get a better idea of the Inca culture, we took a tour to the “Sacred valley”. In Pisac we encountered the first ruins, located on top of a mountain. There were houses and terraces, which were used for growing all kinds of potatoes and other vegetables. The storage house had many windows and was located on top of the mountain, as it provided for a natural cooling by the wind.
More ruins are located in Ollantaytambo. Here, we climbed nearly 150 steps to the top of the hill, where more houses and an important temple of the sun is located. Once again only the foundation walls remain, but it’s still quite impressive. Equally impressive is the system of little canals that run through the old town, bringing running water to every household.
The last stop of our tour was Chinchero, a small village with more Inca ruins and an ancient Catholic church. However, the village is more known for its handicraft, as most inhabitants work in groups to make colorful ponchos, sweaters, scarfs, table runners and more. They also show, how they clean and split the raw alpaca wool. Afterwards, the yarn is colored with different materials, all natural and organic. The only remaining question is, how they can produce so much that the whole country is full of places, where these textiles can be bought for cheap? The answer might be related to sheep wool, mechanical fabrication and China.
The next day we booked another tour to Moray. This is a huge terraced area, which was used by the Inca to experiment with different fruits and vegetables to adapt them to the height of the Andes. They managed to create a micro-climate, where each terrace had an average temperature difference of about 0.5° C to the next terrace. And it gets even better, because the ground works as a natural filter and prevents the basin from getting flooded during the rainy season.
The other destination of that tour were the salt mines of Maras. Here, a mineral-rich stream is diverted over hundreds of basins, where the water slowly evaporates, leaving the salt behind. They have been used since pre-Inca times and have been extended several times since then.