As mentioned in the closing of the previous blog, I'd befriended a friendly Turk, Selçuk, on the bus to Arequipa. Arriving in the morning at about 9, we decided to share a taxi. I'd already made a reservation at a hostel in Arequipa, Selçuk, sin-reservation decided to check it out and possibly stay there. The taxi driver asked, "Do you have a reservation?"
Classic ploy by taxi drivers, so when the tourist/passenger says "no", they can take them to their cousin's-uncle's-dog's-teacher's-left foot's hostel that happens to be perfect and safe and affordable.
Yes, taxi driver, I have a reservation.
We arrive to the hostel, where I actually did have a reservation, a man comes down the stairs (we think, we actually didn't see where he came from) and tells us that there aren't any beds.
"But I have a reservation" (a sentence I've become very good at saying in Spanish)
"Bridget." (surname is not necessary. In South America I'm like Madonna.)
He has heard of me. But apparently, my reservation was given away that morning. Why bother making reservations if they don't stick? Is it not the purpose of reservations that a place is reserved for you, hence the term "reservation"?
"Don't worry," he tells me, "I have another place around the corner, there are beds there."
It just sounded dodgy, but it was bright daylight and decided to see where this was going. We didn't have to accept this new hostel if we didn't want to.
We were taken to Posada del Virrey and greeted by a lovely 50-something Peruvian woman named Maria. She speaks very little English, so she seems to like me and my attempts to ask everything in Spanish. After asking her about hot water, towels and internet (the essentials), we settled on the hostel and dumped our gear.
Wandering around Arequipa, we got lost a fair bit, but it wasn't an issue. Arequipa has a very calm, tranquil attitude about it, despite being Peru's 2nd largest city. Maybe it's the altitude (we're roughly 2000M above sea level here), or maybe it's the mountainous surroundings, but everything just feels relaxed here.
Selçuk and I found this place on our wanderings completely dedicated to alpacas. It had a giant over-priced store of high-fashioned, super-chic alpaca wears (not the cheap typical touristy stuff you find in markets - one of which I am proud to be the owner of), and a pen out the back with maybe 10 or so alpacas and llamas, and a Peruvian leaning on the fence. The Peruvian beckoned us towards him and the animals, and who could resist that? He let us in the pen, gave us some long grass pieces and encouraged us to get up close and feed the beasts. Best. Thing. Ever. So much better than any petting zoos I went to as a child (maybe because there weren't any psycho geese. Petting zoos always have psycho geese.) The man happily took our cameras and snapped millions of photos of us with the alpacas and llamas, explaining the difference between them to us. I now know my llamas from my alpacas. After giving him a few soles tip, we wandered around the wool factory display and back out into the streets of Arequipa for more exploration and getting-lost-edness (wow, my English has just gotten worse and worse).
Upon returning to our hostel we met Beth, and English girl, also travelling solo, who was sharing our room. After chatting for a while, we all decided we wanted to try some alpaca meat. We found a parrilla (grill/barbecue) place, suitably priced, and braved the assorted cuts of alpaca that were to arrive on our plates. Not so much a fan of the heart (it tastes like what farms smell like), but the rest was delicious. The "normal" meat I can most closely compare it to is lamb. After the meat fest we went to a crepe place Beth had tried and raved about. Banana and chocolate combined makes a happy Bridget. Peru just keeps on surprising with the food!
The following day, Beth and I decided to visit Monasterio Santa Catalina - a huge monastery that is essentially a city within a city. Opting to show ourselves around (we had a choice of having a tour guide touring in Spanish, English, French or German, for an extra 20 soles) we explored the whole citadel. The walls were gorgeously painted subtle reds, beaming blues and lined with gorgeous little pot plants. You walk through all the rooms were nuns used to live, eat, do nun-related things... We easily spent about 2 hours in there. There was even a restaurant, and conveniently close by to the restaurant, a little enclosure for guinea pigs. I wonder what they're for?
We returned to the hostel and chatted with the 2 Aussie guys who were also sharing our room. We were all interested in seeing Juanita, the "Ice Princess". Juanita is a mummy, a child sacrifice from the Incan times who was found on the top of a mountain, almost perfectly preserved from the ice and snow. We found our way to the museum, paid and waited for the English tour to begin. After watching a 10-15 minute documentary and learning the story behind Juanita (seriously felt like I should have been taking notes. Just shows that I haven't been out of uni long enough, I guess.) we were shown around the museum by a guide, past all sorts of Incan artefacts found near or with Juanita (the history nerd in me was very pleased) we were taken to Juanita's freezer. Pretty awesome stuff. Fulfilling my morbid curiosity, yet again. It was a little difficult to see her clearly because of the double paned glass and low lighting for preservation (you get to see your own reflection pretty clearly though), but still definitely worth the visit.
After Juanita, we wanted to explore the nearby food markets. Walking through all the fruits and inhaling their delicious aromas, only to be interrupted by the aromas of freshly cut meat. I saw every part of a cow. I mean every part. Head, tongue, stomach lining, stomach, and best of all, penis. Buckets of chicken heads, dried out frogs, more heads of various animals. So of course, I had to take photos. Selçuk had visited the markets earlier and had recommended the fresh juice stalls to us. So Beth and I were wandering and stopped outside one lady's stall. She starts rattling off types of juices to us, and me being the slightly stronger Spanish understander/speaker, had to decipher for the both of us. The lady told us about a special that included everything. Alright, we'll have that. What could go wrong?
Well... I knew something was wrong when I saw her pouring something from a beer bottle into the blender. I brought this to Beth's attention, who thought that surely it must have been something that had been put into a beer bottle. You know how they re-use bottles here, Bridget. Ok. We get the drink, and it's a weird brown colour. Not really fruit like. I taste it, and it's not horrible, there is a nice element to it, but it is totally unfamiliar. I look at the menu below and work out that we've been given a beer/egg/some other ingredient that I didn't know the translation of and can't remember the Spanish word of smoothie. Wow. I politely finished mine, but Beth couldn't do it. I asked for a take away cup for Beth so she didn't have to look rude by not finishing it. She threw it into the first bin she saw.
I'd given Maria my laundry (about 5 kilos worth) that morning, assuming it would be ready that evening. Tomorrow at 11AM she tells me. Oh good! Especially as I'd put in all my warm clothes and was going on a 2 day trip to a high altitude place that was surely going to be freezing at night time, and I was leaving for that at 8AM. Luckily I already had the alpaca jumper, so my top half was set for warmth. I had to go out and purchase some emergency pants. Loose-fitting multi-coloured stripey pants. Oh so comfortable, and does wonders for my "hippie traveller douche bag" look I've been trying to achieve.
The following day I got up and ready for my 2 day Colca Canyon adventure. Colca Canyon is about 3 hours from Arequipa, and is (as had been recently proved) the deepest canyon in the world. I got picked up from my hostel, and who do I see on the mini bus but the English couple I did the Nazca lines flight with - Ash and Lisa! What a twist of fate. So we buddied up, being the only native English speakers on our tour (there were 4 ladies together, and a couple from Spain). Our tour guide, Abel (luckily he made all the Cain & Abel jokes so I didn't have to) was fantastic, explained everything in both Spanish and English, and had a great sense of humour. He taught us all about the ancient cultures of the region, the differences between alpacas, llamas and vicuñas (another one from the same animal family, but rarer and with more valuable fur).
We drove around the windy roads, gradually getting higher and higher in altitude. Abel encouraged us to buy coca leaves, so Ash did just before we set off. Abel taught us how they are to be chewed, and when to do it, so as soon as we started climbing higher and shoved a couple in my mouth. I did it wrong. I ended up swallowing most of mine. Gradually I would improve my coca leaf chewing technique, until eventually I'd become pro and would end up teaching a Scottish man how it's done at the end of the Colca Canyon trip. We eventually reach the highest point of the trip, at 4800m, and the altitude sickness hits me, hard. Everything was slowed down. Breathing was difficult (making me reminiscent of childhood asthma attacks, and the panic associated with them), and my head felt like it weighed 2 tonnes. I can now sympathise with Harry Potter and his Voldemort-related headaches. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named must hang out in the Andes a lot.
We descend a little bit into the village of Chivay, where we are taken to a lunch buffet. Oh my. Peruvian food continues to impress me. Lots of stews, but not bland ones. Lots of meat, but not surrounded in fat. Lots of sweet potatoes as well. It was bliss. I wish I wasn't feeling so altitude sick so I could have eaten my body weight in alpaca and sweet potato. I was feeling pretty rotten here, and didn't care that the group of Peruvian school boys were (not so) sneakily taking pictures of me (I don't know if it's because I'm blonde, or because I'm blonde and looked really ill and unhappy). After the buffet we got taken to our hotels for a little rest, where I had a decent one hour lie down in the most comfortable bed I am sure to encounter on my travels. About 20 blankets and doonas piled on top of me to create a cocoon of safety from the horrors of altitude sickness associated with the outside world.
After a short rest we were picked up again and taken to some natural hot springs. It was wonderful. The air temperature was bitingly cold, but once you're in that 40 degree water, you can't tell. It was perfect for warming up. And apparently really good for the skin. It was really difficult to get out, but it had to be done. We were taken back to the hotels to clean up, and then get taken into the town centre for dinner.
The altitude sickness was pretty bad at this point. Mostly the headache thing. It felt like someone had scooped out my brain, put in a balloon made out of iron and was inflating it until it would eventually make my skull explode. Not pleasant. Lisa, Ash and I found a small restaurant overlooking the main square (I love how all these towns have a main square, and they're all called Plaza de Armas. Great for orientating yourself), had a light dinner accompanied with some coca tea and eventually started to feel better. Back to the hotel for sleep in the most comfortable bed I'm sure to come across in this journey.
The next morning I was rudely awakened at 5AM with a knock on the door. We had to get ready and breakfast and leave by 6AM so we could get to Colca Canyon at an appropriate time to see the flight of the condors. But surprisingly (and gloriously), I wasn't feeling altitude sickness any more. We drove through several villages, explored them a little, and were told to avoid the women dressed in traditional garb sporting tied up eagles on their arms. Abel told us it's illegal to capture eagles in this way, and with tourists taking photos of them (because you have to give them a small donation if you take a picture, of course) it encourages the practice. Abel also told us we could have pictures with children or people, as long as we asked permission, because according to their culture, much like the Aborigines, if you take a picture of them it takes away part of their soul. Well, a part of their soul that can be replaced by a few soles (ha, pun). There was one place where there was a little girl, probably about 3, all dressed up in the traditional clothes who had heavy make-up on. She looked like something out of 'Toddlers & Tiaras', with the doll-face and that look on her face saying "oh God, is someone else going to hold me now?"
After village-trawling and looking over the Colca Valley, we arrive at the viewpoint at the Canyon at about 8AM, prime time for condor-viewing. The condors are the largest birds that can fly, and every morning they come up from the canyon in search for food. We weren't there in high season, so we did a lot of waiting. Hundreds of tourists waiting, until eventually you hear one yell, "condor!", and everyone looking around madly to try and figure out where it's been spotted. I can't see bird-watching being a hobby I pick up any time soon. But I'll admit, it was amazing to see the condors. Maybe because we'd waited so long and there'd been such a build up to it. In the end, we saw 2 or 3, or maybe it was all just the same one.
We were taken back to Chivay for one last glorious lunch buffet. This one was better because it had the signature stuffed pepper I've heard so much about. After 2 months in Argentina without spice, I always get excited now when my lips burn after eating something.
For some reason, Lisa, Ash & I had to change buses to get back to Arequipa. This is where I became the teacher in coca-leaf chewing, sitting next to the Scottish man who was surprised that it wasn't disgusting. 3 hours later, I was back in the safe hands of Maria and reunited with my warm (CLEAN!) clothes.
I've got the remainder of today left in Arequipa - has been spent finding South American pop CDs (and being disappointed that I don't have any way to listen to them), conversing with a girl from a market stall, sorting out my backpack and trying to shed as much weight as I can (have taken out 10 or so items of clothing and various other things, and it still looks full. I don't think I can win.), and just waiting for my overnight bus to Cusco! Arequipa is a fantastic city, and definitely one I could potentially live in. It's the right blend of old and modern (there's a modern pedestrian mall not too far from the centre) but it's not overrun with American chains (I've seen a Radioshack and that's it). I highly recommend this city if you're considering Peru, if only to come and say "hola" to Maria and Posada del Virrey.