Jul 142010

July 12, 2010: The Sacred Andes

There is so much to be said about the majestic, awe-inspiring, unbelievable beauty of the Andes. Although I have been surrounded by the mountains ever since I arrived in Cusco three weeks ago, I have not had the chance to really see how incredible they are until this past weekend when I visited Arequipa and the Colca Canyon.

On Wednesday night at 8pm ten of my housemates and I left Cusco on a double decker bus heading for the second largest Peruvian city known as Arequipa. My throat was hurting every time I swallowed, and I had an aweful headache. The seats on the bus are called “semi-cama,” meaning half bed, and therefore they recline pretty far back. One would expect chairs that recline almost all the way back to provide an environment conducive to sleeping. Well, unfortunately they do not work such wonders. The mixture between feeling sick, not being able to find a comfortable position in which to sleep, being forced to watch a movie in spanish on greek mythology without subtitles, and freezing my butt off all night were all factors that hindered my ability to fall asleep. After about eight hours of tossing and turning endlessly and constantly getting up to take a sip of water to avoid dehydration, the loudest and most obnoxious spanish music I have ever heard began being blasted over the speakers in a successful effort to wake everyone up. We were about forty five minutes outside of Arequipa when they woke us all up at 4:15 am. Why they could not have waited until five or ten minutes before we arrived to start the music instead of 45 minutes prior still makes no sense to me. The bus attendant woke us up, told us to put our seats upright, took our blankets, and forced us to watch the music video version of the terrible music. We had quite the first Peruvian bus experience. Despite having miserably sat through a less than satisfactory overnight bus ride, I was very happy to be arriving in Arequipa. When we got off the bus we got into three taxis and went straight to our hostal, which was located just off Arequipas beautiful Plaza de Armas. Usually in every city in Peru there is a central plaza where one can find practically any restaurant or store. We were very lucky that our hostal was in such a central location. When we got out of our taxis, the drivers sensing that we were ignorant tourists tried to charge us 12 soles per cab. That is a ridiculous price in a country where cabfare is usually no more than 4 soles in any city. Needless to say the drivers did not get what they asked for. We gave each cab the 4 soles they deserved. After a long and sleepless night, everyone went to their rooms in our hostal, Los Andes, and we passed out until about noontime on Thursday.

When we were all awake and ready to go explore, we left the hostal and headed towards the Plaza de Armas to see if it was nicer than the one in Cusco. Arequipas plaza had really beautiful colonial terraces with traditional Peruvian restaurants and one amazing, white cathedral that took up a whole block. Everyone took out their cameras and started snapping pictures of the cathedral and the fountain in the center of the square which had been invaded by hundreds,  if not thousands, of pidgeons. After admiring the plaza for a little bit we continued walking and stumbled upon a monestery that we had read about in Emilys Lonely Planet guide book. We had heard that there was great food in the monestary, and, since we were all hungry, we decided to enter and look around.

The monestary was probably one of the coolest places that I have seen on this trip to Peru. It was so large and had so many different squares, streets, and turns that it was like navigating through a maze. Of course the restaurant was on the direct opposite side of the monestary, so we would have to go through the whole building before we could eat. After a few minutes in the monestary we were all in awe of the size and beauty of the place. Each square and room was painted a different bright and vibrant color and had a different story to it. There was one blue square that was painted baby blue and had extremely detailed religious paintings on all the walls. All of the rooms were covered with concrete ceilings, but all the squares were open to the sky. The contrast between the colors of the walls and the light blue sky made the monestary seem even more incredible and cool to look at. Unfortunately, I got an unexpected stomach ache and frantically had to run through the maze to look for a bathroom. When I took care of my problem, I met up with all of the others in the restaurant area and had lunch with them. The food was so good there that everyone grew silent once they took their first bite into whatever they had ordered. Then everyone got desserts, which were so freaking awesome. I did not order anything because my stomach still hurt, but I tried some of Emilys chocolate cake. The cake was probably the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. After lunch, we finished touring the monestary and got to climb up on one of its roofs. From the roof we had spectacular views of Arequipa and the towering mountains and volcanoes that surround the city. There is El Misti, the cone-shaped volcanoe that is still active, and some other snow-capped mountain range the name of which I never discovered.

Once we left the monestary three and a half hours after we entered it, we walked back towards La Plaza de Armas. On the way back a few of us stopped in a tienda, or little shop. Although I had already bought an alpaca sweater in Cusco that was black, white, and grey, I saw a blue and white stripped one in the store that I really wanted to buy. I bargained with one of the employees and bought the sweater. The few of us who strayed from the group then caught up with the rest of our crew and went into the huge and very intricately designed cathedral in the plaza. It was so nice inside, but it was hard to take pictures because of the poor lighting. We then left the cathedral, walked to the fountain in the center of the plaza and watched as swarms of pidgeons attacked little Peruvian boys and girls who foolishly held bird seed in their hands. Johannes, who tried to take charge of the whole trip to Arequipa and successfully pissed a lot of people off, made us all then walk to see a colonial mansion, which ended up being a colonial mansion turned bank. We mocked him for bit, which was fun, then headed home to get ready for dinner. We obviously had no choice as to where we wanted to go to dinner, for that decision was left up to Johannes who took Emilys guide book and did not give it back. We went to a traditional Peruvian restaurant where I ordered Ricotto Relleno, a dish consisting of some hot pepper stuffed with meet and onions and raisins. I am not going to lie and say it was not really, really good because I really enjoyed my meal. While at that restaurant, I tried for the first time a bite of someone elses alpaca steak and cuy, or guinea pig. Because the manager somehow found out that Johannes recommended us all to come to his restaurant, Johannes got a free meal. After dinner, we all went out looking for places to go dancing, but the clubbing scene in Arequipa was nothing like the nightlife in Cusco and thus a little disappointing. Most of us then went home and went to sleep so that we would be well-rested the next day and we could do and see a lot more in Arequipa.

The next morning we all left the hostal at around 10am. Our main goal for the day was to go to the museum across the street and see the 500 year old Inca girl who was found perfectly preserved atop the Andes a few years ago. But first, some people went to Cusco Coffee, the Peruvian equivalent of Starbucks because they have soy milk, to eat breakfast. Johannes was really annoyed by the people who would rather have coffee than visit colonial mansions. He said, “I did not take a nine hour bus ride to have coffee.” To each his own, Johannes, to each his own. Johannes, Julia, Rosalyn, and myself went to visit a colonial mansion while the rest got coffee. This time the mansion was not a bank. We climbed on the roof of the ancient house and took some really cool pictures of the city and surrounding mountains. All of a sudden I was struck by another terrible stomach ache that caused me to run for the bathroom again. We returned to the rest of the group and then headed into the museum for Juanita, the twelve year old Inca girl who was sacrificed to the mountain gods almost 500 years ago.

No cameras were allowed in the museum because most of the artifacts that were presented are probably very sensitive to flashes of light. We watched a twenty minute video that told the story of how Juanita was found, what her purpose was, and how she was sacrificed to appease the gods. I found the whole exhibit and video really interesting. The Incas believed that the Andes were all gods, and in order to prevent the gods from growing angry, a.k.a erupting, they had to present offerings. Usually the offerings during the time of the Inca empire consisted of innocent (virgin) children from affluent families. Juanita was one of those children. There were thousands of child sacrifices each m0nth, but the reason that Juanita is so special is that her body was perfectly preserved since the moment she was murdered. In the museum our guide taught us a little bit about Inca culture and showed us some ancient artifacts from burial sites. We learned that the king Inca and his wife were brother and sister and that only they were allowed to wear vicuña wool, one of the most expensive fabrics in the world. The king Inca changed outfits five times a day and never reused the same outfit. The Incas were such a powerful, innovative, and advanced civilation and were it not for their naive trust of the Spanish Conquistadors they would have continued to rule a large part of South America for many more centuries to come. After learning this information, we were taken into the room where Juanitas body was on display. When they say she was perfectly preserved that is exactly what they mean. Her brain is still intact, as are all of her internal organs. She even has the last meal she ever ate still lying in her stomach. Juanita was incredible to see and fascinating to learn about.

We all left the museum really hungry, so we headed over to a pretty, touristy street where we had some lunch. Johannes wanted to head over to the other side of the city to go look at some cathedrals and parks, but I was not feeling that well so I stayed and hung out with everyone else. I got an awesome mango, papaya, banana, strawberry smoothie and was suddenly cured of my stomach ache. We then walked around the streets that bordered the Plaza de Armas, and I bought another alpaca hat. We continued walking in and out of stores and up and down streets until the sun started to go down and it started cooling off. At one of the stores I asked the vendor if they had alpaca slippers in my size. I did not really want the slippers, but I just wanted to see if they carried my shoe size in any of the stores in my country. No one in Peru has feet that are as big as mine, so it is actually impossible to find any shoes that fit me here.

When we returned home we all had to decide where we wanted to go to dinner. After calling multiple places recommended in Emilys guide book and then subsequently finding out that most of them were either closed or extinct, we settled on what the workers at our hostel said was a good Italian place. Johannes wanted to go to a really expensive restaurant ($7-$15 per entree) but noone wanted to spend that much money. I learned that Johannes is from a really rich family that sells cookies to stores like Trader Joes. I think they are named after his last name, Bahlsen. After dinner, everyone went straight home because we knew we had to wake up at 2am the next morning to start our trek to the Colca Canyon.

We woke up really early the next morning, and I felt as though I had not even fallen asleep. We ate the usual breakfast of tea and bread and boarded our tour bus. On the way out of Arequipa as we drove through the Andes I looked at the sky and saw countless stars. I have never seen a sky so lit up by so many bright stars. After contemplating this for a while and then realizing we were driving on a narrow road on the edge of a mountain, I decided to shut my eyes and try to fall asleep to keep me from being anxious about falling off the precipice. A few hours into the six hour bus ride to Colca, it started to get so cold in the bus. The windows started to frost, and right outside the windows on whatever mountain we were on I could see huge icicles. I later learned that at that point we were about 16,000 feet above sea level, approximately a mile higher than Cusco. At about 7am we entered the Colca Canyon area and had some more “breakfast.” We then drove along the Canyon for about an hour and a half amazed by the breathtaking views of the Andes. I think that all the bread I have been eating lately has caused my stomach to not like it very much, for everytime I have bread I get a stomach ache. The whole ride my stomach was churning and making me feel sick. Finally we got to the Cruz Del Condor at around 9am where for an hour we would have the chance to see the beautiful, predatory Peruvian national bird. Condors have huge wing spans and almost look like the dinosaur birds from Jerrasic Park. They have a wingspan of about 20 feet, and watching them spread their wings and fly over the canyon with the massive mountains as a backdrop was absolutely incredible to witness.

Our trip to Arequipa had been really awesome until our tour guide Pepe told a few of us that Robin, the girl in our volunteer house who is in a wheel chair, could not go on the hike down the canyon with us because it was too dangerous to go down by mule. We all felt so bad for Robin and got so angry that the people through which we booked this trek assured us that she would be able to take a mule both down and up the canyon. Robin had traveled so many hours to hike the deepest canyon in the world with us only to find out ten minutes from the beginning of the adventure that she would not be allowed to do it. After we settled the issue and reluctantly decided it would be best for Robin to go back to Arequipa, we all hopped in the tour bus and drove to the place where we began our hike.

When we arrived at the place where we would be starting our adventure, I was awed at the beauty of the towering Andes that surrounded the Canyon. When I looked down into the great abyss, I became overcome with stress and axiety. One of my biggest fears is my fear of heights, and all that crossed my mind when I looked into the canyon for the first time was, “I HATE HEIGHTS.” Our group took a picture on the edge of the canyon before we began our trek, and I was horrified that we would all fall off. At this point in my journey, I was second guessing my decision to hike Colca Canyon, but I told myself that the only way to overcome my fear would be to conquer the deepest canyon in the entire world. As we began our hajj, I allowed my nerves and anxiety to get the best of me. Me knees were shaking and I was walking very slowly. For the first three hours of our adventure we would be descending 5,000 feet by means of a narrow trail conveniently located on the edge of a precipice. On my right was the mountainside and on the left was certain death. I hiked for three hours in the scorching sun wanting to somehow magically teleport myself to the bottom of the canyon where I would be out of harms way. Every time I slipped on the trail my heart would start to pound. Some points of the path were so scary that I would either slide down on my bottom or hold onto the mountainside and slowly pass the danger zone. As I did this hike, I realized that it was probably for the best that Robin did not come down by mule because this was one of the most challenging things I have ever done in my life. Finally, three hours after beginning the trek, I happily made it to the bottom of the canyon. In Israel, I hiked in the Negev Desert for three days, but not one part of that adventure compared in any way to any part of my Colca Canyon adventure. The whole experience was bothmentally and physically exhausting and was a test of strength and agility. After the first leg of the hike, Emily was having trouble breathing and was really nervous that she could not catch her breath. I stayed by her side, pushed her to drink water, and encouraged her to walk the remaining twenty minutes towards lunch. When we arrived at the lunch destination, we were served an awesome meal, and we all had a chance to relax before our next long hike to the oasis where we would be spending the night. Emily was too tired to walk this last part, so she rented a mule for 70 soles to bring her to the oasis. The second part of the days hike was just as challenging and horrifying as the first. We ascended and descended many massive mountains and did so on paths that were even more narrow and slippery than the ones from the mornings hike. By the time we finally surmounted the last mountain, the sun was starting to go down and I was exhausted from walking and being anxious all day. Needless to say I wanted off that mountain. When I saw the oasis thousands of feet below I had mixed feelings. I was so happy to see the place where I could finally rest and not be on the edge of a cliff, but I would need to climb down a cliff to reach said destination. Damian, a British guy who was part of our group, kindly offered me his walking stick. The stick saved me because it allowed me to climb down the slippery trail with more confidence and ease. I was really appreciative that he was nice enough to lend the walking stick to me. I basically jogged down the mountain until I reached the unstable bridge that would bring me to the oasis. Pepe and Johannes were rocking the bridge back and forth when I was on it causing me to flip out on them. Why they thought it was funny to swing back and forth and up and down on a bridge that swung 300 feet above a raging river beats me. After I angrily crossed, I walked with the rest of my strength to the oasis where I sat down immediately, took off my not-made-for-hiking shoes, and cooled my feet in the freezing pool. At this oasis there was no electricity meaning no showers or lights in the bed rooms. I was fine with this. I was too tired to shower and knew I would just get dirty on the next mornings hike. We all hung around in the dark with our flashlights until we ate dinner at around 8 pm. Dinner consisted of Peruvian cream of wheat soup and spagetti and tomato sauce. After eating dinner, I headed back to my room in the dark but something amazing caught my eye. You know how I said that the sky was incredibly well lit on my early morning bus ride to Colca Canyon? Well, the sky in the canyon was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. The stars were so numerous and so bright that they looked unreal. Noone could believe what they were seeing that night at the bottom of the canyon. It was actually one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. I wish I could have taken a picture of it. I fell asleep right away without brushing my teeth in a very uncomfortable bed, but I am not complaining because I slept like a baby that night.

The next morning we all woke up at 6am to start the final part of our hajj through Colca. Distancewise, this was the shortest part of everything that we did, but, in terms of difficulty, it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The final stage of the trek consisted of a three hour hike striaght uphill. I borrowed Rosalyns, who took a mule, walking stick but that really did not help that much in the ascent. We hiked up kickback after kickback climbing large rock stairs and steep inclines. My calves were killing me, and I was already sore from the previous day. Pepe said we needed to find a rhythm and stick with it the whole way up, but that is so hard to do when you constantly need to stop for water or to catch your breath as you get to higher and higher altitudes. Finally, after about two and a half hours of hiking, I reached the top with my housemate Julia and had the satisfaction of looking down to the bottom of the canyon knowing that I just conquered it as well as my fears. At this point I also understood that I would no longer have to hike for a long time to come, which made me very happy and free of stress. Once everyone made it to the top, we walked twenty minutes to a breakfast place in town. After breakfast, in the plaza of that small town, I bought an apple to satisfy my craving and enjoyed every single bite. I have not had good fruit here until I ate that amazing apple, and I miss fruit more than any other home food.

We left the small town and headed back towards Arequipa. We stopped at a few small towns and saw some amazing views along the way. In one town, I paid 1 sol and took a picture with a baby alpaca. it was the softest and cuteest thing ever. We then stopped at a cliff where we had an incredible view of the green canyon and Colca River,  the former covered with thousands of ancient terraces constructed by the Incas for efficient farming in the Andes hundreds of years ago. We try to take pictures of these amazing sights, but no camera can do these places justice. Peru is so beautiful, and you really need to travel here to experience its endless beauty.

We then went to the natural hot springs, but I did not go in because I did not want to move or change out of my dirty clothes. We then progressed to an all-you-can-eat buffet, where we had a lunch filled with traditional foods like alpaca, fried chicked, fried bananas, fried sweet potato, rice, and tons of other types of potato. When we left we headed back to Arequipa and stopped at the place where we were all freezing the morning before at about 15,000 feet above sea level. There it was freezing but surrounding us on all sides were about four to six different giant volcanoes. We took pictures really quick, got back in the bus, drove back to the city, saw thousands of llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas along the way, and finally arrived back in Arequipa at around 6pm. We got our stuff from our hostal, bought some snacks, and took taxis to the bus station. The bus ride back to Cusco was about 10 hours long, but this time I actually slept for the majority of the trip. Before I fell asleep, they had on another movie in spanish with no subtitles, but this time I actually understood the whole thing which made me feel really good about my current spanish abilities. We got back to the La Florida volunteer house as the sun began to rise, I took a nice hot shower, and then fell asleep for a few more hours.

Arequipa was such an amazing trip, and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to travel there with all of my friends in the volunteer house. We are all really tight, and a bunch of us are going to Puno and Lake Titicaca in about a week. I know that was an uber-long journal entry, but I want you guys to understand how amazing it is here and what a great time I am having. My mom just sent me an email that Sandi is going into labor right now. I hope everything goes smoothly, and I cannot wait to see my new baby cousin when I get home in three weeks. Peace from Cusco. Hasta Luego Amigos.


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